He Yam What He Yam, Again


Popeye, that is, one of America's most beloved comic characters. And as this piece by Zak Sally in the Twin Cities Reader reminds us, he is strangely divorced in the public mind from the actual womb of his creation---E.C. Segar's unspeakably great 1920/'30s comic strip Thimble Theater. Sally is eloquent, and correct, on the wonders of the strip:

Thimble Theater was, in simple terms, an "adventure strip": Popeye and the rest romped from this to that, saving farms, solving mysteries, going to jail, getting lost in jungles—whatever would keep things moving. Segar's drawing style fit the tone perfectly: simple and spare, yet expressive and ready to explode when need be…..(Cute fact for the kids: Popeye began eating spinach after having reached the popularity point where younger readers might have regarded him as a role model. Segar was then asked—ahem—to give his sailor an attribute that was slightly more positive than being able to absorb gunshots and mangle the English language).

Aside from the always-hilarious violence, the characters in Thimble Theater were prone to be cowardly, deceptive, ugly, greedy, and heartless, but in a way that was somehow lovable, and very forgivably human. And somewhere in there lies a quality rare in any age, in any medium: that humanity……This is not love and sadness, meanness and joy, heroism and hilarity approximated and packaged for you; this is the real thing. These characters' humanity has not been cleaned off of them….They are filthy with humanity—it hangs off them like a dirty old snotrag.

I'm glad that this interesting critical piece appeared, because I had meant to say something about the news hook for it as well: a new 6-volume reprint series has begun, from Fantagraphics Books, of the complete Segar Thimble Theater with Popeye. Volume one is recently out, and as pure object it is a gorgeous, absurdly tall, colorful, stunningly designed treasure in addition to its brilliant and hilarious and life-affirming contents. (My favorite sequence so far--I'll be reading through this 'un for weeks to come--involves Olive's brother Castor Oyl buried alive by crooks trying to steal his Whiffle Hen--the most charming hen in fictional history, methinks--and the punchline for each strip in a weeklong sequence is a bizarre non sequitur uttered by the befuddled Castor from his grave.)

In this post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas time its perfect to think about these sort of gifts the wealth of Western capitalist modernity give us. This kind of inspired pop culture archeology makes my life so sweet I can't help but be thankful---see this essay I wrote for the American Spectator web site a while back on how our age is a glorious golden age of cultural (re)production, of comics, music, movies, whatever, hooked to a similar comic strip reprint project, by the same amazing publisher, Fantagraphics, of Charles Schulz's Peanuts---and because it would make a great Christmas present for anyone who loves classic American humor. If I didn't already have it, I'd be a-hintin' for it.

My conclusion of that earlier piece on Schulz is worth revisting here, as to why this sort of cultural preservation project is important:

We aren't yet to the point where everything anywhere anytime is readily available to us; but we are getting surprisingly close…..This is important. We are talking of physical goods here, of course, and a surfeit of them that can, admittedly, be maddening. But the physical in this case is a carrier for the spiritual, for an endless and endlessly renewed storehouse of love, affection, memory, and the means by which we have all understood, endured, and enjoyed our lives.

Buried in trash heaps of paper and vinyl, broadcast to the heavens, the interlocked joys and abilities of personal enthusiasm, technologies, and markets are resurrecting and preserving gems from what time and circumstance have caused to be tossed as rubbish with yesterday's newspaper.

Free markets are, as Robert Heinlein once said, to be treasured because they are free. It's also nice that they help make our lives so rich.