Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.
What’s it about?
Nearly a decade before Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1, a strangely-attired superhuman strongman graced newspaper dailies and Sunday inserts. He was introduced as a supporting character in E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theater, a daily strip that had been running for over 8 years when the sailor joined its already impressive cast. Over time, Popeye grew to overshadow his co-stars, Castor Oyl and Harold Hamgravy, with his name replacing the strip’s original title. Nearly 100 years of adventures, malapropisms, magic, and an empire of formulaic cartoons later, Popeye the Sailor’s name is synonymous with fisticuffs, rescues, and spinach.
Starting in 2006, Fantagraphics began an ambitious project: reprinting all of Popeye’s Thimble Theater adventures, from his first appearance in January of 1929 to Segar’s death in 1938. The resulting 6 volumes are marvels, both of comics history and of storytelling. Each oversized volume is roughly 168 pages long, and 14 ½” inches tall, making them hard to carry around but giving Segar’s work the visual platform it deserves. The books cover both Segar’s black-and-white daily stories and the 4-color Sunday strips that advanced separate plots in parallel. Partly modeled on adventure strips like Buck Rogers, and partly on humor strips like The Katzenjammer Kids, Thimble Theater was a sprawling work filled with improbable heroes solving absurd, magical, and surprisingly threatening mysteries. Some of its primary characters are still well-known in pop culture, at least in their diminished roles established in Max Fleischer’s cartoons and the various animated series that followed. However, Popeye’s illustriously imagined world and mythology are largely forgotten by the larger population, and these volumes provide a comprehensive atlas to Segar’s world and characters.
There’s a lot of good to talk about here. Characters like Olive Oyl and J. Wellington Wimpy shine here, developed far beyond the single notes of “damsel in distress” and “itinerant moocher” both are usually imagined as. Olive, in fact, typically screams for help as she demolishes the thugs who regularly menace her. Olive’s family are well-developed as well, providing a home base for the adventurers to return to. Familiar villains like Bluto and The Sea Hag make their appearances but are the subjects of single stories, not predictable features, and they have actual goals beyond simply disrupting Popeye’s and Olive’s lives. Finally, Popeye himself shines as a complex figure. Bullet-resistant and superhumanly strong– even without his spinach, which barely made any appearances in Segar’s world– the sailor was a superhero in everything but name, and also a hilarious antihero. Yes, he was good-hearted and could lick any man alive, but he was also a drunkard and a gambling addict, constantly making and losing fortunes, a burden for his friends as often as he was a savior. Seeing Popeye fail in mundane life is as important to Thimble Theater as his triumphs in battle.
However, there are some plot and character tropes for prospective readers to be aware of. Racial stereotypes are a regular part of the strip as well. While Popeye himself judges no one, Chinese characters speaking broken English populate the strip’s background like an Asian minstrel show. His long-bearded, sour-faced character, Geezil, would probably be seen as an antisemitic stereotype as well if it weren’t for Segar’s Jewish roots. Dismissing painful blunders like this as a product of their time is partly accurate, but wholly insufficient. Segar’s work is often a study in casual racism, and librarians and teachers should know this before purchasing.
Segar’s visual style is unusual. He’s not a master of the comics page like George Herriman, Windsor McCay, or Walt Kelly. His color work is precise, but his pencils are typically sketchy, with backgrounds drawn only as-needed. Still, for all their simplicity, his characters are shockingly expressive and convey humor through facial expression and body language as often as not. Segar also deserves praise for his visual storytelling and humor, which is based less on setups and punchlines than on characters and situations. He created a world where the individuals are reliable, even if their surroundings and the physics that govern their actions are not.
Academic libraries interested in comics history, or even the history of the Depression, would do well to collect them as well. The books are readable by teens or even younger readers but belong primarily in adult collections. Adults are better able to place the strip’s problematic aspects in historical context and to recognize its value as an artifact as well as creative work.
Why should you own this?
Fantagraphics 6-volume series of the collected E.C Segar’s Popeye is a critical part of comics history, influencing everything from Superman to One Piece, and is usually delightful as well. While not recommended for school libraries, largely because of its problematic racial stereotyping and reliance on thick, sometimes impenetrable, dialog, these books are important purchases for public library collections. It should be noted that these books are large enough to require special shelving, but also that they look spectacular on endcaps or in displays, and are likely to draw adult readers to a library’s comics collection. Who doesn’t have a warm spot for Popeye the Sailor?
Popeye: I Yam What I Yam!
By E.C. Segar
Art by E.C. Segar
|Popeye, Volume 1: I Yam What I Yam!||978-1560977797|
|Popeye, Volume 2: Well Blow Me Down!||978-1560978749|
|Popeye, Volume 3: Let’s You And Him Fight!||978-1560979623|
|Popeye, Volume 4: Plunder Island||978-1606991695|
|Popeye, Volume 5: What’s A Jeep?||978-1606994047|
|Popeye, Volume 6: Me Li’l Swee’Pea||978-1606994832|
Publisher Age Rating: (Teen+)