Concluding our look at recently-obtained correspondence between Jack (King Aroo) Kent and Walt (Pogo) Kelly that sheds new light on the genesis of Aroo while also showing off some full-color Aroo Sundays I obtained in early March of this year…
There appears to be at least one exchange of letters following the April 21, 1950 missive we examined in our last installment that is not contained in the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum files. In the period between April 21st and May 25th, Kent seems to have shared his sample comic strips with Kelly, and Kelly wrote back with praise. This is almost certain because the next available letter in the sequence, dated May 25th, begins, “Oh, COME now!!!!—You’re a damned liar…but oh, how I love that kind of lying—Altho [sic] I don’t believe a word of the flattery you lavished upon me, I’m extremely grateful for the encouragement.”
More important than simply critiquing Kent’s sample strips, Kelly appears to have shared them with his syndicator, Robert M. Hall of the Post-Hall Syndicate. “Mr. Hall told me how you went to bat for me—I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay you,” Kent writes in this letter. What’s even more intriguing is that Kelly’s introduction of Kent to Robert Hall seems to have resulted in an invitation for a face-to-face meeting at the syndicate. Kent says to Kelly, “I told Mr. Hall I could be in NY in the early part of next month, if that fits in with his plans and yours—Maybe I’ll have better success in my efforts to thank you in person than I’m having expressing my gratitude on paper.” Ever the fan, he also can’t help adding the aside, “(And maybe I’ll be able to wrest that original drawing from you that I’ve pleaded for in vain.)”
Kent’s last letter to Kelly in this sequence is dated October 19, 1950. In the four-plus months between May 25th and October 19th, Jack Kent’s life was transformed. His trip to New York brought him to Post-Hall and also to the McClure Syndicate, where he left his samples for a strip about the ruler of Myopia, a strip he titled Gizmo XXX. Kent begins his October 19th letter with an apology, but an apology for good and exciting reasons:
“I should have written long before this to express my thanks for everything you did for me and to tell you how much I enjoyed meeting you and talking to you—I was holding off, however, until I knew something definite on my comic strip…It looks like I’ll have to go to work —The [McClure] syndicate informed me today that they’re picking up the option -.”
Kent tells Kelly that his comic has sold to the New York Mirror, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Bulletin, and Kansas City Star. “The mail promotion is about to start and the sales trip continues,” he says, adding, “The title was changed to ‘King Aroo’.” He tells Kelly his Sunday debut is only a month away, on November 19th of the year, with the dailies scheduled to begin six days earlier, on the 13th. If you check your copy of our King Aroo release, you’ll see the series debuted on schedule.
“Needless to say, I’m in something of a dither,” Kent reports before going on to say, “I want you to know I’m very, very grateful—I’m also inexpressably [sic] grateful to you for the opportunity you gave me to work in with Post-Hall—It’s my own fault that I didn’t make the most of those opportunities you engineered for me—I’ll never forget your kindness in bringing them my way—You’re a helluva swell guy —I sure am glad I got to meet you—I’m in hopes that we’ll see each other again from time to time.”
In his final paragraph, Kent extols the virtues of his arrangement with McClure. “I’m fast learning how to drag in even deep subtlety in such a way as to prevent anyone getting ‘hurt’—I’ve got exactly the sort of set-up I dreamed about -”
This exchange spans the period of time when Jack Kent went from cartoonist-wannabee to creator of the newly-minted King Aroo. Nowhere does it confirm the long-held, long-repeated belief that Kent was offered the opportunity to work as an assistant on Pogo – of course, it does not definitively refute that belief, either. Such an offer could have been made and rejected any time during the spring and summer of 1950,
Walt Kelly gets the final word in this correspondence, as contained in the Billy Ireland Library. His handwritten note to Kent dated December 29, 1950 says, “I saw the first Sun[day] page and enjoyed it immensely,” going on to advise, “You better start counting your money.”
King Aroo was never the cash cow Walt Kelly predicted, but it had a reasonably long and unfairly-neglected run. LOAC is doing its part to restore the King to his rightful place in the comic strip pantheon, and—with thanks to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum staff…and permission from Jack Kent Jr.—we hope you’re as fascinated as we are by this illuminating series of letters between two unique comics creators.