Saturday, October 13, 2018

Segar Dead for 80 Years

by Chris Beneke

Eighty years after his premature death on October 13, 1938, at the age of 43, Elzie Crisler Segar’s corpus cries out for exhumation and re-examination.

Segar reclaimed his immortal comic creations, wasted for decades babysitting the kids, before the startled eyes of contemporary readers, thanks to not one but two Fantagraphics series reprinting Segars complete Thimble Theatre with Popeye, beginning in 1984 with a suitably shabby black-and-white-only eleven-volume series. The six-volume set with original newspaper colors produced earlier this millennium is definitive. In Segars deft hands, Popeye, Wimpy, and the rest were revelatory, imbued with surprisingly adult passions and moved to often hilarious results.

There's more Thimble Theatre without Popeye, however, than there is Thimble Theatre with Popeye by Segar, and the continued neglect of this earlier material tarnishes today’s claim to being a golden age of comic reprints.

This neglect will be partially corrected by the forthcoming Sunday Press compilation of nearly half of the pre-Popeye Thimble Theatre Sunday pages, at their original published size and in their original colors, including the complete two-year-long adventure of Castor Oyl and Ham Gravy cowboying out west. This sequence was a favorite of Bill Blackbeard (he counted 1,700 panels on its 104 pages; was he right?) and its ending, with Castor and Ham returning home to discover Olive on Popeye in flagrante delappo, marked Popeye's takeover of both Olives fickle affections and the Sunday page. Popeye had taken over the distinct continuity of the dailies on August 5, 1929, more than six months after his debut, minus a month when Segar had abandoned his immortal sailor as just another bizarre supporting player.

Segar, unlike any other classic American comic strip artist, still provokes audible, belly-shaking laughter. Even Herriman, who is certainly appreciated more now than when he was living, pales besides Segars wicked, occasionally deadly funnybone. Segar and his characters engaged with harsh realities, where oversized fisks smacked faces that stayed smacked. They made no retreat to magical mesas, where mice chase cats and poetical bricks, hurled with hate, land on heads with strange, platonic love. In Segars deserts, unlike Herrimans, vultures always lurk, waiting to eat or be eaten. Herrimans currency, printed on preciousness with whimsy, could never buy Wimpy a hamburger not today, not Tuesday.

Segar trucked in tougher stuff: Nature, of the aminal or hoomin kind, indifferent to the suffering of others, either satisfied or thwarted his protagonists raw drives and baser instincts. Amorality and criminality could be the answer, and often was, if survival was the question.

Segars bent for black humor enlivens his comics for modern audiences uniquely. No other pre-underground cartoonist is within shouting distance of his darkness, though Carl Barks, a Segar fan who, like Segar, concocted both long adventures and hilarious vignettes, passed through the neighborhood in his best duck stories, especially those produced during and after his second marriage dissolved.  

If that underground comparison seems specious, look again at Crumb’s early underground characters: They emerge from the same dank, bigfoot gene-pool from which Segar supped; Mr. Natural, much more a wiseass than Ahern’s lookalike nameless hitchhiker, and O. G. Wotasnozzle might not have been separated at birth, but they shared a mother.

Black humor was the descriptor used repeatedly by Bill Blackbeard in his multiple appreciations of Segar’s work. But this term was coined by Surrealist Andre Breton around 1940, in the airs of Segar’s last breath, for an anthology of the progenitors and proponents of this previously unnamed essential component of surrealist thought and art. Black humor, which fearlessly goes to extremes in pursuit of the liberating effects of laughter, survives as an idea, while surrealism (and its iterations) has been corrupted by misuse (e.g., since everything became surreal, whenever that was). That mysterious box shall be left unopened, unlike the other boxes from Uncle Ben Zene Oyl.

Three pre-Popeye Thimble Theatre runs of dailies, totaling a scant sixteen weeks, perhaps 96 strips (You count the panels!), have snuck into contemporary reprints since the early 1980s. Two of those sequences are from 1928, the year that Bernice the Whiffle Hen arrived, to be quickly followed by that whiffle-rubbing sailor man.

Blackbeard’s summary of the pre-Popeye Thimble Theatre storylines in Nemo #3 (1983) remains provocative and probably the most complete overview of that era of the strip, thanks to select reproductions of choice samples, including a few Popeye precursors who share his asymmetrical facial features but lack his personality. This issue also includes 15 episodes of Castor’s exasperating stint as a newspaper editor trying to hire a cartoonist. Blackbeard included a longer (24 total!) but jumbled selection of this sequence in Kitchen Sink’s Comic Strip Century (1995).

Fantagraphics’ first reprinting of the daily strips, The Complete E.C. Segar Popeye, Volume Five (1987), begins two months before Bernice’s arrival, the starting point for the dailies in the second complete reprinting. Ham Gravy is in conniving proto-Wimpy mode, wooing a rich old crone, and driving jealous Olive from delusional stalking into fits of lunaphobic madness.

The U.K.-published Popeye The 60th Anniversary Collection includes five 1924 weeks (January 22 through February 27) of the Blizzard the fighting bird story that had begun in 1923 and would end in early July.

In these earlier episodes, the nuanced characterization and more assured graphic stylization that would arrive with Popeye and Wimpy is missing, but the strange situations and idiosyncratic gags, all flaunting social niceties, abound, as do the laughs. Scour mounds of moldering newsprint for a similar achievement: You will find nothing.

The flowering of genius that birthed Popeye surprised even Segar; he seemed content to abandon the sailor man and wend his merry way, as he’d been doing for nearly ten years, in relative obscurity. Had Segar died before he birthed his sailor man, these earlier Thimble Theatre dailies would have already enlightened our world with their dark laughter, probably among Bill Blackbeard’s overly ambitious 1977 Hyperion Press re-printings.

Popeye and Wimpy reign as cartoon icons, transcending their original medium, and recognized worldwide like few other comic characters. But the talent, if not genius, that created them was evident years before: In similarly sharp scripts acted by understudies, dress rehearsals without superstars. A complete Thimble Theatre before Popeye is too-long overdue.

Thimble Theatre and the pre-Popeye comics of E.C. Segar

Introduction by Paul C. Tumey with essays by Jeet Heer and Michael Tisserand.

Available now for pre-order – books ship around November 1st

144 pages, 13 x 17 inches, $85

Order HERE

1 comment:

  1. Segar was, and still is, the greatest cartoonist of all time. Timeless hilarity.