Thursday, May 04, 2017

Thimble Theatre Presents Popeye by Bobby London (two volumes)

There are times when you can't merely resign, for whatever reason. No, you have to make the bastards kick you out. And, if you have the right kind of personality, you might take a twisted glee at how hard you can get them to kick when they finally do. Anything else that happens along the way may be regrettable, may be collateral damage, but the important thing is to get that kick.

Bobby London got kicked in 1992, from the daily Popeye newspaper strip, which he'd been writing and drawing since 1986. (London took over from the aging Bud Sagendorf, Segar's former assistant who took over the strip in 1938. Sagendorf held onto the Sundays through his own death in 1994.) London's Popeye was both very much of its time -- yuppies! home shopping! fern bars! gentrification! -- and a return to the long adventure continuities of E.C. Segar after a few decades in which the newspaper Popeye was as dull and inoffensive as the various animated spin-offs that were most people's major impression of the character.

Almost twenty-five years later, the complete London run of Popeye was collected in two volumes by IDW, as part of their Library of American Comics imprint, including several weeks that London's syndicate pulled, in process, from newspapers as part of that big kick. There are also six additional weeks that didn't even make it out to papers -- London did them to finish out his contract, and the syndicate spiked them as soon as they came in.

And now the rest of us -- those who don't have access to the King Features vault -- can read this late flourishing of Popeye, in something like a Segar mode, from the cartoonist of Dirty Duck, and finally see both what got him canned and how he brought down the curtain on his version of the cast for an audience that, at the time, he must have assumed was only himself and his editors.

It opens as the gag-a-day strip that Popeye (everyone had long forgotten that it once was called Thimble Theatre, though London would pull that out for the title panels of his longer continuities a bit later) had degenerated into over the past several decades. London's line give it energy and some current pep, but it wasn't great stuff. London combined '30s sight gags and characterization with trendy topics and King-approved "family" jokes into an amusing mish-mosh that was inoffensive and pleasant enough, but little more than that.

But then, a little more than a year after he took over Popeye, London launched into a long continuity, featuring the Sea Hag as a real estate shark taking over Sweethaven, and the real London Popeye snapped into focus. For the next five years, London spun out long stories -- most of them with title cards to launch them -- over the course of months of two-panels-a-day comics, throwing in a satire of '80s-era go-go capitalism and consumerism that clearly wasn't always appreciated in the King offices.

They're not Segar, but they're Segaresque, the kind of stories a creator like Segar would have made in the '80s, looking at the world around him and asking how the cantankerous, underdog-loving Popeye would react to it. And London's energetic cartoony line -- and his few additions to the cast, like Olive's voluptuous cousin Sutra Oyl -- made it a joyful, smart piece of the comics page.

So of course it couldn't last.

I can't say that London deliberately tweaked the King censors to get himself fired. But the last full continuity before the final strips -- the last one to get a title card -- was "Stupid Little Hat!," five months of strips explicitly about Popeye being forced to act inoffensively and look like he did in '60s cartoons. "Stupid Little Hat!" ended with a showdown with the King of Licensing, the one forcing Popeye to act like that in order to make more money off of him. Again, I can't prove that this was London trying to get himself fired, but he went from attacking his own licensing department to a series of thinly-veiled abortion jokes, so I've got a strong hunch.

However it happened, London was kicked. His Popeye ended in the summer of 1992, after roughly six years of comics. It was just a bit dull in its inoffensiveness in the beginning, and a bit too obviously combative in its end. But in between, for around five years, it was a great adventure strip full of excellent humor, several decades after that form was supposedly dead. And it's available again these days, in a permanent form, for later generations to discover after reading the Segar originals -- I hope many of them do.

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