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Alex Cox on the Timelessness of Popeye

Alex Cox, owner of Rocketship, stops by with a piece about Thimble Theater.

I was recently asked if THIMBLE THEATER holds up today, or if it’s mostly just considered important for the sake of history.

Well, Thimble Theater is (and has always been) a perfect mix of romance, adventure, slapstick, and character comedy. Does it hold up today? Absolutely. The POPEYE stories (at their best) were rollicking, unpredictable adventures, peppered with weird creatures and mad villains, and characters so rich that they absolutely take on a life of their own. These strips were an almost perfect synthesis of so many things, all wrapped up in strange and beautiful drawings. The magic of the Jeep…. the eeriness of the Sea Hag… the drama of kidnapped princesses… the mystery of lost islands on the high seas…. the love of Popeye for Swee’ Pea…. the hilarious, deadpan and emotionless treachery of Wimpy…. the hard sarcasm of Poopdeck Pappy. And tying it all together, a toothless, one-eyed rough-house of a sailor with a heart as big as anything. What other fiction ever gave us such an unlikely hero with such an off-beat (and fully-realized!) supporting cast?

The illustration, while having dated elements at first, eventually evolved into such a distinctive style that no one has drawn quite like it before or since- the bizarre people with their wonky limbs and strange, depression-era seaside clothes. Segar created a world so entirely his own, so distinct, that to this day, if we see a POPEYE character it’s immediately recognizable, even if we don’t realize it. We take his bizarre design style for granted. But as bizarre as it was, it never got in the way of clear, perfectly composed storytelling, and a damn near perfect sense of visual pacing. (The man knew how to time a gag as well as anyone in comics, ever.)

And the writing; I can’t think of another cartoonist who has yet matched Segar’s flair for dialogue, and pacing, and wordplay. The way each of his characters talked was so wonderful and lyrical and distinctive, and all rooted firmly in character. The characters were always far more than just one-dimensional, one-joke cut-outs. They all had the kind of ranged and unpredictable emotional reactions that few writers hit the reader with. Their quirks were subtle and often heart-wrenching; for example, tough-guy Popeye has an enormous soft-spot for poor children, and every so often, his ridiculous generosity will come through in amazing and hilarious ways (I’m trying not to discuss actual events or plot points- i want the world of Popeye to be as fresh as possible for those that haven’t read it yet.)

POPEYE is the kind of great storytelling that can ONLY be done in comics. The strange creatures and the caricatured designs and the exotic locales. Drawn together with exquisite cohesion by Segar’s effortless pen, everything clicked together in a way that few strips with such broad ambition ever do. Everything meshed together seamlessly. The characters, the genres, the language, the moods; everything works like an orchestra. THIMBLE THEATER could be hilarious, exotic, heart-tugging, and cruel, all in the same four panels!

And underneath it all was an amazing sense of LOVE. Popeye’s love for Olive and Swee’ Pea, Pappy’s love for (no spoilers), Wimpy’s love for himself, the artist’s love for the world and characters, and a general love of adventure and fantasy. And above all, an optimism that there was a bigger, better, more amazing world than the bleak real-world times of the Depression. POPEYE is filled with a simple generosity and optimismm that seems almost naive if it wasn’t so damn sincere.

Between the amazing illustration, the sublime writing and characterization, the serpentine and rollicking plots, the incredible word-play and dialogue, and the overall theme of goodness and selflessness in a crazy world, POPEYE is absolutely one of the greatest comics ever drawn, and certainly one that holds up today.

Maybe now more than ever!

9 Comments

Are there really people out there who wondered if Segar holds up today? I find that shocking. I often wonder why there are no longer new attempts at Popeye cartoons being made. I think Popeye could be a hugely successful property again if they did a version that went right back to the source material rather than trying to be a rehash of the later, post-Fleischer, watered down cartoons. Counterintuitively, I think the best route for Popeye is not to superficially modernize him but to make a new cartoon about him actually set in the original Depression era. I think trying to modernize him sorts of makes him seem outdated and anachronistic, as odd as that sounds.

Are there really people out there who wondered if Segar holds up today? I find that shocking.

I wish I found it so. But I strongly – VERY strongly – suspect that those people are thinking of the animated cartoons and assuming that the strip is the same.

I DO wish someone would release cheap collections of the strip meant for the casual reader, same as more modern strips like Garfield or the Far Side got paperback issues every couple of months. Those are actually great stealth weapons to get people interested in a strip. I first discovered Peanuts through those old Signet paperbacks rather than a newspaper. As lovely as Fantagraphics’ archival work is — and those books are wonderful, don’t get me wrong — I think they miss a bet by not putting out mass-market ‘greatest hits’ paperback editions as samplers, especially of the older stuff like Popeye or L’il Abner.

Greg, you are right on the money about the cheap collection thing. I discovered Peanuts the same way you did, plus those Peanuts paperbacks were marketed toward kids and put in catalogs given to parents. I also found many a dog-eared copy of a strip collection in public libraries when I was a kid.

I used to pick up the Peanuts paperbacks at the book fairs held at my elementary school.

Are there really people out there who wondered if Segar holds up today? I find that shocking.

I dunno, I personally am never surprised with people’s reactions to older works.

And Alex initially wrote a slightly different version of the above piece awhile back in direct response to people asking the question.

The Popeye collection is actually a pretty good value. The recently released hardcover spans two years in dailies, and almost a year of Sundays. It’s not something you’d fit in your pocket (well, that would be funny), but it’s far from not being worth the money.

I can certainly see how other people would have to ask if the work’s worth reading through, though. As delightful as teh strip gets, the first twenty or thirty pages are so interminably slow moving. Each daily recaps the plot as much as move the story forward. Segar’s ability to wrap the backward and forward momentum around a gag shows stunning economy, but the strip doesn’t really get rolling until he drops the need for constant backtracking. After that, it’s as genius as everyone says.

Was this due to my post in the thread on the Comm board? Probably just synchronicity, but yeah, after digging out an old Popeye book, I found myself shocked by an overwhelming (and I mean that literally) swell of reminiscence and nostalgia.

When I was in third grade, I became so enthralled with old Popeye reprints in my school library that I wanted to BE Popeye. I even tried spinach! On purpose!

Truly a milestone series that needs more attention, but I don’t blame anyone for not recognizing it, or even not knowing what it is. There’s been the recent reprint, but for the life of me, I can’t think of a single person I know in person that would be able to tell me what Thimble Theater was.

And you forgot to mention Alice the Goon!

Xypha, I’m not doubting the value of the hardcovers, its just that the price and size may deter the impulse kid purchaser using allowance money as well as the parent looking for something cheap and portable to buy for their kids. I think these hardcovers should exist for nostalgic old collectors like us and cheaper smaller paperbacks for kids and casual fans to get exposed as well

My only conception of Popeye is from the cartoons and the Robin Williams movie, so yeah, the fact that it’s supposed to be a great strip is somewhat of a shock to me. I’ll have to pick one of these collections up.

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