Popeye is an icon of American popular culture, but my memories of him all date back to the 1970s, and they're sketchy at best. I really only remember him from animated cartoons that aired on TV in syndication, which always seemed to revolve around him saving his girlfriend Olive Oyl from the clutches of the fat, bearded bad guy Brutus. (Bluto is the traditional name of this character, but he was always called Brutus in the shorts that I saw.) Popeye would always save the day with the help of eating spinach, which gave him invulnerability and super-strength. He was a grotesque, humorous version of the costumed superheroes I obsessed over as a kid, but instead of saving the world, or just his hometown, he only sought to protect the people close to him, whether it was Olive, the baby Swee'Pea, or his mooching hamburger-loving friend Wimpy.
As I grew older, I became increasingly aware that there was more to this character than the animation indicated. The original comic-strip Popeye was created in 1929 by cartoonist E. C. Segar. He was a supporting character in Segar's Thimble Theatre newspaper daily. Popeye was a crude, ignorant deckhand who loved to gamble his money away playing craps, and he was always spoiling for a fight. Segar (pronounced "SEE-gahr") had been producing the strip for about a decade when he introduced his good-hearted, malapropism-prone sailor, and nothing he had done up to that point ever generated the response that Popeye did. The character quickly took over the strip, and Segar came into his own as a cartoonist. The Thimble Theatre strips he produced between 1929 and his death in 1938 are considered perhaps the most sophisticated adventure material produced in the medium, and they are among the greatest newspaper comics ever published. When The Comics Journal listed their choices for the hundred greatest English-language comics of the twentieth century, Segar's Thimble Theatre Popeye strips ranked sixth among newspaper features, and eleventh overall. They enjoy the reputation of a comics masterpiece.
In 2006, Fantagraphics Books began publishing a projected six-volume reprinting of Segar's Popeye material. The books are scheduled to be released at the rate of one a year, and the third is due out any day now. The individual volumes are handsomely produced in a hardcover, oversized format. A week of the dailies are printed on each page, and a special color section is devoted to the Sunday strips. (The Sundays had a different story continuity than the dailies, so being printed in a separate section is appropriate.) The first volume includes the dailies published between September 10, 1928 and December 20, 1930, and the Sundays between March 2, 1930 and February 22, 1931. I read it filled with eager anticipation.
And it's not bad. I gather Segar was not yet at the height of his powers in these early strips. The world depicted in this volume is not the one the feature is famous for, and one senses its full realization is years away. Popeye, once he becomes a permanent member of the cast, shares center stage with the Castor Oyl character, who was the strip's initial star. Olive Oyl is barely present in this volume, and the strips devoted to her relationship with Popeye are relegated to the Sundays. There is no Swee'Pea and no Wimpy. (There is no spinach or Bluto/Brutus either, but Jules Feiffer makes clear in his introduction that those are fixtures of the animation, not Segar's original material.) The strip is a humorous adventure picaresque with occasionally fantastic elements, and the first volume reads pleasantly enough, but it's primarily of historical interest.
The initial storyline featured doesn't include Popeye at all. It begins with Castor Oyl, Olive's short, bald brother, receiving an African "whiffle hen" as a gift from his uncle. The bird is domesticated and friendly, but it moves super-fast, and Castor's uncle offers Castor a thousand dollars if he manages to do the impossible and kill it. Most of the episode deals Castor's repeated failure to win the money by killing the bird, and it plays like an early comic-strip version of the Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote animated shorts. It's one slapstick gag after another, and things get more outlandish as they continue. The storyline ends on a sweetly ironic note: the bird, named Bernice, interprets Castor's efforts to kill it as affectionate attention, and becomes devoted to him.
Popeye comes on the scene after Castor discovers that rubbing the bird's head is a guarantee of good luck. Castor buys a schooner to travel to an island gambling resort, and he hires Popeye to be his crew. Castor is a compulsive, impatient, and occasionally bullying fellow, and the dynamic between him and the hard-headed Popeye is frequently hilarious. The two are always arguing, whether it's about one using the "whiffle hen" to cheat the other at craps, or Castor's highhandedness and Popeye's insubordination, or the arguments between the two about Popeye's pay. Castor insists he's giving Popeye the "privilege" of being one man who does the work of twelve while being paid one man's wages, and Popeye sensibly argues that if he's going to be doing the work of twelve men, he should get twelve men's pay.
Money makes the world go 'round in Thimble Theatre, and many of the stories revolve around scrounging, get-rich-quick plots, and confidence schemes. Castor uses the "whiffle hen" to break the bank at a posh gambling resort. He gets swindled out of his millions in a land-speculation deal. He and Popeye try to turn a quick buck by entering Popeye as a ringer in boxing matches. In the first volume's final two daily continuities, Castor and Popeye's reputation as adventurers leads to them being offered large commissions to solve mysteries, and they open a detective agency. The strip revolves around the folly of greed, but it's not the wealthy man's greed of rapaciousness. It's working-class greed borne of desperation. These strips were created during the Great Depression, and they're heavily reflective of the period zeitgeist: the buck-chasing on display is motivated by the need to survive.
And Popeye is in many ways a working-class man's idealized view of himself. He may be poor, but he retains his dignity, and his fists-first approach cuts through all the baloney. He has a sixth sense when it comes to spotting slicksters and other scoundrels, and he's indomitable in his dealings with them--which drives them right up the wall. The single funniest moment in the first volume occurs when the recurring villain Mr. Snork, a suit-wearing thief and con man, exclaims of Popeye:
What a nerve!--swims out to my ship--takes my guns away from me, beats me up--forces me to tell him all I know about the mystery, and then makes me set him ashore in my best life boat [sic]. Bah!! And I thought I was a hard man!
Popeye's propensity for using his fists whenever he gets a bad vibe can occasionally land him in trouble, but he lets it roll off his back. As he says, "I socks 'em where I sees 'em an' I leaves 'em where I socks 'em--an' tha's that!" And he's inevitably vindicated by the end of the story. Popeye may not have money, but no one ever gets the better of him. (Unless, of course, a craps game is involved.)
Thimble Theatre is an unusual reading experience for contemporary audiences, and one may find its most striking aspect is the structure and pacing. Most humor strips today feature interchangeable gags with no continuity, and they have an extremely abrupt structure: set-up, punchline, and a post-punchline follow-up. Segar's material has a continuity--the daily storylines tend to cover about sixty strips each--and the punchlines of the individual strips have a more prolonged development with little or no aftermath. The individual Sunday strips are far denser than one sees today. They show Segar was a first-rate gag man. He often came up with a recurring piece of slapstick for each storyline, and he would then play variations on it while incrementally advancing the plot. I gather this was not an unusual approach in the older humor strips, but it's unheard of among today's features. It gives this decades-old material a freshness one doesn't expect. In other words, everything old is new again.
And that's what ultimately gives this first volume its appeal. Subsequent editions may reveal the richness that gives Thimble Theatre its enormous reputation, but one is at last given an extended glimpse into the roots of a great pop-culture phenomenon. It stands enough on its own to make it an enjoyable ride.