Sunday, November 30, 2008

Comics Review: The Complete Popeye, Volume III: "Let's You and Him Fight", E. C. Segar

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Complete Popeye, Volume III collects E. C. Segar's daily Thimble Theater strips from June 9, 1932 through December 9, 1933, the Sundays from October 9, 1932 through November 26, 1933, and a 1933 advertising insert featuring the Thimble Theater characters that promotes the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago. This collection doesn't have anything comparable to the absurdist highs of the Volume II strips. The satirical impulse behind the "One-Way Bank" and Nazilia-Tonsylania War storylines isn't as conspicuous. Segar's focus this time out is all but exclusively on slapstick and character comedy. He does it well, particularly with his handling of the Wimpy character, who dominates the Sunday strips featured here. Overall, though, the book doesn't quite escape the damning-with-faint-praise label "of largely historical interest".

However, it should be said that there is a great deal of historical interest present, particularly in "The Eighth Sea" sequence that covers Chapters I-III. The animators Max and Dave Fleischer licensed the Thimble Theater material for adaptation around the time these strips were originally published. "The Eighth Sea" gave them their recurring antagonist for Popeye: the bearded, musclebound sailor/pirate Bluto. It's not hard to see from these strips why the Fleischers and later animators chose to use Bluto as Popeye's perpetual nemesis. He's completely malevolent, he competes with Popeye for the same goals, and he's the only character who can hold his own with Popeye in a fight. The climactic brawl between the two takes up two full weeks of dailies. What's most surprising is that Segar, at least in this volume, never brings Bluto back. (Segar was certainly happy to include the spinach from this point on. Popeye's love for the vegetable--it gives him "strenk an' vitaliky"--first appears in this sequence as well, and it becomes a recurring element of the strip.) A good hero is almost always defined by a good villain. Bluto, who is so greedy that he steals the gold fillings from his henchmen's teeth, comes closer to being Popeye's antithesis than any other character.

Bluto (and spinach) aside, "The Eighth Sea" sequence is the strongest of the daily continuities in this volume. Segar structures it in distinct sections, all of which have their defining piece of slapstick. The story revolves around Popeye's quest to find Dooma, "a lost city of gold in an unknown sea." His journey is hampered by one complication after another. A "black Chinese parrot" is the only way of finding the island, but Popeye finds it quite uncooperative. It tells him to learn to speak English before trying to talk to it in Chinese. Olive Oyl insists on coming along, but Popeye won't hear of it. As they're not married, he feels she needs a "shappyroon" if she's to accompany him. Anyway, it's bad luck to have a woman along on a treasure hunt. His crew feel the same way, and after Olive forces Popeye to take her along (she parachutes onto his boat once it's at sea), he has to quell a mutiny. The battle royale with Bluto is the sequence's centerpiece scene. A good deal of time is also taken up with Merlock Jones, a stowaway detective who confounds the various characters with his mastery of disguise.

The satirical tack that distingushed the dailies in Volume II isn't entirely absent. Popeye returns to Nazilia at the end of "The Eighth Sea" adventure, and King Blozo is now flush with gold for the nation's treasury. Popeye tells him he should share it with the nation's citizens, a course of action that Blozo, despite his initial objections, eventually goes along with. But when every citizen receives the gold, they all choose to retire and live a life of luxury. The country of course grinds to a complete halt, with the citizenry complaining, "How can we spend the gold you gave us? All the stores and shops are closed. There ain't no place open." The Nazilia sequence also features some sharp absurdist bits, such as the time Blozo decides to give a condemned prisoner clemency. The callousness on display is hilarious:

KING BLOZO: Well, if you haven't already cut off his head, why, don't cut it off--I've changed my mind.
EXECUTIONER: I think you're just trying to save my sixty-cent fee--you know my business has been bad--please let me execute him.
KING BLOZO: You say you need that fee to buy shoes for your kid?
KING BLOZO: Oh, all right--go ahead.

It just isn't right to pay people unless they earn their keep.

The continuity that follows the initial sequence on Nazilia is disappointing. Popeye convinces King Blozo to let him have a neighboring island on which he can found his own country of Popilania. The text panel that introduces the story raises hopes that the story will reach the satirical heights of the Nazilia-Tonsylania War storyline. It describes Popilania as a utopia where "trouble will be unknown" and "spinach will be the national crop," but it gets bogged down with Popeye's dealings with a prelapsarian native population. A war with the nation of Cuspidor seems to mine the same vein of humor as the Nazilia-Tonsylania conflict, and the competition between Popeye and King Blozo for Nazilia's citizenry just seems frivolous, if not outright juvenile. Some humor hasn't worn well over the decades. Jokes about attracting single young men with comely brides who don't speak a word of their language now seem fairly gross.

The bright spot of the Popilania sequence is the addition of Wimpy to the daily strip's cast. The storyline highlights what an articulate and well-mannered coward he is. He's refreshingly straightforward in his insights, such as when he describes a diplomat as "a person who gives the worst sort of deal in a nice way." He's also quite honest about himself. Popeye berates him for abandoning Olive Oyl to the natives, and when Wimpy is asked why he replies, quite simply, "Self-preservation." Wimpy's insistence on good manners leads to some delightful moments as well. Popeye brutally insults a soldier in the Popilanian army, and Wimpy will have none of it:

WIMPY: You mustn't talk like that--do you want to hurt our army's feelings? Shame upon you!
POPEYE: Aw, pipe down!
WIMPY: There... there now, Mr. Shultz... don't you cry. Everything will be all right.

There's never any excuse for poor manners.

Wimpy really comes into his own in this volume's Sunday strips. Segar's treatment of him in the volume's dailies highlight other aspects of the character. But considered against the Sundays, they're just the icing on the cake. The Sundays feature him in all his mooching glory. Wimpy is always trying to cadge food out of the proprietor of the local diner. He constantly makes his classic promise, "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger to-day." This is often accompanied by the less well-known "I want you to come to my house sometime for a duck dinner--you bring the ducks." His battery of tricks for getting food knows no shame. He steals fish from the city aquarium, and when he takes a job as a waiter, he can't resist temptation long enough to serve the customers' orders. He can't even follow through on a small act of charity. He buys a homeless man a hamburger and then eats the sandwich off the poor fellow's plate. Wimpy is sloth and selfishness incarnate, but the comic force of the character comes from his complete obliviousness to how self-centered he is. There's nothing the least bit self-conscious about him, and his shamelessness makes him oddly endearing.

It's hard to tell from this volume if there's a tension on Segar's part about which approach to stories he feels most comfortable with. Farce and slapstick are the strip's foundation, but he seems to be pulling back from the sharp satirical approach that's distinguished the best of his work so far. It's possible, though, that the volume reflects something a dry run. The final two daily continuities, which feature Popeye's adventures as a reporter and then as an amnesiac trying to take care of the baby Swee'Pea, are rather dull reads. Segar's reputation as a cartoonist is most based on the work in the years that followed this material--strips from 1936 through 1938 in particular seem the basis of his stature--and the work in this volume, though uneven, certainly doesn't dissuade one's anticipation of it.

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