Kage Baker worshipped the cartoonist Walt Kelly.
That is not at all too strong a word. She always held artists in the high esteem of secular Bhodisattvas, and Kelly was a fine artist. She admired humourists who could be satiric without resorting to the crudity of meanness: Kelly’s work was unfailingly compassionate. And she prized intelligence – Kelly was (in my opinion, too) one of the best political cartoonists of the 20th Century.
Kage made do through childhood with the Sunday funnies in a now defunct San Fernando Valley paper, and a couple of Mr. Kelly’s books that were lying around the house – all sorts of things were lying around the house; Momma’s house attracted weird detritus like the attics of the Smithsonian. Later on, she assiduously collected everything Mr. Kelly wrote, and we treasured them.I need to dig them out soon. These summer dog days are the perfect time to re-read them …
I remember those cartoon compilations well: I myself learned to read from them, which permanently warped my ability to spell. However, I did learn to memorize and recite pages and pages of witty dialect in an Okefenokee dialect. Some of those distinctive comments are still staples of the family vocabulary …
Friday the 13th come on a Saturday this month (or whenever it comes …)
This (fill in the substance of choice) got a tasteless kind of taste on it.
The Cherokees is escaped from Fort Mudge!
I done got the cold robbies.
A good-looking man look good in whatever he throw on – the serene claim of the dapper Albert the Alligator, one of Kage’s first crushes
And then there were the names of the boats. The setting of Pogo being, after all, a swamp, our heroes spent a lot of time in boats. Kage loved those boats – especially the cunningly rendered, madly peculiar houseboats Kelly would pen, with a single pole or a rudder hung with a glowing lantern; a hammock between the stern pole and the deck house roof, and a stove pipe made of a battered top hat. Most of the them, though, were drifting flatboats, the very vessels of dream and leisure, with an entranced fisherman at each end and a universe of cypresses and flying herons in silhouette behind them …
The boats usually had the names of Kelly’s friends and family: The Hon. John Lardner. Rosemary G. Good Ol’ Bob. Sometimes the bigger ones had names from vaudeville or chautauqua shows or venerable paddle wheel boats. Kage loved them.
Walt Kelly drew a world of exquisite beauty, and peopled it with marvellous … things. A virtuous possum, a tarnished knight of an alligator, an owl and a turtle whose combined brain wattage couldn’t power a lightning bug. They were all milk-out-your-nose funny, too, and Mr. Kelly used them with perfect timing to comment on the politics of the middle 1900’s. The missile crises, the Cold War, the increasingly insane Presidential races. The obscenities of McCarthyism embodied in a scruffy bobcat named Simple J. Malarky. Edgar Hoover as a miniature bulldog in a celluloid collar, trimming two legs off a baby spider so it could double as an asterisk and change history’s footnotes.
Mr. Kelly is best remembered by most for an environmentalist punchline: We have met the enemy and he is us! But he was a canny, clear-eyed commentator on all the nonsense that comes out of Washington. I fondly think Congress might not be being quite so asinine if there were someone around to gently puncture their egos with a sword-wielding possum.
I wish to all the maker gods that he was with us right now. This deep in summer … Kage would want to be in one of Mr. Kelly’s iconic boats, drifting beneath the Spanish Moss in some shady bayou. She’d be anticipating perloo for dinner, maybe with fried catfish; she’d be utterly boneless and relaxed, sure there could be nothing permanently wrong with the world if one could just journey awhile down a cool stream of lucidity in some boat named That Good Man, Walt Kelly …