Shortly after cartoonist Walt Kelly’s death in October 1973, his widow, Selby, returned to their Manhattan brownstone, haunted by the loss of her husband, the complications of settling his estate and the mammoth task of putting out his famous comic strip, Pogo. “It was a bleak day,” Selby recalls. “I was lost.”
But in rummaging through Kelly’s effects, she found some unexpected help. “It was an old button of his,” she says. “It read: ‘Don’t take life too serious. It ain’t NOHOW permanent.’ ”
The sentiment cheered Selby Kelly, a cartoonist like her husband, as she struggled to keep America’s possum philosopher alive. But the button’s advice, alas, also was prophetic. The high price of newsprint has forced publishers to shrink the size of comics in order to crowd more on a page. It became impossible to reproduce a complicated strip like Pogo satisfactorily, Mrs. Kelly said. As a result, Pogo, born 27 years ago in the now defunct New York Star, will cease publication July 20. “It is a personal tragedy for me,” she said. “But Walt Kelly was adamant about quality. And so am I. We could have gone on, but it’s not Pogo when you scrunch it up like that.”
At its height, Pogo appeared in 450 newspapers and was read by almost 40 million people. But in the past 10 years readership dropped some 50 percent. “Newspapers are dying,” says Selby, “and the ones that consolidate may have overlapping comics.” Some comic-strip buffs also think Pogo’s freshness has wilted since Kelly’s death.
Handsome, hazel-eyed Margaret Selby (she has always used her last name), 58, was the daughter of a part-time postermaker and landscape painter. He was also a citrus farmer, and she grew up in the swamplands of Florida. She studied art in high school and went to work in 1935 as an inker and painter for Walt Disney in Los Angeles, where she worked on such movies as Snow White, Bambi and Fantasia. Walt Kelly was the son of a Bridgeport, Conn. sign painter who taught him drawing. Once a reporter, he also became an animator for Disney and met Selby there in 1936. Selby married another animator in 1945, was divorced in 1965 and eventually wound up working on MGM cartoons. Walt and Selby met again in 1968 when MGM decided to produce a Pogo TV special. In 1972 they married and moved to New York.
Selby promises Pogo and his Okefenokee chums will not disappear entirely. Their swampland adventures—and the strip’s pungent satire and gentle philosophizing—will continue in paperback books. Selby has plans to merchandise the Pogo characters for the first time.
“Pogo is concerned,” says Selby, smiling. “But he ain’t worried.”