Danielle: First American Edition Series

By John M. Burns & Richard O’Neill (Vertigo)
ISBN: 0-912277-23-8

If you indulge in the wonders of comics for any appreciable length of time you’ll increasingly find yourself becoming something of an apologist.

“I just like the artwork.”

“They’ll be worth money one day”

“It’s a metaphor for…”

You get the idea. I often end up having to explain away situations and depictions that might seem racist, sexist or – worst of all – painfully naff, and at first glance, this book and its contents might easily confirm most if not all of those charges. But I’m not apologising and I urge you not to rush to judgements.

The prime reason for this is the illustrator. John M. Burns is an international star of comics but still remains largely unsung in his own country – which, considering the sheer breadth and quality of his output, is possibly the greatest compliment I can pay him. Britain has always been painfully ignorant of its comics heroes…

Born in Essex in 1938 he apprenticed at Doris White’s Link Studios in 1954 before moving on to Amalgamated Press where he worked on “Young Juvenile” titles such as Junior Express, Girl’s Crystal and School Friend, graduating to the luxurious photogravure mainstream comic Express Weekly a year later.

After National Service (we used to conscript our young men for two years’ military training in those hazy Cold War days – just in case…) which found him in the RAF and sent to Singapore he returned to comics in 1961, adapting Wuthering Heights for DC Thomson’s Diana and drawing Kelpie in Odhams revolutionary weekly Wham!

Spreading himself far and wide he followed Ron Embleton on Wrath of the Gods in Boy’s World and Eagle (scripted by Michael Moorcock – now there’s a strip crying out for collection), as well as The Fists of Danny Pike, Dolebusters and Roving Reporter. He was part of the inimitable and beloved team of artists who worked on Gerry Anderson’s licensed titles TV Century 21 and its sister magazines – he was particularly impressive on Space Family Robinson in Lady Penelope.

From 1965 he worked increasingly for newspapers beginning with The Tuckwells in The Sunday Citizen, The Seekers for The Daily Sketch (1966-1971), Danielle in the Evening News (1973-74), George and Lynne (1977-1984) and The Royals – the official strip biography of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer (1981) in The Sun and Modesty Blaise for The Evening Standard (see Modesty Blaise: Yellowstone Booty).

He revived Jane for the Daily Mirror (1985-1989) and has intermittently worked on many others. He was chosen to conclude Jim Edgar and Tony Weare’s incredible, long-running western strip Matt Marriot in 1977.

Burns’ TV related work is magnificent. He has worked on licensed series for Look-In, TV Action and Countdown illustrating the adventures of UFO, Mission Impossible, Tomorrow People, Bionic Woman, How the West Was Won and others. For Germany he drew the strip Julia (also know as Lilli) and worked with Martin Lodewijk on the fantasy series Zetari before in 1980 beginning his long association with the legendary British science fiction comic 2000AD, where he has – and continues to – work on Judge Dredd, Trueno, Nikolai Dante and his own Bendatti Vendetta.

He is also a regular adaptor of significant literary masterpieces, having already completed pictorial versions of Lorna Doone, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

1973 was the height of the much-maligned “Sexual Revolution” with women demanding equal rights, equal pay and fair treatment (and isn’t it great that they’ve got all those things now…). Contraception was becoming readily available, everywhere bras were burning, and men thought that sex wasn’t going to be so expensive anymore. It was a reactionary Male Chauvinist Pig’s Dream, and unrepentant old-school stand-up comedians were having a field day.

I’m not sure that the various editors of papers were supporters of the Women’s Lib movement, or simply found a great excuse to turn the industry’s long tradition of naked chicks in strips into something at least nominally hip, political and contemporary: I do know that a awful of new features with liberated, forceful women who nevertheless still had hunky take-charge boyfriends in tow appeared – but not for very long.

One of them was Danielle: at first glance a fantasy saga in the tradition of Garth, but as the saga unfolded, one that developed beyond its superficial beginnings. The strip launched on Monday, September 17th 1973, and introduced a willowy blonde heroine: a rebel against an oppressive regime, and one whose railing against the system had resulted in her banishment. Her crime? She had loved a man.

Now Danielle had returned to the planet Janus to overthrow her own mother, whose matriarchal dictatorship had kept men as subservient sex-slaves, and to rescue her truly beloved Zabal from the State Brothel he had been condemned to (stop sniggering).

Reversing many of the cherished trappings of Flash Gordon, Danielle fought monsters and militarists before she and Zabal escaped, using a magical Pendant of Power to leap into the chaos of time and space. From then on the pair roamed the universe like buff, unclad Doctor Who extras, first landing in futuristic Britain in ‘Master Plan’ where the previous situation is utterly reversed and women have been drugged into subservient submission and a highly commercialised male hegemony rules virtually unopposed.

When Zabal’s head is turned by freedom and testosterone-soaked male dominance he betrays Danielle until she joins the all-female resistance and helps overthrow the Masters. Reunited but not quite so trusting anymore they are then whisked by the Pendant to ‘The Dump’ an intergalactic penal colony, where she is the only woman, before the space eddies tear them apart and Zabal is lost…

In ‘Dark Genesis’ Danielle lands on a desolate world where the rejects of a super-alien’s genetics program try to stop her from becoming their creator’s latest stock-breeder, but after defeating the alien with common sense the hapless voyager materialises at a ‘Black Sabbath’ in Edinburgh in 1660. Mistaken for a demon she finds herself at the mercy of Puritan witch-finders and corrupt, debased officers of Cromwell’s New Model Army…

Appalling as these summations sound, Richard O’Neill’s scripts are a wry and canny counterpoint to the strident zeitgeist of the times. Brought in to overhaul Burns’ initial proposal, the ex-TV 21 editor managed to impose a studied balance to what was always intended to be a slight, escapist, lad-ish girly-strip with lots of ogle-worthy nudity and loads of fantasy action.

With deliberate overtones of H.P. Lovecraft and Philip José Farmer, the military historian added a knowing lightness to the proceedings which, married to Burn’s imagination and incredible line-work, resulted in a delight of self-deprecatory storytelling which is far, far from the exploitative, pandering lip-service it might first seem to be.

However it couldn’t save the feature. ‘Superstar’, the last story in this slim black and white volume, deviates from the established format as Danielle lands on a Hollywood film set in 1930. Quickly co-opted by a zany movie director she becomes a reluctant rising star before being reunited with Zabal who has been marooned on Earth for decades. Roaring along at a rather brisk pace and played strictly for gentle laughs, this final tale abruptly ended Danielle’s cosmic capers on September 14th 1974. Not included in this book is her 54 day revival from 1978, but I suspect that’s for the best…

Heavy-handed at first glance but stunningly beautiful to look upon; this is a series with a lot to say about the times it came from and perhaps one that might finally find a welcoming readership in these oh-so-perfect modern days.
© 1984 Associated Newspapers Group. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge: Back to the Klondike – Gladstone Comic Album #4

By Carl Barks (Gladstone)

From the late 1940’s until the mid-1960s Carl Barks worked in productive seclusion writing and drawing a vast array of comedic adventure yarns for kids, creating a Duck Universe of memorable – and highly bankable – characters like Gladstone Gander (1948), the Beagle Boys (1951), Gyro Gearloose (1952), and Magica De Spell (1961) to augment the stable of cartoon actors from the Disney Studio. His greatest creation was undoubtedly the crusty, energetic, paternalistic, money-mad gazillionaire Scrooge McDuck: the star of this show.

So potent were his creations that they fed back into Disney’s animation output itself, even though his brilliant comic work was done for the licensing company Dell/Gold Key, and not directly for the studio.

Throughout this period Barks was blissfully unaware that his work (uncredited by official policy as was all Disney’s cartoon and comicbook output), had been singled out by a rabid and discerning public as being by “the Good Duck Artist.” When some of his most dedicated fans finally tracked him down, his belated celebrity began.

Gladstone Publishing began re-packaging Barks material – and a selection of other Disney comics strips – in the 1980s and this album is one of the very best. Whilst producing all that landmark innovative material Barks was just a working guy, generating covers, illustrating other people’s scripts when necessary and contributing story and/or art to the burgeoning canon of Duck Lore.

This album is printed in the large European oversized format (278mm x 223mm) and features one of the best tales Barks ever told. Taken from Four Color Comics #456 (1953 and technically the second full story to star the multimillionaire mallard) ‘Back to the Klondike’ is a rip-roaring adventure, a brilliant comedy and even a bittersweet romance, which added huge depth to the character of the World’s Richest Duck, even whilst reiterating the superficial peccadilloes that made him such a memorable and engaging star.

Scrooge is old and getting forgetful: he can’t recall how much money he has even seconds after he’s finished counting it, nor even where his traps to locate it are hidden. After one close shave too many he finally shells out for a doctor who diagnoses “Blinkus of the Thinkus” and prescribes some pills to restore his scrupulous memory.

They work! Recalling a gold strike he made 50 years previously he drags Donald and his nephews to the Far North to recover a gold-strike he had cached five decades ago, but as the journey progresses he also recalls the rough, tough life of a prospector and the saloon-girl who tried to cheat him of his find: Glittering Goldie…

This superb yarn tells you everything you could ever need about Scrooge McDuck. It’s the perfect character tale and rattles along like an express train, sad, happy, thrilling and funny by turns, and it’s supplemented in this book with a classic Gyro Gearloose tale from 1960. ‘Cave of the Winds’ taken from Four Color Comics #1095, has Scrooge consult the feathered inventor on a perfect hiding place for his cash, but the answer is far from satisfactory… The book concludes with a short and punchy untitled tale from Uncle Scrooge #8 (1954) which has Scrooge run for City Treasurer – without spending any money…

Even if you can’t find this particular volume, Barks’ work is now readily accessible through a number of publications and outlets. No matter what your age or temperament if you’ve never experienced his captivating magic, you can discover “the Hans Christian Andersen of Comics” simply by applying yourself and your credit cards to any search engine. The rewards are there for the finding…
© 1987, 1960, 1954, 1953 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: Yellowstone Booty

By Peter O’Donnell, Enric Badia Romero & John Burns (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-419-7

Originally a newspaper strip created by Peter O’Donnell and drawn by the brilliant Jim Holdaway, Modesty and her charismatic partner in crime (and latterly crime-busting) Willie Garvin have also starred in 13 prose novels and short story collections, two films, one TV pilot, a radio play and nearly one hundred comic strip adventures between 1963 and the strip’s conclusion in 2002. She has been syndicated world-wide, and Holdaway’s version has been cited as an artistic influence by many major comic artists.

Titan Books’ marvelous series re-presenting the classic British newspaper strip reaches a period of artistic instability with this thirteenth volume as Spanish collaborator Romero left in 1978 to concentrate on his own creation Axa; although if anything the strip actually improved under the all-too-brief tenure of his replacement.

John M. Burns had worked on Junior Express and School Friend but truly began his auspicious rise as part of the inimitable and beloved team of artists who worked on the Gerry Anderson licensed titles TV Century 21 and its sister magazines (he is particularly admired for Space Family Robinson in Lady Penelope). He drew strips for The Daily Sketch, Daily Mirror and Sun with long, acclaimed runs on The Seekers and the saucy “Good Girl” strip Danielle (expect a review of her really soon), before briefly – and controversially – taking over Modesty Blaise.

Since then he has worked on TV-based series for Look-In and Countdown before latterly abandoning pen and ink for painted art and finding a welcome home in the legendary British science fiction comic 2000AD, where he has – and continues to – work on Judge Dredd, Nikolai Dante and his own Bendatti Vendetta. He is also a regular adaptor of significant literary masterpieces, having already completed pictorial versions of Lorna Doone, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

Although Burns only drew 272 consecutive daily strips, his influence on Modesty was marked and long-lasting. His deft ability with nib and brush are highlighted here with a complimentary feature reprinting 12 of his illustrations from some of those prose novels O’Donnell wrote starring his inimitable creation, and there are also sketches and cover reproductions from Titan Books’ 1980s Modesty collections.

The adventure portion of this book begins with ‘Idaho George’ an extremely engaging comedy thriller which sees Garvin and “the Princess” rescue an old acquaintance. The eponymous George is a marriage-dodging conman who accidentally fools the wrong mark: superstitious and extremely dangerous Anastasia Bone sets her gang of murderous crime specialists on the hapless trickster when he masquerades as a swami who can materialise gold from thin air…

Fast-paced and tremendously satisfying, that caper is just a taster for Romero’s last job ‘The Golden Frog’, a globe-girdling vendetta that brings Modesty back to her roots when Saragam – the martial arts master who taught her to fight – is captured by a revenge-crazed Khmer Rouge warlord with a grudge against her that stretches back to her days as leader of the criminal organisation The Network. Lured back to the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia and unsure who to trust, Modesty and Willie face possibly their greatest threat in this action-packed, fists of fury fight-fest.

John Burns seemed an ideal replacement for Romero, and is still remembered with affection and appreciation by fans, but he only illustrated two-and-a-half stories, beginning with ‘Yellowstone Booty’ which ran from November 1st 1978 to March 30th 1979 (if you’re curious Idaho George and The Golden Frog appeared in the Evening Standard from 23rd January to October 31st 1978).

His innate design sense, sleek, deceptive line and facility with the female form coincided with a much freer use of casual nudity in the feature, and the action scenes were to become graphic poetry in motion. All these advantages can be observed in this clever yarn of gangsters and lost treasure that sees a young couple save Willie from an ingenious murder-plot, incurring a debt that Modesty moves Heaven and Earth to repay…

These timeless tales of crime and punishments are more enthralling now than ever, and provide much-needed relief in a world increasingly bleak and confusing. At least here you always know who to cheer for and who to boo at. More than three decades later it’s quite odd to realise just mere months after the heroine shockingly – and controversially – bared her breasts, naked ladies adorned not just the comics pages but the “news” portions of so many British papers – all without the kingdom falling into flaming anarchy.

Odder still is the realization that heavy-handed censorship still occurs in America and other countries: boobies and botties – no matter how well-drawn – are still racy, shocking and a big deal opposed with all the vehemence one expects from populations when their Governments suspend Habeas Corpus and/or outlaw football.

I trust this will be all the warning you need, should you be of a sensitive disposition, but hope that such sights won’t discourage you from reading these incredible tales of fiction’s greatest adventuress.

© 2008 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Modesty Blaise: Death Trap

By Peter O’Donnell & Enric Badia Romero (Titan Books)
ISBN 13: 1-84576-418-0

Modesty Blaise and her devoted deputy Willie Garvin were retired super-criminals who got too rich too young without ever getting too dirty and are now usually complacent and bored out of their brains. When approached by Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of a British spy organization, they jumped at his offer of excitement and a chance to get some real evil sods. From that tenuous beginning in ‘La Machine’ (see Modesty Blaise: the Gabriel Set-Up) the pair began a helter-skelter thrill ride that has pitted them against the World’s vilest villains…

The legendary femme fatale adventurer first appeared in the Evening Standard on May 13th, 1963 and starred in some of the world’s most memorable crime fiction, all in three panels a day. Her creators Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway (who had previously collaborated on Romeo Brown – a light-hearted adventure strip from the 1950’s and itself well overdue for collection) produced story after story until Holdaway’s tragic early death in 1970, whereupon Spanish artist Enric Badia Romero assumed the art reins taking the daredevil duo to even grater heights.

The tales are stylish and engaging spy/crime/thriller fare in the vein of Ian Fleming’s Bond stories (as opposed to the sometimes over-the-top movie exploits). Modesty and Willie are competent and deadly, but all too fallibly human.

Following an intriguing dissertation by fan and historian Lawrence Blackmore on how the strip was censored in America (entitled ‘Preserving Modesty’s Modesty’ ) this twelfth superb black and white volume, collecting strips which originally appeared in the between October 21st 1976 and January 20th 1978, kicks off in high style with the entrancing but ultimately tragic yarn ‘The Vanishing Dollybirds’ wherein the duo are drawn into a web of Arabic white slavery, administered by the frightfully British and thoroughly unpleasant Major Hamilton and his formidable wife Priscilla, not to mention their uniquely fey hitman and murder-artisan, Bubbles.

Combining high-octane drama with sly comedy and all the charms of the circus (Willie bought one when he was feeling bored…) this is a cracking, straightforward tale which acts as pace-setter for ‘The Junk Men’, a moody murder mystery set in Turkey. Willie is playing stuntman on a science fiction film before getting accidentally embroiled in a war between the police and the world’s three biggest drug lords. And whenever Willie is in trouble can Modesty be far away?

Closing the book is a truly sinister plot from a vengeance-crazed Warsaw Pact commissar determined to punish Modesty for past offences in the gripping, brutal thriller ‘Death Trap’. Comrade Director Breslin wants the retired super-criminal to suffer so he begins his campaign by murdering her current lover in the most appalling manner he could conceive of, but the ambitious politician could never imagine just how dangerous an angry Modesty Blaise could be…

Tightly plotted, with twist after turn, and cross after double-cross, this is no simple revenge story but a sharp, incisive romp that uses the madness of the Cold War “Mutually Assured Destruction” philosophy to great advantage and devastating effect…

In an industry where comic themes seem more and more limited and the readership dwindles to a slavish fan base that only wants more and shinier versions of what it’s already had, the beauty of such strips as Modesty Blaise is not simply the timeless excellence of the stories and the captivating wonder of the illustration, but that material like this can’t fail to attract a broader readership to the medium. Its content can hold its own against the best television and film. NCIS, Chuck Bartowski and Sydney Bristow beware – Modesty’s back to show you how it should be done…

© 2007 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Jiggs is Back

By George McManus (Celtic Book Company)
ISBN: 0-913666-82-3

Alternatively titled Maggie and Jiggs or Bringing Up Father the comedic magnum opus of George McManus ranks as one of the best and most influential comic strips of all time: a brilliant blend of high satire and low wit that drapes the rags-to-riches American dream with the cautionary admonition to be careful of what you wish for…

Recently this magnificent series was celebrated with a lavish hardcover collection reprinting the strip’s captivating beginnings (see George McManus’s Bringing Up Father: Forever Nuts – Classic Screwball Strips) but that book, wonderful though it is, only prints black and white daily episodes, whilst this colossal softcover from a few years back concentrates on the exceptionally beautiful Sunday colour pages – a perfect proving ground for the artist’s incredible imagination to run wild with slapstick set-pieces, innovative page design and a canny eye for fashion and pattern.

McManus was born on January 23rd of either 1882 or 1883 and drew from a very young age. His father, realising his talent, secured him work in the art department of the St. Louis Republic newspaper. At thirteen he swept floors, ran errands and drew when ordered to. In an era before cheap, reliable photography, news stories were supplemented by drawn illustrations; usually of disasters, civic events and executions: McManus claimed he had attended 120 hangings (a national record!) but still found time to produce cartoons: honing his mordant wit and visual pacing. His first sale was Elmer and Oliver. He hated it.

The jobbing cartoonist had a legendary stroke of luck in 1903. Acting on a bootblack’s tip he placed a $100 bet on a 30-1 outsider and used his winnings to fund a trip to New York City. He splurged his cash reserves but on his last day got two job offers: one from the McClure Syndicate and a lesser bid from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

He took the smaller offer, went to work for Pulitzer and created a host of features for the paper including Snoozer, The Merry Marceline, Ready Money Ladies, Cheerful Charlie, Panhandle Pete, Let George Do It, Nibsy the Newsboy in Funny Fairyland (one of the earliest Little Nemo knock-offs) and his first big hit (1904) The Newlyweds.

This last brought him to the attention of Pulitzer’s arch rival William Randolph Hearst, who, acting in tried and true manner, lured him away with big money in 1912. In Hearst’s papers The Newlyweds became the Sunday page feature Their Only Child, and was soon supplemented by Outside the Asylum, The Whole Blooming Family, Spare Ribs and Gravy and Bringing Up Father.

At first it alternated with other McManus domestic comedies in the same slot, but eventually the artist dropped Oh, It’s Great to be Married!, Oh, It’s Great to Have a Home and Ah Yes! Our Happy Home! as well as his second Sunday strip Love Affairs of a Muttonhead to concentrate on the story of Irish hod-carrier Jiggs whose vast newfound wealth brought him no joy, whilst his parvenu wife Maggie and inexplicably beautiful, cultured daughter Nora sought acceptance in “Polite” society.

The strip turned on the simplest of premises: whilst Maggie and daughter feted wealth and aristocracy, Jiggs, who only wanted to booze and schmooze and eat his beloved corned beef and cabbage, would somehow shoot down their plans – usually with severe personal consequences. Maggie might have risen in society but she never lost her devastating accuracy with crockery and household appliances.

Bringing Up Father debuted on January 12th 1913, originally appearing three times a week, then four and eventually every day. It made McManus two fortunes (the first he lost in the 1929 Stock Market crash), spawned a radio show, a movie in 1928, five more between 1946-1950 (as well as an original Finnish film in 1939) and 9 silent animated short features, plus all the assorted marketing paraphernalia that fetches such high prices in today’s antique markets. The artist died in 1954, and other creators continued the strip until May 28th 2000, its unbroken 87 years making it the second longest running newspaper strip of all time.

McManus said that he got the basic idea from The Rising Generation: a musical comedy he’d seen as a boy: but the premise of wealth not bringing happiness was only the foundation of the strip’s success. Jigg’s discomfort at his elevated position, his yearnings for the nostalgic days and simple joys of youth are something everyone is prey to, but the real magic at work here is the entrancing blend of slapstick, social commentary, sexual politics and fashion delivered by a man who could draw like an angel. The incredibly clean simple lines and the superb use – and implicit understanding – of art nouveau and art deco imagery and philosophy – especially in colour – make this book a stunning treat for the eye.

This glorious rainbow of mirth includes an introduction from Pulitzer-winning author William Kennedy and an incisive analytical commentary from comics historian Bill Blackbeard for those that need or desire a grounding for their reading, but of course what we all want is to revel in the 48 magnificent, full page adventures; thoughtfully divided into ‘The Joys of Poverty’ from 1923, wherein the family suffered a reversal of fortune and became once more poor, but happy; ‘The Vacation’ (December 9th 1939 – July 7th 1940, a spectacular epic following the family, complete with new aristocratic English twit son-in-law, on a city by city tour of America, and ‘Maggie, Do You Remember When…’ (selected from the peak period of the feature ranging from 1933 to 1942): a shamelessly sentimental and dryly witty occasional series of bucolic recollections of “the good old days” that produced some of the most heart-warming and inventive episodes in the series’ 55 year history…

An added surprise for a strip of this vintage is the great egalitarianism of it. Although there is the occasional visual stereotype to swallow and excuse, what we regard as racism is practically absent. The only thing to watch out for is the genteel sexism and class (un)consciousness, although McManus clearly pitched his tent on the side of the dirty, disenfranchised and downtrodden – as long as he could get a laugh out of it… This wonderful, evocative celebration of the world’s greatest domestic comedy strip is a little hard to find but well worth the effort. Hopefully some sagacious entrepreneur will eventually get round to giving Bringing Up Father the deluxe reprint treatment it so deserves

© 1986 Celtic Book Company.

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.

Tarzan: the Jesse Marsh Years volume 1

By Gaylord DuBois & Jesse Marsh (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-238-3

I don’t know an awful lot about Jesse Marsh, other than that he was born on 27th July 1907 and died far too young – on April 28th 1966 – from diabetic complications at the height of a TV Tarzan revival he was in some part responsible for. What I do know, however, is that to my unformed, pre-fanboy, kid’s mentality, his drawings were somehow better than most of the other artists and that every other kid who read comics in my school disagreed with me.

There’s a phrase we used to use at 2000AD that summed it up: “Artist’s artist”, which usually meant someone whose fan-mail divided equally into fanatical raves and bile-filled hate-mail. It seems there are some makers of comic strips that some readers simply don’t get. It isn’t about the basic principles or artistic quality or even anything tangible – although you’ll hear some cracking justifications: “I don’t like his feet” (presumably the way he draws them) and “it just creeps me out” being my two favourites…

I got Jesse Marsh.

He was another Disney animator (from 1939) who became in 1945 a full-time comics illustrator of that company’s comicbook licensee Whitman Publishing. Their Dell and Gold Key imprints, based on the West Coast, rivalled DC and Marvel at the height of their powers, and famously never capitulated to the wave of anti-comics hysteria that resulted in the crippling self-censorship of the 1950s. Dell Comics never displayed a Comics Code Authority symbol on their covers – they never needed to.

Marsh jobbed around the movie properties, mostly on westerns like Gene Autry, until 1948 when Dell produced the first all-new Tarzan comic. A newspaper strip had run since 1929 and all previous books had featured expurgated reprints of those adventures until Dell Four Color Comic #134 (February 1947) which featured a lengthy, captivating tale of the Ape-Man scripted by Robert P Thompson, who wrote both the Tarzan radio show and the aforementioned syndicated strip.

‘Tarzan and the Devil Ogre’ is very much in the Burroughs tradition: the sometime Lord Greystoke and his friend D’Arnot aid a young woman in rescuing her lost father from a hidden tribe ruled over by a monster, an engrossing yarn made magical by the simple, underplayed magic of a heavy brush line and absolutely unmatched design sense.

Marsh was unique in the way he positioned characters in space, using primitivist forms and hidden shapes to augment his backgrounds, and as the man was a fanatical researcher, his trees, rocks, and constructions were 100% accurate. His animals and natives, especially the children and women, were all distinct and recognisable – not the blacked-up stock figures in grass skirts even the greatest artists too often resorted to. He also knew when to draw big and draw small: the internal dynamism of his work is spellbinding.

His Africa became mine, and of course the try-out tale was an instant hit. Marsh and Thompson’s Tarzan returned with two tales in Dell Four Color Comic #161, August 1947 – (a remarkable feat: Four Colour was a catch-all title that featured literally hundreds of different licensed properties, often as many as ten separate issues per month, thus so rapid a return meant pretty solid sales figures). In ‘The Fires of Tohr’ Tarzan and D’Arnot rescue a stranded professor and his niece as they search for a fabulous lost city, only to fall foul of a crazed queen of that ancient race, whilst in the second tale ‘Tarzan and the Black Panther’ the Lord of the Jungle crushes a modern slave trader who thinks himself beyond the reach of justice.

Within six months the bimonthly Tarzan #1 was released (January-February 1948), a swan-song for Thompson, but another unforgettable classic for Marsh – and the first of an unbroken run that would last until 1965: over 150 consecutive issues. In ‘Tarzan and the White Savages of Vari’ Greystoke rescued a lost prospector from a mountain kingdom of Neanderthals and the issue also featured the first of many pictorial glossaries, Tarzan’s Ape-English Dictionary, which gave generations of youngsters another language to keep secrets in…

‘Tarzan and the Captives of Thunder Valley’ introduced a few recurring characters such as Manu the monkey and the noble ape Gufta in the first of many a tale written by Editor and prolific scripter Gaylord DuBois wherein the Lord of the Jungle went to the aid of an English boy searching for his father, a scientist specialising in radioactive ores. The deadly plot uncovered threatened to destabilise the entire world and ended in a spectacular climax worthy of a Bond movie.

Issue #3 introduced Tarzan’s family. In ‘Tarzan and the Dwarfs of Didona’ Jane is left to mind the store when Boy (later called Korak) played with baboons and got lost on an island in the Great Lake. Threatened with blood sacrifice by aggressive white pygmies the dauntless lad could only wait for rescue – and a severe scolding…

This first magnificent hardback collection concludes with ‘Tarzan and the Lone Hunter’ (#4, July-August 1948), plunging the reader deeply into the fantastic worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs as old friend Om-At the cat man from the lost land of Pal-Ul-Don (introduced in the eighth novel Tarzan the Terrible) comes looking for his lost mate and embroils the ape-man and his brood in a deadly battle with a megalomaniacal witch-doctor…

Although these are tales from a far-off, simpler time they have lost none of their passion, inclusivity and charm whilst the artistic virtuosity of Jesse Marsh looks better than ever. Perhaps this time a few more people will “get” him…

© 1947, 1948, 2009 Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. Tarzan ® Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. All rights reserved.