Popeye Vol. 1: "I Yam What I Yam"A column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Jason Sacks, Daniel Elkin, Danny Djeljosevic, Zack Davisson
Jason Sacks: Well blow me down. I know Zack and I have read Popeye before, but have you read these original strips before, Daniel and Danny?
Daniel Elkin: No. This was a first for me. I did watch quite a bit of the cartoons as a child, though, so that was really my frame of reference.
Danny Djeljosevic: There was this one time I reviewed Volume 4 (Plunder Island) for Comics Bulletin, which speaks to how accessible these comic strip collections are -- you can pretty much start anywhere.
Zack Davisson: Jason has been to my house and seen my Popeye shrine. I've been a fan of Segar's Popeye for about as long as I can remember. I started reading them when I was about 5 or 6. My Grandfather had a Smithsonian collection of old cartoons strips with tons of Popeye.
Sacks: So, Daniel, you were the only one who came into these strips cold. Zack and Danny will agree that the strip gets much better after this first volume, but I'm curious what you thought of this book.
Elkin: I was amazed at the complexity of the storytelling, especially in the context of a daily strip.
Davisson: Segar's Popeye is a whole different strip than those wimpy Famous Studios cartoons from the '70s and '80s, but that's what people know.
Djeljosevic: These days, all people know about Popeye are those basic signifiers from the Fleisher cartoons. Or maybe Robin Williams.
Davisson: The spinach eating, the Popeye-Bluto-Olive love triangle -- those are all from the Fleischer cartoons. They invented those to have a simple story formula they could use for cartoons
Elkin: That's for sure. This was a whole new Popeye. My eyes popped!
Davisson: Now is actually a fantastic time to be a Popeye fan. Fantagraphics published all of the Segar strips in this beautiful format, and the Fleischer Popeye cartoons are finally available as well. They had been trapped in copyright hell for as long as I have been alive
Sacks: I think we can all agree that the presentatioj onnthese books is absolutely immaculate -- a work of art by itself.
Davisson: They are incredible. Fantagraphics treated the strips like they deserve
Elkin: I agree -- my only complaint was that it was hard to read this collection in bed (where I do most of my reading -- ladies?).
Davisson: I think this is the first time ever that the entire run has been collected in original size Those Smithosian books -- which are also beautiful and I highly recommend -- were also original size.
Sacks: I have most of the '80s reprints from Fanta, but they are nowhere as wonderful as this series.
Davisson: Yeah, I had those too. They have been replaced.
Djeljosevic: Fantagraphics has put together a really pretty package -- huge and well-produced, but also affordable and not-too-unwieldy.
Davisson: Yep. And I love the P-O-P-E-Y-E on the bindings. It appeals to the collector in me
Elkin: I was especially fond of the color pieces at the end. Which were pretty frickin' funny.
Davisson: Yeah, the Sunday strips. Those are mostly the boxing strips.
Sacks: The boxing strips are pure joy and energy.
Davisson: And the Wimpy bits. He is a great supporting character. Almost all of those characters are based on people Segar actually knew. Wimpy is based on Wellington J. Reynolds, one of Segar's old art teachers.
Sacks: Wimpy is absolutely my favorite character in the series. E.C. Segar obviously had some amazing friends.
Davisson: Popeye is based on Frank "Rocky" Fiegel. I love seeing pictures of Rocky. He looks just like Popeye.
Djeljosevic: The history of Popeye as a comic is so fascinating. Popeye shows up as a minor character a decade into Thimble Theatre and from there Segar's world eventually coalesces into something a casual observer would recognize AS Popeye. You'd think these kinds of strips would just emerge fully formed.
Davisson: Yeah, Popeye was just supposed to be a one-note character, while The Oyls were the main characters in Thimble Theater for years
Elkin: It was pretty amazing that from the moment he showed up in the strip, he never left.
Davisson: Yeah. He was obviously the star. And I love his first line, "Did ya think I was a cowboy?" Popeye gets props for being an early comic strong man as well. He was superstrong and invulnurable before Superman came along.
Elkin: How many bullets did he have in him at one time?
Sacks: Only 13.
Davisson: Bullets ain't nothing to Popeye.I think it is the characters that really make this strip -- Segar's plots were totally random, just pure chaos, and they were glued together by this phenomenal cast that you believe in.
Sacks: I've been comparing these comics to a great sitcom that by its 2nd or 3rd season is completely cooking with gas. When Popeye gets introduced, the perfect lynchpin character is at the center of the show and suddenly it reaches a completely different level. Like Seinfeld by its 6th season became this endless dizzying parade of hilarious characters.
Davisson: One strip Popeye is just a hired sailor, the next a king of a country, the next a goldseeker. And it cracks me up that he is always phenomenally rich.
Elkin: And then blows it all in a dice game.
Davisson: Or gives it to orphans
Djeljosevic: Basically, Popeye is the Fonz. Or Steve Urkel.
Davisson: No! No Steve Urkel!
Djeljosevic: He's a good kind of Urkel.
Elkin: There's a good kind of Urkel?
Davisson: I'll give you the Fonz, but not Steve Urkel ....
Djeljosevic: THIS is the good kind of Urkel.
Elkin: Does that mean that Olive is Pinkey Tuckadero?
Davisson: Nah, Olive was there before Popeye, with her boyfriend Ham Gravy. Poor Ham got out of the picture quick when Popeye showed up
Sacks: The Oyls are the craziest, most ridiculous family ever. Actually the best scene with them is in the Popeye movie -- the whole silly set piece with Popeye trying to sit at the table while everyone is eating.
Davisson: Oh yeah. Actually, that picture has tons of Popeye easter eggs snuck into it. Almost every background character is a Segar character. He even sneaks Bill Barnacle into the background
Djeljosevic: That's an insane attention to detail. Wait, we're talking about a Robert Altman movie. No wonder
Sacks: It's ridiculous.
Elkin: Was there a Whiffle?
Davisson: I don't think there was a Whiffle bird.
Elkin: Too bad. I loved the Whiffle.
Sacks: I don't remember a Whiffle hen or Whiffle rooster.
Djeljosevic: Agreed! Bernice is such an entertaining character. She's this preposterously designed bird that's completely unaware of her own value.
Elkin: If there wasn't a Whiffle, there would be no Popeye, if you think about it.
Davisson: Speaking of the movie, something I have talked about before with Conan, where the popular image from the film is so strong that it has completely taken over the source material, so people write to the popular image instead of the original books. If you had someone make a Popeye cartoon that was like Segar's strip, with no Bluto, no spinach, people would be all WTF? The cartoons completely wiped away the original strip.
Sacks: It's logical in a way but tragic in a way because Segar's strip is so vibrant and original and spectacular in its specific way.
Davisson: It is a more creative, original world. And more complex than the simple love triangle.
Elkin: And wildly weird, too.
Sacks: Very much an auteur strip -- no-one ever could replace Segar.
Davisson: Although Bud Sagendorf did well with it. He was Segar's assistant, so he worked on the strip directly with Segar. Also, Popeye isn't such a sap -- he gets himself some other fine dames, instead of mooning over Olive all the time.
Sacks: Oh, the wacky love triangle in this book is so wonderful!
Davisson: I like the Wimpy/Sea Hag love story. Forget what book that is from. Wimpy is such a smooth talker.
Elkin: Wimpy falls in love with the Sea Hag?
Sacks: There's a lot about that in Volume 6 and it's hysterical.
Davisson: Well... he pretends to fall in love with the Sea Hag so that he can get some loot.
Elkin: She is pretty sexy... I guess... in that Haggy kind of way.
Davisson: That's another funny thing that changed. Early Wimpy was all about duck dinners, not hamburgers -- "Let's have a duck dinner. You bring the duck."
Djeljosevic: I love that gag. No matter how many times he pulls it, it never gets old.
Sacks: "Let's you and him fight!"
Davisson: Yeah. That's true of all the Popeye gags. For some reason they never get old.
Elkin: I thought that I would start to get irritated by the repetitive nature of the Blow me Downs and other catchphrases in this series, but I kept laughing at them each time.
Davisson: All the catch phrases, all the running jokes... they stay fresh.
Djeljosevic: I think it's because there's way more to the comic than running gags or catch phrases -- there's an ongoing plot to follow.
Elkin: Which was pretty amazing. Like I said at the outset of this conversation, there was some pretty complex storytelling going on in this collection -- and the fact that Segar was able to pull it off, incrementally, in a daily strip, was a pretty amazing feat.
Sacks: There's a depth to these characters, too. They may be incredibly self-involved and aggressive, but there's this odd sort of internal integrity to them that makes them lovable.
Davisson: They aren't simple one-joke strips.
Elkin: Yet there is sort of a punchline at the end of each one.
Davisson: The storytelling actually reminds me of old adventure fiction -- H.R. Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, etc...
Sacks: Segar plays this amazing storytelling where despite the insane situations, the humor still grows out of the characters.
Davisson: How one small, unexpected piece leads to a grand, epic adventure, fortunes won and lost...
Elkin: Like a Whiffle.
Davisson: ...and then everyone goes home It's this every widening scope.
Djeljosevic: Exactly. What starts off as a series of gags involving Castor Oyl trying to kill a pesky bird for money becomes a big seafaring adventure.
Sacks: It's a whole world in six panels every day.
Elkin: Given the fact that this was written at the start of the Great Depression, I kept expecting more of that to seep into the series...
Davisson: Just the opposite! Everyone was millionaires! They kept finding hordes of cash!
Sacks: It's so optimistic.
Elkin: And everyone has scads of cash to purchase a Whiffle!
Sacks: That whole sequence where everybody bids on the whiffle hen was so wonderful.
Davisson: And Popeye, the great philosopher, is never corrupted by his cash, but he is always surrounded by those less pure than himself.
Elkin: Is Popeye Buddha?
Davisson: Maybe. One strange thing I don't think people know -- Popeye is HUGELY popular in Japan. Much moreso than the US. Popeye is everywhere, he's used to advertise everything. Some characters just appeal to certain cultures. Japanese people don't care about Superman or Batman, but they love Popeye.
Sacks: Huh, who knew.
Davisson: It might actually be the only successful American comic import.
Elkin: Popeye is our Pokémon.
Davisson: I used to eat at Popeye Ramen all the time. They had -- of course -- spinach in their ramen.
Sacks: I've had some Popeye fried chicken.
Djeljosevic: Funny, Popeye is actually responsible for the existence of Super Mario.
Davisson: Yeah, Donkey Kong was originally a Popeye game. But Nintendo couldn't get the rights.
Djeljosevic: When there were rights issues, Nintendo basically changed the characters from Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto into Mario/Jumpman, Princess Peach and Donkey Kong.
Elkin: So Mario Party should be Popeye Party? Awesome.
Davisson: Yep, because Popeye is awesome. One thing I miss about the Fantagraphics collection is Segar's little pieces. In the Smithsonian collection I have, it shows the Thimble Theater pages as they were printed, and they each have a main strip, then something in the margins -- a little "make your own Popeye theater" paper doll cut-out or something. It was always different. Segar filled up a full page with all sorts of cool stuff
Elkin: I love it when Segar would suddenly interject himself at the beginning of stories with things like, "The Wiltson Mystery will contain more hot stuff than any mystery story ever written since the birth of fiction." and things like that.
Davisson: Oh yeah, Segar's little asides are brilliant.
Elkin: I loved his unabashedly bombastic style in those bits.
Davisson: And that he can get away with using "hot stuff" and making it sound cool. Another reason I am so happy Fantagraphics has these books available -- people can see just what Popeye was like under the hands of his creator, instead of the diluted one-dimensional figure he has become. Actually, going back to that Smithosian book again -- it has Segar's stuff along with Windsor McKay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Segar's work is just as brilliant. He walked shoulder-to-shoulder with giants.
Has anyone read the new Popeye comic? How is that? I tend to avoid any modern Popeye stuff. It always disappoints.
Djeljosevic: I hear it's good. Roger Langridge wrote it, That dude's legit -- he made the Muppet Show comic from BOOM!
Sacks: Langridge is great. His work at Fantagraphics was hysterical.
Davisson: That's cool. I would be interested to read it, but I assume it would cater to the cartoon audience, which isn't my Popeye.
Djeljosevic: Just judging by these preview pages, it reads vaguely like Segar's comics
Davisson: That's looks great! I'm impressed.
Elkin: Oh my god! I love the Jeep! My favorite Popeye character.
Davisson: Yeah. You know, the car "jeep" actually comes from Popeye. Segar invented the word.
Djeljosevic: ...that's amazing.
Sacks: So, Popeye Volume 1: good, great or completely mindbogglingly amazing?
Davisson: One of the greatest things ever made. So completely worth ever single penny you spend and every single second you spend reading it.
Djeljosevic: Segar's work is a revelation, especially if you come in with the expected preconceived notions of what Popeye is.
Sacks: Makes me happy to be a human being in the 21st century able to read a book so wonderful.
Elkin: I agree with Danny. This was so much fun to read and gave me a whole new understanding of why Popeye is the cultural icon he is.
Daniel Elkin has been reading and commenting on comics since the mid '70s when he used to wear a great deal of brown corduroy. Currently he lives in Northern California where brown corduroy is slowly becoming fashionable again. Daniel has worked in bars, restaurants, department stores, classrooms and offices. He is a published poet, member of MENSA, committed father, gadfly and bon vivant. He can over-intellectualize just about anything and is known to have long Twitter conversations with himself (@DanielElkin).
P.S. He keeps a blog, Your Chicken Enemy.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.