Mixed feelings arose within me as I unfolded this last volume of Fantagraphic's reprint series of POPEYE (or to be a annoyingly precise, "Thimble Theater Starring Popeye"). At first, it may seem brutal to bring the series to a halt after only six volumes; is not Popeye still alive on the newspaper page to this day? Yes, in theory, at least. But the mission of Fantagraphics has not been to bring Popeye's nearly century-long catalogue on the comics page into book form, but to assure that the years when he was fightin' his guts in the hands of his original and true creator, E.C. Segar, are made available again, in as "delikit" and thorough a manner as possible. Sadly, the untimely death of Segar at the age of forty-three in 1938 resulted in a mere nine years' worth of Popeye-adventures from his imagination, before the strip was passed over to other, usually less inspired creators (Bud Sagendorf being at least an occasional exception). However, while these nine years may appear few when compared to, say, the fifty years Charles Schulz was able to spend on Peanuts, they do at least remain some extremely gracious years, making Segar a more than worthy candidate as one of the most talented, charismatic cartoonists of all time. In this final volume, he is still very much at his creative peak. Not only is Popeye at his most furiously funny here; I'm also happy to see the return of Sappo's adventures (a supplementary strip Segar did beneath the Popeye Sunday pages). During the last few years, Sappo had been reduced to a sort of brief "cartooning school" (albeit an amusing one at that), but here he's back with his wife Myrtle and his eccentric professor pal.
As in previous volumes, the daily strips and Sunday pages are divided into two different sections, a wise decision as the two follow different continuity stories. While the Sundays look as inviting as always in large format and full color, I still find it somewhat bothersome that the dailies are printed in such small format. While I don't have too much difficulty reading them myself, I know others may have, and the format does not do full justice to Segar's seemingly simple but very charming and effective artwork. This is my only reservation. However, with such good material, one can't go wrong, and needless to say I am incredibly grateful to Fantagraphics for doing this series in the first place. The first adventure, "Mystery Melody," is one of Segar's most famous, and has a special place in my heart as it served as a major reason why I became a fan of his work at the age of ten. I hadn't read it since that time (when I had to struggle through it with much assistance from my father, as English isn't my native language), so this was a very fond reunion. The story involves a return of the Sea Hag, the evil witch, who for reasons I will not reveal hungers for revenge on Popeye's pappy. The very structure of this adventure indicates how well Segar knew his characters at this point, and how to best make use of them; on the first few pages, we follow what seems to be the build-up to a straight mystery story, provided with little if any reason to laugh whatsoever. Once the plot is established, however, Segar introduces Wimpy, thus bringing back the surefire humor which interchanges with the more solemn mystery throughout. When the Sea Hag proclaims Wimpy to be the sole human being she has ever loved, the super-intelligent loafer seizes the opportunity to persuade his own devotion to roasted meat amidst a couple of bread slices. It just can't get much funnier than this.
After the story of "The Valley of the Goons" concludes in March, 1938, two months' worth of strips are suddenly absent. We are explained that this has to do with Segar's first lapse of serious illness, which occurred during this period. Although another artist was hired as replacement, the not unknown Doc Winner, Fantagraphics insists that this ghost-written material is "not up to Segar's standards," and I have no reason to doubt them (no offense to Winner, who was very talented at doing his own thing). A similar intermission in the chronology affects the Sunday pages. It takes off again with the strips dated May, however, as Segar's cigar-puffin' signature reappears. Sadly, he only remains back on track for another three months, before Winner has to take command again. Segar dies on October, 13 of that year, and so does, arguably, the magic of Popeye. Other cartoonists have kept him alive both on the comic pages and in animation since, assuring his immortality as a phenomenon, but it was through the mind of Segar that he was human, a being haunted by much frailty but always proving in the end to be the least corrupt of men, as he stood up for justice to the down-trodden ('nless he's a "swab," of course). When the Sea Hag at one point is thought to have been killed, it causes Popeye to get "sedimental," which puzzles his less noble, 99-year old father, to which Popeye remarks: "When ya gets older, ya'll un'erstand it's possible to even feel sorry for yer emenies." There's a strong sense of humanity in the original Popeye; in what is possibly the very best, most engaging story in this volume, he helps out a young woman from starving to death. It's indeed sad to not have any "new" adventures of Segar to look forward to, but on the plus side his adventures hardly lessen with repeated readings. Also, I do have a slight hope that Fantagraphics will consider a reprinting of some of the Thimble Theater-adventures prior to Popeye's entrance in the strip (as every fan knows, Popeye was not intended as a recurring character at first). Finally, for now, I must add that other than the work of Segar in this book, Richard Marschall's essay on the continuity techniques in Segar's stories is very interesting, as is to be expected.