Walt Kelly was the first artist whose name I actually knew.
When I was less than ten years old I was already enjoying the comics pages in the daily St. Louis Post-Dispatch. My favorite was POGO, by the great Walt Kelly. It was printed ni the upper right-hand side of the inner page, in black-and-white. I don't know how it is now, but at the time there was an outer page of colored strips, and an inner page of non-colored features. POGO was on this page. That just made the full-color Sunday strips all the more exciting to me.
Sometimes (most of the time?) I did not understand the humor in the strip. Although it was drawn like a funny animal strip, it actually featured biting political and cultural commentary that I did not "get" until many years later. For example, my parents bought me a copy of Impollutable POGO, a collection of then-recent strips. I read and re-read this story for years, and only after I got older did I understand that it was not just a funny story about the swamp critters trying to rid the world of air pollution. (It helped that I eventually learned who Spiro Agnew was, shown there on the cover far-right as a hyena.)
I distinctly remember my parents showing me a commemorative magazine about Walt Kelly from 1973. I loved it, as it was a biography of my favorite artist. It was about a year later that I realized that it was not just a feature article; it had been a memorial. Kelly had died on October 18, 1973.
Walt Kelly was a satirist of the first order. He would poke fun at us by using charming lil' critters in order to make the barbs a little less sharp. But make no mistake about it: when he had Albert the Alligator throwing a cigar butt into a vat of lemonade, he was commentating on our own human inabilities to have nice things. Kelly was one of the first to criticize Senator McCarthy in the Fifties, a loud opponent of racism in the Sixties, and a notable critic of President Nixon just before his death.
There are currently three volumes of POGO The Complete Syndicated Strips available, with a fourth planned for December. If you haven't ever read anything by this master cartoonist, I strongly suggest you go to your local library and check out what they have. You won't regret it.
I am happy to know that a large collection of Walt Kelly sketches and original documents are here in Columbus, Ohio. If you are ever in town and want to see original Pogo work, come visit us at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.
Happy Birthday, Walt Kelly!