Sunday, November 9, 2008

Comics Review: The Complete Popeye, Volume II: "Well, Blow Me Down", E. C. Segar

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

The second volume of The Complete Popeye contains E. C. Segar's Thimble Theater dailies from December 22, 1930 to June 8, 1932, and the Sunday strips from March 1, 1931 to October 2, 1932. The first volume in the series was entertaining, but it was largely of historical interest. This second collection is something more. One can see Segar gradually developing the characters for which the feature is famous. Two of the daily continuities are of special interest: Chapter II's "A One-Way Bank," and the Nazilia-Tonsylania War in Chapters III-V. The sequence set in Nazilia (no pun was intended with the country's name) is the better-realized of the two, but both have moments of brilliant absurdist satire, and both are worthy of the considerable stature Segar's work on Thimble Theater enjoys.

At the beginning of the "A One-Way Bank" sequence, Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Castor Oyl have each received a $50,000 reward for breaking up a cattle-rustling ring. Apart from having money for pipe tobacco and a place to sleep, Popeye doesn't need the reward--he'll just blow it on craps games. So he decides to open a "one-way" bank for poor people. He reasons that people with money have banks where they can cash checks, so people with no money should have banks where they can cash checks, too. This is Segar's description of the concept:

Money goes one way only--out! No more hard times--every town should have one! Success is certain because everybody will patronize this bank! A run will be considered good business!

A bank that serves poor people instead of the rich--"no millionaires allowed unless busted"--is an inspired satirical concept. It turns the usurious function of banks inside out, and it highlights the fact that a bank is not a beneficial enterprise. One can see the idea of the "one-way bank" having considerable satirical resonance during the Great Depression, when banking follies wiped out people's savings and left millions destitute. It's also germane today, when banks are accepting hundreds of billions in emergency taxpayer funds to ostensibly thaw out credit markets, but are actually using the money to finance acquisitions, pay shareholder dividends, and bolster cash reserves--credit markets be damned. A bank treats it as better to receive than to give. Segar emphasizes the unjustness of such an ethos by positing the idea of a bank that does the opposite.

Segar uses the "one-way bank" as the springboard for a number of hilariously absurd moments. Popeye wonders if the other banks will resent him because he'll be getting lots of business by giving money away. Castor Oyl angrily responds, "Let 'em get sore! What do we care! Everybody for themselves is my motto." When Popeye goes to a landlord to negotiate rent for the operation, the landlord calls him cheap for wanting to pay less than the asking amount, but Popeye has become so conceited with the idea of his generosity that he responds by paying the landlord double. The bank begins disappointingly: there are no customers because none of the local poor population can believe it's for real. And once things get going, Popeye has to put up a no-kissing sign after a female customer gets overly demonstrative with her gratitude. Remember, he's into giving, not receiving. The "one-way bank" is a rich source of humor for Segar, but one wishes he'd been able to build the ideas in the sequence to a climax. The second half depicts a series of scams that wipe the "one-way bank" out. While it's amusing on a moment-to-moment basis, the satire is nowhere as sharp as it is in the first half. The story starts strongly and peters out.

The shapelessness of the narrative structure in "A One-Way Bank" is probably attributable to the daily-strip format. The strips were meant to be read a day at a time, rather than as a whole in one sitting, and Segar's main concern was undoubtedly to make the daily episodes amusing in themselves. Effectively developing them into a larger story wasn't his main priority. But the strength of the premise leads one to expect a comically explosive resolution to Popeye's folly. It's hard to imagine that the people who read the episodes as they were originally published weren't disappointed with the conclusion, where one discovers the bank's failure when Popeye asks another character for some pocket money. Segar seems to need a story foundation where narrative development and climax are beside the point, one where things only a matter on a moment-to-moment basis.

The extended Nazilia-Tonsylonia War continuity gives him that foundation, and it's by far the most successful section of The Complete Popeye's first two volumes. The outcome of the story is irrelevant. No one knows how the war that provides the setting has started. One also doesn't sense anything will change when it ends. The narrative is free to proceed arbitrarily. The premise simply gives Segar the opportunity to play the conceits and pretentiousness of military and government leaders off Popeye's no-nonsense personality, and to exploit the setting and characters for absurdity. King Blozo is a fretful, excessively ceremonious ruler who, among other things, is embarrassed that the war is making him a laughingstock to other countries--it's been going on for six months, and not a shot has been fired. The soldiers fight for the distinction of being called the biggest coward. The head of the armed forces, General Bunzo, is an egomaniacal Napoleon wannabe with whom Popeye gets into a perpetual battle of wills. At one point, he says to Popeye, "My man, do you know you made a jackass of me?," and Popeye replies, "I didn't make you a jackass--I jus' proved you are one." Bunzo harbors dreams of assassinating Blozo and assuming the throne, but when Blozo tries to abdicate at one point and gives him the crown, he recognizes the mess he's inheriting and hands the crown over to a subordinate. (Nobody wants to be king, and the crown keeps getting handed off until it's being worn by a dog.) Segar scores off the setting and the characters with one comic high note after another. His absurdist treatment of government and military folly ranks with Dr. Strangelove and Duck Soup.

The evolution of the feature toward its classic incarnation is apparent throughout the volume. Of the strip's three original principals--Castor Oyl, Olive Oyl, and Ham Gravy--only Olive Oyl remains as a regular character. Ham Gravy is entirely absent from this collection. Castor Oyl disappears from the Sundays in June of 1931, and from the dailies that August. Castor, who commanded center stage through much of the first volume, disappears so quietly that one wonders if Segar got so caught up with other aspects of the strip that he just forgot about him. (One also wonders if there were significant reader inquiries about him at the time. Castor receives a brief mention in December of 1931 that explains his absence, and then he isn't heard from again for the remainder of this volume.) Popeye is the main character throughout, with Olive Oyl joining him as a love interest and ultimately supplanting Castor as a constant foil. One also sees new characters of prominence emerge, such as King Blozo, General Bunzo, and, most notably, the well-spoken, hamburger-loving moocher Wimpy.

One also sees trends emerging in Segar's treatment of the Sunday and daily material. The differences go beyond the Sunday installments being self-contained narratives. The dailies seem more varied even within their continuities. The Sundays invariably use one of two premises: Popeye's efforts to win Olive's favor by promising to swear off brawling (he never succeeds in keeping his word), and Popeye's boxing matches. The Sundays are also far more dependent than the dailies on the spectacle of slapstick violence. (That's not to say the dailies don't feature a great deal of fighting, but they aren't defined by it to the degree the Sundays are.) There is an aesthetic justification for the disparity: the Sundays allow for greater visual opportunities. There's more space, the art is printed larger, and there's more compositional freedom. The Sunday panels are far less crowded and constricted than the dailies, and Segar takes advantage of it to indulge his genius for action choreography. Segar's fight sequences are second only to those of the great superhero-adventure cartoonist Jack Kirby. They are beautifully realized ballets of movement and energy--comic-strip slapstick at its best.

Despite the effectiveness of the Sunday visuals, as well as the strength of the Nazilia sequence and moments from "A One-Way Bank," one isn't entirely convinced that the stature of Thimble Theater is justified--at least not from the work in this volume and its predecessor. The characters' resonance is comic, not emotional, and the effectiveness of the strip is entirely dependent on Segar's inventiveness. He hasn't quite broken through to the fecund, anything-goes anarchy that one would think marks the epitome of his style of humor. But the work in this collection is considerably stronger than the material in the first, and the occasionally inspired quality raises one's hopes. A part of me has often wondered whether E.C. Segar deserves banishment to Woody Allen's Academy of the Overrated, but the more I see, the more I'm sure he doesn't. I look forward to the subsequent volumes.

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