By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
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 slouching 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-auteur, in a whirlwind of creative inspiration, took the daily strip to new heights of cliffhanging thrills and absurdity. This he did 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 even 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 sees the increasingly irrepressible J. Wellington Wimpy expand beyond the Sunday pages to join the dailies cast, almost mooching the infant country away from its idealistic founder. Popilania’s problems are multiplied by an invasion of “furiners”, “emmygrunts” and even jungle-Neanderthals in ‘Wild Men and Wild Women’ before the well-meaning reformer learns his lesson. At least he never had to cope with Brexit…
The trenchant social commentary and barbed satire continued when he returns to America to become ‘Star Reporter’ for The Daily Blast, a periodical edited by Castor and “blessed” with Wimpy as photographer. This leads to the next big cast addition and our hero’s greatest advancement when a reader mails Popeye a baby in ‘Me Sweet Pea.’
Discovering the “infink’s” true history and heritage pits the sailor-man against some pretty ruthless types, and results in him suffering a serious brain injury in ‘Bonkus of the Konkus’ but his indomitable soul and noble heart win through as always in the turbulent desert debacle ‘Popeye’s Cure’…
The Sunday Page 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 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 owes a huge debt to his creator’s love and admiration of comedian W.C. Fields. A mercurial force of nature, the unflappable mendicant is the perfect foil for common-man-but-imperfect-champion, Popeye. Where the sailor is heart and spirit, unquestioning morality and self-sacrifice, indomitable defiance, brute force and no smarts at all, Wimpy is intellect and self-serving rapacious greed, freed from all ethical restraint or consideration, and gloriously devoid of any impulse-control.
Wimpy 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…
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 readers: incorporating collector stamps, games and puzzles to his Sunday pages. In an era with no television – and indeed, with only the very first prototype comicbooks just starting to appear – radio-shows and 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…
In this anniversary year, you owe it to yourself to make the acquaintance of this icon of cartooning.
© 2008 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2008 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.