Reading through my reviews of the first three Fantagraphics collections of E.C. Segar’s Popeye (my review of Volume I is here, II here, and III here), one repeated phrase jumps out at me: “largely of historical interest.” The challenge I gave the work was for it to transcend that description. It occasionally did; there were flashes of satirical and absurdist genius every now and then. “The One-Way Bank” storyline from Volume II and the finale of “The Eighth Sea” storyline from Volume III stood out, and I was especially taken with Volume II’s “The Nazilia-Tonsylania War” —its treatment of state and military folly ranks with Dr. Strangelove (almost) and Duck Soup. (No pun was intended with the name “Nazilia,” by the way.) However, Segar was generally far more enamored with farce and slapstick for their own sake than he was with satire. That greatly limits the appeal of his work, at least for this adult reader. Farce and slapstick that don’t connect with anything deeper are best in small doses; they tend to wear out their welcome fairly quickly. Unfortunately, that’s the bulk of what one finds in the first three volumes, and as readers of my original reviews can see, I got myself over my disappointment by convincing myself that the strips in the first three collections were preludes to the more celebrated material (such as “Plunder Island”) that was featured in the fourth and fifth volumes. Segar’s Popeye enjoys canonical status in the world of comics, and I wanted that reputation to be truly warranted. I didn’t want to believe that, despite occasional moments of brilliance, the strip was best considered a noteworthy pop-culture period piece.
“Plunder Island,” the Sunday-strip continuity showcased in Volume IV, is widely considered Segar’s finest work on the strip. I’ve now read it, along with the rest of the fourth collection. On its own terms, it’s an entertaining treasure-island quest story, one that Segar’s talent for farce considerably livens up. The best moments are the most incongruous ones, such as the scenes where the smooth-talking moocher Wimpy saves his own neck by romancing the story’s villains, first the Sea Hag and then her monstrous henchwoman Alice the Goon. I also got a kick out of the story’s climax, wherein Popeye realizes that he can’t just take the treasure—that would be stealing from the Sea Hag—so he decides to win it away from her by playing craps. The story is a more sophisticated version of many of the animated Popeye cartoons I saw as a kid in the 1970s—the dialogue is certainly a lot denser than what one finds in children’s animation—but I’m afraid that it’s nothing more than a strong exemplar of what it now appears Segar’s Popeye generally was. It’s not the epitome of what the strip could be at its best; storylines like “The Nazilia-Tonsylania War” were the exceptions, not the rule. On the whole, Segar’s Popeye is a moderately enjoyable slapstick-adventure farce and a likable example of Depression-era popular entertainment. The strip doesn’t offer a lot more than that, and it leaves me, as it somewhat did with Noah, wondering about the basis of its canonical status and the comics canon in general.
My own guess is that when dealing with ostensibly “classic” comics, the basic standard has been that they hold their own with the popular entertainment they appeared alongside of. Comics like Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Eisner’s The Spirit, and the EC comic-book line look positively impoverished when considered against their contemporaries among the avant-garde of writing, art, and filmmaking, but they compare pretty well to the popular movies, radio, and fiction of their day. The same is true of Segar’s Popeye. No reasonable person would consider it on the level of Faulkner, Kandinsky, or Jean Renoir’s work, but it looks right at home when viewed alongside the efforts of Mae West, W.C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers. I have nothing against the popular-entertainment standard for determining “good” comics, by the way. If a comic entertains people, it’s doing its job. And if it’s entertaining people to the extent that it becomes a pop-culture phenomenon, which Segar’s Popeye certainly did, then it’s doing its job terrifically well.
The problem arises with the perception that it’s a canonical work. Harold Bloom provided a fairly uncontroversial definition of literature’s canon when he described it as “the choice of books in our teaching institutions.” I think that holds true when talking about any media being studied; the canon is the material used to teach students about the art. The prospect of Segar’s Popeye being used to teach students about comics just doesn’t sit well with me. The strip’s stature points to the need for a new standard of canonicity for the field. Comics needs a T.S. Eliot, André Bazin, or Clement Greenberg to up-end our understanding of the medium and our judgments of its works. I perceive Segar’s Popeye as a period piece, but I can’t summon a rigorous aesthetic basis for that view. All I can muster is my own idiosyncratic opinion. I also don’t see much of anyone else doing differently. The strip makes me feel like a pretentious comics fan rather than a critic when I write about it. The only salve to my self-esteem is that I’m not as pretentious as those who put it on its pedestal to begin with.
Update by Noah: The whole Popeye roundtable is here.