God is not dead – he is merely unemployed.
- Walt Kelly in answer to Nietzsche's statement and Time magazine's 1966 query
Walt Kelly (1913-73) was arguably one of the greatest satirists and cartoonists of the 20th Century. His long-running comic strip Pogo, which is set in a fictionalised Okefenokee Swamp1, set a high standard for combining social and political criticism with literary joie de vivre, philosophical depth, and humanitarian values. In the 1950s, Kelly's work was beloved of college students, who sported 'I Go Pogo' buttons in 1952 instead of 'liking Ike'2. If Pogo had actually run, he might have done well but for two things: most college students couldn't vote back then, being under 21, and in the comic strip, Pogo's enthusiastic supporters loaded a boat and headed to Washington, absentmindedly leaving their candidate behind. Such is US political life. It was a shame, really: Pogo and his friends supported environmental action, feminism, and equal rights for all. Considering it was the 1950s, they were way ahead of almost everybody else in the country.
Not everyone was thrilled with Walt Kelly and his cartoon possum, however. Anti-Communist conservatives and humourless newspaper editors had it in for him. Particularly when he took on that superstar of the red-baiting crowd, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and lampooned his short but alarming reign in 1950s Washington. This is the tale of what happened when Simple J Malarkey showed up in the Swamp, and why Sis Boombah, the Rhode Island Red, wasn't allowed to see his face.
But first, a brief introduction to the citizens of Okefenokee Swamp.
Don't Try to Drain This Swamp
The talking animals who inhabited Walt Kelly's Okefenokee Swamp were temperamentally just like humans – at least, as Kelly saw them. They were by turns venal, mendacious, suspicious, silly, and totally lovable. In other words, fallible but worth the trouble to sort out.
Unlike most humans, however, Kelly's friends spoke a made-up patois that might have intrigued James Joyce and puzzled a linguist. 'Swamp Speak' was a combination of Gulf Southern dialect (as imagined by a denizen of Bridgeport, Connecticut3) and pretty nearly every literary reference and pun the erudite cartoonist could think of to stuff in there. Swamp critters sometimes wore bits of costume, sometimes not. They lived in furnished hollow trees, or shacks, or wherever their species really lived. They rowed boats and sometimes read newspapers. They were quite often aware of their surroundings – to wit, in a comic strip. They leaned on the panels. They struck matches4 on the sides of the drawings, as if they were solid. One character remarked, 'I'll go home now, and stop crowding up the panel.' If you hate it when cartoonists breach the 'fourth wall', don't read Pogo.
Okefenokeans were naïve, profound, and transparently mendacious, often in the same day's strip. Here are some quotes that demonstrate some of the characters5.
- I been readin' 'bout how maybe they is planets peopled by folks with ad-vanced brains. On the other hand, maybe we got the most brains... maybe our intellects is the universe's most ad-vanced. Either way, it's a mighty soberin' thought.
- Foo, a beautiful gal wastes her time gracin' up this swamp.
Miz Beaver, pipe-smoking ur-feminist
- Halp! My powerful brain is blowed itself up!
Albert Alligator (after the starting gun in a thinking contest)
- Albert: I'd give them a piece of my mind if I could find it! I mean, them!
Porky Pine: [to Pogo] Y'know, ol' Albert leads a life of noisy desperation.
Overheard in Okefenokee Swamp
- He [Uncle Baldwin] is one big fromage, et pomme de terre!
Miz Mam'selle Hepzibah (a skunk, talking about Porky's Uncle Baldwin, the kiss-and-run porcupine)
- We is doin' our pitiful best.
Basically: Pogo is the everyman hero, Porky Pine the curmudgeonly philosopher, Albert the comic relief, Miz Mam'selle Hepzibah and Miz Beaver the strong female leads, and the rest of the swamp – including the bumblingly scheming Howland Owl and Churchy La Femme6 – a mirror of humanity. Only much, much funnier.
Life in the US, 1953-1954
The early 1950s in the United States were years of 'scares'. There was the Red Scare, the fear that communists were taking over the government, the entertainment industry, and intellectual life. There was nuclear angst and the fear of atomic warfare. There was the fear of disadvantaged minority groups demanding their civil rights. All in all, people in the prosperous US were afraid of a lot of things. These fears were taken full advantage of by ambitious politicians such as Joseph McCarthy.
McCarthy, who claimed to be a war hero – claims later shown to be highly exaggerated – equally claimed to have a list of 205 active communists and Soviet spies working in the State Department. As a two-term senator from Wisconsin, McCarthy led an inquiry into alleged communist activity in the government. Not one allegation was ever proven. Still, McCarthyism, as it came to be called, made a lot of Americans nervous for a lot of reasons. People who believed McCarthy were afraid of the damage these communists might do. Those who thought red-baiters were dangerous blowhards were afraid of the damage McCarthy might do to democracy. Walt Kelly decided to introduce the red-baiters to the Swamp, and see what the Swamp would make of them.
Life in Okefenokee, 1953-1954
Here's a brief timeline of what we might call, in deference to Senator McCarthy's agenda, the Okefenokee-McCarthy Hearings:
- 24 February, 1953, Washington, DC: Robert La Follette, Jr is found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. La Follette, a leader of the Progressive Party, had lost an election to Joseph McCarthy in 1946. After that, he became a foreign aid advisor to President Truman. Some people believed that La Follette's suicide was due to the impending threat of being forced to testify before Congress concerning allegations made by McCarthy.
- 3 March, 1953, Okefenokee Swamp: The Hon. Mole MacCarony shows up in the Swamp to help Deacon Mushrat and the Audible Boy Bird Watchers' Society with the annual bird count. MacCarony's name is suspiciously reminiscent of Senator Pat McCarran's (Nevada). McCarran, one of only a few Democrats to have rejected FDR's New Deal, was so anti-communist that he supported General Franco of Spain. MacCarony proceeds to misidentify all of the birds in the swamp. A stork complains, 'He identifies me as a bullfinch. All two or three feet of me. That's a lot of bull...finch.' When it is pointed out that the bird book contradicts his findings, MacCarony burns the bird book and writes his own. He also begins claiming that non-birds are birds, much to the disgust of a passing frog.
- 1 May, 1953 (and following), Okefenokee Swamp: The Swamp is beginning to consider this aggressive bird-watching 'dangerest'. When this is mentioned to Mole MacCarony, he agrees – bringing in a cousin of Wiley Catt's. This cousin, a rifle-toting bobcat with a five o'clock shadow, is instantly recognisable, even without the name: Simple J Malarkey. It is on. Malarkey takes over the Audible Boy Birdwatching Society and renames it, first the Bonfire Boys, and then the Jack Acid Society. As the plot gets more convoluted – and more obviously connected to the events surrounding McCarthy – the Orlando Sentinel drops Kelly's comic strip. However, Kelly gets letters of support from grateful readers. The Oakland (California) Tribune alters the cartoons to remove Simple J Malarkey's tell-tale five o'clock shadow – a feature that makes him look like Senator McCarthy. Walt Kelly is outraged.
By the end of May, Malarkey is threatening to tar and feather critters to turn them into birds. He's thrown Deacon Mushrat out of the Society. Anxious parents are writing to Walt Kelly that his strip is becoming frightening. One parent adds, 'Please do something!' Kelly responds, 'Unfortunately, we have not reached the millennium. Running away from the fact that villains exist... makes us vulnerable to their deeds.'
By 6 June, Malarkey has been hoist by his own petard – or, more specifically, thrust into a vat of his own tar by an increasingly fearful Deacon Mushrat.
- 31 August, 1953, Fort Monmouth, New Jersey: Joseph McCarthy leads the Senate Committee on Government Operations in an investigation of alleged communist 'infiltration' of the Army Signal Corps.
- September-October, 1953, Okefenokee Swamp: The Swamp ignores McCarthy activities – as did much of the country – in favour of their version of the (baseball) World Series, interspersed with the adventures of two British insects seeking tickets to the 'cricket match'.
- October-November, 1953, Washington, DC: Journalists Edward R Murrow (television) and Murray Marder (Washington Post) investigate McCarthy's Signal Corps investigation and conclude that claims of communist infiltration are unfounded. Murrow's support for an Air Force officer results in his reinstatement.
- November, 1953, Okefenokee Swamp: Apparent frivolity continues to reign with the arrival of Sis Boombah, a Rhode Island Red chicken with straw hat and lorgnette. At first, Sis Boombah attempts to take a survey. When this fails due to general levity, she organises a bean bag team.
- 27 May, 1954, Okefenokee Swamp: Kelly gets snarky about the McCarran Act, also known as the Internal Security Act of 1950, which limits immigration due to the fear of 'subversives' entering the country.
- March-June, 1954, Washington, DC: Alarmed by McCarthy's continued accusations, and alerted to public opinion by Edward R Murrow's on-air attacks, the US Senate begins hearings to investigate McCarthy and his claims. These are the first televised hearings in US history. 20 million people watch – which means that 20 million people hear Army attorney Joseph Welch when he exclaims to McCarthy, 'Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?' McCarthy's influence begins to wane.
- October, 1954, Okefenokee Swamp: Simple J Malarkey, who has been hiding in the deeper parts of the Swamp, tries a comeback.
- Same time, Rhode Island: The Providence (Rhode Island) Bulletin's editor threatens to cancel Pogo if he sees Senator McCarthy's face in the comic strip again.
- 5 October, 1954, Okefenokee Swamp: Panicked that Sis Boombah, the Rhode Island Red from Providence, might see his face, Simple J Malarkey puts a sack over his head. The sack smells of fish, and now he looks like a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
- 5 October, 1954, Rhode Island: The editor of the Providence Bulletin gives up good-naturedly, and runs Pogo on the Op/Ed page.
- 2 December, 1954, Washington, DC: The Senate votes 67-22 in favour of condemning Joseph McCarthy's actions.
- 2 May, 1957, Real World/Okefenokee Swamp: Joseph McCarthy, now a disgraced and marginalised figure, dies. Walt Kelly retires the character of Simple J Malarkey in favour of other, more current, despots.
- Postscript, Okefenokee Swamp: During the 1960s, various suspicious characters turn up in the Swamp. Among them are a goat that strongly resembles Fidel Castro, a pig reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev, cosmonaut seals, LBJ as a centaur, assorted political candidates as wind-up toys, and Vice President Spiro Agnew as a hyena in a fancy-dress uniform. None but death could stop Walt Kelly, and it did, in 1973. He is gone but not forgotten – his wit lives on in his remarkable comic strip.
Where Can I Find This Story?
Walt Kelly's Pogo comics can be found in the series Pogo: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips. The saga of Simple J Malarkey forms but a small part of Volume 3: Evidence to the Contrary, edited by Carolyn Kelly and Eric Reynolds, 2014. Volume 3 contains the daily strips from 1953-54, plus the coloured Sunday strips from the same period.
You're addicted to animation? Well, okay, try this out for size: The Pogo Special Birthday Special is totally a-political and all harmless fun with Pogo, Porky Pine, Mam'selle Hepzibah, and the gang, including Basil the (Bald-Headed) Butterfly. Animation is by the renowned Chuck Jones, and voices are by Walt Kelly as Albert the Alligator and Howland the Owl, Chuck Jones as Porky Pine and Basil the Butterfly, and June Foray as Pogo and Mam'zelle Hepzibah. Enjoy: they obviously had a lot of fun, and you get to hear a bit of the Go Go Pogo song.