Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review: E.C. SEGAR'S POPEYE, VOLUME 5: "WHA'S A JEEP?" (Fantagraphics, 2011)

The "penulkimate" POPEYE reprint volume contains my personal favorite of all of Segar's THIMBLE THEATRE narratives, the story that introduced Eugene the Jeep. The "magical dorg" (well, so claimed Popeye in the Fleischer cartoon that brought Eugene to animated life) with apparently limitless powers represented Segar's boldest venture to date into the realm of pure fantasy. For that reason, no less a POPEYE fan than Charles Schulz thought that the Jeep's creation was a mistake, in that Eugene's presence gave Popeye a "four-dimensional escape hatch" that the two-fisted sailor hadn't needed in his earliest adventures. I can see Schulz' point, but it needs to be remembered that Segar had barely begun to develop Eugene as a character before the cartoonist died. Had Segar passed before he'd had a chance to use Wimpy as anything other than a funny-looking boxing referee, what would be our collective memory of the hamburger-munching moocher -- assuming we had any at all? I think that, given time, Segar would have found an appropriate niche for the Jeep that would have allowed Eugene to contribute to Popeye's adventures without devolving into a universal panacea. Eugene's appearances in "The Search for Popeye's Poppa" (which is also reprinted in this volume) and, later, "Mystery Melody" and "A Sock for Susan's Sake" give us no real reason to suspect otherwise.

The Jeep story is modest in scope but contains all the familiar Segar ingredients: human frailty among our protagonists (Olive and Wimpy playing the horses to try to cash in on Eugene's ability to predict the future), a suitably nasty villain (the money-grubbing Chizzleflint, who knows the Jeep's secret [one of them, anyway] and wants possession of the "aminal"), social satire (the air-headed professors who try and fail to explain Eugene's powers), and a knock-down, drag-out "fight at the finich" between Popeye and a hulking goon whom the Jeep has incorrectly predicted will defeat the sailor in the ring. In order to give Popeye the ultimate victory and yet preserve Eugene's rep for "veraciky," Segar executes one of the neatest bits of continuity that I've ever seen in a comic strip. I won't give it away, but suffice it to say that, if you look closely, Segar "shows" why the Jeep was mistaken well before the actual explanation is revealed. I can't help but compare Segar's work here with that of the admittedly masterful Floyd Gottfredson in "Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot." In order to help Mickey escape one of The Blot's death traps, Gottfredson cheats and introduces a knothole that magically appears on the floor between one daily strip and the next. It would have been easy enough for Segar to have concocted a strained rationale after the fact -- and such a scheme might even have been expected of a creator whose narratives tend to ramble from one incident to the next -- but Segar carries off the explanation with a remarkable deftness.

This volume's other "major event" is the introduction of Popeye's incorrigible, irascible father, Poopdeck Pappy. "The Search for Popeye's Poppa" isn't one of Segar's stronger seafaring tales -- the only "menaces" in sight are a Scooby-Doo-style "phony ghost" and a rubbery "guardian octopus" that might have given even Cecil B. DeMille pause -- but it gets the job done in a workmanlike fashion, with Pappy being taken home to be "civilized." The stubble-chinned Pappy is a "beard" in both a literal and a figurative sense; with Popeye having been toned down considerably by this point, Pappy allows Segar to keep some of the sailor's more dubious traits on display without Popeye himself having to display them. For his part, Popeye is now noble enough that he refuses to join Olive and Wimpy in gambling on the Jeep's predictions, citing the need to set a good example for the little 'uns. This last may be Segar's ironic comment on the creative box into which Popeye's huge popularity had by now placed the cartoonist.

The collection opens with the drawn-out conclusion of the "Popeye's Ark"/"Spinachova" continuity. I think it's fair to say that Segar let this story drag on a bit too long; the business involving Popeye's "sheeps"' search for wives is particularly tedious, and Segar evidently felt as much, since he veers off course for a bit to indulge in some gags involving Popeye's efforts to help Spinachovan farmers. The pace picks up when neighboring Brutia invades Spinachova; it's as if Segar is picking up vibes of what was to transpire in Europe a year or two later. During the war, Popeye shows that a slightly-less-than-100-proof sailor man can still be quite funny when he knocks a Brutian battleship out of commission by unscrewing all of its bolts. Still, Segar wraps up the arc so quickly after Spinachova "wins" (so to speak) the war that I get the impression that he was vaguely dissatisfied with it. Despite all the gags about Popeye the "dictipator," was Segar aware that he, unable or unwilling to do a really stringent satire of 1930s power politics, had chosen to fight with a rubber-bladed knife? Most of the actual humor of the story is aimed at Popeye's terminally stupid "sheeps" and their all-but-complete helplessness. This could be taken as a comment on the folly of 193os mass movements, even democratic ones. (In his ART OF THE FUNNIES, R.C. Harvey makes the case that Popeye's quick creation of a "republic" by switching his cap for the topper of a "presidink" represents a critique of FDR's New Deal.) But if making sport of the foolishness of the "masses" is the primary focus of one's satire, then aren't you indirectly arguing that heavy-handed leadership is actually necessary in order to accomplish anything? No wonder Popeye repeatedly confessed that he was leaving Spinachova "disgustipated"; Segar's vision, taken to the extreme, is a decidedly bleak one.

In the Sunday strips of this era, with Segar basically forsaking continuity for a gag-a-day format, Wimpy really comes into his own. The moocher is an ideal hook on which to hang elaborate schemes involving the procurement of food, shelter, cigars, or any combination thereof. Indeed, Wimpy is such a parasite that it's a wonder that the restaurant he operates for a bit lasted as long as it did. Back-up strip SAPPO, meanwhile, goes into something resembling "hibernation mode" as Segar reduces it to a single-tier format and does a string of strips involving John Sappo creating caricatures out of letters, numbers, and "inaminate" objects. Segar would have one final SAPPO continuity salvo to fire before the end, however, so perhaps he was simply hoarding his dwindling physical and mental reserves at this time.

This volume contains some of the best ancillary material of the series. Richard Marschall's introductory essay on Segar's gift for characterization is, Heaven be praised, actually intelligible. We also get a gallery of adverts for the strip from contemporary newspapers and, best of all, a magazine article detailing Segar's many hobbies, which included fishing, hunting, and woodworking. Segar appears to have been both a well-rounded man and a bit of a publicity hound. He definitely understood "synergy" (I have no earthly idea how Popeye would pronounce that), with Popeye occasionally introducing himself in song a la the Fleischer cartoons. Hopefully, we will get even better extras in volume six, the reading of which will be a decidedly bittersweet experience. What a Segar Popeye of the 1940s and 1950s would have resembled, I can't imagine, but it's a shame we never got to find out.

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