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 Walt Kelly  (1913 - 1973)

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Lived/Active: New York/California      Known for: illustrator-cartoonist

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Ad Code: 3
Walt Kelly
from Auction House Records.
Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #45 Cover Original Art (Dell, 1944).
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo, was a cartoonist and humorist of considerable talent. He used his own personal version of the Okefenokee Swamp as a slapstick wonderland and populated it with a wild array of talking, wisecracking, animals. He also drew for comic books, worked in animation for Disney, and served for a time as a political cartoonist.

Walter Crawford Kelly was born in Philadelphia. He moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1915, along with, as he put it, "father, mother, sister and sixteen teeth, all his own." The desire to be an artist occurred to him in childhood, and while he was in high school he drew not only for the school paper and yearbook, but also for the local newspaper. One of the things he drew for the paper was a biographical comic strip about P.T. Barnum, a flamboyant character Kelly was fond of all his life. In the middle 1930s, young Kelly sold a bit of work to the fledgling comic books. For Major Nicholsons New Comics, he did a few centerspreads based on such works as Gullivers Travels. Funny Pages ran two examples of Cannonball Jones, which was about a fellow who was trying to get back to nature.

He departed for Southern California where he got a job working, as he said, "for Walt Disney while that worthy and 1500 other worthies turned out Snow White, Fantasia, Dumbo, and The Reluctant Dragon." During a showing of the latter, he quietly disappeared and then showed up on the Mojave Desert trudging east. Kelly, who had been criticized by some for crossing the picket line during the Disney studio strike of 1941, may also have felt that working conditions would be more healthful elsewhere.

In Manhattan, he found work with Western Publishing, which was producing the comic books that carried the Dell imprint. Editor Oskar Lebeck hired him to write and draw a large number of stories for Animal Comics, Our Gang, Fairy Tale Parade, Raggedy Ann & Andy, and Santa Claus Funnies. These were magazines that were primarily aimed at very young readers.

During World War II, although Kelly was kept out of the service by health problems, he illustrated a series of books for the Foreign Language Unit of the Army books designed to provide soldiers in foreign countries with sufficient language skills to communicate.

While some of Kellys work for kids was cute and gently amusing, he also completed a more hard-boiled brand of material -- roughhouse Disney. One such feature was Seaman Sy Wheeler, which ran in Camp Comics and offered raucous humor and had its characters occasionally dressing up in drag. Kelly also vented in Pat, Patsy and Pete, a screwball saga that starred a pair of real kids, a talking penguin, and a short-tempered pirate named Percy. His work appeared in Looney Tunes, where he drew six episodes in 1943. Moving away from what his predecessors had accomplished, Kelly turned the feature into a series of slapstick comedies. Percy the pirate was a violent, yet lovable, rascal with a distinctive speech pattern: "Blow me down! Its November an time for me annual bath!" In the yearn about Percys bath, Kelly managed to include crabs in the bathwater, nudity, collapsing chimneys, sundry other mock violence, and a few digs at Christmas and Santa Claus. At one point, sweet little Patsy took off after Percy with a blunderbuss loaded with small cannonballs, crying, "Some dirty ol geezer is tryin to steal our chimney!" Chimneys fascinated Kelly and he used them, and their collapsing, more than once.

Pogo was first introduced in the pages of Animal Comics in 1942. In addition to Pogo, swamp characters including Albert the Alligator would bring Kelly fame and fortune. In 1948, he was hired to draw political cartoons for the New York Star, a new and liberal paper. Kelly drew his first version of Pogo as a newspaper strip for the ill-fated and short-lived Star. In 1949, Pogo began national syndication.

Kelly served as president of the National Cartoonists Society and often appeared in public promotions of Pogo and cartooning in general. He even sang on the recording of Songs of the Pogo. A hard drinker and a great fan of saloon life, Kelly died of complications with diabetes.

(Information on the biography above is based on writings from the book, "The Encyclopedia of American Comics," edited by Ron Goulart.)

These Notes from AskART represent the beginning of a possible future biography for this artist. Please click here if you wish to help in its development:
Born in Philadelphia, PA on Aug. 25, 1913. From 1935 until the onset of WWII, Kelly was an animator for Disney Studios in Hollywood. He then worked as a freelance artist and as a political cartoonist for the New York Star before returning to California. Kelly died in Hollywood on Oct. 18, 1973. He is best known as the creator of “Pogo.”
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Death record; SF Chronicle, 10-19-1973 (obituary).
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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