It's over. And I am so sad. Fantagraphics's breathtaking reprints of some of the greatest comic strips of all time — E.C. Segar's fabulously wonderful Popeye — comes to a conclusion with this amazing sixth volume, a perfect collection of comics art that brings joy literally from cover to cover.
From the latest spectacular die-cut front cover to the awesomely odd letter reprinted on the inside back cover, the final volume of the adventures of the sailor man and his friends, enemies and pets is pure joy and bliss, a deliriously charming collection of 18 months or so of daily and Sunday comic strips from the late 1930s that manage simultaneously to act as a time capsule, as an astonishing mix of comedy and drama, and as the life's work of an amazingly gifted and idiosyncratic cartoonist. Like its title characters, the comics presented in this gorgeous book "is what it is."
The greatest aspect of this book is that all the characters presented in it are incredibly vivid personalities. The man at the center of the action is, of course, the world's greatest sailor man, a man who can lift houses, run through stone and beat up the toughest man in any town. But he's also a tender, loving man, who adores Olive Oyl and hates the Sea Hag and for a four-month sequence of comics reprinted in this book actually gives up his daily life in order to help a sweet and poverty-stricken young woman, without any hope of getting the slightest reward for his hard work.
Maybe my favorite sequence in this book involves Popeye's 99-year-old dad, Poopdeck Pappy, and the trouble that Pappy gets into when he decides to sow his wild oats — Segar uses that phrase a bunch of times in describing Pappy and isn't it an awesome phrase that makes you think of the 1930s? Pappy is just a horrible, wretched, hilariously terrible man whose legs are encrusted with clams and who steals $1,000 from his own son's safe just to court a widow that Pappy doesn't even like all that much. And when a date goes badly, Pappy just throws another old woman into the river — just because she eats onions. The story goes hilariously downhill from there, as Pappy's trial becomes one of the most insanely wonderful farces ever seen in comics and we readers are stuck with the most bizarre sort of admiration for this very bizarre old man simply because he's so completely, steadfastly, determined to just be himself.
And that's really the genius of this comic strip — every character is completely themselves. Popeye is an endless parade of pure, single-minded insanity as one character after another flings themselves onto the stage of this comic strip, fully grown like a clay figure sprung from the lunatic head of a lunatic Athena.
We get reacquainted with Eugene the Jeep, a crazily magic creature who can detect when people tell lies. We spend time again with Swee'pea, a baby who seems to have magic powers and who indulges in a wonderfully post-modern moment in one special comic strip. We spend time with the Sea Hag, a hideously ugly mystic creature with a pretty complex back story and an apparent heart of… well, if not gold, at least tin.
And maybe the most deliriously crazy character of all in this book is the amazing J. Wellington Wimpy, the hilariously crazy, endlessly self-involved, hamburger-obsessed small-town grifter who is full of a hundred awesome catch-phrases ("If I had known you were in town, I would have hit you up for a duck dinner," "I would gladly shoot myself tonight if I had a gun to shoot," "There are thousands of goons but only one Wimpy.") and a seemingly bottomless hunger for his beloved hamburgers. The only person who truly loves Wimpy is the Sea Hag, and Wimpy returns Haggy's love — because she always feeds him! Wimpy is all over this book and no matter what happened, no matter when he came on the scene or what the circumstances, the corpulent self-obsessed lunatic always made me laugh like crazy.
These dizzying stories careen and stagger around as events tumble upon each other, helter-skelter, sometimes serious, sometimes absurdly, ridiculously silly, and most of the time the humor grows out of the characters themselves rather than the crazy events that they find themselves involved in. It's like the greatest genius sitcom TV series you've ever seen, with magically wonderful characters eternally finding themselves in one absurd circumstance after another.
And that's what makes me feel so sad about this series ending. Yeah, I can still go back and reread these six fantastic volumes of pure comic bliss. But now I'll know what will happen in these stories. I won't be able to be surprised, be swept away by events that fly and shake and stumble around in the most wacky sorts of ways featuring characters that I've come to adore. At least I'll always have these magnificent books to enjoy. There was no world quite like the insane world that E.C. Segar created in Popeye. And that world is pure magic.