Thursday, December 24, 2009

Comics Review: E.C. SEGAR'S POPEYE, Volume 4: "PLUNDER ISLAND" (Fantagraphics Books, 2009)

How many comics readers received their first exposure to E.C. Segar's work through the medium of THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS? I was one of those lucky stiffs whose first taste of the "real" Popeye and friends was the deep, refreshing draft reprinted in full (and, for the first time, in color) in this volume. "Plunder Island," which ran in Segar's Sunday pages from December 1933 to July 1934 -- it was by far the most ambitious story the artist ever mounted in a Sunday format -- has been described by such respected comics scholars as Bill Blackbeard and Richard Marschall (who fills in for the unreadable Donald Phelps as this installment's introductory essayist) as the greatest single narrative in the history of comics. This is remarkable in view of the fact that 90% of the "epic adventure" consists of shipboard interactions between characters. Segar had used sea voyages for story settings in the past, dating all the way back to "Dice Island" (the story in which Popeye debuted), but, one way or another, the characters' activities off the ship eventually took center stage. Popeye's gang doesn't reach the titular island -- the hideaway where The Sea Hag's (stolen) treasure is stored -- until we hit the last half-dozen strips. It doesn't really matter, as we thrill (and not in a good way) to the introduction of the unsettling "original naked version" of Alice the Goon, chuckle at the paranoid George G. Geezil's increasingly desperate efforts to "kill" Wimpy "to death," and laugh out loud at the sight of Wimpy romancing The Hag and pretending to behead Popeye, just to get at the "50 pounds of frozen hamburger" she has on her ship. Here, "getting there" is definitely more than half the fun.

Segar's best daily-strip narratives contain more satirical punch, but "Plunder Island" is superb entertainment. I do wonder, however, what became of G.B. Gritmore, the secret agent (I guess) who asks to accompany Popeye, his old pal "Salty" Bill Barnacle, and the rest of the gang on their trip. Gritmore appears in one panel in the strip of 12/31/1933, is invited aboard by Popeye, and never appears again. Did Segar simply forget about him, or did he make a strange "New Year's Resolution" to cut down on the number of characters he had to draw? (Professor Cringley, the shivering savant who'd escaped The Hag's clutches, and "Miss Sniddle" gradually disappear from the narrative during the cruise, but at least they got some face time before doing so.) There is one possible "escape hatch" here: Popeye says that Gritmore can only come aboard "if ya' gots bravery an' intestimal fortnitude (sic)." Perhaps Gritmore fell at this "first turn."

This era's daily THIMBLE THEATER strips -- pushed to the rear of this volume for understandable reasons -- are a mixed bag. The late 1933-early 1934 strips are somewhat disappointing, perhaps because Segar was preoccupied with the Sunday continuity. Popeye's sojourn running a newspaper in Puddleburg is wrapped up with a dispatch that may reflect the artist's dissatisfaction with the way the story was progressing. (Another case in point: Puddleburg is described as "the laziest town on Earth," and the natives are initially depicted as sleepy-eyed and blase, but this characterization disappears almost as quickly as it's introduced.) As he cuts and runs, Segar does take a few funny shots at the trials and tribulations of cartoonists, in the person of the dish-faced gagman, B. Loony Bullony. "Romance and Riches" is a lengthy, and somewhat dawdling, story in which Popeye and Olive (who's put on airs since glomming onto her share of Plunder Island's riches) break up. Popeye goes to stay with billionaire Mr. Vanripple and Vanripple's comely (by Segar's modest standards) daughter June, who winds up falling hard for the sailor man. Vanripple, who looks like he's stepped out of a Dr. Seuss story, is the closest that Segar ever came to creating a Scrooge McDuck "type." Given the era (the early New Deal years), he's also a surprisingly benign portrayal of a big business man, though prone to eccentricity (he insists that the underwear-challenged Popeye wear June's frilly teddies, for instance). After Olive's attempt to become a movie star (even to the point of getting fitted with prosthetic legs to "improve her figure"!) destroys her fortune, leaving her a babbling wreck, Segar finally gets the dailies back on track. Not surprisingly, this return to top form "clicks in" just as "Plunder Island" is drawing to a close. "Unifruit," "Black Valley" (somewhat notorious as the "Popeye goes in drag" story), "The Pool of Youth" (the return of The Sea Hag and Alice, not to mention "detective" Castor Oyl, and the introduction of The Hag's vicious sister and the "immortal" caveman Toar), and "Popeye's Ark" (the start of the "Spinachova" story arc, Segar's most politically aware work -- and a daring one too, given the wide intellectual appeal of Fascism and Communism at this time) are all top-notch.

One shouldn't ignore the high quality -- and equally high spirits -- of Segar's secondary work at this time. SAPPO, THIMBLE THEATRE'S companion Sunday strip, is at its very best with imaginative storylines including a shrinking episode (with its arresting image of the microscopic John Sappo cutting his way to freedom through the hide of a germ), the brief but painful marriage of Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle, and a literal war between Wotasnozzle and his equally irascible rival, Professor Finklesnop. (Somehow, I can't imagine Gyro Gearloose getting quite that carried away, though he did have his moments. By the same token, I can't imagine the egotistical O.G. escaping to simpler medieval times -- he would never have "admitted defeat" in such a manner.) And that ain't all, folks: Segar treats his young and young-at-heart Sunday-page readers to "magic movies," drawing lessons, and one-panel moral messages. The last of these may have been one of Segar's efforts to appease William Randolph Hearst, who'd advised him to make Popeye a better role model for kids. With the Fleischer cartoon series starting and gathering steam during this time, the call to tone Popeye down a bit may have been especially urgent. (Don't worry, though, Popeye is still plenty raucous and has his moments of "backsliding.") Only two volumes to go, and some of Segar's best moments are yet to come! What a marvelous collection.

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