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Saturday, March 29th, 2008
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Popeye, Vol. 1: "I Yam What I Yam"

by E. C. Segar

He Was What He Was: The Genesis of Popeye

A review by Chris Bolton

Can it be a coincidence that, as newspaper comic pages become increasingly laugh-free and almost unreadable, publishers have begun to archive entire runs of classic comic strips?

There was a time, in the early 20th century, when the comics page sold newspapers -- when editors relied on cartoon characters to sell their papers to largely illiterate, inner-city immigrants. Back then, multiple papers competed for readership in the same city, and editors wanted their comics page to be bigger, funnier, and more entertaining than the competition's. Today's tired retreads (it's been at least half a century since anyone actually laughed at a Hagar the Horrible or Blondie strip) and uninspired newcomers (does anyone else have a not-very-funny Calvin and Hobbes clone they'd like to unload?) pale in comparison to the comic strip epics of yesteryear, starting with the visual splendor and unhinged imagination of Windsor McKay's Little Nemo In Slumberland and the surreal, absurdist lunacy of George Herriman's Krazy Kat.

While it's a thrill to discover new strips (I would wager that precious few people under the age of 50 had even heard of Walt and Skeezix before the recent reprints from Drawn and Quarterly Press), there is even greater surprise to be had at rediscovering old favorites. The current standard-bearer for this reprint craze is Fantagraphics' Complete Peanuts series, which has done a considerable service to Charles Schulz's legacy by introducing a legion of younger fans to the original inspiration that made Peanuts a worldwide success -- long before the strip turned saccharine and Snoopy became better known as a spokesmodel than a comic character.

The latest resuscitation is Popeye, E. C. Segar's squinty-eyed, perpetually brawling sailor who remains a popular icon even though almost all young kids would be hard-pressed to actually explain who he is. They might recognize him from the live-action Robert Altman film, although I doubt it's aged well for modern kids reared on frenetic video games and anime -- and I frankly have a hard time imagining the Miley Cyrus generation singing along to Harry Nilssen's songs ("I'm mean, I'm mean, I'm mean/ Ya know what I mean?"). I'm sure some cable channel is still rerunning the 60-odd years of Popeye cartoons that helped popularize the character on a global scale -- but how the Sailor Man's spinach-gulping antics play to the Hannah Montana crowd, I don't even want to speculate. Truthfully, I doubt most of their parents have the first idea where Popeye came from.

Fantagraphics is setting the record straight with its six-volume Popeye series. The character began as a supporting player in E. C. Segar's Thimble Theatre adventure serial and became so popular that he wound up completely crowding out the strip's cast. For 10 years, from 1919 to 1929, Segar's strip featured a rotating ensemble of characters whose star was the perpetually scheming Castor Oyl (brother to the better-known Olive Oyl). Try to imagine Garfield edged off by a walk-on character, until the strip no longer stars a fat, orange cat, but some profane creature that despises lasagna and loves to start brawls, and you get an idea of how odd Popeye's ascent really was.

You won't find Swee' Pea, spinach, or Bluto in the pages of volume one, "I Yam What I Yam" (and Wimpy doesn't come along until volume two). The book collects every single daily strip from September 10, 1928, to December 30, 1930, along with the Sunday strips from March 2, 1930, to February 22, 1931 (the first Sunday strips to feature Popeye).

What is strange, initially, is the lack of the title character; Popeye doesn't debut until January 27, 1929, more than four months' worth of strips after the book begins. It's a fairly undistinguished introduction: a tall, swarthy, pug-ugly sailor hired by Castor Oyl to provide passage to a gambling resort on a place called Dice Island, where Castor plans to use his "lucky" Whiffle Hen to win a fortune. While Popeye's first appearance is rough and sloppy, it's amazing how many signature details are already in place: the squint, the pipe, the bulging chin and even more bulging forearms. It only takes four strips for him to first utter, "Well, blow me down!"

Still, it doesn't seem as if Segar recognized the strength of his creation right away. Popeye isn't a particularly good sailor, for one thing; the ship stays in port the entire first night because he forgot to hoist anchor and somehow didn't realize it. The relationship between Castor and Popeye hovers around a note of frustrated antagonism throughout the storyline, with Castor initially taking advantage of Popeye in a rigged craps game and frequently calling the sailor dumb and ugly.

It's not hard to see the appeal of Popeye. While volume one takes a while to warm up, the delay in presenting its main attraction serves dual purposes: to acclimate modern readers with the tangled storyline, and to accentuate how much flavor the introduction of Popeye brings to an otherwise blandly enjoyable strip. Castor acts mainly as a straight man in dire need of a good foil, and Olive's (soon to be jettisoned) boyfriend, Ham Gravy, has almost no personality to speak of. Segar is a good cartoonist, with a nice sense of pacing and a solid skill with a gag, but it isn't until Popeye appears that the strip really starts to catch fire.

One may have difficulty imagining the beloved cartoon character -- star of toys, clothing, and other merchandising -- growling lines like, "Don't gimme no dirty looks, cop, I may smack ya one yet." In Segar's original conception, Popeye was almost psychotically violent and completely incapable of not using his fists in the most inappropriate circumstances. One storyline finds Castor and Popeye jailed in a small town, where Popeye proceeds to beat the living crap out of everyone from the jailor to a fellow inmate, before attempting to escape by committing arson. Spinach wasn't part of the character's diet until his cartoon series, but one can see why nervous producers thought he might need some more redeemable qualities to make him kid-friendly.

The serialized nature of these daily strips can make for some glacial pacing. These stories weren't designed to be consumed in one sitting, which leads to some repetition and a few instances of plodding plot developments.

Still, there are innumerable pleasures to be found here, from Segar's first-rate cartooning to his fearless, rough-edged, even macabre humor, ranging from Castor's Wile E. Coyote-like attempts to dispatch the Whiffle Hen to Popeye's brutal takedowns of anyone who looks at him askew. The simple fascination of witnessing the genesis of the popular character -- so far removed from his status as a merchandising figurehead, designed only to delight Seger's readers -- makes this series priceless.


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