By E.C. Segar
200 pages, black and white, plus color
Published by Fantagraphics
Like most readers below a certain age, I only knew Popeye from his more modern-day incarnations; in my case an animated version from late ’70s television, and Robert Altman’s infamous live-action movie in 1980. I’d never, however, read the original E.C. Segar strips, and two years ago I picked up the first Popeye collection from Fantagraphics, at which point its huge, oversized dimensions made a semi-permanent home on my coffee table. Finally, though, I got around to giving the book a whirl. I’m definitely not waiting two years until I read the next book.
I hadn’t realized until reading Popeye Vol. 1 that Popeye himself was a late addition to Thimble Theatre, Segar’s newspaper comic strip. Thimble Theatre debuted in 1919, but the character himself makes his first appearance in 1929 as a sailor hired by Castor Oyl and Ham Gravy to help the duo go to an island casino where they’re going to use Bernice the Whiffle Hen’s luck powers to break the bank and become fabulously rich. And from there comes trips to Africa, evading jail, a search for diamonds, and even the dreaded and feared Sea Hag…
It’s interesting reading Popeye Vol. 1 because it’s such a shift in tone and style once Popeye himself becomes firmly established as one of the main characters. The earliest strips in the book, where Castor is being vexed by the danger-evading, bondage-escaping Bernice the Whiffle Hen, got surprisingly tiresome in quick order. The first few strips of Castor versus Bernice are funny, but from there it felt like the same joke hammered into the ground more times than you could imagine. Even once Popeye himself first appears to take them to the casino, it continued to drag onwards, a single joke or action getting repeated for all six daily strips of that week. A funny thing happens soon after, though. Segar brings Popeye back by popular demand, and the strip suddenly picks up in pace. Things start actually happening throughout the week, and the stories themselves get more interesting in their own right. I think it was around the point that the crew ended up stranded on the Sea Hag’s ship that I realized I’d gone from a quiet amusement to being enthralled with the book. Who knew that adding a new supporting character could completely transform a comic strip?
The back of the book is devoted to the Thimble Theatre Sunday strips once Popeye was added into them as well. (The Sunday strips didn’t really intersect with the daily strips, since often people would only read one form or the other.) It’s interesting seeing Segar’s different take on the character and the comic page in general with the Sunday pages. With all the extra space, he’s able to pace out his punch lines much better, and tell more interesting stories as a result. I also had no idea that Popeye had reddish hair up until reading these Sunday strips. A grand revelation! In the Sunday strips, Popeye also begins his pursuit of Olive Oyl, something that hadn’t made it into the dailies at this point in time. It’s a strange combination of romance, boxing, and random street fights in these pages, and it’s certainly a violent (if entertaining) strip, not at all what I’d expected.
Popeye Vol. 1 would be enthralling if only for the change in the Thimble Theatre order of things, letting the reader watch as a new character takes over and reshapes the strip into his own image. Fortunately, what it’s turned into is a thoroughly fun adventure strip that made me eager for more. Knowing that there are still five more volumes ahead of me (to say nothing of the introduction of future supporting cast members Wimpy, Swee’Pea, and the Jeep) is a genuinely exciting prospect now that I’ve finished the first. There are so many fun newspaper reprint projects going on right now that it’s easy to miss a lot of them. Now that I know how good Popeye is, I’m making it a priority to read the rest.