Saturday, April 11, 2009

E. C. Segar – ‘Popeye Vol. 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”’

Of course, you would expect Popeye to travel to an island, being a sailor and all. The back of this book claims: ‘Popeye was an accident’, and he does seem to emerge from the plot point that Castor Oyl needs a crew to sail him to Dice Island, but is too mean to pay more than one man. He has reason to believe that luck is with him, and aims to make his fortune shooting craps. For the first thirty pages of daily strips there is no Popeye at all, which should be more disappointing than it is: Chapter One (the daily strips are divided into chapters) is called ‘Bernice the Whiffle Hen’, and introduces the divertingly un-killable bird, otherwise known as an Escape Hen, who will eventually lead to Dice Island and Popeye. It happens like this: Uncle Lubry has brought Bernice back from Africa as an egg (the only way an Escape Hen can be transported without it escaping), and he has fun betting Castor that Bernice is in this box or that vase – Castor always loses, the hen always escapes first. Uncle Lubry then offers him $1,000 to kill Bernice, knowing that this is impossible. Castor shoots at her, drops her from a cliff tied to a boulder, tries to shoot her from a cannon, and he fails every time. Bernice detects no malice in this at all, and is soon deeply attached to Castor, following him around contentedly saying ‘whiffle’. Soon there are crooks on the scene, trying to steal Bernice – which is pointless because she keeps escaping back to Castor. Eventually they realise they’re going to need to have him on side, and give him $10,000 to come to Dice Island with them, bringing Bernice. Who as well as being a Whiffle and an Escape Hen, is also a Luck Hen. ‘Ah ha!’ thinks Castor, gives them the slip, and sets off to make his fortune with Popeye.

This kind of convoluted nonsense logic is all over the place in the daily strips: they meander endlessly, their plots built like farces, complication upon complication. They tend to revolve around making money – Castor always has a get-rich-quick scheme, and these often clash with Popeye’s less profound outlook. Not that Popeye dislikes making a quick buck – in one of the Sunday strips, boxing opponent Kid Jolt offers him $10,000 ‘if you’ll promise to drop your guard and let me smack ya on the chin in the first’. Popeye is shocked, but only for a second: ‘WHY YOU BIG CROOK – Gimme them ten thousand bucks I acceps’ (p. 173). But when he has money, he will either lose it instantly shooting craps, or feel sorry for someone and give it away. This particular $10,000 gets handed to a homeless family he comes across: ‘Here’s ten thousand bucks lady – buy yourself a home an’ take the kids to a show’ (p. 176). Popeye has a big heart. This must be why it’s so funny when he hits people all the time. It shouldn’t make sense – he is almost never the underdog, often the bad guy (he’s forever knocking Olive Oyl’s other boyfriends unconscious) but you’re always on his side. There is something charmed and un-erring about him, with his unvarying catchphrases (‘Blow me down!’, ‘I socks ’em pernament’) and entirely predictable reactions (e.g. ‘All right – I solemny swears never to hit nobody again no more – blow me down!’ leads within three panels to: ‘So ya won’t take me hand, eh? Then take a smack on the mush!!’ (p. 165)). Segar is inventive enough to keep it fresh, with subtle variations in the Sunday strips, and wild rambling stories in the dailies. There are more socks per square inch (and more laughs) on the Sunday pages, but the dailies are stranger, with better stories: it makes sense to have them published together.

My favourite retort:

Hank: Got your will made, fella?
Popeye: Don’t need a will, Hank, I’m goner give you all I got right now.
(p. 141)

Then he socks him. Pernament.


Piebird said...

I likes the whiffle hen, but I ain't so keen on all them socks...

Chris said...

Darn them socks...

I would protest that it is only cartoon violence, but it is pretty violent cartoon violence, at that.

It's just so funny, though.

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