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!