Friday, 18 March 2011

Review - Popeye Vol.1: I Yam What I Yam HC


If you are anything like me, you probably know Popeye best as an animated cartoon character, rather than as a comic strip character. Popeye cartoons seemed to be on TV all the time when I was a kid in the ‘70s, but it wasn’t until the late-1980s, while working in a comic shop, that I realised Popeye started life as a comic strip character. And even then, I (foolishly) didn’t bother reading any of the collections I had access to! In America, the country of his birth, I imagine that Popeye’s origins are more widely known, but here in the UK, I reckon most people just know Popeye as an animated character with a funny voice and a penchant for spinach – if they know him at all.

Popeye actually made his debut on the 17th of January 1929 in Elzie Crisler (E.C.) Segar’s newspaper strip, 'Thimble Theatre'. The strip had already been running for ten years when Popeye made his debut, and mainly revolved around the exploits of the Oyl family – Olive (and her then-boyfriend Harold Hamgravy), Castor, Cole, Cylinda, Lubry Kent (has there ever been a more brilliantly contrived name than Lubry Kent Oyl?), etc. – but after he appeared, Popeye quickly became the star of the show, dominated the strip even beyond Segar’s death in 1938, and went on to star in numerous cartoons and even a movie starring Robin Williams (which I’ve never seen). He seems to have dropped off the pop-cultural radar in recent years, but he was a hugely popular comics character!

This book, then, is the first of six volumes (five published so far) collecting all of E.C. Segar’s Popeye strips – dailies and Sundays – and it’s really, really good. The daily strips in this volume actually start four and a half months before Popeye makes his debut – Popeye doesn’t appear until page 27 – because the dailies (and, to a lesser extent, the Sundays) tended to feature continuing stories that went on for months on end and this book needed to start four and a half months early to get something resembling the beginning of the storyline in which Popeye first appeared. Really, though, these stories rarely had proper endings and the end of one adventure generally flowed into the next.

The book begins with Castor Oyl inheriting an African whiffle hen called Bernice from his uncle (Lubry Kent). Bernice has three feathers on her head that provide whoever rubs them with good luck, and after spending several weeks’ worth of strips trying to kill her, Castor eventually becomes quite attached to Bernice and decides to head to Dice Island – home of a big casino – to win his fortune, with Bernice’s help. To get to Dice Island, Castor buys a boat and employs the services a certain one-eyed sailor, and from there the pair win at least one fortune, lose at least one fortune, end up in jail at least once, escape from jail at least once, meet and defeat the Sea Hag, rescue a professor trapped in suspended animation (in someone else’s body!), and so on. Olive Oyl makes few appearances in these daily strips, there is no Bluto, no Wimpy, and not even any spinach. Instead, these strips revolve around the mystery-solving double act of Popeye and Castor Oyl. The stories move at a snail’s pace – as I said, they drag on for what would have been months when they were originally published – and the first panel or two of most strips recaps what happened in the previous day’s strip, which makes the stories seem even slower. However, the cartooning is brilliant – Segar was clearly a big influence on future generations of cartoonists and Castor Oyl and Hamgravy, in particular, look like they stepped out of a Robert Crumb comic – and the gags are often very funny.

While the dailies focused on continuing, increasingly convoluted adventure strips, the Sundays focused instead on Popeye’s romance with Olive Oyl and Popeye’s boxing career (note: he loses nearly every match because he keeps knocking out his opponents before the matches start, or else knocking out the ref, or both) and these are even funnier than the dailies. Most of the laughs are based on Popeye’s inability to refrain from punching people, usually seconds after promising to abandon violence. In one strip – so good they reprinted on the back cover of the book – Popeye assures Olive Oyl that he won’t beat up her two other suitors, knocks them both unconscious as soon as she leaves the room, and then rearranges their unconscious bodies to make it look as if they knocked each other out fighting while Popeye was reading a newspaper. When Olive expresses surprise that Popeye wasn’t involved in the scrap, he innocently replies: ‘Surprised, eh? Well blow me down, I’m a gentleman!’ It’s a brilliantly timed, brilliantly illustrated strip – like most of these Sunday strips – and the panel where Popeye knocks both of his rivals unconscious (with a single punch!) is just perfect.

As well as being a very good book, this is also a very big (hardcover) book. It only contains 182 pages – which isn’t bad at all – but each of these pages is nearly 15 inches high and contains either six daily strips – most of which are six panels long and contain a fair amount of dialogue – or else one big Sunday strip. The actual dimensions of the book, and the fact that some pages contain up to 36 dialogue-packed panels, mean that this is no easy read – I could only read the daily strips in small doses but I breezed through the Sundays – but it is a great read, and its 182 pages contain probably as much material as any Marvel Omnibus edition but at a fraction of the price.

This has a recommended retail price £21.99 / $29.95. I got my copy (and a copy of volume 2) for my birthday but the person who bought it for me got it from Amazon, where it is currently just £14.89. Subsequent volumes are similarly priced and I intend to buy them all. My only complaint about this book is that it has made me want to seek out even more collections of classic American comic strips – Krazy Kat, Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, etc. – and despite its relatively low cover price, it may (indirectly) end up costing me a fortune.

2 comments:

  1. Like you, I know very little of Popeye beyond the cartoons, but this sounds like good fun. And the ongoing joke about Popeye not being able to suppress his desire to punch people sounds like it's right up my street.

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  2. That's a great review. Thanks Rob. This has been on my wish list for a couple of years but I am still to get around to buying it.

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