Resurrecting Pogo

We were happy to see that Larry Doyle is a silent, dour kind of a guy–“kind of a crank” in his own words–because this sort of person sees the world for what it is. So maybe he can make us laugh at it. Doyle had better be a very witty man, because he is about to resurrect the comic strip “Pogo,” probably the drollest strip ever written.

He wouldn’t! you gasp. Where are the heirs, you wonder, to halt this assault on the memory of Walt Kelly? Kelly was the whimsical genius who created “Pogo” in 1948 and continued it until his death in 1973. Well, it is the heirs’ idea. They had never wanted something so wonderful to disappear; in fact for several months after Kelly died his widow Selby Kelly and her son Scott Daley and a couple of Kelly’s sons from an earlier marriage all pitched in to keep “Pogo” going. It became apparent, says Scott Daley today, “we were not set up or had the expertise or inspiration to pull it off right.”

But what if the Kelly clan found someone who could? With time, this sentimental notion grew only stronger; how odd it was to watch the Reagan years sail by with no one to render James Watt or Ed Meese as Okefenokee swamp creatures! Now and then a newspaper syndicate person raised the idea of the strip’s return to Selby Kelly. Family friends talked it up. A couple of years ago the family decided they’d actively try to resurrect “Pogo,” and the ensuing talk made its way to Larry Doyle and his partner Neal Sternecky here in Chicago.

Doyle, who is 29 and writes, and Sternecky, who is 27 and draws, are not complete unknowns. They will be remembered by anyone who attended the University of Illinois in the early 80s and followed their strip in the Daily Illini, “Escaped From the Zoo,” which, Sternecky describes as about “a fraternity of male animals that blackmail their way into staying in the basement of a sorority house.”

“Pogo” was before their time. “I never read it when I was growing up in Buffalo Grove,” Doyle says. But then someone at school told him “Escaped From the Zoo” was “Pogoesque.” “Which it wasn’t,” says Doyle, “but it had talking animals in it, so I started reading some of [“Pogo”] and became really hooked. I remember reading 15 years’ worth in the Daily Illini archives.”

After college, Doyle and Sternecky thought that maybe they could sell their strip to a syndicate and keep it going. They couldn’t. So Doyle wound up a medical reporter for UPI in Chicago and Sternecky at an ad agency. Then they heard about “Pogo” through the grapevine.

“I thought, oh my God! What’s this world coming to!” says Sternecky. “I was really afraid they would trash it,” says Doyle. “I didn’t believe any syndicate would allow them to do it the way it was done before. I thought it would be some stupid gag strip.

“Then,” Doyle goes on, “we heard they wanted it done the way it was before and Neal and I as a lark decided to give it a shot. Another wacky scheme I dragged Neal into.”

Doyle and Sternecky worked up some sample strips and took them to the Kelly family about a year and a half ago. The Kellys liked the strips fine and they liked the attitude of the two kids who created them. “They really wanted to do it, badly,” says Scott Daley today. “They’ve wanted to do it against overwhelming odds.”

What Daley means is that the family soon picked Doyle and Sternecky to revive “Pogo” but that that was the easy part. Hanging in there until the deal was put together turned out to be the real test. The strip was on again and off again until last week, when everything finally was nailed down on what would have been Walt Kelly’s 75th birthday.

If you’re wondering what took so long, here’s how the deal is now structured. The Los Angeles Times Features Syndicate distributes the strip on behalf of the Kelly family corporation. Selby Kelly is chairman of the board; Peter Kelly, Walt’s oldest son, is president; Scott Daley is secretary. Doyle and Sternecky work for the corporation; treasurer Andrew Kelly, another son, signs the checks.

“They’ve promised not to meddle, and God knows, we don’t want them to meddle,” says Sternecky. But Selby Kelly gets to see everything first, and she’s got 36 hours to exercise what Sternecky calls “a sort of veto clause.” Anyone else in the family who wants to put his two cents in about the way the strip is going can tell it to Selby.

“If the strip is drawn poorly and the gags are poor, it won’t go on,” Scott Daley said. But he thinks it will. We asked him what the family likes about Doyle and Sternecky’s “Pogo.” “They’re both about 30 years old but they seem to have acquired a maturity that’s older than that, which is required to write ‘Pogo,'” he said. “‘Pogo’ is not your typical gag strip. Larry has a good wit, he’s very well read, he knows world issues very well. So he can handle himself there, and he knows Kelly very well. He’s read the material, and he’s not just an imitator. He can imitate on the one hand, as Neal does, but he adds a certain quality of his own, insight into current issues. Obviously you can’t just go back to vintage Walt Kelly to see what to say about Reagan. You have to come up with ideas of your own.”

“Let’s face it,” says Doyle, “it’ll fall short in some ways. But you can fall short of Walt Kelly and still be far better than almost anything on the comics page. I expect it’ll more or less be criticized for going over people’s heads and it’ll go over people’s heads less than Kelly did, because I’m not as educated as he was.”

Doyle quit UPI a few weeks ago to become managing editor of First Publishing, “publishers of really cool comic books,” American Flagg!, Sable, Nexus, Badger . . . He’s going to stay there. “It helps I don’t have a social life,” said Doyle, “so I have a lot of free time.”

Sternecky, on the other hand, just resigned from Leo Burnett. He’s really under the gun right now. It’s way too soon for Doyle to begin writing “Pogo” for publication–the strip won’t debut until January and Doyle wants to keep the lead time under three weeks–and he’s finished writing the six to eight weeks of sample strips the syndicate needs to show newspapers. Sternecky now has to work night and day until they’re all drawn.

We’ve seen a few of the finished strips and they’re pretty darned good. They are Pogo the possum, Albert the alligator, Churchy La Femme the turtle. Yet the most elegant imitation is a dubious thing, and we wondered if when Doyle is in the throes of authorship he thinks like Larry Doyle or tries to think like Walt Kelly.

“I’m trying to think like the characters,” Doyle said.

A Man’s Right to Control His Body

Dennis Byrne drew an astonishing parallel between military service and abortion in a Sun-Times column last week. His point was that if government can control a man’s body in order “to protect the innocent and the country” it should be able to control a woman’s body to protect the innocent unborn.

Byrne’s onto something. Being a young man and 1-A back in the 60s was like being a young woman and pregnant. The draft was there. It was no dream. You dealt with it. It was your body. When war came, some of your friends would wind up in the Army, maybe a few in Canada, maybe a hell of a lot of them in the National Guard. You weren’t inclined to pass judgment. All you really hoped was that everyone survived.

In the same issue of the Sun-Times, Senator Dan Quayle’s case was taken up by syndicated columnists Pat Buchanan and Don Feder and George Will, all of them so-called war wimps who never spent a day in uniform. (Feder told us he was washed out because of hay fever after two years of ROTC.) Call them hypocrites if you choose. They are as entitled to write about national defense as anyone else. What they did with their bodies is a separate question and their own business.

Even so, Buchanan, complaining that the press has gone after Quayle like “piranha after a side of beef,” conceded that the question “Why did you join the National Guard just as you were about to be drafted in 1969?” is a fair one, and the “issue of hypocrisy” is legitimate.

Buchanan apparently remembers 1969 no better than the “Piranha.” If he did, he might have given Quayle a decent defense, rather than limit himself to calling reporters hypocrites themselves (the fact is, said Buchanan, the press has never liked a national candidate who supported the war or objected to one who didn’t). He might have said that Quayle did the right thing in joining the National Guard because by 1969 the war was not worth dying in.

Doves believed we should stop fighting the Vietnam war. Hawks, such as the newspapers Dan Quayle’s family ran in Indiana, believed we should start fighting it to win. We called the family papers in Indianapolis, the Star and News, and asked what their editorials were saying in 1969. A researcher soon came across one that ran in the News that April, under the heading “Time to Win.” The way to “defeat a tenth-rate power like North Vietnam,” blathered the News, was to turn the war over to the generals.

But the editorial observed accurately enough that the war, as it stood, “could conceivably go on forever,” that “the American people will not abide such a struggle a great deal longer,” and that the North Vietnamese “know they are in a war of attrition and think they can win it.” The editorial lamented “the horrendous death rate.”

We suppose there were other editorials denouncing draft dodgers and draft-card burners. Our point is that by 1969 even the hawks could see nothing being gained by the continuing American casualties in Vietnam. So where is the moral burden Dan Quayle should have borne by presenting himself as cannon fodder? Better to join the National Guard and live to set things right one day in Washington. Besides, it was Quayle’s body.

It’s interesting that Quayle hasn’t worked out a defense for himself along these lines. It would require more reflection than he seems ever to have given his youth. It would require a modest sense of history. A lot of Americans came of age in the 60s; Quayle appears to be one of the many who were content to see the era roll right off their backs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.