I have On The Ration stalwart, Rob Wells, to thank for me reading this after his reviews of books from this series he posted here. If it wasn’t for him, I would never have imagined myself reading Popeye comics. For me, Popeye had been defined by the cartoon show of the 70s/80s in which the character fought Brutus (or was it Pluto) for the romantic attentions of Olive Oyl who was usually holding a crocodile’s mouth open with her outstretched legs. Popeye would squeeze a can of spinach into his mouth, punch Brutus/Pluto into the sea, save Olive from the beast before going through the whole sorry process for another ten minutes immediately after. Of course, like most extra media interpretations of comic strips, this cartoon series was several Chinese whispers removed from the EC Segar’s source material of which this is the second collection.
Popeye originally appeared in Segar’s daily newspaper strip Thimble Theatre ten years after it had started during the late 1920s. He proved so popular that it wasn’t long before he was the main character. It is easy to see why. Ugly of face, one of eye, big of heart, free with his fists and his manglification of the English language; Popeye was flawed but honest. He is what he is.
The first half of this book collects a run of daily strips from 1930 to 1932. Each day’s strip is usually six panels long, although it is not uncommon for the space for two to joined together for an extra sized one, and is part of a larger narrative. Popeye starts this volume by visiting the West, which as a sailor used to water he doesn’t like, before travelling around America and the world for other adventures.
The second half features the colour Sunday strips from this period and is why the volume is the cumbersome A3 size that it is. Popeye occupies the top two thirds of the page while the bottom third is taken up with another Segar comic called Sappo, a humour strip about a seemingly childless middle aged couple. Popeye’s Sunday adventures are based in and around the same local and like all good sitcoms features a regular support cast and locations. Although usually part of a longer narrative, these are accessible alone. In this volume, Popeye’s Sunday adventures usually involve him preparing for a big boxing fight by playing craps with his mates down at the docks, eating hamburgers in Rough-House’s restaurant, wooing Olive and getting arrested for brawling. Often, he escapes jail by punching a hole through the wall to defeat his opponent in the highly anticipated boxing match before going back to jail of his own accord to serve the rest of his time.
Clearly, these are brilliantly drawn strips filled with full figure exuberance and very few close ups. Segar was prolific producing six daily strips and a Sunday’s page of a substantial size. But they are joyfully written also. Popeye speaks in a highly original mangled English but Olive and Wimpy, who makes his first appearances in this volume, have their own distinctive speech rhythms too. Segar was a great chorographer. In one Sunday strip, Popeye argues with Rough-House about his upcoming boxing match with a gorilla while Wimpy tries to help himself to a free hamburger (again).
I’m surprised at how timeless these strips seem to be. Or are these depression era yarns just relevant again? One reoccurring theme is Popeye receiving a windfall of money for a good deed and then going down to the docks to lose it all in a game of craps. The worrying theme seems to be that people like Popeye, people who have never had very much, don’t know what to do with money on the rare occasions that they get it. A couple of times, he tries to put it to good use. In one of the daily narratives he opens The One-Way Bank so he can make individual donations to the homeless. Unfortunately he was unable to resist giving attractive brunettes huge sums of money for fur coats and the like. In another story, he buys an orphan enough clothes to last her life time in a misguided attempt to provide her with security. Later he manages to reunite the girl with her millionaire parents. In a surprisingly moving moment, Popeye offers the rich father all of his sprize fight money to spend on his daughter.
Segar uses asterisks and hash-tags to cover for expletives, a method still used today in comics, usually those published by Marvel or DC. For example, if you’re reading an Avengers comic written by Brian Michael Bendis, you know he’s substituting these symbols for phrases like “mother fucker.” While reading volume one of Popeye I substituted these bits of texts with words like “fucking” and “shit”. It wasn’t until this volume that I realised that Segar was probably covering for words like “damn” and “hell”. The moment I used these words instead, a whole new rhythm opened up.
Of course, Popeye is all about the fighting. In the dailies, weeks can pass by before Popeye starts to lay into someone with his fists and its usually exhilarating when he does so because some sneaky bastard is getting his comeuppance. Even in these circumstances, it’s not unknown for Popeye to shake hands with him afterwards out of good, ol’ fashioned respeck. A Sunday strip, however, rarely concludes without Popeye having beaten somebody up. In the main it’s somebody who deserves a good sockin’, like some arsehole in the park looking for a scrap, but Popeye isn’t averse to laying an innocent passerby among the sweet peas if no one else is available.
It’s the fallout of Popeye’s violence that breaks the spell of the book for me occasionally. It’s not uncommon for Wimpy to end up with a black eye or for Olive to end up in a state thanks to him. A couple of times, Popeye violently shakes Olive in frustration. It’s shocking to my modern sensibilities to see this and confusing as to how to take the rest of the violence that occurs. Can it ever be slapstick if a man slaps a woman he’s in a relationship with in the heat of an argument? Even if he expresses regret later? Regardless, I get enough enjoyment from these strips and have enough faith in Segar as an artist not to let this put me off reading the rest of these collections.
What has surprised me the most about EC Segar’s Popeye is that it’s laugh out loud funny. In one strip, Popeye is being escorted in handcuffs to jail by a policeman but this doesn’t stop him going to the docks for a game of craps or visiting the restaurant for a sanrich. When he falls asleep under a tree, the obliging policeman frees himself and cuffs another, this time obese, officer to Popeye. When he wakes up he bursts out laughing and says, “Well blow me down! Tha’sa good joke on me!!” In the One Way Bank, a homeless guy repeatedly appears at the counter asking for money looking slightly different each time. He’s shaved his moustache off, he’s put on a pair of glasses, he’s wearing a false beard. It’s the humour that’s the most humbling thing about EC Segar’s Popeye for me. Each new generation thinks that they invented humour but it turns out that our great grandparents were much funnier than we ever are.