Friday, June 23, 2017

Forgotten Books: E.C. Segar's POPEYE (1929-1938)

I grew up with Popeye cartoons at the theater and on TV, with Dell Popeye comic books, and with the newspaper strip by Bud Sagendorf. And I thought I knew Popeye. I was wrong. The real Popeye sprang from the pen of Elzie C. Segar in 1929, and lived until 1938, when those not-quite Popeyes took over. While some later artists duplicated his look, none were able to fully capture the strip's wild humor.

I met the genuine article in 1984, when Fantagraphics began their first series of reprints. Volumes 1 through 4 featured Sunday strips in black and white in a large (11 x 15") format, while the dailies took over with volume 5 in a smaller (11 x 8 1/2") size. There were 11 volumes in all. Being thrifty, I bought the paperback editions, but there were hardcovers issued as well. 

The strips were amazing. Sundays sometimes had continuity and were sometimes stand-alone shorts, while the dailies had the best of both worlds - gags enmeshed in long adventure stories. Segar introduced the world to characters like the Sea Hag, Alice the Goon and Eugene the Jeep (yeah, the word--and name--Jeep, came from Segar).

Beginning in 2006, Fantagraphics struck again, reissuing the whole thing in six large (10 1/2 x 15") hardcover volumes as E.C. Segar's Popeye, This time, dailies and Sundays appeared in each volume, though in different sections. On the plus side, the Sundays were printed in color, but on the down side, the daily panels were smaller (some say too small). Another downer was that these books were bound in extremely fragile paper-covered cardboard. The corners got chipped and ugly quick, and the copies my local library bought were destroyed and discarded within a couple of years. The color is nice, but for readability I'd recommend the 1984 series.

The strip, called Thimble Theater, began in 1919, centering on Olive Oyl and her family. By 1929 it was largely a comedy-adventure following the exploits of her brother Castor Oyl and boyfriend Ham Gravy. When one of their adventures that year required a ship, they hired a sailor - a character slated for a temporary minor role. And you know what happened. He stole the show.


Here's a Segar sample - a complete Sunday story from August 1, 1935. Future superhero artists must have been inspired by his ability to depict violence, while an unborn boy named Robert Crumb was clearly influenced by his style.