Sunday, November 26, 2017

Is God dead? The gospel according to Pogo

This has got to be one of the most obscure things on YouTube, and if I hadn't stumbled on it many years ago and saved it, I never would have been able to find it again. The title is a mystery, until you figure out what the initials mean. When you try to share it, a notification comes up about it being an "unlisted video" and that you should share it with care, though I had no trouble posting it. The comments are closed, so there's no help there.

I was raised on Pogo, still think it's the most brilliant comic strip ever, and I'm aware that the genius artist Walt Kelly started his career as a Disney animator (and traces of his characters' facial expressions peep out in Dumbo). So he knew animation, and though this is obviously a rough draft of something that had not yet been formally produced, you can more than see what he is getting at. The whole story is here, with the immortal punch line, "We have met the enemy and he is us" - the mystery initials of the video's title. The familiar comic strip characters are also here (all introduced at the beginning), and Kelly, incredibly, does all the voices himself.

Though this preliminary sketch features only a few frames per second, or even less, the fluidity of movement is almost unbelievable, and the facial expressions so vivid that the characters transcend the spasmodic jerkiness that made Paddy the Pelican so surreally atrocious (whether surreally is a word or not - ed). One man doing all the voices is better than the sixteen in the cringeworthy Chuck Jones special that Kelly hated so much. I honestly wonder why he agreed to work with Warner Bros. at all.

I wonder, too, if this was in the works before that misguided attempt. Or was it his answer to the atrocity, the cheapening of his unique and inspired strip into a bland commercial disaster? For there was no second Pogo special, and even the first one wasn't very. Special. This one may not have made it because it was too "message-y", and might still be considered that today, as we have a million more reasons to be very afraid when it comes to the ruin of the environment. Kelly was a visionary, to be sure, and too often they fade from public view when their message becomes too uncomfortable.

June Foray as Pogo (Rocky the Flying Squirrel) grates on the nerves. I could never stand Foray as a voice artist and thought all her characters sounded exactly alike. Her lowest point was dubbing a girl character in The Twilight Zone (the last episode ever broadcast), with astonishingly bad results. Kelly gives Pogo a higher male voice with a Southern drawl, which is just right. Albert the Alligator is nothing short of brilliant. It IS Albert, cigar-chomping, outrageous, the kingpin of Okefenokee.

I remember in the Pogo strip seeing those amazing backgrounds of the swamp, and though I didn't appreciate the artistry back then, I do now. Pogo was criticized sometimes for being too talky, too smart-alecky or just too smart (gasp!), but who else could have come up with a statement like, "New-clear fizzicks ain't so new, and ain't so clear"?

I rediscovered a few gifs I made from the Kelly cartoon special, the one that was never fully realized. The improbably graceful few frames per second is especially poignant here. He could never have envisioned - or maybe he could, given the dreck that was being made for TV at the end of his life - what would happen to cartoons, how they would become computerized and devoid of human feeling. How brilliant wit and quixotic story lines would be replaced by witless schlock.

This is an ancient holy relic from the swamp of my childhood: the first of many Pogo books we owned, and the best-loved/mutilated. I am not sure whose attempts at cursive writing festoon the frontispiece, nor do I know who did that awful math (probably me - I still can't add). Many of the pages are crayoned, which could have been done by my siblings. Although the colouring doesn't stay in the lines, so it could well be mine.

I think that's my mother's handwriting at the top. My God.

The Picnic Panic

Whatever this is, it's absolutely beautiful! I found it on animation historian Jerry Beck's Facebook page, which is chock-a-block with schlock (the good kind) and animation obscurities. One thing he does, which I like, is trace the influence of old-time animation (like this) on modern stuff, and it surprises me to learn that some of those traditional techniques are coming back. Most of it seems to be used in games, which strikes me as a waste. But I'm glad about the resurrection of old methods, because the modern stuff is so bloody sterile, I don't want anything to do with it. Mind you, I am a bit fed up with Disney features now and see Fantasia as downright hokey, too self-consciously arty. My fave cartoon characters are still the ones I grew up with: Clyde Crashcup, Choo Choo on Top Cat, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, and even Hoppity Hooper, Tennessee Tuxedo and Cool McCool. (And Mighty Manfred, the Wonder Dog.)

I remember all the theme songs, for some reason, proving my theory that my head is stuffed with information that will never be of any use to me.

The Picnic Panic has a weird aspect ratio, and looks like an almost perfect square, with SOME of the corners blunted like an '80s snapshot, though it seems suspiciously squished. The colours are so gorgeously saturated that I wonder if it has been tinkered with. The combination with live-action is intriguing because the figures are so doll-like. I have a vague memory of a Rainbow Parade series - all the studios had to have something to go up against Disney's Silly Symphonies. They would have been on TV on Saturday mornings, along with 1930s TerryToons. Oh, those days of penny candy in tiny brown paper bags, of going with my mother to Peck's grocery store, and Lenover Bros. meats, then coming home and watching The Mighty Hercules.

Jerry Beck has answered (very promptly) not one, but two of my animation questions so far, and that's remarkable, because according to his Facebook page he bounces all over the globe like a pinball, speaking at convention after convention, so when does he have time for this? But animation continues to fascinate me. I have the bloody nerve to do those experiments and post them, just because I want to see if I can make things move. I get the feeling that, surprisingly to me, Jerry Beck isn't an animation snob - not by the lovely kitsch he posts, pictures of Popeye projectors, metal Porky Pig windup toys and hideous Bugs Bunny cardboard marionettes. It all seems to be valuable. Not just because it's a slice of history - but because it's cool.