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.

NEXT: Supersized Job Opportunities?

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  1. Aaahhhhh!!! Fix the italics tag! It’s making me crazy. I can’t read the post. What is a quote? What isn’t?

  2. Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you.
    Now how’s about you link up some of that Thimble Theater online so’s that I may sample me some?

  3. Highnumber—It was a grim and gritty task, but I believe the ital tags are all gone now….our blockquoting comes through as a bar on the left with text knocked in–regardless of ital screwiness, that’s usually the visual cue for quotes.

  4. Speaking of Fantagrphics…is the Brian Doherty whose letter was published in Angry Youth Comix THE Brian Doherty?

  5. Excellent writing as always, Doherty. I once tried to explain to a younger friend how hard it was for me to find punk rock records, growing up in Oklahoma in the early eighties. He looked at me dumbfounded and said, “Why didn’t you look on the internet?”

    They just don’t know how good they got it these days, I tells ya.

    The best thing to me about the Popeye book is that I know the big colorful diecut cover and wealth of cartoons within will prove irresistable to little kids, thus ensuring that at least a few get hooked on Segar.

    I wish I had found this book when I was a kid. I’m gonna buy one for my little niece for Xmas.

  6. Since we’re discussing gifts I would like to spread holiday tidings to my fellow posters by shamelessly plugging Solstice Chronicles, my new book collecting all the Bay Day Studio Holiday Cards. Eleven stories, with illustrations. $7.95

    I’d also add that said collections of old strips, and even of old comics, have created a cottage industry of artists who restore the old hand drawn materials to digital printing age standards.

  7. My perverted favorite episode was in the 70s (I think), where Olive Oil decided to get a job as a meter maid. She was so hot in 5″ pumps and a uniform skirt! The only time I remember her being drawn hot.

    Otherwise, I prefer the really old b&w episodes that i used to rush home from school to see on channel 43 in Chicago.

  8. I am going to take a look at this, but I have to say, growing up I found “Popeye” to be one of the lamest of cartoons, inferior to Tom and Jerry, Flintstones and other Hanna Barbera cartoons, Bugs Bunny and affiliated Looney Tunes, etc. It sounds from your post, Brian, that these cartoons may bear little resemblance to Thimble Theater so maybe I will be pleasantly surprised. And Fantagraphics has done a pretty good job with the Peanuts volumes, which I am getting from Amazon every 6 months. Hopefully the fact that I don’t really get Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse, even though I dutifully checked out several volumes from the library (if I had any hipster cred, I would have just blown it with that admission) isn’t a suggestion that I won’t like Thimble Theater either.

  9. “(My favorite sequence so far . . . involves Olive’s brother Castor Oyl buried alive by crooks trying to steal his Whiffle Hen . . . and the punchline for each strip in a weeklong sequence is a bizarre non sequitur uttered by the befuddled Castor from his grave.)”

    You missed the blatant Christian propaganda. We’re going to corrupt your children, bwahahahahahahahahaha!

  10. Coop, back from La Carrera Panamericana! I’m going to stay a little longer at this libertarian party.

    Thanks for pointing me in this direction, Brian. A girlfriend’s purchase of an old Smithsonian collection of comics got me turned on to Will Eisner, Yellow Kid, and oddly Scrooge McDuck. I’m psyched to check this out.

  11. I’d like to point out that in the comments on the recent post on Tim C’s shout-out to Mary Worth, I pointed to Thimble Theatre as one of the classic adventure strips. You won’t find lashings of Popeye strips online, though, as King Features is very jealous of its IP.

    Trivia: Spinach may give Popeye a boost of strengh, but it was the magic Whiffle Hen that gave him his uncanny ability to take a beating and survive.


  12. I’m glad to see that the name of Scrooge McDuck came up. For me, Carl Barks, who scripted and drew the great Donald and Scrooge comic books of the fifties and sixties for Walt, was the greatest of all comic book artists.

    Scrooge continues to enjoy massive popularity in Europe, with generations of artists carrying on Barks’ torch. In the U.S., Don Rosa has done (is doing?) some very nice work.

  13. It sounds from your post, Brian, that these cartoons may bear little resemblance to Thimble Theater

    Indeed. The original Popeye cartoon shorts, from the Fleischer brothers, are terrific, but they got lamer and lamer after that. (Similarly, the Thimble Theater/Popeye comic was just a shadow of its former self after Segar turned it over to other hands — though I have a soft spot for Bobby London’s version of the strip.)

  14. I vividly recall one Popeye epsode where Popeye and Bluto overheard Olive Oyl singing “I like a clean Shaven man”.

    They rushed to the barbershop for a shave but found it closed, so they agreed to give each other a shave.

    I can remember the feeling I had when Bluto dragged a straight razor, which he had sharpened on a foot treadle powered grinding wheel, across Popeye’s face.

  15. uncle sam: I remember that Popeye cartoon. It was titled “Andalusian Dog-Fightin’,” and aside from its unforgettable straight-razor scene, film historians have long studied its imagery of Bluto fondling Olive’s breast as her clothes disappear and Wimpy’s hamburger swarming with ants.

  16. Actual dialog from a Popeye comic book, written by Peter David, since disowned by King Features:

    Popeye: Well blow me down!
    Olive Oyl: Later, Popeye.

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