“Don’t take life so serious, son — it ain’t no how permanent.”
—Porky Pine, Pogo
Last Saturday I wrangled my kids into a few seats at the Union Square 14 for a noontime showing of Kubo and the Two Strings, a new animated feature from the Laika studio. After distributing popcorn, candy, and Coca-Cola I was able to sit back and watch the movie myself. Director Travis Knight has said that his ambition was “to do sort of a stop-motion David Lean film, a Kurosawian myth in miniature,” and he succeeded marvellously. About midway through the film I just sat back and wondered at the remarkable visual beauty of Kubo (even more beautiful in 3D), at the complexity of its presentation as well as the subtlety of the story, a somewhat dark meditation on loss, death, creativity, and maturity — as Knight has also said, it’s a story about “crossing that Rubicon from childhood to adulthood.” It earns its PG rating, especially with its quiet, ambivalent conclusion — uncharacteristic of most contemporary animated pictures. But the girls loved it, and so did I. If you have kids yourself, try it; they may like it.
Kubo has an Asian setting, and in some ways it resembles those drab, well-intentioned, ever-so-sincere Japanese animated features designed to bore children and most adults to tears. But apart from the advanced stop-motion animation technique, Kubo also differs from these films with its very American sense of humor. Monkey and Beetle bicker like a married couple (for a very good reason) throughout the film, and Kubo delivers a stinger or two himself. One of America’s great contributions to comedy is the wisecrack — a blunt, knowing, skeptical response to some suspicious experience or comment, best delivered sotto voce out of the side of your mouth. It’s a response that demonstrates a critical perspective on experience, an awareness that somebody may be trying to con you, to pull the wool over your eyes. Along with learning about loss, it’s also one of the ways we cross that Rubicon from childhood to adulthood — not least because our kids can be pretty suspicious of us at times, and rightly so. They know more about us than we think. It keeps us honest, and encourages us to keep our eyes open.
I was first introduced to the wisecrack through cartoons like Looney Tunes — wisecracks were a part of Bugs Bunny’s stock-in-trade — and comic strips. The two I remember best were Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby. Pogo was in its last years as a daily comic strip and still ran regularly in the Philadelphia Bulletin, the paper my parents took; Barnaby I came across in a Dover paperback edition.
I started reading both of these when I was about my daughters’ age, about seven or eight. Although the comics pages were pitched mostly at children, many of the jokes and situations went over my head at the time — but probably not that much over. Although the themes of Pogo were often political, Kelly had a penchant for nonsense and slapstick that appealed to children (and as a draftsman he produced some of the lushest art that ever graced a comics page); the animals that populated the Okeefenokee Swamp, like those who populated Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, were flawed, ridiculous figures who bore more than a passing resemblance to flawed, ridiculous adults. Unlike Grahame’s animals, though, Kelly’s spoke a thickly vernacular American tongue, as keenly heard and imitated as that in Mark Twain’s work.
Pogo Possum himself was an unassuming Everypossum, well-meaning and level-headed, who enjoyed his friends and liked nothing more than to pass a day fishing the swamp from the prow of a skiff. It was his friends who often got into trouble and once in a while became the prey of the similarly inept villains that came and went every few years with new Presidential administrations. Most famously, Kelly took on Senator Joseph McCarthy long before Edward R. Murrow did, embodying him in a vicious wildcat named Simple J. Malarkey; later he satirized the John Birch Society, Spiro Agnew, and the Nixon Administration. (The left wasn’t ignored, though: Fidel Castro appeared as a goat named Fido, and when Pogo himself was drafted to run for President, his advisors stuck him with the slogan “I Go Pogo,” parodying Adlai Stevenson’s “I Like Ike.” And two cowbirds made up a doctrinaire Communist cell group in the swamp.) I didn’t know any of this at the time, though as the years went on I certainly began to recognize the very environmentalist drift of the strip, which led to Kelly’s famous “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The gentle skepticism, the childlike delight in language (apart from the dialogue, the characters have names like Churchy LaFemme, Howland Owl, and — my favorite — the funeral director Sarcophagus MacAbre, a vulture), and the various weaknesses of the human race — not to mention the simple beauty of the strips themselves — continue to be very appealing. Kelly reveals this even more in the 1959 Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo, a collection of strips and other material from the first decade of the comic strip published by Simon & Schuster (it’s out-of-print, but track it down if you can); Kelly provides a graceful commentary that demonstrates the essential humanity of the artist and his perspective.
Barnaby was another matter. The Dover collection gathered Crockett Johnson’s strips from 1943 — long before I was born. Barnaby is a five-year-old boy who wishes he had a Fairy Godmother; he gets his wish, in a way, when a Fairy Godfather named Jackeen J. O’Malley crashes through his bedroom window one night. If W.C. Fields were a Fairy Godfather, he’d be O’Malley: his magic wand is a five-cent cigar and he spends his spare time in a variety of “social clubs” and getting into bizarre scrapes; he has a penchant for destroying anything he touches; he even resembles Fields a bit with a bulbous nose and tatty spats. (Fields himself loved the strip.) Like most Fairy Godparents, he disappears when an adult wanders by, leaving Barnaby to pick up the pieces and come up with a plausible explanation (he never can). But he also introduces Barnaby to a variety of his friends, including a ghost who’s scared of his own shadow and Gorgon the Talking Dog — wonderful at first, until Gorgon turns into an interminable bore. Alas, when Barnaby turns six, he’s no longer allowed to have a Fairy Godfather; O’Malley took his sad leave and the strip ended its initial run in 1952.
Of course, Barnaby is set during World War II, and although he’s on the home front, he’s affected by the war — among the storylines that Johnson follows are some that concern scrap metal drives and civil defense. As a kid in 1969, I was blissfully ignorant of all this, but not for long; I doubt I’d heard much about World War II until Barnaby introduced me to it. I doubt that I much cared. What appealed to me was Barnaby’s imaginary world, funny, frank, and somehow liberating — and not without its share of skeptical wisecracks. (Interestingly, both Kelly and Johnson were confirmed leftists; the author of Barnaby and Harold and the Purple Crayon contributed to the Communist journal New Masses and developed Barnaby for PM, a left-wing daily newspaper. Theodor Geisel, later known as Dr. Seuss, drew cartoons for PM as well.)
Both Pogo and Barnaby have influenced comic strips and cartoons down to the current day, not the least of which are Bill Watterston’s Calvin and Hobbes and Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County (neither is running any more, like Pogo and Barnaby to be found only in collections). I’m not even sure who reads comic strips. But they, like Kubo, can continue to be subversive paths to maturity and skepticism — in this world, there’s plenty to be skeptical about, perhaps more every day. When paired with a respect for common decency, yet another trait they all share, they’re entertaining preparation enough for adolescence and adulthood.
Fantagraphics is publishing multi-volume collections of both Pogo and Barnaby.
A portrait of the satirist as a child