Popeye Vol. 1: â€œI Yam What I Yamâ€Â by E.C. Segar
Art Out Of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900-1969, edited by Dan Nadel
Review by Robert Dayton
Two thousand and six was a profoundly great year in comics for initiates and novices alike and letâ€™s hope, as our eyes gaze heavenward, that this is a signifier of what is to come in 2007 and beyond. One neednâ€™t be bound and shackled by the mires of comic geekdom to appreciate these fine objets dâ€™art. Proof of this pudding can be found in Popeye Vol. 1: â€œI Yam What I Yamâ€Â by E.C. Segar.
What many of us know of Popeye is a mere bastardization faded through Xerox visions. Possibly the closest anyone got to the original template was Robert Altmanâ€™s Popeye movie (a box office bomb and near career destroyer) with itsâ€™ sprawling seaside ruddiness and great songs by Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks! Natch that this bookâ€™s intro is by Jules Feiffer, cartooning legend and screenplay writer of that movie. The original Popeye was crusty and, at first, only incidental. This volume starts at the beginning of Popeye but the real beginning was years before. When E.C. Segar began his Thimble Theatre newspaper strip in 1919 it was little more than a comic take on adventure serials, damsel in distress kinda stuff. Eventually genre parody gave way to propelled flights of whimsy, stereotypes dissolved as Segar developed true characters and archetypes to propel these continuing misadventures, such as Olive Oyl and her brother Castor Oyl One day in early 1929 Popeye just plunked down into frame unforgettably. Then after a few months Popeye disappeared back into the ether. He wasnâ€™t gone for long. Readers wrote in, they needed Popeye, a spark was struck, something had stuck, a comic anti-hero that caught permanent fancy in the publicsâ€™ twinkling craw.
The strip was brilliant and Popeye just fit. Segar already honed the slang and jargon of the day but with Popeye it was even further skewed mutterings of verbiage. Thimble Theatre was like ergot laced barnacles, comedic character interaction with a beating bandaged heart, rough and tumble gags laced with depth, and elements of the fantastique with such wild characters as the wish granting Whiffle Hen and the eerily menacing Sea Hag. Most importantly, Thimble Theatre was funny.
By the time of Segarâ€™s death in 1938, the Fleischer studios had already been producing a few very impressive Popeye cartoons in their own right, where fleeting moments from the strip (spinach, Brutus nee Bluto) became permanent mainstays. Outside of the creatorâ€™s vision these tropes landed on the screen and into other merchandising friendly elements of popular culture.
With this new volume from Fantagraphics, gregariously steel yourself for the real Popeye, the original ancient scrolls that stem right from just before his first appearance and continuing onwards chronologically. This Popeye defied the conventions that were later to be thrust upon him by the non-Segars, the lesser lights. This big bound collection is a pure antidote for depression, especially if one veers towards surliness or cynicism though wide-eyed naivetes can easily enjoy it as well. And this is just Volume One of a proposed six volume set (Volume Two, due next year, introduces Wimpy!)!
Designed by Jacob Covey, the hardcover package features a cut out word balloon title-it is literally cut out of the hard bound cover. Itâ€™s just stunningly put together. Fantagraphics have utilized computer technology to render these strips in crisp glory; the full page colour newspaper strips are lush, soft washes. As such an integral part of comics history, these strips should always be in print. Before this, one had to desperately seek out Fantagraphicsâ€™ previous reprintings from the early 90â€™s, those unassuming volumes â€“even in soft cover- were less economical and not as advanced in design and lay out. This book is a steal at approximately thirty dollars, an investment of joy.
A few years back when I was seeking those earlier inferior volumes, my travels led me to Olympia, Wa- known also by itsâ€™ other name as Indie Rock Hell- where there exists a great comic shop called The Danger Room. The two proprietors would often argue about which was the greatest newspaper strip of all time: Thimble Theatre or George Herrimanâ€™s Krazy Kat, both are on their Top Two lists anyways so it is a microscopic yet enjoyable argument. If you want to add fuel to that hierarchical debating fire there are some wonderful reprints of Krazy Kat also available. I still pledge allegiance to Thimble Theatre. This volume does not reprint too many of the strips before Popeyeâ€™s arrival on the scene but if one is curious issue 271 of the Comics Journal reprints a terrific fifty page Thimble Theatre adventure.
Before I take leave of you I should mention another must have book that had me giddy as a schoolgirlâ€™s first ride on a pony. Entitled Art Out Of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900-1969 and edited by Dan Nadel, this book pleases the palates of both comic know-it-alls and future junior initiates as well with overlooked works by those who slipped through the cracks whilst expanding the form. And absolutely no super heroes to speak of. Just sweet delirium tremors. Seek it out. It will cause you to float in space.