Popeye: The Great Comic Book Tales by Bud Sagendorf


By Bud Sagendorf, edited and designed by Craig Yoe (Yoe Books/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-747-4 (HB)                eISBN: 978-1-68406-381-9

There are few comic characters that have entered communal 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 Segar had been producing Thimble Theatre since December 19th 1919, but when he introduced a coarse, brusque “sailor man” into the saga of vaudevillian archetypes Ham Gravy and Castor Oyl on January 17th 1929, nobody suspected the giddy heights that walk-on would reach…

Yes, folks, its’s Happy 90th Anniversary for the old swab, who’s still going strong under the aegis of veteran cartoonist Hy Eisman (Kerry Drake, Little Iodine, Bunny, The Katzenjammer Kids, Little Lulu). Parent strip Thimble Theatre turns one hundred this year too, so there’s that to celebrate as well…

In 1924 Segar 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 which endured – in one form or another – as a topper/footer-feature accompanying the main Sunday page throughout the author’s career.

It even survived his untimely death, eventually becoming the trainee-playground of Popeye’s second great stylist Bud Sagendorf…

After Segar’s tragic and far too premature death in 1938, Doc Winner, Tom Sims, Ralph Stein and Bela Zambouly all worked on the printed strip even as animated short features brought Popeye to the entire world via the magic of movies. Sadly, none of them had the eccentric flair and raw inventiveness that had put Thimble Theatre at the forefront of cartoon entertainments…

Born in 1915, Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf was barely 17 when his sister – who worked in the Santa Monica art store where Segar bought his supplies – introduced the kid to the master who became his teacher and employer as well as a father-figure. In 1958, Sagendorf took over the strip and all the merchandise design, becoming Popeye’s prime originator…

When Sagendorf took over, his loose, rangy style and breezy scripts brought the strip itself back to the forefront of popularity and made reading it cool and fun all over again. He wrote and drew Popeye in every graphic arena – including the majority of licensed merchandise – for 24 years. Sagendorf retired in 1986 after which “Underground” cartoonist Bobby London took over the Sailorman’s voyages and died in 1994.

Bud had been Segar’s assistant and apprentice, and from 1948 onwards he wrote and drew Popeye’s comicbook adventures in a regular monthly title published by America’s king of licensed periodicals, Dell Comics.

When Popeye first appeared, he was a rude, crude brawler: a gambling, cheating, uncivilised ne’er-do-well. He was soon exposed as the ultimate working-class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate, unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not, a joker who wanted kids to be themselves – but not necessarily “good” – and someone who took no guff from anyone.

Naturally, as his popularity grew, Popeye mellowed somewhat. He was still ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows but the shocking sense of dangerous unpredictability and comedic anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed… but not in Sagendorf’s comicbook yarns…

Collected in this enchanting full-colour hardback (also available in a digital edition) is an admittedly arbitrary and far from definitive selection of the Young Master’s compelling funnybook canon from Dell, spanning February/April 1948 to September 1957. Other yarns are readily available in IDW’s Popeye Classics series and I’ll be plugging those in the fullness of time.

The stunning, seemingly stream-of-consciousness stories are preceded here by an effusively appreciative Introduction from Jerry Beck before ‘Ahoy, Ya Swabs!’ relates history and recollection from inspired aficionado and historian/publisher Craig Yoe augmented by a fabulous collation of candid photos, original comicbook art, more.

Especial gems are Bud’s 1956 lessons on backgrounds from the Famous Artists Cartoon Course, series of postcards and the Red Cross booklet produced for sailors.

Popeye’s fantastic first issue launched in February 1948, with no ads and duo-coloured (black and red) single page strips on the inside front and back covers. From that premiere issue a full-coloured crisis comes as ‘Shame on You! or Gentlemen Do Not Fight! or You’re a Ruffian, Sir!’ sees our salty swab earning a lucrative living as an occasional prize-fighter. That all ends when upcoming contender Kid Kabagge and his cunning manager Mr. Tillbox use a barrage of psychological tricks to put Popeye off his game. The key component is electing his sweetie Olive Oyl President of the fictitious Anti-Fisticuff Society to convince her man to stop being a beastly ruffian and abandon violence. It only works until the fiery frail learns she’s been gulled…

Next up is the lead tale from #9, (October/November) as ‘Misermites! or I’d Rather Have Termites!’ details how the peaceful coastal town of Seawet is plagued by an invasion of plundering dwarves. When the petty pilferers vanish back to their island with “orphink kid” Swee’ Pea as part of their spoils, Popeye and Wimpy give chase and end up battling a really, really big secret weapon…

‘Witch Whistle’ comes from Popeye #12 (April/May 1950) and sees the sailor revisit the embattled kingdom of Spinachovia where old King Blozo is plagued by a rash of vanishing farmers. The cause is sinister old nemesis the Sea Witch whose army of giant vultures seem unbeatable until Popeye intervenes…

‘Interplanetary Battle’ comes from Popeye #21 (July-September 1952) and taps into the growing fascination with UFOs as Wimpy innocently seeks to aid his old pal. When no prize fighter on Earth will box with Popeye, the helpful vagabond broadcasts a message to the universe and what answers the call is a bizarre shapeshifting swab with sneaky magic powers…

An engaging Micawber-like coward, cad and conman, the insatiable J. Wellington Wimpy debuted on in the Newspaper strip on May 3rd 1931 as an unnamed and decidedly partisan referee in one of Popeye’s pugilistic bouts. The scurrilous but polite oaf struck a chord and Segar gradually made him a fixture. Always hungry, keen to solicit bribes and a cunning coiner of many immortal catchphrases – such as “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” and ‘Let’s you and him fight’ – Wimpy was the perfect foil for a simple action hero and increasingly stole the entire show… and anything else unless it was extremely well nailed down…

From Popeye #25 (July-September 1953), ‘Shrink Weed’ then details how some “wild spinach” reduces the old salt and baby Swee’ Pea to the size of insects with potentially dire and outrageous consequences before the entire cast visit ‘The Happy Little Island’ (Popeye #27, January-March 1954) and confront subsurface creatures doing their darndest to spoil that jolly atmosphere.

An epic thrill-fest manifests in ‘Alone! or Hey! Where is Everybody? or Peoples is All Gone!’ (#32, April-June 1955) as humans are abducted from all over the coast, leading Popeye into another ferocious battle with evil machines and his most persistent enemy, after which another family sea-voyage results in the cast being castaway on an island of irascible invisible folk in ‘Nothing!’ (#34, October-December 1955) before the fun concludes in sheer surreal strife as Popeye #41 (July-September 1957) displays capitalism at its finest when Olive gets a new boyfriend: one with a regular job and prospects. Stung to retaliate, Popeye devises ‘Spinach Soap!’ to secure his own fortune, but being un-ejjikated, rough-and-ready appoints Wimpy as his boss. Big mistake…

There is more than one Popeye. Most of them are pretty good, and some are truly excellent. The one in this book is definitely one of the latter and if you love lunacy, laughter and rollicking adventure you must now read this.
Popeye: The Great Comic Book Tales by Bud Sagendorf © 2018 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Popeye © 2018 King Features Syndicate. ™ Heart Holdings Inc.