Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: E.C. SEGAR'S POPEYE, VOLUME 6: "ME LI'L SWEE'PEA" by E. C. Segar (Fantagraphics Press, 2012)


What feeling can possibly arise upon reading the last volume of THE COMPLETE E.C. SEGAR POPEYE, other than genuine sadness and dismay that Segar was taken from his loyal coterie of readers far too quickly?  I'd hesitate to pass definitive judgment on what a Segar THIMBLE THEATER of the 1940s and beyond (as distinct from the war years, which would almost certainly have tempted Segar to make the hard-punching sailor man serve his country in some "official" capacity) would have looked like, but we may have gotten a hint in my favorite of this volume's continuities, "A Sock for Susan's Sake."  By 1937, Popeye had been domesticated to a certain extent, and Segar had brought the incorrigible Poopdeck Pappy into the THIMBLE THEATER cast and given the latter some of the more anti-social aspects of Popeye's earlier, rougher persona.  But it's hard to imagine that Segar would have completely drawn out Popeye's eye-teeth and turned him into the less complicated character of the later Famous Studios shorts.  The picaresque "Sock," in which Popeye brusquely assumes the role of protector of and unofficial mentor to a lovely (by Segar's artistic standards, anyway) young female vagabond with a mysterious past, points the way towards what a future Segar Popeye might have looked like.  Popeye is every bit as proactive, arbitrary, and abrupt as he was during his early career, but also evinces compassion, self-sacrifice, and a sense of higher moral good.  Fittingly, after Popeye discovers that Susan's wealthy father had thrown her out into the street, he literally drags her back to a confrontation with him, leading to the obligatory "startling revelations" and, of course, the restoration of Susan to her proper place.  It's much like the tale of Cinderella, that is, if you can imagine the Fairy Godmother employing the occasional "righteous right cross" in place of the waving of a magic wand.

The much-praised "Mystery Melody" continuity, featuring the return of the Sea Hag, leads off the collection daily strips reprinted here.  While it's entertaining enough, it isn't as indelibly memorable as the "Plunder Island" Sunday sequence, probably because of the space limitations inherent in the daily format.  Poopdeck Pappy takes the lead role in "Wild Oats," a somewhat melancholy read in that it was the last daily story that Segar was able to complete before the progress of his leukemia forced him to quit "The Valley of the Goons" and "King Swee'pea" midway through.  Those last two Segar-influenced tales, perhaps reflecting the uncertain state of Segar's health, tended to wander a bit, and so does "Oats," with Poopdeck partying wildly until he gets hauled into court for creating a (rather innocuous) disturbance.  The trial gives Segar another chance to parody the workings of the law, but the depiction of the trial in "Oats" pales in comparison to the wonderful sequence in "A Sock for Susan's Sake" in which Popeye and Susan are arrested by a gung-ho constable (whose perpetual snarl hides the fact that he's a bit of a softy at heart) and arraigned before a rural magistrate on the charge of fishing in and swimming in the local reservoir.  Even the minor characters shine in this extremely funny sequence, in which Segar both pokes fun at and shows his affection for the quirky-but-decent locals, a la Mike Judge's treatment of the residents of Arlen in King of the Hill.

The last batch of Sunday pages continue to give Wimpy multiple chances to shine (he really could have carried his own strip) and feature the last explosion of creativity in the companion strip SAPPO, as John and Myrtle S. accompany Professor O. G. Wottasnozzle and a couple of other long-bearded deep thinkers (including, oddly enough, Wottasnozzle's arch-enemy Professor Finklesnop -- does the phrase "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" come to mind?) on an epic space journey to the worlds "beyond Neptune."  I wish I knew why Segar suddenly switched back to continuities in SAPPO after ditching them for an extended period of time in favor of drawing lessons and the like.  It's almost as if he knew that he had very little time left for active creativity and wanted to expel as many crazy ideas as he could from his cranium before the end.  Short-lived it may have been, but the whole Segar POPEYE oeuvre is now between handsome hard covers, and fans of great comics will be forever grateful.

2 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris:

It’s impossible to read that final volume and not have Segar’s passing hanging over it.

But, beyond the tragic loss of a genius-level cartoonist, we are left to play the “What If” game. Yes, what would Segar’s ‘40s, ‘50s, and even ‘60s Popeye have been like. I’d like to think that Bud Sagendorf carried on the tradition… but fandom largely disagrees with that opinion.

And so later Segar Popeyes, are left to accompany ‘50s Tashlin and Clampett Looney Tunes and Eisenhower through Nixon-era Gottfredson Mickey Mouse continuities in that “Great What-If Folder” of our imaginations!

There IS something I strongly object to in this final Fantagraphics volume…

…The non-completion of the “King Swee’pea” continuity.

It would appear that Fantagraphics was more concerned with a memorial showcase for Segar, than with presenting the stories! And, honestly, I feel cheated out of the ending of that continuity – whether or not it was handled by others. It SHOULD have been allowed to complete as originally presented.

The non-Gottfredson “Death Valley” material was presented in FG’s Mickey Mouse hardcovers. They didn’t just pick it up once Unca Floyd got rolling. Why take that approach here?

How do others feel about this, I wonder?

Joe.

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

I honestly didn't mind the fact that "King Swee'pea" wasn't finished. Fantagraphics was simply following the lead of the Nemo paperback collections of Segar's POPEYE when it chose to cut off the narrative at the point that it did.

Chris