I organized this roundtable as an excuse to look at some of the E.C. Segar Popeye strips. I’d never read them, and many people love them, obviously, so I figured this was a good chance to catch up. After reading a couple of reviews, I tried the Plunder Island volume, often mentioned as the highpoint of the series.

And after reading through the Plunder Island strips, I can say with some assurance that, man, this is not for me. Though I enjoyed the energy of the drawing, and the Sea Hag and Goon provided some evocatively creepy moments early on, the limited range of the humor, and its empty-headedness, quickly becomes numbing. Wimpy is lazy, Wimpy eats a lot, Popeye is noble, defends the underdog, and always wins. It’s like Garfield meets Superman. And, you know, I don’t hate Garfield or Superman…but I’ve read enough of both to last me the rest of my life. Honestly, I couldn’t even finish the book. I got distracted by Kierkegaard, and then by Derrida — and when you’re procrastinating by reading Derrida, you know you really, really don’t want to be reading what you’re supposed to.

If I had read the whole book, I’d probably be really thoroughly irritated and be spitting piss and vinegar (that metaphor isn’t exactly right…but onward.) As it is, though, I don’t have much resentment built up. Popeye isn’t at all pretentious — punch, eat, mangled English, laff. I don’t find it that funny, but I can’t get mad at it either. As I said, I even appreciate the art in a generalized way (cute cows!) If people like this, I’ve got no beef (as it were.)

While I’m not that interested in the content of Popeye, the strip does raise some interesting issues. Specifically — well, as I said, this is a very unpretentious strip, which relies almost entirely on the most basic kind of repetitive gastronomic and pugnacious humor. Whatever the drawing’s charm, there’s none of the sweeping formal adventurousness of Little Nemo here. I guess you could compare it to Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplain…but it seems to have at least as much in common with sitcoms; the same zany characters performing the same zany routines week after week in a timeless round of entertaining tedium.

Comics is often compared to film and literature and visual art, but it’s much less frequently linked to television. There are certainly many parallels between TV and comicdom, whether in method of delivery (they’re both among the few contemporary art forms that are serialized as a matter of course), or in material for adaptation (Buffy in one direction, Smallville in the other), or in creator overlap (Brian K. Vaughn, Joss Whedon, Dave Johnson.) But nobody wants to make a big deal out of it since nobody but nobody wants to be linked to television, a medium which has gone more than half a century without ever attaining even a morsel of aesthetic credibility.

People do wax enthusiastic about individual shows, of course, whether it be the Wire or Mad Men or Battlestar Galactica. But that enthusiasm is perpetrated with an amazing lack of ambition or anxiety. When people say that Lost is awesome, they rarely do so by saying “Lost is awesome — and worthy to be compared to the achievement of the Coen Brothers!” People love Joss Whedon, but nobody says he’s Quentin Tarantino, much less Orson Welles. Similarly, there’s virtually no effort that I’ve ever seen to solidify television’s bona-fides through canon formation. I’m sure someone has made a list of the best 100 television shows (here’s one, for example) but such lists don’t get tons of press and tend to be presented as much as personal preference as “this is what all educated people must be familiar with.”

Even the criteria for creating such a canon seems almost completely untheorized. What are the aesthetics of great television? What would a great television show look like? What issues would it address? How would a canonical television show distinguish itself from film, or from video art? Could great television be video art? Could there be a gallery show of television video art, the way there are gallery shows of comic art? What would that be like? What would be chosen?

Of course, some people will probably argue that there couldn’t be such an exhibit because television is a wasteland and the whole medium should be dropped in a well or eaten by bears. (Domingos, I’m looking at you.) But…I don’t know. I look at Popeye, which has good visual aesthetics and competent jokes and has been firmly placed in the comics canon, and I think — television could do that.

The classic Sesame Street animations are brilliant and weird; I don’t see how they’re aesthetically any less accomplished than E. C. Segar’s drawings, and they’re certainly more conceptually adventurous. The Batman TV series is visually bizarre; those giant freeze cones, the slanted villain hideout with the girl in the cage in the background — it seems infinitely more inventive than many of the comic book sources, and the dialogue and plotting is so arch it’s a wonder everyone’s eyebrows don’t just fall off. The Abbott and Costello routine does nothing in particular with visuals, but the escalating insanity of the dialogue seems, at least to me, much more manic and witty than the Popeye strips.

My point here isn’t that these are all superior to Popeye and therefore deserve to be treated as canonical culture. Nor is it that television in general should be seen as a (potentially) serious art form. Rather, I’m just saying that what is and isn’t considered art is really arbitrary. Comics critics have spent a lot of energy for the past decades trying to get comics accepted as high art. They’ve had definite (if not unqualified) success, and now even frankly pulp, unpretentious works like Popeye can be put up in galleries, given lavish reissues, and hailed as canonical examples of the form. And, of course, the critical zeitgeist has created room for more explicitly highbrow work by everyone from Chris Ware to Lilli Carre.

At some point, you do wonder, though…what if comics had taken television’s route? No anxiety, no ambition, no real critical battles over whether it could be high art or whether that would be a good idea. Would that have been categorically worse? The anxiety is certainly a spur…but it can be a cage as well. In any case, I don’t think I do comics in general any harm by saying, you know, it doesn’t really matter that much whether Popeye is or is not great art.

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For a more enthusiastic take on (among other things) Popeye’s relation to artsy-fartsy comics, read Shaenon Garrity’s appreciation.

This is part of a roundtable on Popeye. All posts in the series can be read here.

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