New Light on an Old Favorite (The Kent-Kelly Letters, Part 1 of 3)

It’s no secret we’re big King Aroo fans here at LOAC—we reprinted the first two years of the strip in a 2010 collection that was translated into German by our friends at Bocola Verlag. While we wait to get the next brace of strips to do a follow-up volume, I was fortunate enough to acquire a handful of Sunday newspaper pages featuring the King in full color. We’ll present a handful of them in this mini-series of articles so you can see the land of Myopia in its full, Technicrayon glory as you read on.

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As chronicled in this space, late last year we were doing research at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, sifting through their astounding range of holdings in support of a variety of projects. We hit upon a folder that contained letters involving the creator of King Aroo, Jack Kent, and Walt (Pogo) Kelly and we requested a closer look at that material. Susan Liberator and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum staff came through for us as they always do, and the contents of these letters shed some fascinating new light on the genesis of King Aroo.

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The earliest of these letters from Kent to Kelly is undated, but based on the date of the next letter in the sequence it was likely penned very late in 1949 or early in ’50, when Jack would have been twenty-nine years old. It was a fan letter of the type Kent had been writing to newspaper cartoonists since he was a teenager—if comics had had a First Fandom similar to science fiction’s Jack Kent would certainly have been a member of that community, given how actively he sought out comic strip creators and amassed a collection of original art via request and trades with fellow fans. Jack skillfully works his bona-fides into this particular letter, mentioning that he has secured “the friendship of George Herriman,” the guiding light behind Krazy Kat, and that this relationship with “Garge” makes it impossible for Kent to decide whether Krazy or Pogo is the superior strip. Surely Kent felt that making such a comparison would flatter the maestro of the Okefenokee.

Jack went on to extol the virtues of Pogo, citing “The delightful whimsy, the consistently high level of the humor, the marvelous characterizations, and the outstanding art work.”

Jack also makes a passing reference to his artistic ambitions in his own unmistakable prose style: “I’m a limn lubber with the unrealized ambition to syndicate a comic strip,” he confides to Kelly at one point.

The longest paragraph in this letter serves up the familiar request Kent likely made to every cartoonist with whom he sought correspondence: “I wish I had an original drawing by you.” He begs forgiveness for making the request and says he knows Kelly is inundated with such requests. “I apologize … I’m ashamed … I can’t help myself…,” he writes, then says, “I repeat the request – A discarded strip, a hasty doodle or a sketch retrieved from the trash would be treasured more than I can tell you.”

Based on this short series of letters, it appears Jack Kent never did get the original from Walt Kelly…but as you’ll see in future installments, Kelly provided something much more valuable …

 

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