Of all the comic strips I’ve seen, not one has better lettering than Walt Kelly’s POGO. The strip has many fine qualities: excellent art, clever writing, charming characters, witty humor, canny satire, whimsy, wisdom…but that amazing, glorious lettering is what gets my attention first. Walt Kelly was a comics genius whose storytelling had many facets. His lettering is an important one, and he had help doing it from his assistants George Ward and Henry Shikuma, though Kelly himself always blue-penciled the lettering they produced. You can see that above, he even penciled the elaborate question mark in the fanciful circus-poster lettering. He was fortunate to have assistants who were skilled enough to create finished letters equally as good, or sometimes better, than the masterful work Kelly did himself.
Walter Crawford Kelly Junior was born August 25, 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At two, his family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Walt grew up. In the book Walt Kelly, The Life and Art of the Creator of Pogo (2012, Hermes Press), Thomas Andrae writes:
Kelly was a precocious artist, starting to draw at age three by copying his favorite comic strips. He was especially influenced by Percy Crosby’s kid strip SKIPPY and Roy Crane’s adventure saga, WASH TUBBS. Kelly was also inspired by the artistry of his father who painted theatrical scenery and taught his son to draw.
During and after high school, Kelly worked as a reporter and editorial cartoonist for the Bridgeport Post, where he drew a daily comic strip about circus owner P.T. Barnum. (I haven’t found any examples.) In 1934 he went to New York City to study art and find illustration work.
From NEW COMICS #1, Dec 1935, images © DC Comics
Among other things, he wrote and drew a two-page excerpt from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels for NEW COMICS #1 from National Allied Publications, later DC Comics. As you can see, he was already doing ambitious lettering. In 1936 Kelly went to California to work for Disney. He was there six years, half in the story department, half in animation. He worked on Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, The Reluctant Dragon and Dumbo as well as short cartoons. Kelly left in 1941 and returned to New York looking for comic book work, armed with a letter of recommendation from Walt Disney himself. He soon found a home at Dell Comics on both Disney and non-Disney features.
Editor Oscar LeBeck was delighted with Kelly’s work (who wouldn’t be?), and gave him FAIRY TALE PARADE which Walt produced cover-to-cover: writing, art, and everything else. His lettering and logo design skills were already impressive. Kelly often designed logos for other Dell books he worked on, including OUR GANG COMICS (based on the short comedy films) and seasonal titles like SANTA CLAUS FUNNIES and EASTER WITH MOTHER GOOSE.
Kelly’s lettering skills were equally evident inside the comics, where he liked to illustrate poems. His lettering is precise enough to pass for type, but has organic warmth clearly from the same hand as the pictures. Kelly’s knowledge of and skill with lettering, logos and type design is amazing for an artist who was also so talented at drawing appealing, lively figures and animals. He really had it all.
It was in another Dell title, ANIMAL COMICS, that Kelly’s future path was set. In the first issue, Albert the Alligator starred in a five-page story by Walt, with Pogo Possum in a bit part. Over time, Pogo became Albert’s partner in the stories…
…which gained their own recurring title in Dell’s long running anthology variety series FOUR COLOR in 1946. Albert, Pogo and friends also appeared regularly in ANIMAL COMICS until 1948, then returned in sixteen issues of POGO POSSUM from Dell, 1949 to 1954.
In the summer of 1948, Walt Kelly joined the staff of a new left-wing newspaper, The New York Star, doing editorial cartoons and other work. Kelly had gotten comic strip rights to Pogo from Dell, and offered it as a daily newspaper strip to The Star, where it appeared Monday through Saturday starting October 4, 1948. While the art and balloon borders are by Kelly, the lettering doesn’t look like his work. It’s by Walt’s first assistant, George Ward.
George Arthur Ward was born February 18, 1921 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. By 1940 he and his family were in Philadelphia. George joined the Marines in 1940 and served overseas from 1942 to 1944. He did cartooning in the service, and while in Australia in 1943 presented a bound book of his cartoons to the President’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt, who was visiting his camp. After returning to civilian life in Philadelphia where he attended the Hussian School of Art, Ward had a short-lived art studio in Philadelphia with fellow student and later comics artist Joe Maneely, then moved to New York, finding work at various newspapers and magazines. In a 1977 interview with Bill Crouch Jr. published in The Best of Pogo (1982, Simon and Schuster), Ward said:
“On August 10, 1948, I got a job in the art department of The New York Star. What an interesting crowd it was on the art side of the paper—and of course Walt Kelly drew a daily editorial cartoon, and was art director. One day Kelly walked into the art department with his Pogo daily and asked who could do some lettering for him. I said I would. He handed me his blue-penciled strip, told me what he wanted, and I did it. He was happy with my lettering and later asked if I would continue. Walt was busy with The Star, but at home in Connecticut, he was turning out those beautiful Dell comic books for Western Printing. I started working with Walt there in October 1948 and this was mostly comic book stuff — inking and some lettering. He would ink all the main characters and skip where he felt I could ink. [Many of] those comic pages were lettered by an old-timer named Ray Burley (1890-1971). He did a beautiful lettering job and Walt was very pleased with his work.
“Seven months was the life of The New York Star. When the paper folded, Walt asked if I would work with him. I said yes. I’d work in my Greenwich Village apartment awhile and then visit him for two or three days in Connecticut. It was a great setup as I had a small apartment in Kelly’s house. I believe this lasted until around September 1949.“
The New York Star ceased publication on January 28, 1949. By May of that year, the Hall Syndicate had picked up the daily strip, and added a Sunday strip beginning January 1950. In order to get it syndicated, Walt had to give up ownership, but he badgered Bob Hall, the syndicate head, and beginning January 1, 1952, the strip included the words “copyright Walt Kelly.” From then on, POGO was in Kelly’s control. George Ward asked for time off from POGO in late 1949 and did other freelance work from 1950 to 1952, but by December 1952 he was back with Kelly until April 1959. It’s not clear who lettered the strip in those years, probably Walt himself. George said, “Later Walt hired an excellent letterer, Henry Shikuma, who was a great help to Kelly and remained with him for many years.”
While George Ward’s lettering had been stiff and a bit heavy at first, as seen in that first daily, over the following year it became more relaxed and picked up elements of Kelly’s cartoony art style as Ward gained experience and skill. In these examples, the letters are a better match for the art, and seem to be made with a pen that’s just slightly wedge-shaped, adding a little variety to the lines depending on direction. And of course, Ward was following Kelly’s blue-pencil layouts, and no doubt getting his suggestions on how to make the lettering better.
By early 1950 when these strips were done, George Ward had probably taken his leave of absence, and the lettering is likely by Walt himself. With the demise of The New York Star, he would have had more time to work on POGO, but there were also the larger Sunday strips to do, so it was lots of work. The expressive quality of the lettering here, and the open sound effect, suggest Walt to me, and as on the early Dell comics, the lettering seems in the same style as the art.
Pogo eventually had a huge cast of over 500 named characters. With Deacon Mushrat’s debut in the strip, above, Walt made extra work for himself with the character’s Old English speech, suggesting hymnals and old Bibles. It’s a brilliant way to create a distinctive voice, and Kelly had the skill to make it work, though it’s harder to read than regular lettering. He felt his audience would be up to the challenge, and never changed Mushrat’s style through dozens of appearances. Many more character and situational styles followed.
About a year later, Kelly’s sound effects and emphasized balloon words have developed a square-cornered look made by pointing the corners with a small pen. It’s extra work, but it helps give them weight and importance.
Kelly’s most ambitious and elaborate style was created for the P. T. Barnum parody, P. T. Bridgeport, the ultimate showman and promoter. Not only is almost every line in a different style or two, but printer’s symbols like stars and pointing hands add even more over-the-top emphasis. Bridgeport’s balloons mimic circus posters, and later, as seen on the first image in this article, they even had pins at the corners, as if fastened to the paper. That breaks the illusion of the strip as a window into another world, but somehow it works, and is no more surreal than those pointing hands. Can’t you hear P.T. holding forth loudly like a barker at a carnival? There’s no pandering in this strip, readers had to step up to the reading challenge, and were rewarded with laughs.
Later in 1951 the regular balloon lettering gets variable thick and thin strokes from a wedge-tipped pen, but this aspect came and went at first. Walt adds a new twist in Pogo’s unusual question mark balloon shape, with dots suggesting uncertainty. The language of Pogo is as playful as the art and lettering, sometimes suggesting a Southern accent as might come from Georgia swamp creatures, other times Kelly’s unique ideas. Often the strips are so full of everything they’re tiring to read in large amounts, but a strip a day works fine.
With George Ward back on lettering in 1953, and following Walt Kelly’s blue-pencil lettering layouts with skill, another character with a unique style is introduced, the undertaker vulture Sarcophagus MacAbre. His balloon mimics a funeral card with a heavy black border and artful mixed case lettering done with a wedge-tipped pen. The curlicues are another nice touch. In some later appearances the character reverted to regular balloon style.
Kelly was always ready with a funny style for any occasion. In the first example, the dog detective’s balloons include script entries in his investigation notebook complete with dotted lines to write them on, and in the second example, a sneeze was never so specifically unpronounceable!
By 1957 the Pogo lettering had reached what I consider its mature style. George Ward was usually using a pen with a broad wedge tip for the regular letters that created very wide horizontal strokes and narrow vertical ones, leaving just tiny gaps between the horizontal strokes of the E, for instance. The emphasized words and sound effects had added thickness on the vertical strokes and squared or pointed ends on most strokes. The balloon and panel borders continued to be done with a brush, perhaps sometimes by Kelly, and had lots of width variation and fluid charm. It was a look not mirrored in any other lettering of the time that I know of. Indeed, I think it was beyond the skill of many comics letterers.
This strip has fun with the conventions of comics lettering in a way that I find funny, and I believe it also represents a changing of the guard, as lettering was handed over to a new Walt Kelly assistant, Henry Shikuma.
Henry Takashi Shikuma was born in Honohina, Hawaii on April 23, 1922. He entered the University of Hawaii in 1940, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor he volunteered for the Hawaii Territorial Guard. He was discharged in February 1942 because of his Japanese ancestry, but was soon drafted into the Army and served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 522nd Field Artillery Battalion in France and Germany. After the war he earned his bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Hawaii in 1949 and moved to New York with his wife Ellen to continue art studies at Pratt Institute. He was Walt Kelly’s assistant from 1958 until Kelly’s death in 1973, and continued on the strip until it ended syndication in 1975. In an interview with Bill Crouch Jr. published in Outrageously Pogo (1985), Henry remembered how he met Walt Kelly:
“Kelly had a lot of friends at Pan American Airlines, where my wife worked. We met one year at a Pan Am Christmas party. He said something like, “Oh, I hear you are a commercial artist. Would you like to show me some of your work?” At the time I was with the display department of Alexander’s Department Store, and I soon forgot about our conversation at the party. Sometime later I got a telephone call from Walt and he said, ‘When are you coming down?‘ I responded that I didn’t think he was serious, but he insisted I come see him.
“So I got a batch of stuff together and went to his studio on East 54th Street. He said, “What do you think about working for me?” He already had George Ward as an assistant. Kelly and George Ward seemed to have personalities that were very simpatico. They both smoked cigars, like to hang out in saloons, and had an eye for a pretty woman. In about 1961 he closed his studio and started working at home, which was a good-sized brownstone townhouse on East 89th Street, very close to where I lived on First Avenue. Then he let George Ward go.”
That Christmas party must have been in 1957. I’ve looked carefully through the 1958 strips and I can’t find evidence of a change of hands in the lettering, so the transition was smooth. In the interview, Henry said of the lettering, “I always worked with a pen point that had been filed. It made the downstroke thin and the cross stroke thick. George Ward showed me how to do it. Kelly would of course always put the lettering in with blue pencil before I inked the dialogue.” Shikuma also helped out inking backgrounds, as George Ward did.
It became obvious what an excellent letterer Henry Shikuma was when he tackled the Old English style used for Deacon Mushrat. Shikuma’s version is much more accomplished than Kelly’s or Ward’s, the letters are consistent, readable, and accurate while still an appropriate style match for the art. Mushrat’s version of Old English never looked better.
Shikuma was up to any challenge Kelly threw his way, such as the strips where a cloud of gnats spelled out sports headlines.
As Walt Kelly’s interest in world politics grew, Henry Shikuma’s skill allowed Kelly to use alternate alphabets like the Cyrillic characters given to these Russian seals. Notice that they have the same kind of thick and thin line approach as the rest, but in a different way, using serifs.
As if P.T. Bridgeport’s circus poster style wasn’t trouble enough, Walt Kelly started giving him newspaper headline balloons in 1960. Shikuma handled it all with skill, and even when he was imitating type, managed to make it just organic enough to be obviously not type. Walt must have been delighted with his new assistant. In the Crouch interview, Shikuma said, “On Sunday strips we worked six weeks in advance. With the dailies we tried to keep about four weeks ahead, but Kelly always let it slip to three. I literally used to go down to the syndicate flapping the strip in the wind to help it dry. Kelly was amazing. Sometimes he’d go away for a weekend and come back with two Sundays and two full weeks of dailies all penciled out. He never had a set schedule. He’d just want the work back from me as quickly as possible.”
Henry Shikuma’s skill was impressive, and it was a tool that Walt Kelly made good use of on the 1960 annual Christmas song strip, a lettering tour-de-force! It’s interesting that Hawaiian is the first language used, Shikuma’s home state. I hope Henry got a Christmas bonus for this one.
Kelly passed on October 18, 1973 at age 60, losing a struggle with diabetes and alcohol. His wife Selby Kelly drew the strip for about a year and a half, with scripts from their son Stephen, then it was discontinued. A revival with other creators and letterers, including art by Kelly’s daughter Carolyn, lasted from 1989 to 1993. George Ward worked as a cartoonist and as a magazine staffer, including for Newsweek, for many years. He died on February 22, 2003 at the age of 82. Henry Shikuma died on November 25, 1985 in New York at the too-young age of 63. Together, these three men left a legacy of comics genius that will long be remembered.