Popeye and the Langridge of Heroism, by Michael H. Price
The breakthrough of the season, as far as superhuman heroism goes, might lie beyond such big-screen spectacles as Iron Man and the June 13 opening of The Incredible Hulk. The watershed lies, in part, in a set of Popeye the Sailor cartoons that have gone largely unseen – in authentic form, anyhow – since the late 1930s and the earlier 1940s.
A companionable development is a new series of hardcover books reprinting the original Popeye comic strips of writer-artist E.C. Segar. The current volume is Popeye Vol. 2: “Well, Blow Me Down!” (Fantagraphics Books; $29.95). A third collection is due in the fall. The elaborately packaged Fantagraphics shelf commences at the commencement with Popeye Vol. 1: “I Yam What I Yam.”
The books qualify as near-architectural marvels in their own right – towering, heavy-stock packages with die-cut front-cover windows and an interior design that showcases many days’ worth of the newspaper feature with each spread. A full-color section devotes a page to each of what originally had served as Sunday-supplement episodes, complete to the extent of reproducing Segar’s subordinate feature, Sappo, about a household in perpetual turmoil.
The stories in Vol. 2 include a wild Frontier Gothic pitting Popeye’s entourage against a mob of cattle rustlers; and a scathingly funny commentary upon charity-vs.-greed, in which Popeye attempts a banking career in defiance of all practical sense. There surfaces a gemlike example of Segar’s gift for mangling and/or improving upon the langridge: When Popeye uses the adjective liberous, does he mean “liberal,” or “generous,” huh? Neither – he means liberous, and So There. The book also sports a touching tribute to Segar from Beetle Bailey’s Mort Walker.
Together, Segar’s comic-strip novelettes and the Fleischer Studios’ Popeye films reveal all that anyone could hope to know about an essentiable cartoon character. Everything post-Segar and post-Fleischer has proved inferior, despite occasional reminders of greatness from such Segar-loyalist successors as Doc Winner, Bela Zaboly, and Bud Sagendorf. Segar’s newspaper feature, in turn, is stronger than the animated cartoons in terms of plotting and characterization. But the early movies boast a distinctly gritty allure and a consistency with Segar’s rambunctious style of drawing.
The short films are hardly unknown – long having circulated on television, though in degraded copies – but their DVD restoration from master film-vault elements is a revelation. The visual design, with an astonishingly rich palette of black-and-white shadings and the occasional indulgence in Technicolor, packs almost a palpable sense of texture.
For anyone who has wondered how a Fleischer Popeye cartoon must have looked in its first-run prime, some answers lie in a forthcoming DVD box called Popeye the Sailor: 1938-1940, Vol. 2 (due in August from Warner Home Video; $34.98). The restorations, as with the Popeye Vol. 1 set of 2007, render useless any number of off-brand video releases that purport to represent the series but often blur the line between the Fleischers and the post-Fleischer Popeyes from Paramount Pictures’ Famous Studios subsidiary. The difference is basically a matter of the organical vs. the synthetical.
Vol. 2 continues to track the Fleischer Studios’ Popeyes in chronological stride. The series reached a sustained plateau of accomplishment during the later 1930s, with increasingly inventive variations on the standard theme of Indignant Everyman Popeye vs. the Eternal Thug, Bluto, with a stringbean romantic interest named Olive Oyl usually caught in the middle as the scrappy third leg of an inexorably shifting triangle. Key titles are “It’s the Natural Thing To Do,” in which Popeye and Bluto attempt gentlemanly behavior with awkward results; “Females Is Fickle,” in which Popeye attempts a death- and dignity-defying rescue; and a Technicolor variation, Popeye-style, on the Arabian Nights fantasy of Aladdin.
Bonus tracks include a documentary account of the rocky history of the Fleischer Studios, profiles of voice-actors, and an example of the Fleischers’ Superman series. The more nearly realistic Supermancartoons demonstrated the studios’ versatility while suggesting a subtle kinship between Superman and Popeye: Both characters helped to define the concept of the superhuman protagonist at a crucial stage. (A revealing insight lies in Time magazine’s early-day perception of Superman as a crossbreed of Segar’s Popeye and Al Capp’s Li’l Abner Yokum.)
Matters are hardly so simply laid out in the original Popeye yarns of E.C. Segar. Spinach, supposedly the source of the sailor-man’s might, plays a lesser role in Segar’s grim-but-uproarious tales, and so does Bluto – whom Segar had arrayed among a procession of grotesque troublemakers. (Bluto the Terrible will enter in a third volume from Fantagraphics.) The Fantagraphics editions make patent Segar’s mastery of desperate suspense and biting humor as essential components of storytelling, combining serialized ordeals with the gag-a-day imperative.
Segar had introduced Popeye during the late 1920s in a comic strip called Thimble Theatre. The sailor soon sidelined such characters as Castor Oyl (Olive Oyl’s conniving brother) and Harold Hamgravy (Olive’s suitor, later known as Ham Gravy) in terms of popular appeal and narrative possibilities. Popeye’s credo, “I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam,” is a succinct manifesto of self-effacing confidence. His handling of the English language reflects the resilient restlessness of Immigrant America, assimilating by improvisation.
In simplifying Popeye for the motion-picture screen, the Fleischers also took pains to capture an essence of Segar’s vision, retaining the working-class outlook and keeping the characters attuned to the scrappy resourcefulness that was the only sensible acknowledgment of the harsher economic realities of the day. The overall look is colorful, figuratively speaking, as only black-and-white photography can allow, displaying a shades-of-gray depth unequaled by Walt Disney’s or the Warner ’toonshop’s rival B&W products of the general period. (Only three Fleischer-shop Popeyes were produced in Technicolor.)
Warner Home Video prefaces the works with a disclaimer cautioning the viewer to beware of rampant Political Incorrectness. This fatuous reminder – presumably accounting for such elements as reciprocal violence, occasional ethnic caricatures and Popeye’s appetite for tobacco – hardly diminishes the Fleischers’, or Segar’s, brilliance at suggesting plain gumption as a response to dehumanizing economic circumstances. The cartoons yam what they yam, and that yam more than enough to render them relevant to a massed audience of this ill-acknowledged New Depression. The Segar Popeye books prove still more so.
Recommended Listening: Smiley Burnette: Country Songs & Comic Cuts (British Archive of Country Music CD-D-080), contains the largely unknown “I Can Whip Any Man but Popeye” – with the singer’s recurring deployment of a very persuasive Popeye voice. (http://bacm.users.btopenworld.com/CD-details2.html)
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books, from Baltimore’s Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com, and in the Times Leader of Wilkes–Barre, Pa.