The Hobbit

By J.R.R. Tolkien, adapted by Charles Dixon & Sean Deming, illustrated by David Wenzel (Eclipse Book)
ISBN: 1-56060-054-3-1295

I’m a great believer in art remaining true to its roots: Nobody writes a novel with the ultimate intention of it becoming a lousy movie, nor a song or symphony merely to sell the ring-tone rights (maybe these days they do – it would certainly explain why there are so many bad books and crap tunes. Just call me the last of the dewy-eyed idealists, then).

So just to keep things straight: even though I’m about to review the graphic novel adaptation – and favourably – Read the Book. Even though there’s been a stage play, a radio drama, an animated feature and (soon) a two-film franchise – Read the Book.

Every time you see something leap the creative hurdle from original artwork to another, different, separate medium: Read the Book. Or comic or play or song or…

The Hobbit was first published in 1937 to world-wide success and acclaim. It won the New York Herald-Tribune Award for best juvenile fiction, was nominated for a Carnegie Medal and is rightly considered to be a classic of World Literature. In my overblown and utterly personal opinion it completely outclasses and knocks spots off the sequel Tolkien’s publishers demanded. You ought to read that too: it’s called Lord of the Rings.

In 1989 Eclipse Comics produced a three-part prestige miniseries adapting the Hobbit, which was then collected into a successful graphic novel that helped break the then-new format out of the comics fan ghetto. Since the company’s demise the collection has been re-issued by HarperCollins (1998, ISBN: 978-0-26110-266-8) and other companies and is relatively easy to find.

I’m sticking with the original here simple because it has the wonderful painted cover by David Wenzel gracing it. The story itself, of how a sedate and sedentary little Halfling called Bilbo Baggins is cajoled by the wizard Gandalf into leaving his complacent life of middle class prosperity for the seductive lure of adventure, is as enchanting as it ever was.

The diminutive Hobbit agrees, somewhat reluctantly, to become a Thief/Burglar for 14 disinherited dwarfs who yearn to liberate their ancestral home – and treasure – from the awesome dragon Smaug, and incorporates all the fascinating ephemerals that have graced Western mythology and tale-telling for centuries. (Read the Book).

Tolkien’s text is sensitively abridged rather than adapted by Chuck Dixon and Sean Deming, who strove to retain as much of the original as possible, whilst the illustration is by turns pretty, jolly, enthralling and when the dragon, goblins, trolls and especially Gollum appear, wholesomely terrifying. Wenzel started out as a wanna-be comics artist before moving into the field of fantasy and especially children’s illustration in the 1980s where he worked with icons like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and creators like Maurice Sendak, but he returned to comics for this project: probably his greatest achievement and one he’d dreamed of for much of his career (See Middle Earth: the World of Tolkien Illustrated)…

This is a truly magical interpretation of the classic and one that any devotee will find hard to dislike. If you are a lover of traditional fantasy you should get a copy – after you’ve Read the Book.

© 1989, 1990 the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. Based on The Hobbit © 1965 by J.R.R. Tolkien. Illustration © 1989, 1990 David Wenzel. Adaptation © 1989, 1990 Charles Dixon & Sean Deming. All Rights Reserved.

The Art of Hergé – Inventor of Tintin: volume 2 1937-1949

By Philippe Goddin (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-724-2

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a genuine masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and other supreme stylists of the select Hergé Studio, he created twenty three splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art.

On leaving school in 1925 he worked for the Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy-scout Remi produced his first strip series The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine the following year, and by 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécle’s weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

He was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette, written by the staff sports reporter when Wallez asked him to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history, and for such a pivotal figure who better to recount it than Philippe Goddin, friend and acclaimed expert and the man who directed the Hergé Studio research and archives for a decade?

This intermediate volume of three follows the artist’s progress week by week and year by year through the heady successes of his major creations, diarising key events, clarifying the various tasks of a jobbing periodical cartoonist and noting the key personal moments of the man’s life – such as his affair with a friend of his wife Greg and the moment he discovered his agent had been embezzling from him.

Liberally illustrated with original art, printed and retouched pages and frames, copies of the comics and magazines the strips first appeared in and many photographs this is a fascinating insight into the working process of a graphic genius. The hundreds of pencil drawing and layouts alone are priceless to anyone with aspirations of a career in comics. If only other artists had been as scrupulously meticulous in preserving the many stages of their creations!

Beginning in 1937 the chapters follow the progress and output of all five Jo, Zette and Jocko tales from The Secret Ray through to Valley of the Cobras, new Tintin from The Broken Ear and Black Island to Land of Black Gold (ten albums), and the slapstick japes of Belgian urchins Quick and Flupke (twelve volumes), plus all the revision to the previous output that kept his work fresh – and available – to his growing legion of fans.

Covering the tumultuous war years, his temporary ostracising as a “collaborator”, his depression, breakdown and return to success and popularity this is a book that no fan can be without and no would-be storyteller can fail to profit from.

Art © Hergé/Moulinsart 2009. Text © Moulinsart 2009. All rights reserved.

Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge: A Cold Bargain – Gladstone Comic Album #24

By Carl Barks (Gladstone)
ISBN: 0-944599-24-9

Gladstone Publishing began re-releasing 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 art to the burgeoning canon of Donald Duck and other Big Screen characters, but his output was incredible both in terms of quantity and especially in its unfailingly high quality.

Printed in the large European oversized format (278mm x 223mm) this fabulous delicacy reprints the contents of Uncle Scrooge #17 (1957) and adds satire and Cold War commentary to Bark’s phenomenal list of narrative attributes. When a totally new element is discovered the Mallard Magnate liquidises a large part of his fortune (One trillion dollars and six kitchen sinks!) to secure the entire supply – a ball of “Bombastium” approximately the size of a large turnip.

Moreover even if nobody knows what exactly the stuff can do everybody knows Bombastium evaporates unless it remains frozen. Terrified that his acquisition will melt before he can make a profit Scrooge drags Donald Duck and his nephews on a voyage to the South Pole to safeguard his investment but has not reckoned on the ruthless determination of the Brutopian agents he outbid to achieve it…

This is one of Barks’ greatest tales: action, comedy, tragedy, politics and old fashioned sentiment all work together to produce a superbly memorable adventure. The bored nephews make a fake Bombastium ball to freak out the adults, a lonely, love-hungry penguin adopts and tries to hatch the element, and there’s gags and travail aplenty as the tale ranges from spy-thriller to absurdist fairytale and back.

The dialogue is a pure gold (“Greetings… Rich Pig of a Duck…”) and will delight anyone old enough to remember the peculiar dialectic and rhetoric of the East/West divide.

Also included here are the precautionary one-pager ‘The Secret Book’ and ‘All at Sea’, a tale pitting the Ducks against the depredations of the scurrilous Beagle Boys from Uncle Scrooge #31 (1960). and the book ends with another sterling one-page gag strip from Uncle Scrooge #5 (1954).

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, but his greatest creation was undoubtedly the crusty, energetic, paternalistic, money-mad gazillionaire Scrooge McDuck: the star of the show wherever he goes.

Even if you can’t find this particular volume (and trust me, you really want to) 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, you poor, culturally deprived pig of a fan, you
© 1990, 1960, 1957, 1954 The Walt Disney Company. 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.

How to Draw Disney’s Mulan

By uncredited (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-038-3

I haven’t covered a “How To” book for ages and as this one’s entertaining, wonderfully fit for purpose and readily available it would well serve any budding artists and prospective animators to seek it out and absorb…

Following a brief précis of the story – involving a young girl who rose to prominence in the army of legendary Ancient China – the instructional portion begins with Equipment and Techniques, Designing Characters – animal and human, comedic, villainous and heroic. Costume Design, Staging the Action and Use of Props. This large scale, slim book concludes with a test – Creating a Scene: providing a chance to use the knowledge gained to have fun and practice.

Brilliantly colourful and with clear concise instructions covering the undeniable basics that every artist of any age needs to master, such as stylisation and basic anatomy, and including detailed step-by-step breakdowns and model sheet for every major character from the films this is an indispensable aid and a tremendously inspiring introduction for the aspiring Artist of Tomorrow.
© 1998 Disney Enterprises, Inc. 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.

Quick & Flupke: Under Full Sail

By Hergé, translated by David Radzinowicz (Egmont UK)
ISBN: 978-1-4052-4743-6

Finally making it into English are the adventures of two young scallywags that for a while rivalled the utterly irresistible Tintin in popularity and ones which certainly acted as a test lab for the humorous graphic elements so much a part of the future world classic.

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a genuine masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates, but Tintin was by no means his only creation. Among the best of the rest are Jo, Zette and Jocko and these episodic all-ages comedy gems.

On leaving school in 1925 Hergé worked for the Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he seems to have fallen under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A dedicated boy-scout himself, he produced his first strip series The Adventures of Totor for Boy Scouts of Belgium monthly magazine the following year, and by 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécle’s children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

He was unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette, written by the staff sports reporter, when Abbot Wallez asked him to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate the innovation into his own work. He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning on January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets<; appeared in weekly instalments in Le Petit Vingtiéme running until May 8th 1930.

At about this time he also began crafting the weekly 2-page exploits of two working class rapscallions in Brussels who played pranks, got into mischief and even ventured into the heady realms of slapstick and surrealism in the kind of yarns that any reader of Dennis the Menace (ours, not the Americans) would find fascinatingly familiar.

Originally running in black and white in Le Petit Vingtiéme starting in January 1930 they larked about for over a decade until the war and the pressure of producing Tintin meant they had to go. They were rediscovered in 1985 and their collected adventures ran for 12 volumes.

Now we’ve got them, available for folk too lazy to learn French (or Dutch or German or…) in a glorious full-colour make-over and they are the perfect light read for kids of all ages.

© Hergé – Exclusivity Editions Casterman 1986.  All Rights Reserved.
English translation © 2009 Egmont UK Limited.  All Rights Reserved.