HAPPY BIRTHDAY POPEYE!
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.