Aside from what I tackle for work, I try to read a little each day, just for fun. I admit I don’t always succeed in stealing the time needed to digest at least a few pages, but I never forget the kid I used to be, the one without an abundance of socializing skills; reading was his first friend, and at times his only friend. That’s why I try hard not to abandon that old compadre now, even if, worst case, our get-togethers are limited to only a half-hour or so. (And yes, I feel bad on those days when demands on my time deny me even that small pleasure.)
Sometimes I’m reading a prose novel or a collection from an author I enjoy (I most recently finished a novel by Robert Silverberg, a story collection by John Varley, and a paperback original from the late ’50s by John D. MacDonald), other times it’s non-fiction, or perhaps a new release in the Marvel Masterworks or Warren Archives lines, or a strip compilation from one of our Friendly Competitors … and sometimes, for the pure heck of it, I go back and re-read one or two of our own releases. The subject of this piece falls into that latter category.
You see, I recently completed another look at our two-volume set of Bobby London’s Popeye and my-oh-my, I can’t recommend those books highly enough. I flat-out love this material!
I’m an avowed Popeye fan, of course, and have made no secret of that fact. I first met the spinach-eating sailor through the Fleischer Studios cartoons — as a boy they often ran on our local TV stations in the early mornings. It never bothered me that they were in black-and-white, because until I was eight or nine every TV signal came into our home and appeared in b&w (my Dad bought his first color TV in 1968).
In the 1980s, when Segar’s Thimble Theatre strips first appeared in hardcover, I tossed cash down on the barrelhead every time Fantagraphics produced one of their original eleven volumes (decades later I re-bought their more recent reprinting to see the Sundays in full color). Reading those original Segar stories was a revelation, and I came out the other side admiring Popeye even more than I had before. Along with The Fantastic Four, Conan, and Doc Savage, the one-two punch of Segar and the Flesichers cemented the squinky-eyed old salt’s place on the short list of characters I absolutely yearn to write.
I’ve long wanted to do a big, Segar-style comedy-adventure starring Popeye and his cast of regulars, including ancillary characters such as Roughhouse and Geezil. I’ve also toyed with the idea of a globe-spanning saga set in the mid-1920s, before Popeye meets the Oyl family, in which we’d learn why Popeye and the Sea Hag are such old emenies (Popeye fans know that’s not a typo!). In either instance, I would want to hit all the beats that made Popeye such an enduring figure in American pop culture – at one time he, Superman, and Mickey Mouse were the three most widely-recognized characters on the planet – and all the qualities that make him not just a hero, but a noble hero.
As with Doc, Conan, and the FF, I fear my opportunity to write my dream Popeye continuity may never arise (though I always hold out hope the stars will one day align …). Still, I feel better facing the likelihood my chance will not come by knowing that Bobby London did an absolutely crackerjack job on Popeye back when the 1980s were turning into the ’90s. The unique talent behind Dirty Duck wed the depths of Thimble Theatre history with an intuitive grasp of its cast of characters, filtered everything through his own sensibilities, and produced a strip that constantly reflects knowledge of and respect for Popeye’s mythos, then accomplishes the tricky task of being true to that mythos without being trapped by it. All in a two-panel-a-day format – quite a considerable achievement.
London begins by doing gag-a-day material. He seems to find equal delight in bringing back the old (Olive’s diminutive brother Castor Oyl, for instance) and adding fresh new dimension to the series (one example of such is Olive’s buxom cousin, Sutra Oyl).
When the storytelling shifts to longer, novelistic continuity, the fun really starts! The Sea Hag yuppiefies Popeye’s home town — Olive Oyl’s coffee becomes “Agent Olive,” a weapon of mass destruction with far-reaching consequences — then the hulking throwback, Toar, develops a taste for biker gangs and heavy metal that sends Popeye south of the border for encounters with musical guest stars Bob Dylan, Pete Townsend, and Mick Jagger — all the while with Poopdeck Pappy decked out like Willie Nelson!
It gets wilder and wackier from there: Popeye and his crew sail into the Fourth Dimension aboard The Beatles’s Yellow Submarine before returning home to encounter a legion of Brutuses, the return of Bluto, and a rekindling of the Sea Hag/Wimpy romance (if you can call it that).
Popeye was a true American original: a pugilist before Joe Palooka, a master of malapropism while Norm Crosby was still in diapers. And where Segar dipped his toe in topicality (as when Popeye runs the kingdom of Spinachova, declaring, “I yam a great diktipater”), Bobby London made it part of the strip’s bread-and-butter. Was it jarring to see Swee’Pea morph into a disaffected punker going by the name of “Spaz”? Popeye reaching the pinnacle of the Fourth Dimension and wryly commenting, “I wishk Timothy Leary was here”? Americans protesting attempts to rescue Olive and her family from the clutches of desert despot Saddarn Shahame with signs saying, “No Blood for Oyl” (a take-off on then then-popular rallying cry of those calling for military restraint in the Middle East)? Not at all – because London neatly integrated contemporary aspects into the material while always preserving the essence of the main characters. As a result, the sizzle may have had a slightly different sound, but the steak had a familiar taste.
Popeye is an easy character to understand and, as many have proven, an easy character to get wrong. He’s as rough-looking as he is rough-spoken, yet beneath his flinty exterior lies a heart like a red velvet pillow. It’s the balance between those two contrasting opposites that makes the character so lovable — and achieving the right balance seems to elude many who have tried to chronicle his life. Emphasize too many of his physical qualities and he can come off as a bully and a freak; emphasize too much of his innate humanity and he seems wishy-washy and ineffectual.
When the mixture is right, the Popeye I admire shines through. Segar tells us how he earns fortunes by dint of his wits and his fists, then without a second thought gives them away to help “widdies and orphinks;” the final Fleischer color two-reeler casts him as a suddenly-wealthy Aladdin, riding into town on a pure white charger, singing, “What Can I Do Fer You?” as he tosses gold coins into the throngs lining both sides of the street. Popeye is confident in his abilities, confident in his moral code and his outlook on life, and he is always for the “little guy” because despite his countless great deeds he views himself as a little guy. London never loses sight of these essential traits and displays them in proper proportion.
London’s handle on the entire core cast is comparable to his depiction of their leading man. Castor Oyl remains a pugnacious little sharpster, his sister Olive is quick with a quip, quick with a smack, and always more than a little jealous (even being turned into a baby after being dunked in the Pool of Youth doesn’t prevent her from lashing out when Sutra Oyl makes a move on Popeye!). Most wonderful of all is the way that reprobate moocher, J. Wellington Wimpy, comes to life in all his unctuous glory under London’s hand … and the vicissitudes of life in a fast-food culture provide ample grist for the Wimpy Gag Mill.
The comics landscape is currently populated by literally scores of long-running characters. There are 1930s pulp heroes again trying to gain successful footing within the medium and popular heroes “rebooted” as their old universes wither and new universes rise up in their place. Recognizing that every series is its own thing, and that there is no lone path to success, no single formula that keeps characters looking familiar to long-time fans while still seeming relevant to a younger audience comfortable with the concept of “streaming content,” I nevertheless maintain that modern-day standard-bearers for many of those pulp/comics mainstays might do well to look at the Bobby London Popeye, analyze what makes his work such a success, then apply those lessons judiciously and to good effect in their own work.
Bobby London penned the Foreword to 1987’s first collection of Segar Popeye dailies. He concluded that piece by writing: “Happily, the original Popeye is still with us, more or less … His ugly mug still adorns an unending supply of merchandise, reminding all of us that trends in humor may come and go, but a great comic character can live forever provided he becomes a growth industry.” I would argue that a great comic character can live forever provided his creators treat him with the respect and genuine fondness that shines through in these two LOAC releases. Throughout his tenure as impresario of Thimble Theatre, Mr. London insured that Popeye “Yam what he yam” — and we wouldn’t have it any other way!