I fell in love with the Fleischers' Popeye movie cartoons before I ever read E.C. Segar's Popeye comic strip.
I don't mean that to sound insulting or condescending, because obviously, without Segar's comic strip, there would have been no Fleischer cartoons. In fact, when I read or hear of cartoonists who consider Segar one of their influences, it makes me feel a bit guilty.
Part of the problem has been availability, or lack thereof. When I was a kid, I saw Peanuts TV specials at the same time that the comic strip was still being drawn, so I could make a connection. Unless you're a cartoon historian, up to now you might never have had the chance to read more than one or two of Segarís individual strips.
But a splashy, cheery book has handily solved that problem. E.C. Segarís Popeye: "I Yam What I Yam!" is a vast collection of strips from Segar's Thimble Theatre, from just before Popeye's first appearance in 1929, through his well-established popularity in 1931.
As cartoon historian Jerry Beck has pointed out, Thimble Theatre began (ten years prior to Popeye's debut) as a parody of movie melodramas. And to novice readers like me, who had thought that comics such as Peanuts and Doonesbury had extended and perfected long-running story "arcs," the most surprising aspect of this book is how Segar had epic storylines running through his modest setting.
Initially, the strip's main characters were Olive Oyl, her blowhard brother Castor, and her boyfriend Ham Gravy. And before you're halfway through the book, an initial storyline about Castor trying to kill off a lucky bird has extended itself into two men trying to buy the rare bird from Castor, Ham and Castor gambling their way into a fortune on an island, trying to get off said island, Olive getting courted by a golddigger, and getting the money ripped off in a mine scam. It's a miracle that Segar could even work Popeye into the story.
As with most formative creations, Popeye doesn't nearly resemble the ham-fisted sailor with whom we're acquainted. Even more so than in his movie incarnation, he looks old and wizened, and at the start, he seems almost monosyllabic. Heís such a "bilge rat" (as Olive first addresses him) that it takes him a while to win the trio's respect. But soon enough, he develops into the gruff-but-fair fighter weíve come to know -- although in the comic strip, unlike in the movie cartoons, it takes very little provocation for Popeye to slam someone to the ground.
The pleasant surprise of these strips is how entrancing their own little world is. One would think the elemental plots would grow tiresome, but Segar's whimsicality carries them right along. They're so charmingly executed that when the strip tells us that Popeye can be saved from multiple bullet wounds just by rubbing the head of the lucky bird, it all seems as plausible as Peanuts' dog Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse and pretending heís a fighter pilot.
About the only superfluous part of the book is its essays from "outsiders." Cartoonist Jules Feiffer contributes a nice piece in which he rates the comic-strip Popeye on the same comedic level as The Marx Brothers. On the debit side is a windy piece by comic-strip preservationist Bill Blackbeard that meanders on for a full page before eventually making some kind of point.
To those (like me) who are familiar only with the Fleischers' Popeye, reading Segar's work gives one a unique, enjoyable slant on a seemingly familiar character -- rather like watching Bugs Bunny go through his paces under different Looney Tunes directors. To Segar fans, of course, the book is manna from heaven. But no matter how you slice it, the book is a lot of fun to plow through.
© 2007, Steve Bailey.
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