by Roger Ash
In the past, I mainly knew the classic character of Popeye through his appearances in cartoons. The best of these, by far, are the classic cartoons by the Fleischer Studios that defined the character and his friends and enemies for many; the gruff but lovable Popeye the Sailor who gains super powers by eating a can of spinach; the love of his life, the fickle and unlikely sex symbol, Olive Oyl; his rival for Olive (whom Olive often prefers) and all-around bad guy, Bluto; the gluttonous Wimpy; his adopted son, Swee’pea; and other various friends and enemies. Popeye cartoons have been made by a number of studios aside from Fleischer and I’ve seen many of them, even though most aren’t that good. After all these years, I thought I knew Popeye pretty well. Boy, was I wrong! There was a whole different Popeye out there waiting for me to discover and now, thanks to Fantagraphics and IDW, you can discover him too.
First, there is the original Popeye, the one who was the basis for everything to come, from Elzie (better known as E.C.) Segar who introduced him in his classic comic strip, Thimble Theatre, in January 1929. These original comic strips are collected in six oversized volumes of E.C. Segar’s Popeye by Fantagraphics. I’ve only read the first two volumes so far, and they are fantastic and eye opening. This is a very different Popeye that what I knew. He’s still gruff and lovable, but spinach has nothing to do with his strength. But that’s not to say he misses anything in the power department. He routinely survives stabbings and shootings and is a terror in the boxing ring. Next to a good fight, what he likes best is to help those in need and since these strips were published during the Great Depression, there are plenty of folks who need help.
I’ve heard many say that Popeye really took over the strip once he appeared and it’s not hard to see why. Prior to his introduction, the strip featured the Oyl family including Olive, her brother Castor, and her parents Cole and Nana, as well as Olive’s beau, Ham Gravy. The first volume features a number of strips leading up to Popeye’s appearance and the characters didn’t really grab me. It wasn’t until Popeye appeared with his tenuous grasp of English and no nonsense demeanor that the story really took off. He was a star from day one. Segar introduced many of Popeye’s friends and enemies who have become regulars in his supporting cast including Wimpy, King Blozo, Swee’pea, Bluto, Poopdeck Pappy, Eugene the Jeep, the Sea Hag, and the Goons. Though, like Popeye, the Segar versions are often different from what was done with them in animation. And Popeye’s adventures takes him all over the world, from the local gym to the Wild West to the high seas to King Blozo’s kingdom, which has changed names a few times.
The books are oversized to include the Sunday pages at near full size which also feature the original topper strip (here moved to the bottom), Sappo which features Sappo and his wife Myrtle and the crazy boarders who live at their house, the best known being the wacky scientist Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle. Because of the size of the book, a whole week’s worth of dailies fit on one page. Due to their age, the quality of the reproduction of the strips can vary, but in general they look very nice. Also, due to when they were published, some strips include racial stereotypes that were common at the time. There are also supplemental materials in each volume that give you a nice history of the strip as well as the times in which they were created. Unfortunately, there are only 10 short years of Segar’s original Popeye strips available as Segar passed away in 1938. These strips are great fun and these volumes are well worth your time.
A few years back, IDW published Popeye: The Great Comic Book Tales By Bud Sagendorf, a volume of classic Popeye comics originally published by Dell in the late 40s to the early 60s by creator Bud Sagendorf. That has led to Classic Popeye, which reprints the classic comic books. Sagendorf was an assistant to Segar, but he took Popeye in a different direction; sort of an amalgam of Segar and the animated Popeye with some innovations of his own mixed in. Popeye is now firmly entrenched in suburbia and not much of a traveler, though he does take the occasional trip. This is not entirely surprising as this was a reflection of what was happening at the time in America. Spinach plays a part in the series, but not as some sort of magic elixir for strength, it’s just his preferred food. He still has some issues with pronunciation, but not nearly to the extent as he did in Thimble Theatre. Also, many of the adventures so far have centered around a very verbose and strong Swee’pea. These stories feature a different and fun look at Popeye and his world. Sagendorf really took the characters and made them his own.
On top of all this is IDW’s new Popeye comic written by Roger Langridge and drawn by a host of artists including Bruce Ozella and Tom Neeley. Langridge will be drawing some of the upcoming adventures himself. When I saw Langridge recently at the Baltimore Comic-Con, he had some pages from his Popeye stories and they looked fantastic! I also asked him about writing the book and he said he’s a huge Segar fan and I think it shows. His comics hew closer to Segar’s version of Popeye than Sagendorf’s or the animated version. He has lots of comical mispronunciations and has plenty of adventures at home and abroad. Langridge has also brought in much of the supporting cast including the Sea Hag, King Blozo, and Ham Gravy. There have even been backup stories featuring Sappo, his wife Myrtle, and Professor Wotasnozzle. This comic is just a lot of fun and I highly recommend it. Want to know how good this book is? It was supposed to be a miniseries but it proved to be so popular that IDW made it an ongoing series. If you haven’t tried it yet, now’s the perfect time as a collection of the first issues is available for pre-order.
Also, for people who complain that there are not enough all ages comics or done-in-one comics, both Popeye and Classic Popeye fill those needs. Both are great for all ages and the stories are complete in each issue, and often there are a couple complete stories. And the more issues you read, the more you learn about Popeye, his friends and enemies, and they world they inhabit.
Now’s a great time to be a Popeye fan with two monthly comics as well as all the strips from his creator, E.C. Segar, available. If you’re like me and mainly know Popeye from his animated adventures, I invite you to learn more about Popeye with Fantagraphics’ E.C. Segar’s Popeye and IDW’s Popeye and Classic Popeye. I’ve had a lot of fun reading these adventures and I bet you will too.
Now, go read a (Popeye) comic!