subtle

A Note on E. C. Segar’s Thimble Theater: Examples from "Popeye," the Newspaper Graphic Serial

Although the adventures of Popeye the Sailor were among the most successful of the syndicated newspaper comic strips that were recast in later years as animated cartoon features (in this case by Disney’s chief competitor, the Max Fleischer Studios), the cast of characters as they appear in Ashbery’s poem descends from figures and from narrative relationships that were not evident in the movie cartoons but were developed in the newspaper strip version. The arch-villainess Sea Hag, who never appeared in any of the movie cartoons, was often thrown together in an unlikely pairing with the Wimpy, in the newspaper comics, where the joke was that she and he developed a quasi-domestic, girlfriend / boyfriend arrangements that were more than a little bizarre: the ever-hungry Wimpy would "make love to her," as a Henry James character might say, for as long as the food held out, even as she was genuinely smitten by this rare show of attention and never understood how she was being exploited. The Fleischer Studio movie cartoons were, with a few exceptions, blandly formulaic: Popeye was challenged, humiliated (he would lose his girl friend, Olive Oyl, to Bluto) and then restored to power with the help of spinach and an application of brute force. The newspaper strips were far subtler (indeed, Popeye was named the second-favorite strip among adults polled in theFortune survey of 1937). Up until 1938, after the unexpected death of its producer, E. C. Segar, led the strip in a new direction, the daily and Sunday stories were a striking blend of adventure and comedy. In lengthy narratives that unfolded over the course of several months, Popeye was usually off on a quest of some sort with his friends, often on a sea-journey that was marked by mysterious events and grotesque villains. These adventures were suspenseful and ominous, and they were notable for their creatures that seemed to be drawn from mythology. And yet the stories were also marked by a light-handed humor based on the silliness of the characters. As in most cliffhanging adventure strips, abrupt plot reversals were the order of the day. Segar’s strip specialized, however, in extremes that were remarkable – moving from danger to hilarity over the course of three or four panels.

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Example One

Sunday color feature, January 14, 1934. A typical example of mix of adventure and humor that was Segar’s specialty. The Sea Hag, speaking in a mysterious language, directs "the Goon" to kidnap perpetually-hungry Wimpy from another ship, now that Popeye is temporarily trussed.

Example Two

A black-and-white daily from December 31, 1937, that emphasizes the adventure side of the strip. The Popeye lookalike in the first panel is Popeye’s father, "Poopdeck." The burly figure is "Toar" who is immortal, a prehistoric man who thousands of years ago drank from the "Pool of Never Die." The flautist in disguise is the Sea Hag, here known (to Toar at least) by a rather different name, "Rose of [the] Sea." (One sign of Toar’s primitivism is that he dispenses with definite articles.)

 

Example Three

Popeye’s popularity in the 1930ws was such that he was merchandised in many guises. Ashbery would have been 8 at the time this 1935 book by the David Mckay Company reprinted newspaper strips from an adventure recycled as "The Gold Mine Thieves" but which Segar had originally titled "Popeye in Black Valley, or Human Varmints, or Vanishing Gold, or Mountain Mugs, o Dirty Work on the Hillside: A Mining Mystery Story! A Story of a Strong Man Among Strong Men! Sock!"

 

Example Four

Popeye’s charm was indistinguishable from a certain roughness in his manners. In a humorous 1940 Sunday sequence by Bela Zaboly, Popeye cares for his dad after a long rough night out on the town (the details are left tantalizingly incomplete). His adopted child, Swee’pea, makes a cameo appearance