2005 is a sadly memorable year for the cartoon world. We have lost Joe Grant, Vance Gerry, Roland Wilson, Marie Johnston, and most recently, one of the pioneer woman animators, Selby Kelly.
I met Selby Kelly when we both worked at Zander’s Animation Parlour on the GNOMES special in 1980; we were close friends for over twenty years. This interview originally appeared in slightly longer form in CARTOONISTS PROfiles’ December, 1983 issue. I am publishing a slightly edited version of my original article as a tribute to a great artist and great friend.
There is another interview with her from 1980 which I have yet to transcribe…and which may be put here in future.
Til then, this will have to do; and even though we spent most of the time talking about Walt Kelly and not of her own remarkable career in animation, Selby’s wit and intelligence shines through.
SELBY KELLY INTERVIEW © 1983, 2005 by Nancy Beiman
Originally published in CARTOONIST PROfiles December, 1983
Q: What was Kelly’s job at Disney’s?
Selby Kelly: He started as a story man. One day he went to Walt Disney and said, “I think I would be able to write better for the animation if I knew more about animation. I’d like to try animating.” Disney said, “Sure, go right ahead.” He wound up doing the Ringmaster in DUMBO, among other things.
Q: I’d like to ask whether you ever met Walt Kelly at the Disney studios, since you were there at the same time in the 1930s.
Selby Kelly: No, I didn’t meet Kelly there. In fact, while I was there I didn’t even hear of him. After the strike of 1940, when I got to know a bunch of the people who worked there, I heard about him; particularly when he put out the comic books. They would say “Have you seen this? He’s one of us.”
Q: So it was the people at the MGM studio who first brought his work to your attention?
Selby Kelly: Mostly Disney people who had gotten together during the strike. We had little groups. In California, you lived so far apart from each other that you didn’t fraternize once you moved to a different studio unless you lived somewhere close.
My first husband, Roger Daley, and I used to get together with Pat Matthews, Frank Smith and others and read the Pogo Books. We’d have “Pogo Evenings.” We’d all get together, have spaghetti and meatballs, and sit around—each one of us would be assigned a character—and we would ‘read’ our characters, saying what they were saying in the books.
Q: I’d like a little background on the film WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US. How did you get involved in the project?
Selby Kelly: Well, first there was the MGM Pogo special directed by Chuck Jones. At that time, I was President of the Cartoonists’ Guild, and I was working as a freelancer out of the Guild office. Frank Braxton, the first Black animator, called me up and asked me why I didn’t work in the studio instead of freelancing. I said okay, that sounded like fun; I’d been in my ivory tower for quite a while. So I went to MGM to the Chuck Jones unit. I worked as an assistant animator to Frank Braxton, but he had cancer. They thought they had it in remission, but shortly after I got there he had to go back into the hospital. So I was at MGM without any particular person to work with. Kelly and I met and he asked that I should be his assistant.
Q: Was Kelly actually animating on the picture?
Selby Kelly: Yes. He did the layouts; of course, he wrote the story; and he animated a lot of scenes.
Now, MGM had three different films in production at the same time. On the same day, sometimes, the animators would work on “PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH” and “HORTON HEARS A WHO” and the POGO BIRTHDAY SPECIAL. So they didn’t draw Pogo the way Kelly did it. They’re very subtle characters, anyhow. There’s another problem because of the amount of footage that has to be put out on a television special.
The animators didn’t add any ‘extra’ little things. If you’re working at home, and you want to cut in on to your own time, you can take as much time as you want to and you’re paid by footage. But when you’re working in a studio, you have to put out a certain amount of footage per day, or per week. If you stop and juice it up a little and add a lot of extra personality bits so that it makes a nice scene, you’re not getting your footage in. So most of the action in the scenes was down to the bedrock. They just did EXACTLY what was called for. Kelly was very disappointed in the picture.
So he said to me one day as we were sitting at the bar upstairs: “What do you say that we do a picture ourselves, and show them how it should look?” I said, “Fine, wonderful, I’d like that.”I didn’t know it at the time, but Kelly had already talked to a producer, who wanted to do this pollution thing. Kelly decided that this would be the perfect opportunity; he would have total control; so we did it ourselves. But the producer had a partner who was enamored of live action, and who talked him into getting involved in a production with the “Burtons” (Elizabeth and Richard.) They went over to England to see them, and what with this and that and the other they used up all the money. It left Kelly and me without a studio to work for, although we used the offices where we had already established ourselves. We finished the picture under shoe-string operating conditions because Kelly didn’t have a great deal of money at the time to invest in anything. His wife Stephanie had just died after a prolonged and expensive illness.
Q: Was that why the film was cut from 30 minutes to 15? (a 30 minute story reel exists of the longer production)
Selby Kelly: Originally the storyboard was for a full half hour. The man who was to sell it to the networks said he could sell it better if it were two 15 minute lengths, so that it could be shown on different days, or could subsequently be shown with other films if they wanted to. Kelly rewrote the story a bit, and did the first fifteen minutes, but never did get around to doing the second. It is a complete picture, but it leaves out a lot that was in the original half hour. At first Kelly did the film storyboard-fashion. Then, as we had time on our hands, he’d add a little more to the scenes as they were trying to sell it. He was waiting for the money so that we could do it in really full animation. He’d redo scenes; some of them were redone six times, adding more action each time. We never did get full animation in the whole picture.
Q: Did you assist on the drawing of the comic strip?
Selby Kelly: Not while Kelly was alive. I drew the strip for a year and a half after Kelly died. That wasn’t meant to be the case. In 1973 Kelly had been too ill to draw for some time, and the syndicate was after him to get a ‘crew’ together. He didn’t know anyone in New York who could draw the characters (it turned out that one of his assistants, Henry Shikuma, could do quite well) but Kelly hired someone who farmed it out to someone else…I couldn’t continue to use his work if it was going to be farmed out, so I started doing it myself.
Q: I’ve heard about the legendary speed at which Kelly worked. While cataloguing some work, I checked the dates: he was SIMULTANEOUSLY drawing a comic strip, doing political cartoons, illustrating books, writing a political column, writing and illustrating five different comic books, AND taking trips with John Lardner to report for magazines on issues in different parts of the world! How did he manage to do all this?
Selby Kelly: He was very fast. But if you really stop to think about it, a drawing originates in your mind, and if you don’t have it in your mind, you can’t expect it to flow out of your fingers. Kelly had a very fast, brilliant mind, and he was thinking all the time and making little notes about what he was going to do. When it came time to put it on paper he already had it ‘drawn’ in his mind, so he would just sit down and whip it out. He didn’t have to stop and hesitate or ponder. He had so many story ideas that he would have two or three of them going at once.
He asked me once when he was starting to get back into the work after a trip to the hospital, to go through some of the more recent proofs and try to come some story that he had discarded and not ‘carried on’. With so many characters in the strip, you could have two or three doing one thing, and two or three doing another, and they would branch out and go their own way. Sometimes he wouldn’t go back to see what they were doing, follow them up.
John Horn, a man who worked with Kelly in many of his escapades with television newspapers, and magazines, once said that he and Kelly were going to go out to lunch. Kelly batted out his political column, handed his week’s worth of strips to someone to carry to the printer’s, and started to go out the door. Suddenly he said, “Oh, just a minute!”, went back to his desk without even taking his coat or hat off, sat at the typewriter and batted out a sheet of words. John looked over his shoulder and saw that it was a fairy story, one that he wasn’t even going to illustrate. It was being done for a breakfast food company, to go on the back of a cereal box.
Q: He wrote those, too?
Selby Kelly: yes, and in addition to that he did a lot of charity work. At the National Cartoonists’ Society’s REUBEN dinners, he used to do beautiful drawings for Pan Am airlines. Pan Am would buy a page in the Reuben dinner book and donate the money to the cartoonists’ welfare fund. Kelly would illustrate them and they never paid him for it.
Q: I’ve heard that Kelly never actually visited the Okefenokee Swamp until years after starting POGO. What made him decide to go with the southern animal strip instead of developing the African animal stripi (GOOZY) that appears in some of the same comic books as POGO?
Selby Kelly: Kelly grew up in Bridgeport, which had a large amount of people from different countries. He liked to say that he and all his buddies ‘had more foreign languages that they could say that no one ELSE had any use for.” I guess he must have meant swear words. He was interested in languages.
His health wouldn’t allow him to be in the service during the Second World War, so he went into a branch of Government work that had him illustrating dictionaries. He traveled with various USO groups, and he was interested in talking to the people from different parts of the United States, comparing their accents, et cetera. Also his father liked to read him things like UNCLE REMUS, and he picked up a lot of the Southern accent and ‘fun talk’ from his dad.
Q: That would also explain the ‘playing with the language’ in the strip, where one word is meant but a similar one used in its place. You once mentioned that he ‘would think like a child.’
Selby Kelly: When people are very old and can’t hear well, or very young and all words are new to them, they misinterpret them a lot. You think you hear something you don’t hear, and you get a lot of fun out of those by twisting things round.
Q: A little talk about Politics would be in order. How did political caricatures get into POGO? The early strips are ‘funny animal’ gags, and then all of a sudden you have Joe McCarthy as a major character.
Selby Kelly: He was enough to make ANYBODY political. People were really frightened of him. This was the first time that any comic strip had political comment in it. Comic strips were just supposed to be funny and amusing. People pretended that they were for children, although the adults read them more than the kids did. Having lived through that era, I must say that it was a really, really terrible time. Anybody who did anything against the establishment was harassed.
Q: Did Kelly have any threats made or actions taken against him?
Selby Kelly: Kelly’s phone was tapped. He was threatened with all sorts of things, mainly with removal of his livelihood. Many papers dropped the strip. (Note: The Freedom of Information Act recently released Kelly’s files: it was revealed that the Government was corresponding with a civilian reporter who was sure that the ‘lingo’ used in POGO for the "Grundoon" baby groundhog, a character who spoke only in consonants-- was a secret Russian code.)
To prevent the papers dropping POGO, Kelly used to draw TWO strips. They are a lot of fun to look at. One set is called the “Bunny Strips” and most of them were really about bunnies; though some were also about the Okefenokee people. Kelly would send the ‘Bunny Strips’ along with the regular dailies to papers that expressed disapproval of the politics. This way, they didn’t have a big hole in the paper where POGO usually was. Some newspapers had the guts to print BOTH strips at the same time. On their editorial page, they would say something like ‘certain parts of the country won’t print one of these strips’ and make it into good filler for themselves.
Q: Did the political harassment discontinue as the strip got older; say when he was doing (President) Johnson as a steer?
Selby Kelly: There were a lot of pro-Wallace papers that didn’t like what Kelly had to say about him. He drew him as a little rooster, the Prince of Pompadoodle. Everything in life is politics, you can’t just ‘stay out of it.’ That’s pretty much the way the ‘political’ part of the strip was; instead of doing a gag-a day kind of thing, Kelly poked fun at what he knew best, because he was a reporter. He started out as a reporter long before he became a cartoonist, and was very proud of that fact.
Q: POGO first started in ANIMAL COMICS comic books, didn’t he?
Selby Kelly: Kelly did quite a few comics actually. There was OUR GANG comics, BROWNIES, ANIMAL COMICS and many others. He would get more money if he wrote the story in addition to illustrating it, as he was paid for two different jobs. He started this little group of characters in the swamp. Because what he wanted to do was have his own little town, a microcosm of the whole world. The swamp is surrealistic, away from everything, a little mysterious. In a way, the animals did have a town. They had a store, a newspaper, and a variety of things. At first Kelly’s Okefenokee Swamp bunch of animals were friends with a little boy named Bumbazine. The comic book was called “Bumbazine and his friend Albert”, then just “Albert” and then it was “Albert and Pogo”, finally just Pogo. Kelly dropped Bumbazine rather early because he decided that while it is possible to imagine animals talking to each other, you know they don’t really say things that a human being can understand when ‘talking’ to them. The animal might understand the human being, but the human can’t really have a conversation with the animals. Bumbazine also looked very realistic and the animals were drawn like cartoons. Pogo was in from either the first or the second story; and he sure looked different from how he looks now. Long pointy nose with little pieces of wire sticking out of it.
Kelly just got really going on the comic stories. He was doing reporting, but needed more money, so he kept doing comic books on the side. He was just going into high gear on POGO when they stopped publishing ANIMAL COMICS. At the same time he was given an opportunity to take over a post in management of the NEW YORK STAR, which is what PM MAGAZINE turned into when it folded. Kelly was Art Editor, and he had to buy artwork for the paper, so he decided to put the strip in there.
Q: Very clever.
Selby Kelly: Well, it WAS clever, but the newspaper didn’t last very long. When the STAR folded, POGO was out of business again. It was then picked up by the Post-Hall syndicate, but eventually Kelly held all copyright to the strip himself.
Q: He would have been one of the first artists to own his own strip. Could you give me the reasons for discontinuing the strip?
Selby Kelly: The newspapers started giving less and less space to the comics. If you remember POGO, it’s got a lot of words and lines, and every bit of space was taken up with the design of the strip itself. So when they got smaller and smaller, down to the size of a postage stamp, people couldn’t really read it. A lot of the dramatic continuing strips have fallen off too because of this. The Newspaper Comics Council had a meeting, where it was revealed that the papers had no intention of giving more space to the comics; even though the ‘paper crisis’ that had precipitated the shrinkage was over; and I said that there was no way that I was going to continue POGO then. The quality would eventually fall off too far. However, now that I’ve started to do comic strip BOOKS there’s plenty of space in them. We design the pages the way we want to, with nobody tampering with them and making them small and unreadable.
IN MEMORIAM MARGARET SELBY DALEY KELLY
ALL MATERIAL COPYRIGHT 1983/2005 NANCY BEIMAN