Let's dispense with the unabashed fannish gushing right away: the first volume of Fantagraphics' new Elzie Crisler Segar Popeye reprint — "I Yam What I Yam!" — is one of the coolest book repackagings ever. A tabloid-sized hardback printing six daily strips to a page, a thick die-cut cardboard cover featuring a magnified panel of the squinty ol' gob slugging a burly sparring partner and himself on the jaw: it's friggin' magnificent. It’s difficult to imagine a better showcase for the comic strip adventures of this larger-than-life American creation.
Printing the first two years of Popeye's newspaper adventures, I Yam takes its sweet time (a good 19 weeks of storytelling) before the sailorman makes his first appearance in "Thimble Theater," the strip he called his home. Segar's "Theater" had been running over a decade before the scene-stealin' sailorman showed up on panel – and, from all appearances, it was a pretty sprightly strip beforehand.
Centered on the adventures of the Oyl family — brother Castor and sister Olive, most notably (along with Olive's sappy then-boyfriend, Ham Gravy) — the strip was a rambling series of fantastic comic adventures, typified by the tale that first brings Popeye into the fray. In it, small-fry hero Castor comes into possession of an African whiffle hen – an amazing creature that is impossible to cage but who provides good luck to its owner. A number of slouchy sinister types are after the hen, of course, and before Castor even meets Popeye, he's kidnapped, tossed off a cliff, and buried alive.
Heading for the docks in search of a rough type to be his bodyguard, Castor happens upon Popeye, and the resultant initial exchange is comic strip history:
"Hey there," Castor asks. "Are you a sailor?"
"'Ja think I'm a cowboy?" Popeye shoots back.
From that point on, "Thimble Theater" was forever changed. Ham Gravy was unceremoniously shuffled off-stage in a couple of Sunday strips, Olive quickly warmed up to the idea that this mug with a face like a mule was her new beau, and Castor spent his time alternately and ineffectively trying to boss Popeye around and breaking off their partnership. Castor still remained an important part of the cast — would-be brains to Popeye's brawn — though in time he too would get shunted off to the Irrelevant Characters Home.
In Volume One, however, the "Theater" is still half Castor's. It's he who gets the plots rolling, usually with a moneymaking scheme (taking the whiffle hen to the aptly named Dice Island, promoting Popeye as a prize fighter, and opening a detective agency to investigate "myskeries"), though it's safe to say that Popeye provides most of the action. If big-headed Castor continued to treat our hero like he was a supporting character throughout the two years repped here, it's a different story for the reader. As soon as Segar gave the malaprop-spouting roughneck more than two panels to speak, he grabbed hold of our attention.
To those primarily familiar with the Popeye of the cartoons, the original Segar model is an even more unrefined figure. "Unidjicated" and prone to brawling for the fun of it, the early Popeye is an unrestrained, if big-hearted bruiser prone to popping guys in the jaw just because he doesn't like their looks, much to the dismay of his would-be boss, Castor. (That Popeye's "instincks" invariably prove right is, of course, part of the joke.)
Profoundly superstitious (and fearful of "spiriks"), he's childlike in his readiness to take credit for Castor's occasional bouts of real braininess, yet ever ready to defend anyone he thinks is being unfairly picked on. He's a much more full-dimensional character than the one audiences saw in the eight-minute Fleischer cartoons – in large part, because Segar had the space and inclination to let all of his main cast be their comically flawed selves.
There's a lotta reading in this volume of strips. Unlike today's newspaper funnies, Segar had the room to tell each day in five to six panel offerings, which he crammed with colorful dialog. The pacing is subsequently much more leisurely than most modern comics readers are accustomed to, but it pays off in the strip's delightfully quirky characterization.
Much of Volume One's adventures are devoted to misdeeds of a series of land-lubbing sneaks and swindlers, most notably a Mister Snork who shows up twice to riddle Popeye full of bullets, only to have the indefatigable bruiser rise up and smack him on the chin. (Snork has, Popeye sez more than once, a chin he loves to smack.)
In one episode, Popeye is taken to the hospital to get a brace of Snork's slugs removed, only to be distressed when he learns that the surgeons have left an unlucky thirteen bullets still inside him. He demands to be cut open again, so they can take another slug out or put one back in.
The most memorable antagonist in this opening volley of Popeye adventures is a character we meet at sea: the nefarious Sea Hag. A malevolent and avaricious creature who would bedevil Popeye over the years, the Hag shows Segar mining a realm of comic spookiness with a sense of the genuinely sinister that few cartoonists would even dare to try and match. Though his drawing remained cartoonish and confined to the same visual plane (the Thimble Theater being largely seen through an imaginary comic strip proscenium), there are images of the Hag that linger long after you've squeezed this collection onto your bookshelf. She was one creepy creation.
Since it took some time for the Popeye of the daily strips to make it to the Sunday funnies, the first volume only features 48 pages of color comics. As with Dark Horse's reprints of the color "Li'l Abner" strips, there's a certain amount of color fade on these strips (and a few panels where blobs from what must have been the other side of the original Sunday page bleed into the images), but what're ya gonna do?
The color Sundays remain fun. In addition to Ham Gravy's aforementioned departure, we get the start of Popeye's career as a professional boxer, a comical series of strips where both Castor and Olive unsuccessfully attempt to gentrify our seafaring proletarian, plus two strips where the dainty Miz Oyl hauls off on some uppity skirt who also has her eye on Popeye. For a stringy girl, she sure puts up a fight, but, then, we knew that from watching her swing at Bluto in the cartoons.
As a bonus, the Sunday pages also include a secondary strip that Segar drew for the papers – "Sappo." A two-tiered strip, it concerns the adventures of a married man (who kinda looks like Castor with a mustache) and his zaftig wife (who is not averse to using a rolling pin on her hubby when he strays too much from the straight and narrow). Though much more quick-moving than "Theater," the Sappo strips provide an extra sense of what Segar's main feature would've been like had Popeye not wandered onstage. Sappo and his frau even had a western adventure just before Castor & Popeye went off on their Wild West excursion.
The resulting strips are amusing — Segar was too much the natural-born cartoonist for it to be otherwise — but they simply don't have the sheer wonderfulness of Popeye. With the creation of that hard-hewn s.o.b., Segar had moved from gifted funny guy into comic strip greatness.
Book o' the Year, I tells ya!