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Pup Dog SpeaksWednesday, in the wake of the terrorist massacre at France’s Charlie Hebdo, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show said that comedy “shouldn’t be an act of courage.

I’m not so sure he’s right. Comedy, it seems to me, often is, and more so than we might think.

A week before Wednesday’s murders, in an example of pure coincidence, I found myself pondering this very idea while reading one of the books I received. I was reading Through the Wild Blue Wonder, Volume I of the complete collection of Walt Kelly’s classic, brilliant comic strip, Pogo, which ran in daily and Sunday form for a quarter century during my youth.

Originally, I was simply going to review the book and wax nostalgic about what is without doubt my favorite comic of all time, but after the senseless stupidity that played out this week (and is still playing out) in Paris, my feelings about the book have a deeper resonance that I can’t ignore.

The truth is, comedy often is an act of courage, especially when satire and lampooning are employed.

Pogo began as a cute comic about anthropomorphic animals living in the Okefenokee Swamp of the American South. Quite soon, however, Walt Kelly–who drew and scripted Pogo from 1948 until his death in 1973–began to introduce caricatures of real life personalities to the swamp’s denizens. As early as 1949, Kelly began to lampoon publishing magnates and political figures in the panels of Pogo, drawing fire from such iconic personages as publisher William Randolph Hearst. In this way, Kelly’s lovable, innocent, brown-eyed Pogo ‘Possum faced down social and political foes, from Castro to Khrushchev to JFK to LBJ to the John Birch Society.

Kelly may never have feared for his actual life in busting those powerful chops, but he did experience backlash. As a syndicated cartoonist, he felt the pinch financially when newspapers, in retribution for some of the strip’s more pointed social commentary, dropped Pogo from their pages. Also, it cannot be denied that in creating his wildcat, Simple J. Malarkey, an obvious caricature of the paranoid Communist-hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy, Kelly was poking the Big Bear, an act that could easily have gotten him blacklisted entirely.

Through satire, Kelly pointed out our foibles and challenged our fears. In reading Pogo, we grew braver and wiser, and could see more clearly the daily idiocy we so often ignore.

Kelly was not alone in his work, and is not alone. There is a direct line from Pogo that reaches back to the political pamphleteers of Elizabethan England and Revolutionary France. Likewise, there is a direct line that stretches from Pogo forward to The Onion, SNL, and yes, to Charlie Hebdo.

And so, I think Jon Stewart got it wrong. Comedy is commentary, comedy is brave, and in that, comedy is an act of courage, because in the end, one of the bravest things we can ever do is laugh at ourselves.

To the murdered tigers of Charlie Hebdo: Nous ne vous oublierons pas.

k

Kanji character Raku: happiness, music, joy.

Kanji character Raku: happiness, music, joy.

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