Interview: Andrew Farago on IDW/The Library of American Comics’ Popeye The Classic Newspaper Comics Volume 1
Andrew Farago is the Curator at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. He’s also writing the introduction for IDW/The Library of American Comics’ Popeye The Classic Newspaper Comics Vol. 1: 1986-1989 by Bobby London. Westfield’s Roger Ash recently spoke with Farago about this upcoming collection.
Westfield: At first glance, Bobby London seems like an odd choice for Popeye given his Underground background with Air Pirates and Dirty Duck. What made him a good choice for the strip?
Andrew Farago: Bobby and a lot of the Underground cartoonists that he came up with were really big fans of classic comic strips. You can really get a sense of that from Robert Crumb’s work. I think a lot of the Air Pirates, like Dan O’Neil, were definitely aware of that classic 1920s/1930s comic strip aesthetic. It’s surprising, but there are hints of it from the beginning of his career. Bobby’s a dyed-in-the-wool Segar fan.
Westfield: Why do you think this series is worth collecting?
Farago: I’ve been re-reading it, actually reading a lot of it for the first time, and it’s incredibly fun material. It’s prime Bobby London cartooning, and most of it has never been collected. There’s only one small collection, Mondo Popeye, and that’s long out of print. Getting to see a really talented cartoonist at the top of his game taking on one of the most iconic characters in newspaper comics, how can you not collect that?
Westfield: How did you become involved with the project?
Farago: That came about through Dean Mullaney, who is in charge of The Library of American Comics imprint at IDW. I’ve known Dean and worked with him on a number of projects over the years. He’s helped us out with exhibitions at the Cartoon Art Museum, and I’ve tracked down a thing or two for him over the years. I’ve known Bobby for a few years, so I helped Dean make that connection so that they could talk at the outset of this project. Dean knew that I was a big fan of Bobby’s work and I’ve told Dean repeatedly that I’m a big fan of Popeye. I guess that put me on the short list when it came time to find a fan of Popeye’s and Bobby London’s to write the book’s introduction.
Westfield: What appeals to you about London’s Popeye strips?
Farago: My older brothers were National Lampoon readers. I think that’s how everybody gets introduced to National Lampoon: your older brothers sneak it into the house and then you sneak it out of their room. After going through the racier content, I’d go right to the comics section, which was my favorite part of the magazine. Bobby’s work on Dirty Duck just amazed me and I was drawn to it right away. I’ve been fortunate enough to cross paths with Bobby in person a few times, and he’s an incredibly cool guy, pretty much exactly who you’d expect.
Bobby has a very classic cartooning sensibility and he’s a great cartooning talent. He’s got a real affection for all the characters in the Popeye strip. There’s a lot of history, a lot of characters who had really been underused since Segar passed away. He made great use of classic characters; he brought back long-forgotten characters and storylines. You can tell he’s having a lot of fun doing it. With every strip, you can tell he’s having the time of his life.
Westfield: You mentioned that he brought back some of the classic characters. Does he add any new characters during his run?
Farago: He does add some new characters. He expands the Oyl family by introducing Olive’s cousin, Sutra Oyl. She seems to be the main new addition. As far as I can tell, he really wanted to use the classic characters as much as possible. He brought back some long forgotten characters like King Blozo, George W. Geezil and Oscar. Fantagraphics was reprinting the original Segar run around that time and I’m sure he had that on his bookshelf as handy reference throughout the whole thing.
Westfield: I know from reading the description of the book that he did move into some longer stories. Did the strip start as a gag-a-day or did he start immediately into the continuities?
Farago: I believe the first few weeks, just to find his footing with the characters, he’s doing short gags, but before long he does move into some really nice week-long, sometimes months-long, storylines. The Sea Hag moving into the corporate world and taking over Sweethaven by buying up real estate and installing shopping malls and trading on the stock market is an extended storyline. He really does capture that fun and sense of epic adventure that Segar had.
Westfield: In that storyline, it’s clear London didn’t keep the characters bound to the time in which Segar created them. How much updating does he do with the strip?
Farago: He brings Popeye full-speed into the 1980s. There’s no doubt when you’re reading it that this is a 1980s-era Popeye. I don’t want to say that he clubs you over the head with it, but there’s absolutely no doubt that this is Popeye updated for the MTV era. I couldn’t even get started on how many references he drops. All of a sudden you’ve got Madonna, you’ve got Michael Jackson, you’ve got punk rock, Rubik’s Cubes. It’s a little jarring to read the classic Segar Popeye where Sweethaven is sort of this completely timeless, perpetually 1930s small town and then see it suddenly thrust 50 years into the future. But it works. It’s a lot of fun to read it.
Westfield: Aside from some of the things we just talked about, what can readers look forward to in the book?
Farago: You’ve got the culture clash of these Depression-era characters becoming full-blown 1980s icons. You’ve got Bobby London at the peak of his abilities cutting loose and having a blast with some of his favorite comic characters. And he’s an unabashed Segar fan and that’s been true of his work going back to the 1960s. Getting to see one of the most talented artists to come out of the Underground era doing his best Segar tribute on a classic American comic strip is worth the price of admission.
Westfield: Coming from the Underground which did a lot of satire on modern life, do you find that as well in his Popeye?
Farago: Yeah, definitely. Popeye himself does not take to 80s culture quite as readily as some of his fellow Sweethaven residents. Olive Oyl becomes a Home Shopping Club Network addict. The other characters go through punk rock phases or go to Wall Street and engage in insider trading. Popeye’s still a little bit detached and kind of bemused by all of this. It’s great because it does allow him, and Bobby through him, to comment on a lot of the ridiculousness of 1980s culture and the disposability and overall goofiness of it.
Westfield: What about the introductory material you’re doing. Is there anything you can say about that?
Farago: It’s still a work in progress, but I’m definitely going to talk about where Bobby was in his career prior to getting the Popeye job, which will probably surprise some people, and why he was such a good fit for the character. How someone whose most infamous moment in comics before that had been his involvement in doing really shocking versions of another corporate iconic American character, Mickey Mouse, became the first choice to draw a Popeye comic strip. On the surface, it seems like the least obvious, maybe even the craziest possible, person you can entrust with a really beloved character like Popeye, but in a lot of ways, it feels like he was the only choice, the most obvious choice.
Westfield: Is Bobby London involved with the collections?
Farago: He’s actually not. His tenure on the strip ended very abruptly, unfortunately, due to…creative differences between him and the syndicate. So Bobby’s involvement with the book is going to be fairly minimal, although he is happy to have his work back in print. I hope that this collection and the second volume lead to a renewed interest in his work and we’ll get a nice, complete Dirty Duck collection on our bookshelves before long.
Westfield: Any closing comments?
Farago: Thanks to people like Dean Mullaney and one of my heroes, Bill Blackbeard, before him, we’re really in a Golden Age of comic strip collections. A lot of material, including Bobby London’s Popeye, that I never thought we would see reprinted is now available in definitive, comprehensive collections. I’m really excited about it. I’m glad to see things like this that I never thought would see the light of day getting a big, mainstream, painstakingly restored, nice hardcover edition. It’s a great thing. I’m glad that people are going to have the chance to rediscover something that they haven’t read since the 1980s or haven’t read at all. It’s a great time to be a comics fan.