"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books."


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Fred Patten Reviews Walt Kelly's Our Gang Volume 1, 1942-1943

Walt Kelly’s Our Gang. Vol. 1, 1942-1943

Author: Walt Kelly

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books

ISBN 10: 1-56097753-1

ISBN 13: 978-1-56097753-7

Walt Kelly is famous for his now-classic Pogo newspaper comic strip from 1948 until his death in 1973. Most cartoon fans know that Kelly began as an animator for Walt Disney, and that he wrote and drew funny-animal and fairy-tale comic books from 1941 until 1948. He actually began Pogo in comic-book form in 1941. Much of Kelly’s comic-book art has been reprinted over the last two decades, especially his Disney comics covers showing Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in his own art style.

Kelly also wrote and drew a human comic-book series during the 1940s, around the Our Gang children film stars. Movie historian Leonard Maltin describes in an introductory “appreciation” how Dell/Western Publishing licensed in 1942 the rights to produce a comic book featuring all the MGM movie short series like the Tom & Jerry cartoons, and they chose the Our Gang stories to lead off the comic book – and hired cartoonist Kelly to produce them. MGM had bought Our Gang from the Hal Roach Studio in 1938, and by 1942 had lost interest in them, so Kelly had the creative freedom to interpret the kids in his own way. The 8- to 14-page stories in these first eight issues were very close to MGM’s last Our Gang one-reelers, based on publicity stills of the child actors and following the movies’ stereotypes. Maltin, and Kelly collector-historian Steve Thompson in his introduction, promise that later stories of the 59 in the series will show how Kelly evolved, having the movie Gang grow older and be replaced with new characters who were Kelly’s own, with realistic personalities rather than stereotypes.

This collection has several laudable goals: to show that Kelly could create excellent realistic human-character stories as well as funny-animal humor; to restore a missing dimension of the Our Gang works for those movies’ fans; and to present a nostalgic glimpse of children’s lives in America in the 1940s. As Steve Thompson says, “Not for them the over-organized and regimented sports, dance and music activities of today’s youth. In those days before ‘stranger danger’ and almost daily reports of child abductions, in all but the largest cities during summer, kids could disappear after breakfast, possibly return for lunch, and then vanish again until supper, without panicking their parents.” (I can confirm this. I am in my late sixties now, and I grew up in Los Angeles rather than an Eastern small town, but I had the same juvenile freedom to just “mess around” outdoors all day with my playmates as long as we stayed out of trouble.) It may be personal nostalgia for my own youth, but I found Walt Kelly’s Our Gang vol. 1 to be thoroughly delightful.

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