After years and years and years, Fantagraphics has finally started their deluxe reprint series of Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo. The first volume is available right now, and it's absolutely beautiful, a big comic book with real heft and majesty*. I had heard about Pogo for years, and I was familiar with the characters and concept, but I'd never sat down with it and read it the way I've pored over Charlie Brown collections. Pogo always felt, to me, like a strip you should read like a novel, a continuing sitcom about the personality-heavy critters who live in a swamp. This collection proves that I was right. This isn't a book you read so much as sink into: Kelly's brilliant ear for dialect and voice lulls you along, and then you're lost in his beautiful artwork. He can take the fecundity of a swamp and make it into something at once friendly and familiar.
Take a look (click to enlarge) at the first panel of this one strip:
You don't get depth like that very often on the comics page, outside of Herriman's Krazy Kat. Just take a second to absorb how much information we've been given in that one panel: In the very far background, you've got two figures running with guns. A little further in the middle distance, we see that they're chasing Pogo, who has a giant kettle stuck on his back. We can see we're in a dense swamp. In the foreground, we see a dog who, from his stuffy, self-important dialogue and deerstalker cap, we can determine is intent on solving a mystery. We can see an alligator with a blunderbuss, whose body language suggests that he doesn't seem to be as sure that the mystery needs solving. That is a tremendous amount of information to display, and Kelly does so with great clarity and style. The whole book is like that, a series of packed—but crystal clear—panels that grow together to establish a world of curious characters whose misunderstandings lead to great adventures.
If I had to make one complaint about this Pogo collection, it'd be that it ends too soon. From what I hear, the glory days of the strip are still ahead, (Fantagraphics plans 12 volumes to complete the collection) and I can't wait to get there. If you like comics, or if you know any kids who read comic strip collections, this is the Christmas book for you.
* Around the same time that I got the Pogo collection in the mail, DC Comics sent me DC Comics: The New 52, which is a $150, 1216-page tome containing every single issue number one that DC published back in September. The book is impressive in size, but it's a truly weird choice for the publisher; why would you want to buy a ridiculously expensive book containing a whole bunch of chapter ones that each end with a cliffhanger? Compared to the craftsmanship of Pogo, The New 52 looks like a crash course in how not to do comics. A few chapters are very well-done, but compared to Walt Kelly's storytelling, this giant book looks ridiculously small.