Walt Kelly's Computer-Commuter

Words and Pictures by Walt Kelly
Published in The Pogo Poop Book, 1966
The last piece I did was "Bugs Bunny and the Money Bunnies," from 1954. Now it's a dozen years later and Walt Kelly is trying his hand at much the same storyline. As an introduction he writes:
Being the partial and impartial history of Chester Pott,a humanlike computer,constructed by a fiendish, mad scientist who hoped to enslave his creation but was thwarted by Chester who in turn came to a sad end through falling heir to the ills of the fleshin the big city.
An old-fashioned frontispiece which is true, as far as it goes, but it rather misleads the audience. The story Kelly wants to tell is less creature-feature and more in the genre once popularized as, "Young Man on the Make."
Less Colin Clive, more Cash McCall, in other words.
Notice that Chester is called a computer rather than a robot, like Bugs' Money Bunnies. This is because in the years since 1954 computers became Big Business, as witness Univac and IBM. Also Kelly loved the assonance of "computer" and "commuter." Of course, he couldn't draw an IBM mainframe that took the 8:15 to the city, so he had to create the (self-)portable computer, a little ahead of schedule.
I also want to point out that this story is not in comic form, but heavily illustrated text: one to two pictures a page. In comic form this would probably be twice as long.
Chester's creator is Coleman the Calm, who is mad in the sense that he keeps hitting his thumb with the hammer while constructing Chester. Coleman is a solitary, balding man in his mid-to-late dotage. He doesn't like anybody and they don't like him. That's why he's building a humanlike computer, to take his place in the market.
Coleman is a much less sympathetic figure than Bugs, so we won't feel bad about his foretold failure.
Coleman builds Chester with a coffeepot for a head, an old cash register for a torso, two coffee-grinder-crank arms and a pair of roller skates for feet. Looks more like found sculpture than a working robot. But this is Kelly, so Chester will prove quite flexible in his movements.
Without bothering to test his creation, Coleman gives Chester detailed instructions on how to get to the market and what to do once he gets there. Then he sends him off on his way, a decision he'll regret later. Coleman was just so anxious to get out of the rat race that he left Chester to fend for himself. Kelly doesn't specify where "the market" is, but given that Coleman and now Chester are commuting from the town of Utter Bliss, New Jersey, it's pretty certain to be Manhattan.
"When Chester Pott returned home that evening," writes Kelly, "his little drawer that came out at about belly-button level was stuffed with money. 'There would have been more,' he explained to an astonished Coleman, 'but I got hungry on the way home in the train. Must have eaten a couple thousand dollars' worth.'"
Chester, it transpires, eats just about any kind of paper, not just money. He takes big round bites out of the dictionary, despite having no visible mouth. He also has a heck of a time "digesting" the data – he's prone to toss out odd snippets of info.
Coleman is upset, of course, that so much money is gone, but he has a different concern. The market pays in credits and other negotiable instruments: What's Chester doing with all this cash?
"A fellow in the Exchange saw me clean up a couple hundred thousand in credits, et cetera, and he met me outside," says Chester. "It was a pretty slim bundle of paper that I had, I tell you. He was very kind. Offered me $26,445 for the lot. A MUCH bigger bundle of paper."
At this Coleman the Calm keels over, pitching headfirst into the fireplace. Chester pulls him out, watches his hair smolder for a while and then finishes the rest of his dictionary.
Already we see how Coleman's outsmarted himself. By not accompanying Chester on his first trip to the Big City, he lost out on the lion's share of "his" earnings.
Also, unlike the Money Bunnies, Chester can actually think (and speak) for himself. But just like other sentient machines in pop culture – Red Tornado, The Vision, Data, Sprocket of "Halo and…" – Chester has a hard time figuring out human society. This will have further repercussions.
With Coleman out like a light, Chester is sort of at a loose end. "All he had seen of Utter Bliss, N.J., had been such parts as were visible by day. It's GOT to be better in the dark, thought Chester, and he skated out the door."
Comes now another staple of the "Young Man on the Make" story – The Girl. Chester sees a curvy figure in the fog and attempts conversation, but before any dialogue can ensue,  a wild beast starts to encroach.
Spurred into protective mode, Chester calls up words from the half-digested dictionary: "Avast, you mongolian blackleg! Begone, you pariah cur! To the hills with your sniveling mannerisms!" Then he attempts to kick the beast and falls on his clockwork keister. This actually manages to scare off the dog and earn the gratitude of the lady fair.
Who is a fireplug.
A girl fireplug, named Veronica. She has no arms but wears her toppiece like a crown; she looks like a little-person version of Venus De Milo dressed as the Red Queen from Alice.
Now if this were a CLAMP story, Chester would be falling for a human girl. But Kelly's mind doesn't run that way. In fact, Kelly seems to relish the idea of a cast of inorganic figures, forcing them into humanlike poses.
Kelly often takes advantage of these secondary stories to try new methods of storytelling. Also in "The Pogo Poop Book" is "Mouse into Elephant," which is done in gray wash. Although they were the draw, Kelly restricts the use of the Pogo cast to the first and last stories in the volume (although Pogo "hosts" the KKK story as well) and to several poem illustrations.
Unusually for comic strips, Pogo started out as a comic book. (Even more unusually, for the time, the rights reverted to the creator.) Kelly often drew on this experience, making cuts and additions to his compiled strips to aid the flow of the reading. (Compare his first compilation, "Pogo," to the same strips in Fantagraphics' first "complete" volume.) Kelly also created several books of original material, perhaps because Pogo didn't do much else in the way of merchandising. "The Pogo Poop Book," as far as I know, is the last volume of completely original material.
Now the dramatis personae is in place and the Computer-Commuter is about to reach terminus.
Chester's days are spent in the city and his nights with Veronica. Coleman the Calm subscribes to every newspaper in the country to keep Chester well-fed. He stuffs the cash Chester brings home behind the walls and in the attic. He avoids further discussion about how much money Chester actually makes; he couldn't bear to hear about the losses.
Chester's earnings are even more astonishing when you consider that he's outperforming electronic brains with a mechanical cash register. Clearly the word "computer" is a talisman to Kelly. Just as well he wasn't around for the Steve Jobs era…
The crisis begins when Veronica asks Chester what he actually does, and he describes it in general terms, keeping it vague yet relatable. Then she asks why doesn't he keep the money for himself. This is the first time such an idea had occurred to Chester, but before he can think it through Veronica overplays her hand and criticizes Chester's insatiable appetite for paper, saying he should cut down.
This gets Chester's mechanical dander up. "At least I move around! I don't sit in a little town in one place doing nothing." They part angrily.
The distraught Chester stays in the city the next night. He finishes off the contents of a trash can and gets tipsy. He finds himself in intimate conversation with a lady mailbox and feeds her the day's takings. Too late she reveals herself to be a government agent and promises to sic the IRS on him. In an accomplished five-shot, showing the animation skills Kelly got from his years at Disney, Chester staggers to the train station and home.
"So," says Coleman. "Look at the condition you're in. I can guess what happened. Just for that, your supper goes in the fire."
Over Chester's pleas Coleman throws all the direct mail, catalogues and comic books into the fireplace. He follows up with the evening papers, but that causes a flare-up and the house catches on fire. (The house, don't forget, with Chester's cash earnings as insulation.)
Leaving Coleman to claw at the walls, Chester rushes off to save Veronica. Unfortunately she is surrounded by men in funny hats and raincoats who are doing strange things to her. (This is why your mother told you not to hang around street corners.)
Despite the firefighters' efforts Coleman's place burns down. He escapes with a few smoky thousands, buys lifetime residence in a dog kennel and learns to eat gravel.
Chester accuses Veronica of fooling around, she counters that he's fallen heir to the ills of the flesh in the big city. Trying to recall the line from Verdi meaning that women are fickle, Chester ripostes with, "Funiculi, Funicula!" To which she counters, "The same to you with lumps!"
Now Chester is free – no entanglements with either Veronica or Coleman. He could forge his own destiny, actually take advantage of his agency.
So what does he do?
He crawls to the Utter Bliss train station and collapses in a heap of component parts.
Passers-by ask the stationmaster how do you start a machine like that, and he answers, "It ain't how it starts, it's how things like this wind up."
Or, even a mechanical brain can lose heart.