The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Courtesy Fantagraphics Books

No, really: Who is he? Everybody recognizes him, everybody knows him, but the question is, why? Where did he come from? Why is his ugly mug still in the top tier of recognizable American icons?

As an American icon, he certainly hasn't been an active part of the mass media in god knows how long—a couple of decades, at least—and yet there he is, somehow retained in the public memory. There, in the deep recesses of the unconscious, he's still camping out on children's underwear, still selling chicken, still eating spinach, and probably still swabbing the deck.

But, again I ask you, why?

Was it those cartoons you saw as a kid? That movie with the coked-out Robin Williams from the '70s (which makes you old, by the way)? Was it the fried chicken or the spinach or the Underoos or "he likes to go swimmin' with bare naked wimmin'"?

Whatever the case, however you and the rest of the world came upon Popeye, there's not a whole lot left of the guy in 2006. And your question to me would probably be, "Who cares, and why does this matter?"

Well, snotty, it wouldn't matter one bit, if Popeye (and Olive and Swee'pea and Wimpy and the rest) came from some piece of forgettable mass-market garbage (see Spuds McKenzie, the California Raisins, and, uh...Mr. Mister). But the fact is, he didn't.

Popeye sprung from a newspaper strip called Thimble Theater, written and drawn by Elzie Crisler (E.C.) Segar, which began in the late 1910s and ran until his death in 1938. It was, and is, one of the single greatest comic strips of all time.

You're not to be blamed for not knowing this—after all, these characters came before the Great Depression, and most folks who would remember the original strip are gone now. But, still and all, this is the creation that none other than Charles Schulz called "the perfect comic strip" (and he ought to know), and that Robert Crumb cites as a major influence on his work, and one of his favorite strips of all time. (If you can name two more distant poles of genius in any medium, I'll buy you a cake.)

Sadly, Segar's particular genius has been on the radar of, well, no one, other than a handful of other cartoonists who managed to find the work in one of the infrequently published attempts to keep the work in print, and comics critics and historians (yeah, such people exist). In a word, the real Popeye, Segar's Popeye, has been known only to a bunch of comic nerds (not to be confused with superhero comic nerds, who are a different breed, but nerds nonetheless, god love 'em).

Now, Popeye is poised to storm our shores in a new, complete, six-volume edition from Fantagraphics books. (Disclosure: Several of my own cartooning projects have appeared under the Fantagraphics imprimatur.) Published in an elegant, oversized edition, volume one, "I Yam What I Yam" (1928-1930), begins shortly before Popeye's first appearance. The Thimble Theater strip ran for over a decade (with moderate success) before Popeye made his muscular debut on January 17, 1929. The strip originally revolved around main characters Castor Oyl, his sister Olive, and her beau, Ham Gravy...get it? HAW HAW!!! As comics historian Bill Blackbeard (see? told you) relates in his introduction to this volume, Popeye was not meant to be an ongoing character. Castor and Ham just needed to get to Dice Island, you see, and someone had to sail the boat.

Enter Popeye.

Same old sailor shirt, same old squint eye, same old anchor tattoos on his ridiculously enormous forearms. The one-eyed sailor earned both the devotion of fans and no doubt the resentment of Castor Oyl, who would soon find himself upstaged.

For the uninitiated, modern reader, there will be some surprises. One will be that, rather than some throwback, nostalgic, oh-look-what-people-used-to-think-was-funny sort of funny, this strip is laugh-out-loud funny. I mean, sometimes it's funny funny, like when Popeye hits someone in the face (often). But sometimes it's just plain funny, like when Popeye says "All right ORFICER, come on—ARRESK us," or when someone tells him he's got a face like a hatchet.

Another surprise will be that, far from quaint and staid, these strips are badass. People insult each other, beat on each other, love each other, and screw each other over in a way that's a little shocking in this day and age. There's a scene—one among many, really—of a typical bad guy throttling the living hell out of Olive (note to modern cartoonists: Do not show women being beaten), threatening to "shake her teeth out." Meanwhile, Castor sneaks up behind him preparing to unload a gunful into his head at point-blank range. Yeowch. Still—funny stuff.

Thimble Theater was, in simple terms, an "adventure strip": Popeye and the rest romped from this to that, saving farms, solving mysteries, going to jail, getting lost in jungles—whatever would keep things moving. Segar's drawing style fit the tone perfectly: simple and spare, yet expressive and ready to explode when need be. This was particularly the case when it came to the ass-beatings that were doled out on a weekly basis. (Cute fact for the kids: Popeye began eating spinach after having reached the popularity point where younger readers might have regarded him as a role model. Segar was then asked—ahem—to give his sailor an attribute that was slightly more positive than being able to absorb gunshots and mangle the English language).

Aside from the always-hilarious violence, the characters in Thimble Theater were prone to be cowardly, deceptive, ugly, greedy, and heartless, but in a way that was somehow lovable, and very forgivably human. And somewhere in there lies a quality rare in any age, in any medium: that humanity. When the Sea Hag shows up, mysterious and barely visible in a sea of black ink, she is scary. When Popeye's latest sweetie (he and Olive were constantly switching up) says to him, "I DO NOT LOVE YOU," it hurts. This is not love and sadness, meanness and joy, heroism and hilarity approximated and packaged for you; this is the real thing. These characters' humanity has not been cleaned off of them by editors and PR agencies and focus groups: They are filthy with humanity—it hangs off them like a dirty old snotrag.

And maybe that's why Popeye is still around, 70-some years after the fact. He may have a cartoon heart, but it never stopped beating.


Popeye Vol.1: "I Yam What I Yam" Fantagraphics Books

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