Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Review: Walt Kelly's Our Gang Volume 2

This second volume of "Our Gang" stories by Walt Kelly offers no surprises to those who've already read the first one, but it's still a nice addition to the libraries of Kelly fans, while we are still waiting for Fantagraphics to restart its Complete Pogo series.

Seven stories from issues 9 to 15 of "Our Gang Comics" (1944 to 1945) are reprinted in color, with additional commentary by Steve Thompson. Even though this isn't his best work (apparently, Kelly hit his stride with the series a few years later), the stories contain the usual slapstick humor and clever wordplay you'd expect from Kelly, with the characters encountering cartoony circus animals, Japanese soldiers, and counterfeiters throughout their adventures. The art is reproduced from the original comics, with what seems to be the original coloring. (One detail: the first story in the book doesn't seem to be drawn by Kelly; the first volume of this series also features a non-Kelly story by a mystery artist which has yet to be identified.)

The first continued story (consisting of one episode drawn by the mystery artist and the next three episodes drawn by Kelly) is about the kids getting stranded on a desert island, where they find "a secret Jap radio station" manned by a few Japanese soldiers. There's a strange transition between pages 44 and 45 of this edition: in the last panel of page 44 one sees the soldiers preparing to escape from their hideout, without knowing that they are being watched by the kids's friend, Captain Dan, who's holding a rifle. He says: "They're in a spot the minute they start goin' down that Jacob's ladder." The kid (Froggy) next to him simply asks "Why?"

In the next page, we're in a completely different scene, with Froggy telling the other kids: "So I showed the cap'n how to aim it an' told him the exact pusychological [sic] time to fire an' -". The implication is clear (the Captain shot the Japanese while they were trying to escape), but the transition is a bit too sudden. The episode as reprinted in this volume is only 11 pages long, while the two previous episodes and the very next episode have 12 pages each. My first thought was that Fantagraphics may have accidentally skipped a page, but a likelier explanation could be that Kelly's editors decided to drop the page in which we see the Japanese soldiers being shot, figuring that such a thing might have been too strong for a children's comic, war or no war. (For those who want to see some bloodshed however, the next episode shows more Japanese soldiers dying, this time on-panel.)

Steve Thompson has researched Kelly's work for a long time, and offers some useful pieces of info in this book, such as pointing plot similarities between some of these stories and "Pogo" sequences he did a few years later, pointing out that some of the Japanese dialog used in a story comes from a Japanese language guide for which Kelly had done the illustrations a year earlier, or letting readers know that one of the villains in a story contained in this book will become a recurring antagonist in future episodes. The book mentions Thompson is writing a Walt Kelly biography, which should be a welcome addition to the libraries of Kelly fans.

It's a shame that very little of Kelly's comic-book work has been reprinted over the years. Eclipse did four volumes of "Pogo" comic-books and a couple of non-Pogo Kelly comics, and Gladstone has reprinted over the years some Disney comics and covers drawn by Kelly. But there's still plenty of work waiting to be reprinted (Fairy Tale Parade, Santa Claus Funnies, Peter Wheat, most of the "Pogo" comic-book sequences from the Dell comics and the material originally done for the "Pogo" compilations, etc). It's a good thing that Fantagraphics is doing this series, with the production values it deserves, and hopefully it will do well enough so that we can see the entire "Our Gang" series by Kelly reprinted.

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