2017-04-11 15:53:51 UTC
Carolyn Kelly, R.I.P.
Published Monday, April 10, 2017 at 6:43 AM.
truly lovely person left us last night around 10 PM. Carolyn Kelly was, as many of you know, the daughter of the great cartoonist Walt Kelly, creator of the newspaper strip, Pogo. She was also a cartoonist in her own right and some years after his death when the strip was revived for a time, she briefly drew her father's greatest creation. I occasionally said that she was his greatest co-creation but she thought that was excessive and asked me to stop saying it.
Though she dabbled in other cartooning and in animation, most of her artistic endeavors were in the area of book design. In 2011, she united those skills with a passionate desire to see her father's work properly preserved and made available. That was when she began working on the award-winning series from Fantagraphics Books that is reprinting that glorious feature.
She not only co-edited and designed the books and painted the covers but with a devotion that transcended mere editorial conscientiousness, supervised and sometimes personally did the necessary restoration work. On many of the older strips, only imperfect source material was available so precision surgery had to be done if these books were going to be done right. Carolyn did her part of it right using one of my computers and my drawing table. She often put long, long hours into just one daily strip to get it the way her dad had originally drawn it.
That devotion was one of the reasons the books have not come out as scheduled. So was the difficulty finding good-enough source material. And yet another was medical: Her original co-editor, Kim Thompson, died of cancer in 2013. By a cruel coincidence, Carolyn was dealing with her own cancer problem at the time.
Carolyn would have wanted everyone to know that Gary Groth, Eric Reynolds and the other folks at Fantagraphics have been sympathetic, understanding and heroic in taking the blame for a tardiness that was not of their making. Volume Four will be out later this year and the rest will follow on schedule. She very much wanted the series to be completed, thereby restoring and preserving her father's magnum opus for all time and I promised her that will happen. The books won't be the same without her but her overall design will endure and fortunately, we have reached the period chronologically in the strip for which there is source material that needs much less restoration.
For a long time, Carolyn believed she was winning her battle against breast cancer. This was before it became other kinds of cancer in other body parts. The first diagnosis, after all, was more than twelve years ago and she was still with us…sort of. In the three years preceding last April, she was largely confined to her apartment for weeks at a time, rarely leaving for any non-essential reason.
Last April though, the pains and tumors reached a stage that necessitated her hospitalization. She was there for a month and then we moved her to a Skilled Nursing Facility, then on to Assisted Living. It was so very sad and though everything credible was tried — as well as a few incredible things — there didn't seem to be any way to stop the spread of the disease. The last few weeks in hospice have been particularly ghastly.
Many of you are aware of the reason I witnessed Carolyn's struggle, up close and personal. For around twenty years with occasional intervals off, Carolyn was the woman in my life. I met her at a Comic-Con International in San Diego. She first attended one year when asked to accept the Hall of Fame Award for her father. She returned the following year to see her dear friend Maggie Thompson, and to intensify a quest to find out whatever she didn't know about her father. Because Walt was married three times — Carolyn was born of the first marriage — she missed some sections of his life.
Not that father and daughter weren't close at times. My favorite of all the many internet arguments in which I've been engaged was years ago on a newsgroup about cartoonists. A gent there insisted that Walt Kelly often used flexible-tip pen points on the Pogo strip in the mid-fifties. After checking with Carolyn, I politely informed him on that public forum that he was in error; that Kelly had done all that with a brush. He posted back indignantly, "My source says he used a pen." I replied, "My source was sitting on his lap when he inked."
Now and then, she really was. Later, after Walt moved out and divorced her mother, there were periods when he gave Carolyn art lessons, let her stay in his New York apartment and — always — encouraged her in her career. Still later, as he was dying out here in California, Carolyn — who then lived in New York — traveled west and slept on the floor of his hospital room for weeks, working with Kelly's third wife Selby to care for this man they both loved dearly.
That was in 1973 but still, around a quarter-century later and after she moved to Los Angeles, Carolyn was trying to learn whatever more there was to learn about him. At one point, Maggie said to her, "You ought to get to know Mark Evanier. He may be able to help you."
That's how I met her in 1996 and it was not, as they say, love at first sight. Not long enough before, another "woman in my life" had died — this one most unexpectedly and at a much younger age. I really didn't want to get too involved with anyone else just then, if ever…but Carolyn was lovely and funny and charming and very bright and not the kind of lady with whom one could have a casual, short-term relationship.
So we were friends, just friends for a time. Then in 1997, I was hired as the story editor of an animated TV series called Channel Umptee-3 and Carolyn called and asked if I could get her a tryout to work on the show as an artist. I did and she was hired — by someone who didn't even know I'd arranged her audition. (Look fast and you can spot her screen credit in this video of the show's opening and closing.)
That somehow led to actual dating and…well, you know how these things go. If you believe in omens, you may like this one: The first night Carolyn spent at my house, I awoke in the middle of the night, slipped downstairs without waking her and went to the kitchen for some much-needed juice. As I sipped, I glanced out at the patio where I put out dishes of cat food for the feral felines in the neighborhood. There, feasting on Friskies, was a live possum.
It wasn't wearing a striped shirt like Pogo does but it was a live possum, the first one I'd ever seen out there. I stood there and actually thought, "Boy, I'm lucky I'm not dating the woman whose father drew Alley Oop."
I wish I could say it was a perfect union but there were fights and separations, mostly about things that now seem frivolous and silly. I guess they always do after you lose someone you love. The last few years, the quarrels were mostly about matters of medicine and sometimes about trying to get the Pogo books to press. In recent months, it's been all about the cancer and it's been painful in all the ways that pain can affect us.
She was one of the most compassionate people I've ever encountered; the kind who never met a person in need — even total strangers — without wanting to help them in some way. In fact, one of the things we argued over at times was my feeling that she was putting way too many other people, including me, ahead of her own needs.
Carolyn had many, many talents to accompany all that niceness. In addition to cartooning and book design, she would crochet magnificent scarves and hats.
Also, she he was a superb cook and it was never a matter of slavishly following someone's recipe, not even her own. She would invent on the fly, adding in some of this and a lot of that along with a pinch of something or other, all selected and measured on sheer instinct. That meant the final product was always surprising and when I said, "Hey, this is great. Can you make it again?" her usual answer was that she wasn't sure what she'd done but would try. The next time, it would not be the same but it would usually be even better.
There was an innocence of spirit within her and a fascination with every single thing around her. I am the kind of person who goes somewhere to get there. She was the kind who stops to look at everything along the way, say hello to every passing cat or dog and smell every flower.
She also had the greatest smile I've ever seen on a human being. It was organic and real with nothing lurking behind it but sheer delight.
It was truly a smile you could trust and it was on a person who even if she'd lived to 110 would have been dying way too soon. Maybe there's someone reading this who could resist falling in love with a person like that but I sure couldn't.
I'm going to miss everything about her, even the things that occasionally drove us apart…and what I think what I'll miss most of all is that smile. It was a great smile, a superb smile, the kind of smile that could make you want to spend the rest of your days close by, doing things that would make it appear. Whenever it did, it cheered you greatly because it was — like the person it adorned — absolutely wonderful. And come to think of it, I could really use one of those right about now.
Published Tuesday, April 11, 2017 at 8:06 AM.
I thank you all for hundreds (I haven't counted — might be thousands) of condolence notes and let me make the following clear: I am fine. Honest. The loss of Carolyn was a long, wrenching, maddeningly-inevitable process and I did most of my mourning and crying in increments along the way.
I was sad when she could no longer walk. I was even sadder when she could barely talk. Well before Sunday night when she finally stopped breathing, I had lost my Carolyn. She was alive the last few days only on a technicality. I'm sure everyone who's "been there/done that" will understand how one of the many emotions that accompanied her official passing was a sense of relief — for myself as well as for her. The last week or two redoubled or maybe retripled my hope that by the time my death is looming, there'll be a legal, mature process via which I can elect to opt out of the final, painful months.
It may be different for you but I cope with tragedy by hurrying to normalize my life. My view is that when you lose a loved one, it is not necessary to grieve and mourn and be in pain for a long period of time. I have seen people do this because, it seemed to me, they thought that was expected of them; that it was somehow disrespectful of the deceased not to visibly suffer for their absence. I tell people who lose mates or parents or close friends, "You don't have to do that. You don't have to sick yourself up and damage your own life to prove you loved them."
You can if you want to but you don't have to. When I go, I hope all my friends and loved ones really, really miss me for about an hour and then go on with their lives. The last thing I'd want to do is harm those lives. If there's any sort of memorial service for me, I may leave a letter for someone to read aloud. It would essentially say, "Get over me." (Note: That is not the same as "Forget me.")
Carolyn was just so splendid in mind and spirit. Experiences we shared and feelings I felt will be with me forever, no matter who may henceforth blunder into my silly ongoing existence. I came to this way of looking at life — or the lack, thereof — when that previous lady friend died on me. I also learned not to think of her death — which in that case was jarringly unexpected — as something she'd done to me. I know someone who is still angry at their mate for getting killed in a car crash and that is truly a self-destructive way to view something like that.
Life goes on, except when it doesn't. I appreciate all the advice in those e-mails and Facebook messages but I am fine. Just as Carolyn would have wanted me to be.
People have written to ask if they can make a donation somewhere in her name. Sure. Of course. I support two charities and Carolyn liked both of them. One is The Stray Cat Alliance, which deals with the epidemic of feral felines. The other is Operation U.S.A., which does a lot of the same things, only for human beings. These two efforts are always grateful for any legal tender you can send their way and they put it to very, very good use. Carolyn was very big on the concept of helping others, as are they.
I have much to do in the next week or two but I will be normalizing activity on this blog, a.s.a.p. Thank you all for putting up with my absence, and for the many nice notes.