Sunday, December 7, 2008

Book Review: E.C. SEGAR'S POPEYE, VOLUME 3: "LET'S YOU AND HIM FIGHT!" (Fantagraphics Press, 2008)

Timing is everything, especially when it comes to a burgeoning pop-culture phenomenon of the sort that Popeye had become by the early 1930s. Bluto, Popeye's eternal antagonist on both the large and small screens, provides the menace in "The Eighth Sea" (1932), this latest Segar collection's first extended narrative. The hulking, black-bearded pirate scourge does enjoy the privilege of an extended fistfight with the sailor man (nearly getting permanently dispatched by the terrible force of Popeye's "twisker sock") but consequently suffers the relatively placid fate of being set adrift in a lifeboat, along with a band of thugs that had stowed away on Popeye's ship in hopes of glomming onto a "vast treasure." That was it for Bluto's comic-strip career, but the Fleischer Studios just happened to be starting its series of POPEYE shorts at the time and latched onto the big brute as an ideal foil.

"The Eighth Sea" cabooses neatly onto a lengthy, though sometimes wandering, story in which Nazilia's King Blozo returns in triumph to his country with gold to prop up his pathetic economy, survives an attempted coup and an electoral challenge from the cigar-chomping General Bunzo (his commander during "The Great Rough-House War"), and then agrees to sell an outlying island to Popeye, who's intrigued with the notion of setting up an entire nation from scratch. "Popeye, King of Popilania" definitely points toward the later "The Dictator of Spinachovia" but lacks the topical satirical sting of that story, including only a few passing references to the Depression (e.g. Popeye ensures "prosperiky" for his new realm by turning a horde of invading jaybirds sent by the jealous Blozo into a Shmoo-like source of all manner of salable products) and wedging in a severely silly subplot in which Popeye lures bachelors from Nazilia by offering them the matrimonial services of a tribe of "wild women." Presaging the denouement of "Spinachovia," Popeye ultimately gives up on nation-building and generously turns over his kingdom to Blozo, who's watched his land depopulate as a result of Popeye's eccentric, but genuine, largesse. Perhaps Popeye had come to realize that government will always turn out "punk" regardless of whether its leader is a two-fister straight-shooter like himself or a whining worrywart like Blozo. "Spinachovia" would hone this point to a rapier's keenness a few years down the line.

The last story in the volume, besides introducing another key member of Popeye's extended "tribe," illustrates Segar's nimbleness as a story-teller, in the sense that he knew when to cut away from a less-than-inspired plot and go in an entirely different direction that ultimately netted vast profits. After returning from Popilania/Nazilia, Popeye (joined by Wimpy, who'd made his first extended appearance in the daily strip in the role of the ineffective "commander" of Popilania's minuscule army), accepts Castor Oyl's offer to invest his profits in a newspaper. The ensuing reporter-and-photographer gags evidently didn't excite Segar, who executes a neat swerve by having Popeye receive a mysterious package. Inside is Swee'pea, who will, of course, become Popeye's child-ward forever after. (Segar obviously loved the "package" gambit, as he also used it to introduce Bernice the Whiffle Hen and Eugene the Jeep. No wonder; it's a sure-fire way to build suspense and make a new character's appearance seem like something really out of the ordinary.) Swee'pea is being pursued by agents of his "superstitious" homeland of Demonia, who regard the infant as a "lucky gift from the gods" on account of the seven moles on his back. The Demonians inflict such a series of head-blows upon Popeye that the sailor suffers a supposedly fatal case "bonkus of the conkus." Even when mentally addled, however, Popeye holds his ward in an iron grip, braving a sojourn in the desert (and an attack from a goon sent to track him and Swee'pea down) and finally curing himself through sheer willpower. Segar puts the cap on this extraordinarily detailed "diversion" by bringing Popeye home to take over a small-town newspaper.

In this era's Sunday strips, Wimpy really comes into his own as the ultimate sponger, driving Rough-House to distraction (and even into a hospital at one point!) and even discomfiting poor Popeye at times. The "s'prize fight" theme gradually fades into the background as Segar prepares for "Plunder Island," his greatest Sunday continuity (and, arguably, his most famous story), which will be reproduced in full in the next volume. (In a sort of anticipation of that epic, Segar sends John Sappo and Professor O.G. Wottasnozzle on a lengthy trip to Mars and Venus in THIMBLE THEATRE's always-entertaining Sunday-page companion strip.) And that's not all, folks; we close the volume with a series of never-before-reprinted strips from early 1933 in which Popeye and friends experience the Chicago World's Fair in their own unique way. These strips appeared in the sports sections of the Hearst newspapers, which perhaps explains why Segar was willing to dare convention (not to mention evoke nausea) by having Olive Oyl emulate Sally Rand and perform a fan dance. Popeye likewise "has his way" with a series of chorus girls and dancers, as indirectly indicated by the fact that a whole slew of them cry at his departure from the Windy City in the series' final strip. Between this additional newspaper exposure, the debut of the Fleischer cartoons, and the canonical newspaper strip, 1933 might be considered the peak year of Segar's career -- except that some of his greatest narratives were still over the horizon. Save for yet another obscure and muddy introductory spiel by Donald Phelps, this would be an absolutely perfect package of classic comic-strip entertainment.

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