The Great Anti-War Cartoons

Edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-150-3

You’ll hear a lot about the pen being mightier than the sword regarding this book, but sadly it’s just not true. Nothing stops determined governments, outraged religions and greedy rich bastards from sending the young and idealistic to their mass-produced deaths, especially those innocents who have any modicum of patriotism or sense of adventure.

Our own current situation proves that mankind is always far too ready to take up arms, and far too resistant to giving peace a chance, especially when a well-oiled publicity machine and mass unemployment gang up on the man and woman in the street. We’re all susceptible to the power of a marching beat played on fife and drum…

At least here among these 220 plus cartoons we see that rationalism or conscientious objectivity or pacifism or even self-interested isolationism are as versed in seductive arts as the power and passion of jingoism and war-fever.

All art, but most especially cartooning, has the power to bore deep into the soul, just as James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic Uncle Sam poster “Your Country Needs You” so effectively did to millions of young Americans during the Great War. How satisfying then to see his is the very first anti-war cartoon in this incredible collection of images focusing on the impassioned pleas of creators trying to avoid or at least reduce bloodshed.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons gathers a multitude of incredibly moving, thought-provoking, terrifying, but, I’m gutted to say, ultimately ineffective warnings, scoldings and pleas that may have moved millions of people, but never stopped or even gave pause to one single conflict.

The editors have divided these unforgettable pictures into a broad variety of categories and I should make it clear that not all the reasons for their creation were necessarily pacifistic: some of the most evocative drawings here are from creators who didn’t think War is Bad per se, but rather felt that the clash in question was none of their homeland’s business.

However with such chapters as Planet War, Man’s Inhumanity to Man, The Gods of War, Profiteers, Recruitment and Conscription, The Brass, The Grunts, Weapons of War, The Battle Rages On, The Long March, Famine, The Anthems of War, The Horrors of War, The Suffering, The Families and Children of War, The Aftermath, Victory Celebration, Medals, Disarmament, Resistance and Peace we see immensely talented people of varying beliefs respond on their own unique terms to organised slaughter, and for every tut-tut of the stay-at-homers there are a dozen from genuinely desperate and appalled artists who just want the horror to end.

With incisive examinations of shared symbology and recurring themes these black and white penmen have used their brains and talents in their strivings to win their point (there is also a fascinating section highlighting the impact and energy of the Colors of War) but the most intriguing aspect of this superb collection is the sheer renown and worth of the contributors. Among the 119 artists include (120 if you count Syd Hoff and his nom-de-plume “Redfield” as two separate artists) are Sir John Tenniel, Caran d’Ache, Bruce Bairnsfather, Herbert Block, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Ron Cobb, “Ding” Darling, Billy DeBeck, Jerry Robinson, Albrecht Dürer, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Rube Goldberg, Honore Daumier, Goya, George Grosz, Bill Mauldin, Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, Thomas Nast and most especially the incredibly driven Winsor McCay, (I’ve scandalously assumed that many of the older European draughtsmen won’t be that well known, despite their works being some of the most harrowing) and their efforts, although perhaps wasted on people willing to listen to reason anyway, are cruel and beautiful enough to make old cynics like me believe that this time, this time, somebody in power will actually do something to stop the madness.

A harsh and lovely book: buy it in the hope that one day Peace will be the Final Solution.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons and the digitally remastered public domain material are © 2009 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All rights reserved.

Thunderbolts: Justice, Like Lightning…

By Kurt Busiek, Peter David, Mark Bagley & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-0817-7

At the end of  1996 the “Onslaught” publishing event removed the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man and Avengers from the Marvel Universe, unwisely (hindsight being a magical thing) handing over creative control to Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee for a year. For the early part of that period the “Image style” books got all the attention, but a new title created to fill the gap in the “real” universe proved to be the real star of the period.

Thunderbolts was initially promoted as a replacement team book; untried champions pitching in because the superhero big guns were dead and gone. Chronologically the team debuted in Incredible Hulk # 449, by Peter David, Mike Deodato Jr. & Tom Wegrzyn, in a fairly standard game of “heroes-stomp-monster”, but the seemingly mediocre tale is perhaps excusable in retrospect…

This volume gathers all the early appearances of the neophyte team: the Hulk tale, Thunderbolts #1-4 and their 1997 Annual, a Tales of the Marvel Universe one-shot, and Spider-Man Team-Up Featuring… #7, and although the stories are still immensely readable a book simply can’t recapture the furore the series caused in its early periodical days, because Thunderbolts was a high concept series with a big twist: one which impossibly for comics, didn’t get spilled before the “big reveal.”

The action here starts with issue #1 as Busiek, Bagley & Vince Russell introduce a new team who begin to clear the devastated, post-Onslaught streets of New York of resurgent super-villains and thugs who are making the most of the established heroes’ apparent demise. They consist of the Captain America clone Citizen V, size-shifting Atlas, super- armoured Mach-1, ray-throwing amazon Meteorite, sonic siren Songbird and human weapon Techno, and the terrified citizenry instantly take them to their hearts. But these heroes share a huge secret…

They’re all super-villains in disguise and Citizen V has major long-term plans…

When unsuspecting readers got to the end of that first story the reaction was instantaneous shock and jubilation.

The aforementioned Hulk tale incongruously appears next, followed by the Tales of the Marvel Universe tale ‘The Dawn of a New Age of Heroes!’ as the group continue to do good deeds for bad reasons, and #2 ‘Deceiving Appearances’ finds them winning more hearts and minds by defeating the Mad Thinker at a memorial service for the Fantastic Four and Avengers.

Spider-Man Team-Up Featuring… #7 ‘Old Scores’ by Busiek, Sal Buscema & Dick Giordano sees them even fool the spider-senses of everybody’s favourite wall-crawler as they take down the super-scientific Enclave, whilst Thunderbolts #3 finds them facing ‘Too Many Masters’ whilst dissension begins to creep in as the team round up more old allies and potential rivals such as Klaw, Flying Tiger, Man-Killer, Tiger-Shark and other assorted Masters of Evil. ‘A Shock to the System’ in #4 has them invading Dr. Doom’s castle to aid utterly oblivious innocent and potential new recruit Jolt; finding and fighting the monstrous creations of rogue geneticist Arnim Zola along the way.

Thunderbolts Annual 1997 concludes this collection; a massive revelatory jam session written by Busiek with art from Mark Bagley, Bob McLeod, Tom Grummett, Ron Randall, Gene Colan, Darick Robertson, George Pérez, Chris Marrinan, Al Milgrom, Will Blyberg, Scott Koblish, Jim Sanders, Tom Palmer, Bruce Patterson, Karl Kesel and Andrew Pepoy, which could only be called ‘The Origin of the Thunderbolts!’

This is a solid superhero romp that managed to briefly revitalise a lot of jaded old fan-boys, but more importantly it is a strong set of tales that still pushes all the buttons it’s meant to more than a decade after all the hoopla has faded. Well worth a moment of your time and a bit of your hard-earned cash.

© 1996, 1997, 2001 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Troublemakers

By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-922-7

There’s fiction, there’s Meta-fiction and then there is Gilbert Hernandez. In addition to being part of the graphic and literary revolution that is Love and Rockets (where his incredibly insightful tales of Palomar and the later stories of those characters collected in Luba gained such critical acclaim) he has produced stand-alone tales such as Sloth, Grip, Birdland and Girl Crazy, all marked by his bold, instinctive, compellingly simplified artwork and a mature, sensitive adoption of the literary techniques of Magical Realist writers such as Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez: techniques which he has added to and made his own.

Now he has acknowledged such influences as Roger Corman, John Cassavetes, Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson as he continues to break new ground and reprocess the cultural influences that shaped all us baby-boomers. In Luba we also glimpsed the troubled life of her half-sister Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez: a brilliant, troubled woman, lisping psychotherapist, sex-worker, belly-dancer and “B-movie” starlet of such faux screen gems as Three Mystic Eyes, Blood is the Drug and Love From the Shadows. Fritzi has unfeasibly large breasts.

In 2007 Hernandez “adapted” one of those trashy movies as the graphic novel Chance in Hell – although Fritzi only had a bit part in it – but here he places her fully at centre stage in an incredible crime-caper of cross and double-cross that works astoundingly well as a gritty, grimy hard-boiled pulp fiction thriller.

Generation X waster Wes has a dream of singing in his own rock club. His dirt-bag drug peddler pal Dewey Booth has $200 grand and isn’t stupid enough to share it. Nala was a stage magician before she took to hooking and she knows her incredible body won’t last forever.

They’re all doing a cautious dance with Dewey’s cash as the prize when hard-as-nails grifter Vincene shows up and the plot starts to boil over. Wes knows Vincene from long ago: she once kidnapped Nala and stole her car and stage act and Dewey isn’t nearly as dumb as everybody thinks he is…

This explosive mix won’t end well and the big question is: after all the bodies and collateral damage is sorted out who’s going to get the dough and who’s going to get bodybags?

Raw, gripping and thoroughly engaging, this perfect pastiche of the genre still has Hernandez’s signature brash sexuality, clever dialogue and sly elements of rock and roll surrealism to elevate it above the vast body of such fiction, and straight crime fans will enjoy this as much as any Palomar devotee. Every adult who loves the Big Thrill should snap this up immediately…

© 2009 Gilbert Hernandez. All rights reserved.

Sublife volume 2

By John Pham (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN-13: 978-1-60699-309-5

After what feels like far too long, self-publishing wizard/minicomic genius John Pham and Fantagraphics Books have released the second volume of the twice-yearly series dedicated to the sheer expressive joy of pictorial storytelling in this modern, wonder-deprived world, and I must say (grudgingly) that it has been worth the wait.

This offering, once more crafted in an immaculately designed landscape-format tome, printed in quirky two-tone (orange and blue combined to produce a huge variety of colours welcomingly familiar to anybody who grew up reading British comics) features another series of seemingly unconnected tales linked more by sensibility and tone rather than content.

After a faux newspaper strip ‘Mort’ which examines the passions of a failed blogger, the main experience begins with a continuation of ‘Deep Space’ wherein extraordinarily pedestrian star-farers strive to find their way home: a beautifully rendered piece which reminds me of a wistful Philippe Druillet, before resuming the author’s exploration of the frankly peculiar residents of ‘221 Sycamore St.’ This time runaway teen Phineas sees a disturbing side to his cool uncles when they all go dog-training…

This leads into the anti-elegiac autobiographical memoir ‘St. Ambrose 1984-1988’ before the majority of the volume is taken up with ‘The Kid’, a practically wordless post-apocalyptic Science Fiction tale of scavenging and the price of love that is deeply reminiscent of – and respectful to – the movie Mad Max, with just a touch of A Boy and his Dog thrown in, all drawn in a pencil-toned style that is both deeply poignant and powerfully gripping.

The volume closes with the nostalgic one-pager ‘Socko Sarkissian’ a fond memoriam to baseball’s greatest fictional Armenian batsman.

Seductive, quietly compulsive, authentically plebeian and surreal by turns, John Pham’s work is abstract, symbol-stuffed and penetratingly real. He tells strange stories in comfortable ways and makes the bizarre commonplace without ever descending to histrionics: like a cosmic witness to everything you might or might not want to see.

If you’re tired of the comics mainstream but still love it too much to quit, you need to see these stories and refresh your visual palate. In fact, even if not, check out Sublife anyway, in case it’s your horizons not your tastes which need the attention…

© 2009 John Pham. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Chronicles volume 7

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Leo Nowak, John Sikela (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-338-4

Due to the exigencies of periodical publishing, although the terrific tales collected in this seventh chronological recollection take the Man of Steel to December 1941, they were all prepared well in advance of Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbour.  Even though spies and sabotage plots were already a trusty part of the narrative currency of the times and many in America felt war was inevitable (patriotic covers were beginning to appear on many comic books), they were still a distant problem, impersonal and at one remove from daily life as experienced by the kids who were the perceived audience for these four-colour fantasies. That would change radically in the months to come…

For the meantime then here to enjoy are some of the last pre-war stories of the Man of Tomorrow taken from Action Comics #41-43, the bi-monthly Superman #12-13 and a tale from the quarterly World’s Finest Comics #4. Once again all the stories were scripted by Siegel, and as most stories of the time they were untitled these have been named post-hoc simply to provide differentiation and make my task simpler … As always every comic appearance is preceded by the original cover illustration, all from the increasingly inspired Fred Ray.

Leo Nowak was drawing most of the comic output at this time and is responsible for the lion’s share of these adventures, beginning with the first two from Superman #12 (September-October 1941). ‘Peril on Pogo Island’ found Lois and Clark at the mercy of rampaging tribesmen, although spies from a certain foreign power are at the back of it all, whilst ‘The Suicide Murders’ saw them facing a particularly grisly band of gangsters. John Sikela inked ‘The Grotak Bund’ wherein seditionists attempted to destroy vital US industries, and fully illustrated the final tale as an old foe reared his shiny head once more in ‘The Beasts of Luthor’, accompanied by a spectacular array of giant monsters.

Action Comics #41 (October 1941) ‘The Saboteur’, told a terse tale of a traitor motivated by greed rather than ideology, and ‘City in the Stratosphere’ (Action #42) revealed that a trouble-free paradise floating above Metropolis had been subverted by an old enemy, were both illustrated by Sikela, as Nowak laboured on the contents of Superman #13 (November-December 1941).

This issue led with ‘The Light’ and featured an old foe in a new super-scientific guise whilst ‘The Archer’ pitted the Man of Steel against his first true costumed villain. ‘Baby on the Doorstep’ took a rare opportunity for fun and the feel-good factor as Clark Kent became a temporary parent in a tale of stolen battle plans before ‘The City Beneath the Earth’ (by Sikela) returned to the serious business of action and spectacle when our hero discovered a subterranean kingdom lost since the Ice Age.

World’s Finest Comics #4 (Winter 1941) ‘The Case of the Crime Crusade’ was another socially relevant racketeering tale and the final story in this volume ‘The Crashing Planes’, from Action #43 (which actually has Superman attacking Nazi paratroopers on the cover) had the Man of Tomorrow smashing a plot to destroy a commercial airline.

Even though war was undeclared DC and many other publishers had struck their colours well before December 7th. When The Japanese attack filtered through to the gaudy pages the patriotic indignation and desire for retribution would generate some of the very best art and stories the budding art-form would ever see.

Stay tuned…

© 1941, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 4: Plunder Island

By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-169-5

There is more than one Popeye. If your first thought when you hear the name is the cheerful, indomitable sailor in full Naval whites always fighting a hulking great beardy-bloke and mainlining tinned spinach, that’s okay: The Fleischer Studios and Famous Films animated features have a brilliance and energy of their own (even the later, watered-down anodyne TV versions have some merit) and they are indeed based on the grizzled, crusty, foul-mouthed, bulletproof, golden-hearted old swab who shambled his way into the newspaper strip Thimble Theatre and simple wouldn’t leave. But they are really only the tip of an incredible iceberg of satire, slapstick, virtue, vice and mind-boggling adventure.

In the less than ten years Elzie Crisler Segar worked with Popeye, (from 17th January 19 1929, until the creator’s untimely death on 13th October 1938) he built an incredible meta-world of fabulous lands and locations, where unique characters undertook fantastic voyages and experienced big thrills as well as the small human dramas we’re all subject to: a saga both extraordinary and mundane, which could be hilarious or terrifying and was often both at the same time. For every trip to the rip-roaring Wild West or sunken kingdom there was a brawl between squabbling neighbours, spats between friends or disagreements between sweethearts – any and all usually settled with mightily swung fists.

Popeye is the first Superman of comics, but he was not a comfortable hero to idolise. A brute who thought with his fists and didn’t respect authority; uneducated, short-tempered, fickle (when hot tomatoes batted their eyelashes – or thereabouts – at him), a gambler and troublemaker, he wasn’t welcome in polite society…and he wouldn’t want to be. The sailor-man is the ultimate working class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, with an innate and unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not, a joker who wants kids to be themselves but not necessarily “good” and a man who takes no guff from anyone; always ready to defend the weak and with absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows. He was and will always be “the best of us”…

With this fourth magnificent hardcover collection of Segar’s comic masterpiece the Sunday Colour pages take precedence as for the first time ever his magnum opus ‘Plunder Island’ is reprinted in its full, unexpurgated totality. The selection here covers the period December 3rd 1933 to April 7th 1935, and the epitome of stirring sea-sagas takes up the first six months of that time (ending with the July15th 1934 installment). It all kicks off when Popeye’s old shipmate Salty Bill Barnacle invites him to go adventuring in search of fabled Plunder Island, land of stolen treasure, little suspecting that the ghastly Sea Hag has returned. With her new gang of deadly henchmen, including brutal Mister Skom and the monstrous Goon she kidnaps Professor Cringly – the aged scholar who knows the lost island’s location, and Popeye’s latest voyage is seemingly over before it has begun….

Gathering a bunch of decidedly dubious Argonauts, including Wimpy, Rough-house, Geezil, and private cop G.B. Gritmore, Olive, Salty Bill and Popeye swiftly gave chase, but all seems hopeless until the Witch of the Seas makes her big mistake. She sends the Goon to take hostages, and when the beast returns with the indomitable Popeye and an inexplicably irresistible Wimpy, the latter’s heretofore unsuspected attractions promptly turns the gruesome heads of both the Hag and her Goon (who is apparently a rather decent – if homely – lady named Alice…)

Roller-Coaster adventure and riotous comedy have never been better blended than in this tale, but even when the victorious crew finally returned home the fun didn’t stop. Next we see the bitter aftermath and how the various heroes dispose of or lose the fabulous wealth they’ve won. Wimpy, for example, simply and rapidly eats his way through most of his, whilst Popeye once again gives his away, prompting his return to the world of extreme prize-fighting…

Baby Swee’pea made his Sunday debut on 28th October 1934 (after being introduced in a riotous sequence in the daily strip: see E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 3: “Let’s You and Him Fight”), becoming the focus of many outrageous gags once Popeye, Wimpy and Olive Oyl returned to their slapstick shtick, allowing the audience to decompress before the next big story…

The Sappo topper strip became even more imaginative in this period with Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle’s mad science exploits leading to ever crazier results and the regular breaking of the “fourth wall”. For the unprepared this was a strip that could regularly make your brain as well as your sides split…

The added extra feature ‘Funny Films’ (dioramic scenes through which continuous strips of cartooned “filmstrips” could be moved to create a home cinema) eventually gave way to the fascinatingly informative and entertaining ‘Popeye’s Cartoon Club’ which provided tips and encouragement to budding artists – and Segar’s approach and advice is as sound today as it ever was…

Just because he was setting the world alight with his innovative Sunday adventure serials and complete gag strips is no reason to suppose his daily feature suffered. In fact the breakneck pace seemed to inspire Segar, as in short order Popeye and his ever-expanding cast of clowns and reprobates rollicked through a memorable run of captivating tales.

The black and white dailies section here covers 11th December 1933 to 24th July 1934, and begins with the sailor-man moving to Puddleburg ‘The Laziest Town on Earth’ to run their local newspaper, accompanied by Swee’pea, Olive and Wimpy; giving the self-deprecating and wickedly trenchant Segar an opportunity to lampoon himself and his profession with the creation of B. Loony Bullony: World Famous Cartoonist…

When Olive inherits twenty million dollars, her marital prospects increase dramatically, but since one of the most ardent converts to her previously well-hidden charms is Mr. J. Wellington Wimpy, she soon realises that money isn’t everything in ‘Romances and Riches’ – especially after Popeye rescues debutante June Vanripple from drowning and becomes the unwilling toast of the “Sassiety Crowd”

This extended morality play on the evils and travails of wealth contains some of the funniest screwball comedy set-pieces of the entire 1930s (books, movies, strips, everything!) with such memorable moments as Popeye in drag (particularly a rather fetching ladies’ swimsuit), the elder Vanripple and the sailor in a wild-oat sowing contest and Olive as a singing, dancing movie star – complete with fake million dollar legs…

Another classic and beloved sequence is ‘Unifruit or White Savages’ where the shock of losing her loot sends Olive into the convulsive shock syndrome of Aspenitis and the cure is a therapeutic berry that only grows on the wacky island of Nazilia, deep in the territory of a lost tribe of hulking man-beasts…

The frantic antics and comedy continue when June and Mr. Vanripple ask Popeye to go west and crush the cowboy bandits plundering their gold mines in ‘Black Valley’ (and if you think drag is outrageous, check out Popeye in a tutu as a saloon dance-girl).

Fair warning though: this was an era where casual racial stereotyping was considered completely acceptable and a key part of cartooning. Segar sinned far less than most: his style was far more character-specific, and his personal delight was playing with accents and how folk spoke. George W. Geezil wasn’t merely a cheap Jewish stock figure of fun, but as fully rounded as any one of nearly fifty supporting cast members could be within the constrictions of page and panel count.

In ‘Black Valley’ Castor Oyl has a Negro manservant called Eclipse, who, although superficially little different in speech pattern and appearance from less-enlightened cartoonists’ portrayal of coloured people, played an active – if brief – role in proceedings. He wasn’t there for cheap easy laughs, but even so its clear Segar wasn’t comfortable with him and he wasn’t a permanent addition. He may be quite disquieting to you and I, but please try and recall the tone of the times and – even though there’s still a whole lot of prejudice still to be dealt with today – just how far we’ve come…

The old salt’s greatest “emeny” returned in another bombastic fantasy romp entitled ‘The Sea Hag’s Sister or The Pool of Youth’, wherein the vile villainess, her scurvy band of cutthroats and Alice the Goon tried to wrest control of a literal fountain of youth from her own sister and a 20, 000 year-old caveman, Toar. Unfortunately Popeye, Castor, Olive and Wimpy found themselves caught in the crossfire…

One less than wonderful “treat” can be experienced at the end of this volume: one that tormented the kids of all ages addicted to Popeye eighty years ago. ‘Popeye’s Ark’ was another spectacular six-month long adventure, wherein the sailorman decided to emulate the Biblical mariner who built “Nora’s Ark” and sail the seas in a giant vessel filled with beasts until he found the promised land of “Spinachova”. Sadly we all get to “enjoy” cliffhanging tension until the next installment as this sequence ends 12 weeks into the saga. Oh, the unrelenting tension of it all…

There is more than one Popeye: most of them are pretty good and some are truly excellent. Elzie Crisler Segar’s comic strip masterpiece features the very best of them all and you’d be crazy to deny it… or miss him.

© 2008 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2008 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 3: “Let’s You and Him Fight!”

By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-962-3

There are relatively few comic characters that have entered world consciousness, but a grizzled, bluff, uneducated, visually impaired old sailor with a speech-impediment is possibly the most well known of that select bunch. Elzie Crisler Segar had been producing the Thimble Theatre daily newspaper strip since December 19th, 1919, but when he introduced a coarse, brusque “sailor man” into the ever-unfolding adventures of Castor Oyl and Ham Gravy on January 17th 1929 nobody suspected the heights that walk-on would reach.

This third magnificent collection of Segar’s immortal – certainly unkillable – clay-footed reprobate reproduces one spectacular groundbreaking epic after another as the artist, in a whirlwind of creative inspiration, took the daily strip to new heights of cliffhanging thrills and absurdity, whilst building unique and jovial character studies with the more humorous Sunday pages, generally set in the generic small seaside town of Sweethaven.

Following another erudite essay by Comics historian Donald Phelps the daily delights (stretching from June 9th 1932 to December 9th 1933) begin with a rip-snorting mystery thriller full of action, tension, scares and laughs featuring a large portion of Thimble Theatre’s extensive cast. ‘The Eighth Sea’ finds Popeye, Castor, Olive, King Blozo of Nazilia and his idiot retainer Oscar all following the instructions of Oolong the Chinese Parrot to recover a fabulous lost treasure, aided by the incredible Merlock Jones, quick-change detective. This sinister sea saga was the one-and-only Segar tale to feature Popeye’s ultimate nemesis (in the animated cartoons at least) Bluto.

With breakneck pace – Segar never rested on his laurels or his plots – that adventure led the voyagers back to Nazilia for ‘Long Live the King or Gold and Goofs’ and a rematch with General Bunzo and his new Mata Hari Dinah Mow – a worldly-wise vamp that even the iron-willed Popeye couldn’t resisk…

After taking a well-aimed pop at popular democracy in ‘The Great Lection’ the old sea-dog sets up his own nation in ‘Popeye: King of Popilania’ another stinging satire which saw the increasingly irrepressible J. Wellington Wimpy expand beyond the Sunday pages and join the dailies cast, almost mooching the infant country away from its idealistic founder. Popilania’s problems were multiplied by an invasion of “furiners”, “emmygrunts” and even jungle-Neanderthals in ‘Wild Men and Wild Women’ before the well-meaning reformer learned his lesson.

The trenchant social commentary and barbed satire continued when he returned to America and became ‘Star Reporter’ for The Daily Blast, a periodical edited by Castor and “blessed” with Wimpy as photographer. This led to the next big cast addition and our hero’s greatest advncement when a reader mailed Popeye a baby in ‘Me Sweet Pea.’ The “infink’s” true history and heritage pitted the sailor-man against some pretty ruthless types, and resulted in him suffering a serious brain injury in ‘Bonkus of the Konkus’ but his indomitable soul and noble heart won through as always in the turbulent desert debacle ‘Popeye’s Cure’

The Sundays’ selection follows a decidedly more domestic but no less riotous path. Running from 9th October to 23rd November 1933, the full-colour section was increasing given over to – or more correctly, appropriated – by the insidiously oleaginous Wimpy: ever hungry, always cadging, yet intellectually stimulating, casually charming and usually triumphant in all his mendicant missions. Whilst still continuing his pugilistic shenanigans the action of the Sunday strips moved away from Popeye hitting quite so much to alternately being outwitted by the unctuous moocher, and saving him from the vengeance of Diner owner Rough-house and the passionately loathing George W. Geezil, an ethnic Jewish stereotype, who like all Segar’s characters swiftly developed beyond comedic archetype into a unique person with his own story… and another funny accent.

Wimpy was unstoppable – he even became a rival suitor for Olive Oyl’s scrawny favours – and his development owed a huge debt to his creator’s love and admiration of comedian W.C. Fields. A mercurial force of nature the moocher was the perfect foil for the common-man but imperfect champion, Popeye. Where the sailor was heart and spirit, unquestioning morality and self-sacrifice, indomitable defiance, brute force and no smarts at all, Wimpy was intellect and self-serving, rapacious greed, freed from all ethical restraint or consideration, and gloriously devoid of any impulse-control.

He literally took candy from babies and food from the mouths of starving children, yet somehow Segar made us love him. He was Popeye’s other half: weld them together and you have an heroic ideal… (and yes, those stories are true: British Wimpy burger bars are built from the remnants of a 1950s international merchandising scheme that wanted to put a J Wellington Wimpy themed restaurant in every town and city.)

The gags and exploits of the two forces of human nature build riotously during this period, ever-more funny, increasingly outrageous. The laugh-out-loud antics seem impossible to top and maybe Segar knew that. Either he was getting the stand-alone gag-stuff out of his system, or perhaps he was clearing the decks and setting the scene for a really big change. Within weeks (or for us, next volume) the Thimble Theatre Sunday page changed forever. In a bold move the blood-and-thunder serial-style adventure epics of the dailies transferred to the Technicolor splendour of the “family pages” and all stops would be pulled out…

The topper strip Sappo actually increased its page share during this period, going from two to three tiers as the unstoppable scientist O.G. Watasnozzle took the little feature into increasingly surreal and absurdist realms. On a rocket ship journey Sappo and his insufferable but long-suffering wife Myrtle experienced incredible thrills, chills and spills during an extended trip around the solar system; experiencing all the goofy wonders and embarrassments Segar’s fevered mind could concoct.

Always innovating the restless creator also began adding extra value for his fans by incorporating collector stamps, games and puzzles to his Sunday pages. In an era with no television – and indeed with only the very first prototype comic books just starting to appear – radio-shows and the Sunday pages were the home entertainment choices of most Americans. Many strips offered extras in their funny-pages and Segar excelled in creating paper-based toys and amusements. In this book alone there are stamps, play money “lucky bucks”, cartooning tips, drawing lessons and ‘Funny Films’ – dioramic scenes through which continuous strips of cartooned “filmstrips” could be moved to create a home cinema!

As an especially welcome bonus this volume concludes with an incredibly rare piece of Popeye memorabilia: one I’d heard of but never thought I’d ever see. In 1934 the Chicago World’s Fair was held in the Windy City, and for two weeks before, at the end of 1933 it was advertised and promoted in the Hearst papers with an original full-page, monochrome Popeye serial. That’s terrific enough but the extended yarn was given extra push by escaping the funny-pages ghetto to run for that fortnight in the Sports section, as Popeye and crew explored the wonders of the World’s Fair in a truly spectacular and irresistible enticing prom feature – possibly the first of its kind.

This work is among the finest strip narrative ever created: reading it should be on everybody’s bucket list, and even when you do there’s still more and better yet to come…

© 2008 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2008 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 2: “Well, Blow Me Down”

By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-874-9

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois on 8th December 1894.His father was a handyman, and Elzie’s early life was filled with the kinds of solid blue-collar jobs that typified his generation of cartoonists. He worked as a decorator and house-painter, and played drums, accompanying vaudeville acts at the local theatre. When the town got a movie house he played for the silent films, absorbing the staging, timing and narrative tricks from the close observation of the screen that would become his bread-and-butter as a cartoonist. He was working as the film projectionist, when aged 18, he decided to become a cartoonist and tell his own stories.

Like so many others he studied art via mail, in this case W.L. Evans’ cartooning correspondence course out of Cleveland, Ohio (from where Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would launch Superman upon the world), before gravitating to Chicago where he was “discovered” by Richard F. Outcault – arguably the inventor of newspaper comic strips with The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown – who got him an introduction at the prestigious Chicago Herald. Still wet behind the ears, Segar’s first strip, Charley Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, debuted on 12th March 1916.

In 1918 he married Myrtle Johnson and moved to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American to create Looping the Loop, but the Managing Editor William Curley saw a big future for Segar and packed the newlyweds off to New York and the King Features Syndicate.

Within a year Segar was producing Thimble Theatre, which launched December 19th 1919 in the New York Journal. It was a pastiche of Movie features similar to Hairbreadth Harry and Midget Movies with a repertory cast who would act out comedies, melodramas, comedies, crime-stories, chases and especially comedies, for huge daily audiences. The core cast included parental pillars Nana and Cole Oyl, their lanky daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor and Olive’s plain and simple, sometime boyfriend Horace Hamgravy (later just Ham Gravy).

In 1924 he created a second daily strip The 5:15; a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle (obviously quite a common name, hmm?). A born storyteller, Segar had from the start an advantage even his beloved cinema couldn’t match. His brilliant ear for dialogue and accent shone out from his admittedly average adventure plots, adding lustre to stories and gags he always felt he hadn’t drawn well enough. After a decade or so and just as cinema caught up with the invention of “talkies” he finally discovered a character whose unique sound and individual vocalisations blended with a fantastic, enthralling nature to create a literal superstar.

Popeye the sailor, brusque, incoherent, plug-ugly and stingingly sarcastic, shambled on stage midway through the adventure ‘Dice Island’, (on January 17th 1929: see E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”) and once his part was played out, simply refused to leave. Within a year he was a regular, and as the strip’s circulation skyrocketed, he became the star. Eventually the strip was changed to Popeye and all of the old gang except Olive were consigned to oblivion…

Popeye inspired Segar. The near decade of funny thrillers that followed revolutionised the industry, laid the groundwork for the entire superhero genre (but sadly, usually without the leavening underpinnings of his self-aware humour) and captivated the whole wide world. The truly unique cast of characters invented in this period: Sea Hag, Toar, Poopdeck Pappy, Swee’pea, Eugene the Jeep, Alice the Goon, George W. Geezil, and especially J. Wellington Wimpy (potentially as big and innovative a star as Popeye) – even Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle in the Sappo daily strip which had evolved into the Sunday Popeye “Topper” – all individually verge on manic brilliance, and combined to make Popeye a global figure to rival Mickey Mouse, Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes. To most of the world Popeye was real.

All the attendant peripherals of a major brand accrued to Popeye. There were toys, games premiums, books, comics, film, radio shows, and especially those incredible animated cartoons. Tragically Segar died at the height of his creative powers and with so much more magic still to make on 13th October 1938, sole creator of an incredible galaxy of imagination, but his legacy briefly lived on through his assistant Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf, before the syndicate appointed Doc Winner, Tom Sims, Ralph Stein and Bela Zambuly to work on the printed strip, whilst the animated features increasingly became the main means of bringing Popeye to the world – but it just wasn’t the same.

Sagendorf returned in1958 and his loose, rangy style and breezy scripts brought the strip itself back to the forefront of popularity and made reading it cool once more. He wrote and drew Popeye until Bobby London took over in 1994.

These superb hardback collections are the perfect means of discovering or rediscovering Segar’s magical tales. The second huge volume (almost 14 ½ by 10½ inches) contains a fascinating essay from historian Donald Phelps, a testimonial from Mort “Beetle Bailey” Walker which includes the beautiful inspirational drawing Segar sent the young fan in 1934, and another batch of incredible tales from the daily and Sunday strips.

The black and white section here (covering December 22nd 1930 to June 6th 1932) sees Popeye, Castor and Olive soar to stardom in the fabulous western spoof ‘Clint Gore, the Outlaw’ and strike a blow for the Depression-era poor by inventing a financial institution that gives money away in ‘A One-Way Bank’, before resuming their globe-trotting adventuring in ‘The Great Rough-House War’ and its immediate sequel ‘Tragedy in the Land of Saps’ wherein the peculiar King Blozo of Nazilia seeks aid in ending a war with the neighbouring kingdom of Tonsylania – although the real problem seems to be his own over-ambitious Generals and the fact that all his soldiers are cowards…

This classy screwball epic displays Segar’s trenchant skill with the sharp swift scalpel of satire as well as broad slapstick, and has glorious overtones of if not actual influences upon the Marx Brothers gem “Duck Soup.” With an initially reluctant Popeye compelled by his sense of duty to become King of the unlovable Nazilians, it’s also where the superman sailor reveals for the first time the strength inducing properties of Spinach…

From there Popeye and Olive head back to the wild, wild west to visit ‘Skullyville, Toughest Town in the World’ and we’re treated (I think that’s the word) to the unforgettable yet frankly grisly vision of Olive Oyl as a bar hall dancer in a raucous, ridiculous romp that’s jam-packed with lampooned cowboy clichés and hilariously brilliant original gags.

The full-colour Sunday pages cover March 1st 1931 to October 2nd 1932, with the increasingly absurdist Sappo toppers thoroughly complimenting the whacky shenanigans of the lead feature. May 8th is particularly noteworthy for the first appearance of insane Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle – another Segar walk-on who would usurp his host feature…

The Popeye strip continued the uproarious and exceedingly violent boxing career of the one-eyed sea-dog, who took on all exceedingly monstrous comers, including the awesome man-mountain Tinearo, Kid Klutch (a giant gorilla) and even a robot boxer as the increasingly obsessive and belligerent Mr. Kilph, crazed by his inability to beat the grizzled sailor-man, slipped slowly into utter wackadoodleness.

When not beating the stuffing out of his opponents Popeye pursued his flighty, vacillating and irresolute Olive Oyl with desperate verve, if little success, and his life was forever changed when the ever-so-corruptible and adorably contemptible J. Wellington Wimpy made his debut.

The engaging Mr. Micawber-like coward, moocher and conman was first seen on 3rd May 1931 as an unnamed referee in the bombastic month-long bout against Tinearo but he obviously struck a chord with Segar who gradually made him a (usually unwelcome) fixture. Always hungry, ever happy and eager to take a bribe, we learned his name in the May 24th installment and he uttered the first of his many immortal catchphrases a month later. It was June 21st – but “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”, like most phrases everybody knows, actually started as ‘Cook me up a hamburger, I’ll pay you Thursday’

There will be more of Wimpy’s incredible influence in volume 3, but for now another aspect of Popeye’s complex character was revealed in an extended sequence that ran from May 29th 1932-July 17th, one that quickly secured his place in reader’s hearts.

The sailor was a rough-hewn orphan, who loved to gamble and fight, not too smart and superhumanly powerful, but he was a big-hearted man with an innate sense of decency who hated injustice – even if he couldn’t pronounce it. When Mary Ann, a starving little girl, tried to sell him a flower, he adopted her, taking her from the brutal couple who used her in a begging racket. He grew to love her and there’s a genuine sense of happy tragedy when he finds her real parents and gives her up. That such a rambunctious, action-packed comedy adventure serial could so easily turn an audience into sobbing sentimental pantywaists is a measure of just how great a spellbinder Segar was…

These tales are as vibrant now as they’ve ever been and comprise a world classic of graphic literature that only a handful of creator’s have ever matched. No one has ever bettered Segar’s Popeye and these superb volumes are books you’ll treasure for the rest of your life. Don’t miss them.

© 2006 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2006 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”

By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-779-7


Call me an idiot (you know you want to) but for years I laboured under the misapprehension that comics’ first superhuman hero debuted on January 29th 1929. Luckily, thanks to a superb collection from those wonderful folk at Fantagraphics I’ve been disabused of that erroneous notion at last and forever.

Thimble Theatre was an unassuming comic strip which began on 19th December 1919, one of many newspaper features that parodied/burlesqued/mimicked the silent movies. Its more successful forebears included C.W. Kahles’ ‘Hairbreadth Harry’ and Ed Wheelan’s ‘Midget Movies’ (later and more famously renamed Minute Movies), which used a repertory company of characters for generic adventures firmly based on the cinema antics of the silent era. Thimble Theatre’s cast included Nana and Cole Oyl, their gawky daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor, and Horace Hamgravy, Olive’s sappy, would-be beau.

The series ticked along for a decade, competent and unassuming, with Castor and Ham Gravy, as he became, tumbling through get-rich-quick schemes, gentle adventures and simple gag situations until September 10th 1928 (the first strip reprinted in this astonishingly lavish and beautiful collection), when explorer uncle Lubry Kent Oyl gave Castor a present from his latest exploration of Africa: a hand-reared Whiffle Hen – most fabulous of all birds. It was the start of something groundbreaking.

As eny fule kno Whiffle Hens are troublesome, incredibly rare and possessed of fantastic powers, but after months of inspired hokum and slapsick shenanigans Castor was resigned to Bernice – for that was the hen’s name – when a series of increasingly peculiar circumstances brought him into contention with the ruthless Mr. Fadewell, world’s greatest gambler and king of the gaming resort of ‘Dice Island’.

Bernice clearly affected creator E.C. Segar, because his strip increasingly became a playground of frantic, compelling adventure and comedy during this period, and when Castor and Ham discovered that everybody wanted the Whiffle Hen because she could bestow infallible good luck, they decided to sail for Dice Island to win every penny from its lavish casinos. Sister Olive wanted to come along but the boys planned to leave her behind once their vessel was ready to sail. It was 16th January 1929…

The next day and in the 108th installment of the saga, a bluff, irascible, ignorant, itinerant and exceeding ugly one-eyed old sailor was hired by the pair to man the boat they had rented, and the world was introduced to one of the most iconic and memorable characters ever conceived. By sheer, surly willpower, Popeye won the hearts and minds of every reader, his no-nonsense, grumbling simplicity and dubious appeal enchanting the public until by the end of the tale his walk-on had become a full residency. He would eventually make the strip his own…

The journey to Dice Island was a terrible one: Olive had stowed away, and Popeye, already doing the work of twelve men, did not like her. After many travails the power of Bernice succeeded and Castor bankrupted Dice Island, but as they sailed for home with their millions Fadewell and his murderous associate Snork hunted them across the oceans before Popeye settled their hash too, almost at the cost of his life.

Once home their new wealth soon led Castor, Ham and Olive into more trouble, with carpetbaggers, conmen and ne’er-do-wells quickly circling, and before long they lost all their money (a common occurrence for them), but one they thing they couldn’t lose was their sea-dog tag-along.  The public – and Segar himself – were besotted with the unlovable, belligerent old goat. After an absence of 32 episodes Popeye shambled back on stage, and he stayed.

Although not yet the paramour of Olive, Popeye increasingly took Ham’s place as a foil for the sharp-talking, pompous Castor Oyl, and before long they were all having adventures together. When they escaped jail at the start of ‘The Black Barnacle’ (December 11th 1929) they found themselves aboard an empty ship and at the start of a golden age of comic strip magic…

Segar famously considered himself an inferior draughtsman – most of the world disagreed and still does – but his ability to weave a yarn was unquestioned and it grew to epic proportions in these strips. Daily he was creating the syllabary and graphic lexicon of a brand new art-form, inventing narrative tricks and beats that a generation of artists and writers would use in their own works, and he did it while being scary, thrilling and funny.

‘The Black Barnacle’ introduced the dire menace of the hideous Sea-Hag – one of the greatest villains in fiction – and the scenes of her advancing in misty darkness upon our sleeping heroes are still the most effective I’ve seen in all my years…

This incredible tale leads seamlessly into diamond-stealing, kidnappings, spurned loves, an African excursion and the introduction of wealthy Mr. Kilph, whose do-gooding propensities would lead Castor and Popeye into plenty of trouble, beginning with the eerie science fiction thriller ‘The Mystery of Brownstone Hill’ and the return of the nefarious Snork who almost murdered the salty old seadog a second time…

The black and white dailies section ends with ‘The Wilson Mystery’ as Castor and Popeye set up their own detective agency: something that would become a common strip convention and the perfect maguffin to keep the adventures tumbling along – even Mickey Mouse would don metaphoric deerstalker and magnifying glass (see Mickey and Donald and The Lair of Wolf Barker).

These superb and colossal hardcover albums (200 pages and almost 14½ by 10½ inches) are augmented with fascinating articles and essays and include testimonial remembrances from famous cartoonists – Jules Feiffer in this first one – and the relevant full colour Sunday pages from the same period. Here then are the more gag-oriented complete tales from 2nd March 1930 through February 22nd 1931, including the “topper” Sappo.

A topper was a small mini-strip that was run above the main feature on a Sunday page. Some were connected to the main strip but many were just filler. They were there so that individual editors could remove them if their particular periodical had non-standard page requirements. Originally entitled “The 5:15 Sappo was a surreal domestic comedy gag strip created by Segar in 1924 which became peculiarly entwined with the Sunday Thimble Theatre as the 1930s unfolded – and it’s a strip long overdue for consideration on its own unique merits….

Since many papers only carried dailies or Sundays a system of differentiated storylines developed early in American publishing, and when Popeye finally made his belated appearance he was already a fairly well developed character. Thus Segar concentrated on more family-friendly gags – and eventually continued mini-sagas – and it was here that the Popeye/Olive Oyl modern romance began: a series of encounters full of bile, intransigence, repressed hostility, jealousy and passion which usually ended in raised voices and scintillating cartoon violence – and they are still as riotously funny now as then.

We saw softer sides of the sailor-man and when Castor and Mr. Kilph realised how good Popeye was at boxing, an extended, trenchant and scathingly funny sequence about the sport of prize-fighting began. Again cartoon violence was at a premium – family values were different then – but Segar’s worldly, probing satire and Popeye’s beguiling (relative) innocence and lack of experience kept the entire affair in hilarious perspective whilst making him an unlikely and lovable waif.

Popeye is fast a approaching his centenary and still deserves his place as a world icon. These magnificent volumes are the perfect way to celebrate the genius and mastery of EC Segar and his brilliantly imperfect superman. These are books that every home should have.

© 2006 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2006 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

Batman Chronicles volume 8

By Bob Kane, Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-447-3

This eighth volume of chronological Batman yarns from the dawn of his career covers Batman #14-15, Detective Comics #71-74 and World’s Finest Comics #8-9, and once again features adventures produced during the scariest days of World War II.

It’s certainly no coincidence that many of these Golden Age treasures are also some of the best and most reprinted tales in the Batman canon, as lead writer Bill Finger was increasingly supplemented by the talents of Don Cameron, Jack Schiff and Joe Samachson and the Dynamic Duo became a hugely successful franchise. The war seemed to stimulate a peak of creativity and production, with everybody on the Home Front keen to do their bit – even if that was simply making kids of all ages forget their troubles for a brief while…

Cameron wrote all four stories in Batman #14 (December 1942-January 1943) which leads off this volume. ‘The Case Batman Failed to Solve’, (illustrated by Jerry Robinson) is a superb example of the sheer decency of the Caped Crusader as he fudges a mystery for the best possible reason, ‘Prescription for Happiness’ (with art by Bob Kane & Robinson), is a classic example of the human interest drama that used to typify Batman tales as a poor doctor discovers his own true worth, and ‘Swastika Over the White House!’ (Jack and Ray Burnley) is typical of the spy-busting action yarns that readers were gratuitously lapping up at the time. The final story ‘Bargains in Banditry!’ – also by the Burnley boys – is another canny crime caper featuring the Penguin.

Detective Comics #71 (January 1943, by Finger, Kane and Robinson) featured ‘A Crime a Day!’, one of the most memorable and thrilling Joker escapades of the period, whilst ‘Brothers in Law’ from the Winter 1942 World’s Finest Comics #8, by Schiff and the Burnleys, pitted Batman and Robin against a Napoleon of Crime and feuding siblings who had radically differing definitions of justice.

Detective Comics #72 by Samachson, Kane & Robinson, found our heroes crushing murderous con-men in ‘License for Larceny’ whilst Batman #15 (February-March 1943) lead with Schiff, Kane & Robinson’s Catwoman romp ‘Your Face is your Fortune!’ whilst Cameron and those Burnley boys introduced plucky homeless boy Bobby Deen ‘The Boy Who Wanted to be Robin!’ The same team created the powerful propaganda tale ‘The Two Futures’, which examined an America under Nazi subjugation and ‘The Loneliest Men in the World’ (Cameron Kane & Robinson) was – and still is – one of the very best Christmas Batman tales ever created; full of pathos, drama, fellow-feeling and action…

Cameron, Kane & Robinson went back to basics in Detective Comics #73 (March 1943) when ‘The Scarecrow Returns’, a moody chiller followed by the introduction of comical criminal psychopaths ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee!’ in #74, and this volume concludes with the Batman portion of World’s Finest Comics #9 (Spring 1943) as Finger, Robinson & George Roussos recounted the saga of a criminal mastermind who invented the ‘Crime of the Month!’ scheme.

This wonderful series of Golden Age greats is one of my absolute favourite collected formats: paper that feels nostalgically like newsprint, vivid colours applied with a gracious acknowledgement of the power and limitations of the original four-colour printing process and the riotous exuberance of an industry in the first flush of success. These tales from the creators and characters at their absolute peak are even more readable now that I don’t have to worry about damaging an historical treasure simply by turning a page. I’m still praying that other companies with an extensive Golden Age back-catalogue like Marvel and Archie will follow suit.

© 1942, 1943, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.