Wednesday, June 25, 2008

E.C. Segar's Popeye, Vol. 1

The subtitle of this first collection of Segar's Thimble Theater strips is the very appropriate "I Yam What I Yam!"

I've already taken it back to the library -- I actually read most of it on the afternoon of the day after it was due back. (Mostly because it's outlandishly oversized, and so can only be read really comfortably at a table.) So I can't cite chapter and verse.

But damn if E.C. Segar wasn't a sly, funny, and amazingly entertaining cartoonist. The character of Popeye has been very badly served by other hands for the past fifty or seventy years, so seeing the pure Segar is a revelation.

Popeye doesn't even appear until about page twenty-seven -- and this volume starts ten years into Thimble Theater's twenty-year run. The first part of the story has then-lead Castor Oyl inheriting Bernice the Whiffle Hen from his uncle, and then trying, repeatedly, to kill it for a reward. (Whiffle Hens are rare, valuable, and consummate escape artists.) Then Castor spends a month or so selling Bernice to various shady characters -- she always comes home to him, which causes trouble.

Finally, Castor and his friend Ham Gravy -- who had been Olive's long-time boyfriend before being rudely shouldered aside by a rough seaman -- learn that rubbing a Whiffle Hen's feathers brings great luck, so they set off to break the bank of an island casino. But to get there, they need a boat...and a crew.

For crew, Castor hires Popeye. The sailor is clearly supporting cast for the rest of that story, but it's also clear that Segar was having fun with the new character -- and, outside the world of the strip, Popeye was becoming hugely popular.

Popeye leaves the cast at the end of that story, but he's back pretty quickly -- either Segar or someone at his syndicate must have realized they had a great character on their hands. And what's astonishing -- at least to me, in 2008 -- is that Popeye wasn't the caricature that we think of these days. He was a tough guy and a sailor, and not book-smart, but he was canny and knowledgeable, with a great wealth of experience and an individual view of the world. He didn't eat spinach, he didn't fight with a sailor named Bluto (or Brutus), and he didn't talk in catchphrases.

Anyone who thinks Popeye is a dull, essentially limited character should check out this reprint series -- along with anyone who has an interest in classic comic strips. Segar's Thimble Theater was one of the good ones, with long, intricate stories and detailed art.

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