Kage Baker was obsessed with cartoons. That is not at all too strong a word; she considered cartooning one of the great arts, and avidly collected what she considered its gems and masterworks.
Single panel, weekly strips, animated or still – story telling with line drawings and captions was one of her favourite mediums. Maybe the house being full of old bound collections from The New Yorker and Punch may have influenced her. The comics in those, especially as painstakingly translated by a very small and only barely-literate child, were both strange and hilarious. On the other end of the spectrum, it may have had something to do with the fact that comic books were the only books guaranteed to have illustrations – a very telling point with Kage before she could read.
In fact, that was always a big selling point with Kage, for whom real books always had illustrations: it was just that as she got older, the illustrations in the books she liked to read were by Wyeth and Kaye and Parrish, legitimate artists in their own right; rather than the rotating crew, like Chesney, Webb and Brewster, who drew for Classics Illustrated Comics.
And she idolized the Nine Old Men, Disney’s core illustrators. They were responsible for most of the best Disney animation from Snow White to The Rescuers, and to Kage they were gods. She watched the decline of Disney’s animation quality and quantity with greif and fury during the 70’s and 80’s; she rejoiced when the studio rose to a glorious rebirth with The Little Mermaid and the beauties that followed. She was part of the very vocal protest against Eisner, when that short-sighted fellow declared that animation was no longer needed by the Disney empire, and she was active in the movement that ultimately drove him right out of the company.
Cartooning was serious business with Kage.
She collected the modern strips she liked best, like the collections she’d grown up reading. Her favourites were not always the most famous or popular; she couldn’t abide poor Charles Schultz, for instance, because she found his simple line not primitive but lazy. “Writing about children doesn’t mean you can get away with bad drawing,” she would growl, and go solace herself with William Overgard’s Rudy.
And if you haven’t encountered the exquisite drawing and hysterical plot lines of that elegant Ape, Rudy, I recommend it – nay, I conjure and abjure you all, Dear Readers, to go find him. It’s obscure and little recalled, but it’s brilliant.
She liked Calvin and Hobbes, again because it was well-drawn; Bill Waterford chose a naif line for most of his panels, but the man could draw some gorgeous stuff when Calvin’s weird adventures called for it. And collections of that came out regularly, until Waterford did his Garbo and just stopped making faces. Perversely, she didn’t care for Berkely Breathed or any of the incarnations of his world; I think he was too silly for her. Kage’s silliness detector was sometimes set a little high … she liked Prince Valiant. She liked Alley Oop. She liked Doonesbury, partly because one could watch from the very beginning as Gary Trudeau learned how to draw – the curve of increasing excellence was clear, and she admired that tremendously.
However, for Kage, the best comic of all, for ever and aye, was … Pogo. Walt Kelly had her love and worshipful admiration from her earliest days. We both used to pore over the collections of his strips around the house, amused and fascinated by whatever the swamp critters were doing (which we couldn’t read yet) and simply enchanted by the gorgeous silhouettes and backgrounds he drew.
Myself, I learned to read from the Pogo books – my spelling has never recovered. On the other hand, the beauty of an egret in flight from one cypress to another above a twilight swamp has been part of the landscape of my soul for more than 50 years. I owe Walt Kelly a lot.
A brilliant satirist, a compassionate humourist, an astute political observer and as ruthless in his satire as any Irish bard – plus, Mr. Kelly could really, really draw. And his stuff was incredibly funny. Almost every American knows at least the one line “We have met the enemy and he is us!” -but he wrote millions of words, and drew thousands of pictures; every one of them is a treasure.
There have been tons of compilations over the years – heck, they started coming out when Kage and I were infants, which is how we learned to read from them – and I have all the ones Mr. Kelly put together himself. And the ones his widow released after his death in 1973. But now, a concerted effort has been launched to get all the dailies and Sunday strips out, in good shape and in order. What a treasure trove! The first volume is entitled Pogo: Through The Wild Blue Yonder – The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips, Vol. 1 and it’s a huge, glorious, hard-cover book. And it’s mine, he he he ….
It arrived yestreday but sat unopened until this afternoon, because I mistook it for two pounds of Mullah Nasruddin’s Coffee, without which I also cannot live but wasn’t ready to open yet … then Kimberly saw the box and said, “Why would Mullah coffee come in an Amazon box?” (which I hadn’t noticed) and lo and behold! There it was!
So now I’m gonna go bury myself in it. You, Dear Readers, are warned. Go forth, ye eager multitudes, and discover what rang Kage’s chimes in cartoons.
As if you don’t already know …