Bigger Than Disneyland

The Okefenokee once took up a lot of room in the collective American unconscious. It was a space of danger and lascivious wonder, a kind of mystical hayseed Vegas.

Wasn’t Pogofest the type of idea barely solvent towns pay marketing consultants millions of dollars to avoid?

Photograph by Liam Baranauskas

Pogo, the hero of Walt Kelly’s mid-century comic strip of the same name, grins from the Waycross, Georgia water tower, waving to travelers on their way into town on US Route 1. It’s a bit of an ersatz image (the outline strokes are too thin, and Pogo’s fur is a sickly grayish-purple, like unmoistened grape Jell-O powder), but the few passersby are unlikely to notice. The water tower endures not due to nostalgia, but because there’s nothing new to take its place. Blocky, windowless buildings make Historic Downtown Waycross look like a shuttered movie lot. The streets are empty and hot. The marquee of a beautifully restored Art Deco theater advertises a June performance by a doo-wop group. It’s almost August.

I came to Waycross because a friend told me that in the 1980s, the town had marketed itself as the home of Pogo Possum, which seemed like an absurd pitch, even to a fan of the strip like myself. By 1987, the year of Waycross’s first Pogofest, Pogo had been defunct for a decade and a half and was long past its pre-Flower-Power-era sell-by date. Fetishism and irony had not yet merged to resurrect every pop-cultural fad of the postwar era, and anyway, we’re talking about southern Georgia, not Brooklyn or Portland. Pogo’s winking political allegories—a parody of the Dixiecrat stance on school desegregation, a plotline about the John Birch Society (renamed “the Jack Acid Society”)—had targeted a political consensus widely held in Waycross at the time, so it was hard to imagine its residents responding with anything more enthusiastic than skepticism.

On the second floor of City Hall, a large, attractive Mission Revival building that seems to be the only place open downtown, I find a display of commemorative Pogofest buttons, signs for trash cans (“Pogo’s cleaning up Waycross, ARE YOU?”), pencils, beer koozies, golf shirts— just about anything that could be emblazoned with an image and the name of the town. I learn how Walt Kelly’s widow, Selby (herself an accomplished cartoonist who would helm a short-lived revival of the strip) was flown in for Pogofest’s opening night, which was held in a stadium that once housed a Milwaukee Braves farm team. The wife of a festival committee member sewed a Pogo costume so the event could have a suitable mascot; she added a little shirt to the original design to alleviate concerns about the nudity of Waycross’s most famous resident. Then-governor Zell Miller declared Pogo the official Georgia State ‘Possum. There was a parade.

Outside, CSX boxcars rumble past the abandoned railroad depot, pushing swampy heat across the asphalt. The train doesn’t even slow down. Against the clouds, Pogo salutes me with his too-thin, off-colored paw: Hi! Welcome! Come back soon!

Wasn’t Pogofest the type of idea barely solvent towns pay marketing consultants millions of dollars to avoid? Who was Pogofest supposed to appeal to, besides—thirty years after the fact—me? I pose the question to Janice Parks, a former city commissioner. “Well, look what a rat did for the wasteland of Central California,” she says.

Some mornings, when Waycross is engulfed by fog, the scattered auto parts stores and fast food restaurants resemble baked goods laid out on a platter beneath a plastic dome. Orange and kumquat trees look like they belong on wallpaper. Everything seems to move more slowly and takes on the matte finish of dream, of memory. This is when Waycross pushes right up to its southern edge, the town leaning against a mysterious beyond.

I’m searching for an address listed in the Yellow Pages as Pogo Foods, but I can’t find it. Instead I take a picture of a shuttered cash-for-gold store called Risky Business Pawn Shop.

By noon, the air is hot and soupy, and I realize that I’m standing on a paved-over corner of the Okefenokee Swamp, which stretches south for miles across the state line and into Florida. The swamp is what links Pogo and Waycross, as much a presence in the strip as any of Walt Kelly’s hundreds of characters. Though Pogo had reached the apex of its popularity before Kelly visited Waycross for the first and only time in 1955, the strip’s art had already managed to capture the region’s strange beauty with poetic aptness, in spite of the constraints of a newspaper’s black-and-white funny pages. Kelly even suggested the swamp’s uncertain boundaries by drawing Pogo leaning against a panel’s border, as if at any moment, the opossum might leap out of the strip and run amok onto the Jumble.

Yet while Kelly made his affection for the swamp’s aesthetics clear, it’s a little more difficult to grasp his take on the regional culture. Centered on an anthropomorphic everypossum and Albert, his sly alligator buddy, at first glance Pogo seems to be a quintessential “funny animal” strip, with the exception of its elaborate vaudevillian dialogue. The characters speak in Southern vernacular so full of wordplay, allusion, inside jokes, fractured proverbs, common sense, and uncommon nonsense that it’s often half-understood even by its speaker. It can be hard to tell if Kelly has affection for the colloquialisms he coopts or if he’s making fun of them, and his characters’ panel-to-panel actions further blur the line between archetype and cliché. Animals go fishing and cook biscuits on pot-bellied stoves. Pogo engages in the iconic Southern pastime of satirizing institutional hypocrisy while drifting downstream. Albert’s cigar-chomping malapropisms might, in an uncharitable reading, come off as the words of a dumb hick. Given Kelly’s status as an outsider (he was raised in Connecticut before working in California as an “in-betweener” for Disney), even Pogo’s sympathetic portrayals might be read as tarring the whole region with a broad brush.

I tell the city manager that I’m interested in the history of Pogofest, and she puts me in touch with Larry Gattis. Larry’s father, a one-time mayor of Waycross, worked on the campaign for the first Pogofest—his mother sewed the aforementioned eleventh-hour Pogo costume. When I get Larry on the phone, he reveals that his parents weren’t actually fans of the comic. “I liked it, though,” he adds quickly. “I had the poster in my dorm room, the one for Earth Day. You know, where Pogo’s picking up trash and it says ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’?”

Used to promote early iterations of Earth Day, this is still Pogo’s most famous quote (Zell Miller used it in the ceremonial bill declaring Pogo Georgia’s state ‘possum), and it’s probably the only allusion to the strip that still draws breath in the popular imagination. Less remembered is that the original image has two panels. In the first, Porky Pine tells Pogo that the “beauty of the forest primeval gets me in the heart”; Pogo, stepping on a tin can as he wades through shallow swamp, responds that it gets him in the feet. All the trash that emerges in the second panel—the tires and bathtubs and old lamps, the evidence of a great many people taking the path of least resistance—lurks beneath the surface of the water in the first.

“Your father wasn’t a big fan, though?” I ask.

He takes a beat to respond. “Pogo’s politics and my father’s politics didn’t mix,” he says.

This makes sense. Pogo’s essentially leftist anti-authoritarianism and the strip’s faddish popularity (to take one example, in 1956, “I Go Pogo” rallies satirically endorsing Pogo for president drew thousands of college students) conflicted with conservative values. And in the South of the 1950s and 60s, those conservative values meant maintaining the status quo of segregation. Government in Georgia, like most Southern states, had been dominated by anti-Communist, pro-Jim Crow Democrats on the local and national level from Reconstruction and throughout the first half of the 20th century, with some politicians often holding office for decades. So if Larry’s father realized the strip’s views were had little in common with his own and his region’s, why did he get involved with the committee to start Pogofest?

Waycross, as its name suggests, was a way station, a crossing point. In the late 1800s, timber companies harvesting wood from the Okefenokee ran their railroads through the city center, crossing miles of cedar water and wending through the shells of hundred-year-old lumberjack camps. With the advent of the automobile, Waycross became a popular stop for snowbirds and truckers traveling down US Route 1, which was once the main throughway between Maine and the Florida Keys. Even in an era that seems unconnected by today’s standards, the town wasn’t the untouched, provincial region depicted in B movies—or in Pogo. I spoke with a woman in Waycross’s City Hall who told me, “I could be in Minnesota and people would ask me if I eat at the Green Frog,” a popular restaurant that used to be located near the railroad depot. Its racial politics even showed small marks of deviation from the South’s cruel norms. “Other than being eaten alive and shot at,” Hank Aaron said of his time at the Milwaukee Braves’ spring training in 1953, “Waycross was great.” Yet Aaron and his teammates slept in integrated barracks at a time when half the teams in the major leagues had yet to sign their first African-American player.

But by the middle of the 1950s, as Kelly’s books were becoming bestsellers among pro-‘possum college students, the Eisenhower administration had established the interstate highway system, siphoning all those snowbirds off of Route 1 and sixty miles east onto I-95. The Braves soon abandoned their minor league baseball team and their Waycross training facilities. Bill Darden shuttered the Green Frog and founded his next restaurant in Lakeland, Florida. The Waycross Red Lobster isn’t even open anymore, although the Olive Garden next door, another Darden Restaurants venture, is still going strong.

Its incidental tourism all but dried up, Waycross became more isolated, its economic sustainability increasingly dependent on its place in the railway shipping industry. The unemployment rate skyrocketed when CSX closed the local rail yard in the early 1980s, a pill made even harder to swallow by Reagan-era cutbacks in social and public services. The idea of Pogofest was hatched at the tail end of this epic downturn, with eyes to reestablishing the waning town’s links to the rest of the world. Only this time, in a burst of ambition, Wayrcross wouldn’t be a mere way station, but a destination.

The idea was to cross-market Pogofest with the Okefenokee Swamp Park, using Kelly’s characters as mascots. Today, the educational nature center remains Waycross’s most viable tourist attraction. The welcome center walls are decorated primarily with posters for old movies with titles like Black Fury, Lure of the Wilderness, and Swamp Girl, their lurid come-ons describing the Okefenokee as “dreaded,” “primitive,” and “strangely beautiful.” The tagline for Swamp Country promises, “If the moonshine and lovin’ don’t kill you . . . there’s always the skeeters, gators and quicksand!” It’s hard to imagine now, but the Okefenokee once took up a lot of room in the collective American unconscious. It was a space of danger and lascivious wonder, a kind of mystical hayseed Vegas.

It took some effort to find evidence of the park’s links to its ex-spokespossum. There’s a black-and-white photocopy of a drawing of Pogo taped high on a wall near the gift shop. A second sheet of paper next to it welcomes visitors in all-caps Times New Roman—not to Waycross, but to “OUR ENCHANTED WILDERNESS.” One of the park’s scattered complexes houses a life-sized diorama of Walt Kelly’s cluttered office, featuring a papier-mache Kelly, pipe in his lifeless mouth, misshapen fedora on his head. Original strips hang on the wall, their rough pencil peeking out behind ink, and the shelves are lined with books—there’s no indication whether they were actually Kelly’s, but if they’re not, the choices seem reasonable enough: Arthur Miller, The Dictionary of Underworld Slang, a hardcover Best American Short Stories. Kelly’s membership certificate in the Federation of Television and Radio Artists sits next to a pass to the 1956 Democratic National Convention.

This is the concession the park makes to what Larry called “Pogo’s politics,” which might best be illustrated in the strip’s take on McCarthyism, represented by a dead-eyed, scheming wildcat named “Simple J. Malarkey.” Like most of the strip’s serialized plots, the Malarkey storyline looped in on itself over the course of many months, satirizing xenophobia, information control (Deacon Mushrat originally empowers Malarkey in an attempt to take over Howland Owl’s “television station,” a vanity with the glass removed from the mirror), and the mechanics of political infighting. There’s even a thread parodying leftists: a pair of freeloading, rhetoric-spouting, beret-wearing cowbirds, emblematic of the mainstream liberal position that red-baiting helped the Communists by creating a political opening for them.1 Yet despite explicitly distancing himself from any suggestion of radicalism, Kelly’s editorializing on the funny pages still carried risks, given the pressure to stay apolitical from his distributor, the Post-Hall Syndicate, and the era’s all-encompassing paranoia.

The Okefenokee Swamp Park’s main attractions have little to do with Pogo, and nothing to do with politics. There are live alligators loose everywhere—swimming the river, sunning on its banks, hanging out in a dug-out, zoolike habitat. There are dead and stuffed alligators, and generic cartoon alligators (though not Pogo’s buddy Albert) holding displays of park maps. Signs helpfully warn, “DANGER alligators in area.” The grounds feel a bit like a low-rent rip-off of Jurassic Park in some mid-film state of calm amidst anarchy. The park’s infrastructure gives the impression of something stitched together by accumulation rather than planning: buildings sparsely scattered among winding paths, a large, rustic amphitheater sitting empty near a snack shack that doesn’t look as though it’s been open in months, a miniature train pulling visitors on a small loop—the track laid a century ago to haul timber.

Sure, the whole thing is cartoonish, but like the best cartoons, the introduction of a note of existential danger gives it unexpected depth. On a guided motorboat ride, sunlight drops through the cypresses like a falling veil, the landscape constantly in flux. The copperheads and rattlers lounging on nearby rocks are no less poisonous for their visibility, and when the guide admits that he’s scared of the enormous spiders that sometimes drop into the boat when passing under a low bridge, his fear doesn’t sound less real because it doubles as patter for tips. Gators as long as our boat swim past. They ignore us.

But existential danger appears unmarketable. On the day I visit, the number of visitors doesn’t seem big enough to make more than a modest dent in the coffers of a struggling town. Swamp tourism won’t move the needle.

Though Kelly usually deferred when asked about his chosen setting (a favorite deflection was to say that he’d simply “air conditioned the place and taken out the mosquitoes”), on one occasion he let slip that he considered the swamp “a last frontier, a proper setting for American fairy tales.” Even now, even on a guided boat tour, this seems apt. My impression is that the Okefenokee is constantly attempting to swallow itself. Those lurid movie taglines are right: the enchantment of this wilderness is of the dread, primitive, and strangely beautiful sort. That’s the swamp I’m in: a place where anything could happen, and anything could be hiding below the water.

The manager of the Okefenokee Swamp Park shrugs when I ask him about the park’s connection to Pogo. “Kids don’t remember the strip. Adults who do are aging out. They thought we could have been bigger than Disneyland.” I ask him who “they” were. He is suspicious of me. “What’s your angle for this story?” he asks.

“In Pogo, no matter what,” Larry Gattis says, “they all got supper together at the end of the day.” For all its conflict, Pogo’s vision of the world was a tolerant one: the only people (animals) who were actually banished from the swamp were grifters and exploiters, needlessly cruel characters like Simple J. Malarkey. “In addition to being a son-of-a-bitch,” Kelly once wrote, “man is a nice guy.”

It’s not common knowledge, even to fans of the strip, that Pogo’s roots lie in a Disneyfied version of minstrelsy, in the tradition of Dumbo’s “jive crows”—a segment Walt Kelly helped create. Kelly’s early strips in the swamp featured a “pickaninny” named Bumbazine and a very different version of Albert. According to Kelly D. Soper’s We Go Pogo: Walt Kelly, Politics, and American Satire, the early Albert had a painfully exaggerated African-American accent, and the patter of the swamp, full of puns and errors, has its roots in the blackface vaudeville of the likes of Amos ‘n’ Andy. Kelly’s intentions in these early versions of the strip are still a matter of debate among comics scholars, but it’s a history that links Pogo to Waycross (and to the myths of the swamp as frontier) in a very different context: the garbage hidden below the surface is never gone. Every enemy we meet is still us.2

As I drive out of town the next morning, the water tower Pogo is still waving, as indefatigably as ever. According to Janice Parks, the former city commissioner, the town would paint over the image if it had the money—apparently Selby Kelly always had a problem with the inaccuracies in the depiction anyway.

Parks was one of the “Pogo People” who originally spearheaded Pogofest. She laughs when I tell her about Thomas Gattis’s opinion of the strip, but her affection for both Kelly’s work and her town is obvious. “The diehards came from way off, and they came back every year,” she says, speaking of Pogofest’s push to rebrand the town as a tourist destination. “Germany, Utah, Minnesota . . . it was a great thing for Waycross.” Even after it became clear that Pogofest had run its course, she says she went “hat in hand” for funding in an effort to keep it going. She did so even after she had been voted out of office, and she seems proud to have risked some small humiliation just for the shared pleasure that a small group of comic strip obsessives took from their yearly pilgrimage here.

What’s becoming clear is that for Parks and the others involved, Pogofest was “a great thing for Waycross” in a way that transcended traditional benchmarks for the success of a tourism initiative. Having the visitors come and come back was worth the fundraising, the diplomacy, the scheduling, the budgets, the red tape. It wasn’t just a family-friendly weekend full of souvenir beer koozies and mascot costumes; Selby Kelly’s visit to Waycross marked a break from the town’s past, paradoxically, by paying tribute to it.

Yet after the initial rush of publicity, Pogofest was forced to change. By the mid-1990s, its connection to Pogo was loosened—Waycross would now celebrate the daily comic strip in general. For a time, the railroad depot was repurposed as a cartooning museum, and a different syndicated cartoonist was honored every year with a plaque, a dinner, and a parade. Bill Holbrook, who won Pogofest’s “Cartoonist of the Year” award in 1998 for his Kevin and Kell strip, told me in an email that “It was a very big deal for the town. Hundreds of people lined the parade route.” But even though he remembers the event as “a fantastic experience,” Holbrook’s sense was that the attendees were, by and large, Waycross residents. He had never heard of Pogofest before he was invited.

By the early 2000s, Pogofest had morphed again. Now it was Swampfest, a still-going concern that has little to do with the Okefenokee proper and nothing at all to do with Pogo. Swampfest has vendors and games and rides for the kids. The Swingin’ Medallions (one-hit-wonders known for their organ-driven 1960s nugget “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love”) often play.

“There are thousands of towns like this,” said one city official. “We’ve all got to try something.” This was depressing and realistic: a statement resigned to the particular hopelessness of an era when big-box stores on arterial roads “do their part for the community” by sponsoring one or two yearly weekend festivals that take place in the very town squares they gutted. These festivals are easy things to have a good time at, but they have little connection with the communities where they take place. It’s true that no one wants to wrestle with the necrosis of their soul—or with the decline of the small town in the post-industrial age—while slamming a corn dog. But what these festivals accomplish is much more modest than whatever aspirations they may have: they end up recreating hollow versions of their locales, beckoning outsiders close and holding them at arm’s length with a manufactured nostalgia. In contrast, Pogofest, took Waycross and its unique mythology seriously.

“The people who came for Pogofest . . .” Parks says, “we’d take them on deep swamp tours. In spring, with the water lilies. People would put their canoes in and we’d go to meet them in five days on the other side.” Like Pogo itself, Pogofest was only nominally about Pogo, and more about the swamp as a place of possibility, about the town as a crossing point between the future and all that trash just below the surface. Five days in the mutable Okefenokee, amid snakes and carnivorous plants, seems like a really long time for anyone—let alone an odd bunch of Pogo enthusiasts—but it may have been just the right amount of time to conduct a proper search for the disappeared frontier. That it may have never existed was beside the point: what Pogo fans discovered was the same mix of myth and landscape that first coerced Walt Kelly into drawing the Okefenokee without ever having visited.

I try to imagine it as an advertisement: A too-full boat, drifting through layers of nostalgia, fishing lines dangling in water that’s infested with gators on the surface and God-knows-what below, with an anthropomorphic ‘possum who once ran for president at the boat’s stern. “Come see our enchanted wilderness!”

I still don’t think it’ll sell.

  1. I owe this reading to Jaime Weinman: http://mightygodking.com/2010/02/16/when-pogo-met-simple-j-malarkey/ 

  2. One point in Kelly’s defense is that he depicts an entire town run viably by African-Americans without exploiting it for cheap jokes, and that the art showed comparatively realistic people, without resorting to the commonplace stereotypes endemic to the era’s mainstream culture. 

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles