Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Lay me among the swee' peas....

The "Whatcha reading dept.":

Lately I've been reading a collection of "Thimble Theater" daily strips circa 1930-1931. For the less cartoon savvy, "Thimble Theater" was the strip that introduced "Popeye the Sailor Man" to a waiting world. Popeye wasn't there from the begining though. Elzie Segar's "Thimble Theater" first appeared in the New York Journal back on December 19, 1919. Originally the strip focused on Olive Oyl, her boyfriend Ham Gravy and her brother Castor Oyl. Popeye didn't join the cast until nearly a decade later on a January 17, 1929 as a minor character.

At the point I'm reading Popeye's been around for over a year and the strip's adventures largely revolve around him and Castor Oyl. (Starting out with the introduction of long time villainess The Sea Hag.
) What's interesting at this point is that while Popeye has started to take on a bigger role in the strip and evolve into his more familiar persona, he isn't quite there yet. He's got the familiar sailor suit, but his face is longer and it's made more explicit that he's old and missing one eye and all his teeth. (In one hospital sequence our politically incorrect hero smacks down and swears at a nurse who dares to bring him soup, demanding instead beef or salt pork. When the nurse complains that he has no teeth to chew with, Popeye asserts that "I kin gum it sumpin' arful-I got swell insides anyways-I even eat nuts!")

The early Popeye is something of a less heroic figure. He's brave, albeit in a somewhat scrappy sadistic fashion (He repeatedly tells one villain "Snorky, ya got a chin I loves to touch" before punching him.) but his superstitious nature leaves him deathly afraid of "Evil spiriks". He's also not the most honest of guys. Popeye frequently takes credit for Castor Oyl's detective work, and in one sequence he sets out to buy loaded dice for playing craps. (It's suggested that Popeye has a bit of a gambling problem.) He doesn't yet have spinach as a super powered backup, he's just really, really tough...at one point absorbing multiple gunshots at close range and surviving. Finally, it seems like Segar was still experimenting with catchphrases and whatnot. Although Popeye's already doing the familiar "Blow me down" bit, he also frequently talks about him or his opponent "Laying among the swee'peas" as a euphemism for defeat or death. (Segar would of course finally indulge his sweet pea obsession with a Popeye's infant ward.)

So it's some fun (If somewhat crude) stuff with an endearingly rougher edged Popeye. I'm reading one of the old 90's collections, but Fantagraphics Books has a a new set of reprints available. Just to remind you how everything turned out, here's the very first Popeye animated cartoon:

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