Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Popeye, Vol. 3: "Let's You and Him Fight!" by E.C. Segar

Popeye has always been too popular for his own good: almost from the very moment he appeared in E.C. Segar's then-mid-rank comic strip Thimble Theater in 1929, he almost-inexplicably grabbed the imagination of the public and the strip began to reconfigure itself around him. By the time of the stories reprinted in this volume -- originally published in newspapers during 1932 and '33, about half-way through the Segar Popeye years -- Thimble Theater was universally known as Popeye, and the wave of other-media versions had already begun.

(I complained about the animated Popeye, in particular, when I reviewed the first two volumes of this series -- "I Yam What I Yam!" and "Well, Blow Me Down!" -- so I won't repeat myself here.)

So this third volume is titled "Let's You And Him Fight!", which is of course one of the catchphrases of the cover character, Mr. Wellington J. Wimpy (along with "I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a Hamburger today" and "Come up to the house sometime for a duck dinner -- you bring the ducks" and "Have a hamburger with me -- on you"). Wimpy only appears in the Sunday continuity, though -- this is from the era in which dailies and Sundays were almost entirely separate, like Earth-1 and Earth-2 versions of the same characters.

The dailies in this book -- from June of '32 through December of '33 -- have a succession of long stories (each one generally taking several months, even with six large, dialogue- and action-filled panels a day), in which Popeye sails off in search of treasure in "The Eighth Sea," fights Bluto and his piratical mutineers, discovers that treasure and takes it back to King Blozo's kingdom of Nazila, where there's another close to a year of adventures, with Popeye founding his own country and dealing with wild men (and, even better, wild women!).  When Popeye finally gets back home -- which is some nameless port city in the USA -- he immediately dives into an unlikely job as a star investigative reporter, which quickly gets sidetracked when he discovers a lost baby. (Popeye, of course, usually calls him "Swee'pea," but the boy is actually christened with spinach in the name of Scooner Seawell Georgia Washenting Cristiffer Columbia Daniel Boom, just in case you want a really obscure Popeye trivia question.) And then, at the end of the daily section, there's the funniest sequence of this period, in which Popeye was hit on the head -- and developed "Bonkus of the Konkus," a very serious ailment -- which made him think "I yama lonely cowboy" who had lost his "horsh" and all of his cows. Popeye's usually so all-competent -- pretty much unstoppable, unless he's frightened of black magic -- that seeing him confused and aimless is a lot of fun, especially since we're sure that he's too tough to ever really be hurt.

The Sundays cover a similar but distinct period -- October '32 to November '33 -- and have less continuity to them. There are occasional boxing matches, and other stories, that run for a few weeks, but most of these are one-off gags, set either in Rough-house's restaurant or the Oyl's front parlor -- though, again, each of these strips has sixteen big panels, so they're not small gags. (The Sunday pages also include Segar's other strip of the time, Sappo, about -- by this time -- a pair of inventors and the odd things they get up to.)

Segar's Thimble Theater was a nearly perfect blend of humor and adventure, with a cast of interesting oddballs (led by Popeye himself, of course) and a tone that could veer from high drama to low comedy within a couple of panels. And this Fantagraphics series is even closer to perfection, presenting Segar's work gorgeously on great big pages -- it would be a much better world if all our artistic treasures were treated this well.

1 comment:

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Nice summary of Popeye's history. Now if only I could get Robin Williams playing him out of my mind.

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