Perpetuating Pogo

In 1988 two gifted young men accepted a dubious but irresistible opportunity. In return for immediate celebrity and a national audience in the profession they longed to enter, they were asked to resurrect the spiritual property of a dead artist.

The artist was Walt Kelly. His property was Pogo, which had vanished after Kelly’s death in 1973 and which the Kelly family wanted to bring back. The Kellys soon heard from Larry Doyle and Neal Sternecky. Friends from the University of Illinois, Doyle, the writer, and Sternecky, the illustrator, had created a strip for the Daily Illini called Escaped From the Zoo that they’d tried and failed to syndicate after graduation. So they’d taken other jobs in Chicago. They approached the Kellys and convinced them that Pogo belonged in their hands.

In addition to their skills, they offered the Kellys a deep respect for the original. Whimsical and humane, Kelly’s Pogo was also distinguished by a standard of verbal and visual detail that Doyle and Sternecky were determined to uphold. “One of the things Neal and I decided before we did it,” Doyle says, “was that the only reason we’d do it was to do it the way it was done. If Neal thought Kelly never did a particular thing and I said he did and I could show Neal where he did it, it would be fine.”

But overall, it wasn’t fine. From the beginning Sternecky was more comfortable drawing the strip than Doyle was writing it. “We brought our own ideas of what we thought Pogo was to it,” Sternecky remembers. “We focused on different sides of the strip. What I felt was not as strong in Larry’s writing as it should be was a sense of camaraderie among the characters. It wasn’t quite loose enough for my tastes.” Sternecky thought Doyle’s text “worked well on a political level but maybe not as well on the humorous level the strip is supposed to work on. I felt it had to be funny first and pointed second. My guess is his criteria would be flipped.”

Doyle remembers, “There was a feeling on Neal’s part that I didn’t work as hard as he did. Which was probably true. But I don’t know if Neal dreamed about the strip as much as I did.”

Pogo’s audience was always more loyal than vast, and the best that could be said about the new strip’s reception was that this continued to be true. Editors of comics pages that carried the new strip liked the artwork but questioned the writing, and when the original contracts ran out the number of papers Pogo appeared in dropped from more than 300 to about 250. It could have been worse. The Chicago Tribune, for example, dropped Pogo in 1990, but reader protests brought it back. Early this year the Tribune pulled the Sunday strip with an eye to eliminating it altogether. Again, Pogo’s passionate following rescued it.

But as the number of clients plummeted, the Kellys decided they could no longer afford to offer both creators a living wage. They cut Sternecky’s salary a little and Doyle’s a lot. Early last year Doyle quit. He moved to New York to take a job with the National Lampoon that was briefly wonderful and then awful. When we caught up with Doyle last January he was trying to develop something for MTV. At loose ends, he looked back ruefully on Pogo.

“When I was writing it, it was doing horribly in the polls,” he conceded. “It was coming in behind Rex Morgan, MD.” Even so, he said, “I thought I had finally gotten the hang of the thing. I’d screwed up most of the first year. It wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do.”

Or what your partner wanted it to do? we asked him.

“Not really.”

After two years critiquing Doyle, Sternecky felt he understood that side of the partnership well enough to start writing Pogo himself. And the way he’d wrangled with Doyle, a friend, convinced him he could never work with anyone else. The Kellys told him to go ahead and try to do it all.

The strip lightened up. (“There’s an element of tragedy inherent in everything I do,” Doyle muses, speaking of both Pogo and the fact that the New Yorker, after buying a couple of his humor pieces, is now sending everything back.) And the number of client papers stabilized. “I thought it was a lot of work before,” Sternecky moaned in January, after a year as Pogo’s only author. “But I don’t spend the time arguing with Larry, so that saves quite a bit of time right there. Personally, I think the strip’s better for having one voice. Of course the argument can be made that two heads are better than one. But probably not my head and Larry’s head.”

“It’s sort of sad,” said Doyle. “Some part of me wished when I stopped writing that it would die in a plane crash. But you don’t want that. You don’t want someone you went out with to be miserable the rest of her life.”

Or maybe you do. Sternecky, at any rate, has not lived happily ever after. In fact, something he didn’t tell us in January was that last November he’d given the Kellys four months’ notice. He was exhausting himself as a slave to another man’s creation.

“I needed it to be Neal Sternecky’s Pogo, and it was never going to be Neal Sternecky’s Pogo,” he said last weekend.

Because the Kellys wouldn’t let it be?

“They were probably more willing to update it than I was,” he said. “There were probably ways to change it to make it a lot less work, but I didn’t think that should be done. If you’re going to bring back Pogo you ought to make it as close as you can to the way Kelly had done it.” That meant offering a degree of artistic complexity Sternecky forgoes in his own new strip that he’s now showing around.

“My conscience was sort of catching up with me,” he admitted. “I have to do something that’s my own baby.”

Doyle and Sternecky don’t often speak anymore. Doyle knew for sure that his old partner had left Pogo when he picked up a Newsday in late March and saw a new signature on the strip, “P & C Kelly.” To keep Pogo going, Pete and Carolyn Kelly, Walt Kelly’s children by the first of his three wives, have stepped in to write and draw it. When Kelly died, his widow Selby, son Stephen, and stepson Scott Daley carried on the strip for several months; Pete and Carolyn thus become the fourth and fifth members of the family and the third team to try to perpetuate an inimitable classic of popular art.

BAT ’92: The Baseball Acumen Test

It’s the time of year when Hot Type awards the coveted Golden BAT to a sportswriter of unusual perspicacity, but this year we can’t bring ourself to do it. Factories stand silent and empty, the desperate queue up at 5 AM for jobs as busboys, and the nation even toys with the idea of voting Democratic. The era of garish excess is over.

After a decade of honorable service, we have returned the mythical Golden BAT to our closet, to be replaced by the first annual mythical Cupronickel BAT. This BAT, like its politically incorrect predecessor, is given to the local scribe who the previous spring least ineptly predicted the pennant races that were about to begin.

To keep the competition fresh and exciting, we’ve undertaken a general housecleaning. The BAT, over the years an acronym for Baseball Aptitude Test, Baseball Accountability Test, and Baseball Accuracy Test, now stands for Baseball Acumen Test. The dreaded Lead BAT, aka Cracked BAT, becomes for the foreseeable future the Whiffle BAT.

To the scoreboard.

The 1992 Cupronickel BAT easily could go, although it doesn’t, to the sentimental favorite, the Tribune’s Bill Jauss. In the twilight of his career, Jauss has little left to achieve except a BAT. But though Jauss prevails under a complicated system of scoring that takes into account how he ranked the teams that finished first in each division, he falls short under an even more complicated system of scoring that also weighs where his first-place choices actually finished.

Both these elaborate methods of calculation appealed to us, but in the end we decided to employ them only to break ties. Keeping it simple, we’re honoring the guy who named the most division champs.

Last year was one of those seasons in which a team everyone excepted to win wins, in this case the Toronto Blue Jays. (The only two entrants not to pick the Jays were defending BAT champ Andrew Bagnato and dean of the press box Jerry Holtzman, who both favored the Red Sox.) But while 11 of the 13 scribes correctly called the Jays, only one of them picked another division winner. If such results sound unusually pathetic, they’re not.

We are proud to present the 1992 Cupronickel BAT to the Tribune’s Alan Solomon. He nailed Toronto and also saw Pittsburgh repeating in the NL East. Solomon’s brush with perfection was marred only by his choice of Atlanta to finish fifth in the NL West and Minnesota dead last in the AL West. (Nine sportswriters put the Twins last, but Jauss had them second. On the other hand, Jauss picked the Pirates fifth.)

Some past BAT winners have calculated their victory as soon as the season ended in October and then passed a long and restless winter waiting to be formally cited. Solomon was not one of these. But once we explained the nature of his triumph it deeply moved him. The BAT’s no longer golden, we revealed. “It doesn’t matter,” said Solomon. “I’m honored to win anything.”

The competition between Holtzman and Bagnato for the Whiffle BAT was the tightest in history. When the complicated scoring systems described above failed to break the tie, we turned to their World Series choices. Holtzman, who at least got the division right, saw the As overcoming Chicago, while Bagnato picked the Red Sox to vanquish the same Cubs.

Anyone capable of imagining a Boston-Chicago World Series makes a worthy Whiffle laureate.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.