Peak Segar: Plunder Island (1934)

The Plunder Island sequence of Thimble Theatre Sundays that ran from December 1933 to July 1934 was E.C. Segar’s signature epic. It concentrated most of this master’s diverse talents and blended the many genres Thimble Theatre traversed into the strips most impressive run. Fabulism, farce, adventure, sentiment, venality, romance, screwball — all and more are here. And along the way, Segar even fleshes out and distinguishes among his key characters.

Segar, the artist who started in a movie house projection booth, who drew Chaplin in comic strip form, who started Thimble Theatre as a series of film shorts in strip form, clicked into full adventure mode from the start. He opens the tale be reuniting with old hell-raising pal Bill Barnacle. but then he quickly assembles a cast of characters for the voyage. Olive requires a chaperon, in Miss Sniddle. The ship must be led by Cap’n Hull and manned by Rough-House, Gritmore and shoemaker, Geezil, who becomes Wimpy’s sworn enemy throughout. And of course there are Segar’s most successful villains. The craggy faced, inky-cloaked Sea Hag induces shivers with the venal ill-will, bizarrely long limbs and evil presence she brings to every panel she inhabits. Likewise, her creepy henchman, the Goon monster (a.k.a. “Alice”) is another visual concoction that apparently gave some of Segar’s younger readers nightmares. His bulbous head, phallic nose, white and curvy outlines and apparently hairless body is corrupted by these massive rings of fur at wrists and ankles.

The Plunder Island epic is a delight precisely because it sets itself up as a decently constructed comic strip adventure yarn that in the end subverts its own premises. Popeye and crew are pursuing the anti-feminine Hag, who reveals herself to be a sensitive woman when romanced and scorned by the unctuous Winpy. Alice the Goon begins as an alien, mindless beast, who proves to be a loving mother figure. And the entire story arc of pursuing the Hag to Plunder Island in search of hidden treasures is flipped entirely in the story’s postscript. Popeye ends up pitying and rewarding both the Sea Hag and Alice the Goon and finds himself depressed and unhappy because of his newfound wealth. And so just as the adventure genre is about to overtake the comics page in the early 1930s(Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, Radio Patrol, Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy,, Segar upends the genre itself.

For Segar the adventure genre is just another stage for a screwball fabulism that seems to reach its height here. He is the master of creating his own madcap reality that makes trades in the ridiculous and impossible. One of the Sea Hag’s henchmen tries to run Popeye through with a saber, only to leave his rope restraints in tatters. Popeye and Bill calmly reminisce over old times as they punch, strangle and repel waves of enemy sailors. Wimpy snips off the whiskers of his nemesis Geezil, pastes them on himself to pose as a complete stranger. It is the absurdism of the animated cartoon, but Segar makes it work by fully committing himself and his characters to the unlikely premise.

Part of this is Segar’s peculiar way of using panels. In these absurdist sequences his panels each seem to occupy their own space and time and often disconnected from what is around or b before them. When Popeye and Bill converse calmly while beating on all comers, the dialog occurs at the center of the frame while the casual beatings are at the edges of the frame, erasing the reality outside of the frame. When Wimpy snips Geezil’s whiskers and takes them as his own, Geezil seems oblivious to the action and takes the disguised Wimpy in the next panel as someone new. This is part of the unique tone of Segar’s strips. The panel walls often mark the edge of the characters’ world, showing little awareness of the action outside of the panel or even in their own previous panel.

In fact, Segar is also artful in his use of panel timing — that is the implied time and unseen action that occurs between panels. Consider the Sunday strip below, which demonstrates in tight succession how Segar uses panel timing to pull off a great animated joke followed by a different use of panel timing to stage a verbal joke. The Goon’s pursuit of Winpy in the third row, especially panels two and three, sets up and pays off with a sweet bit of bit of animated business that lets us imagine the funny part, Wimpy zipping out to the horizon in fear of the Goon’s downward thrust. And the final panel of the row illustrates the gag with Wimpy in full terrorized flight. The next row brings Wimpy into the hand of woefully stereotyped cannibals and a verbal gag that uses panel gaps to provide the setup (panel two), extra beat (in a half-sized panel three) and punch line in an expansive panel four. Fans of Thimble Theater will recognize the added wit of turning one of Wimpy’s signature quips on himself. In an ongoing gag, the perennially self-absorbed (and hungry) Wimpy invites characters to a duck dinner. “You bring the duck,” he typically tells them.

Segar liked to work with contrast, comparing action and abrupt scene shifts to make points about character. In many ways Wimpy is the main character of the Plunder Island story, even if he certainly is not the hero. In fact we see him at the height of his opportunism and self-interest. Geezil’s revulsion towards him (he could “kill him to death”) is a major thread in the epic. He romances the repulsive Hag in order to access her cache of hamburger. And he unfairly divvies up the plunder in the end. In many cases, Segar contrasts him to Popeye’s simple morality.

In the 1930s, and after Popeye’s arrival to Thimble Theater, Wimply seemed to stand in for the roles occupied by Olive and the Oyl family through much of the 1920s. In those earlier strips, Olive, friend Ham Gravy and especially brother Castor Oyl were often at each others’ throats and onto some scheme for wealth. Popeye came into this tribe as a folksy moralist whose fists took proper aim at the pompous and the venal. In the 30’s, however, the Oyls receded and Wimpy seemed to carry Segar’s ambivalent view of human nature.

But Segar was also a sentimentalist. His cast of flawed connivers and selfish backbiters usually find the limits of their own moral trimming. In the Plunder Island adventure the Sea Hag demands Wimpy show his loyalty to the villainess by beheading his best friend Popeye. His inability to murder Popeye leads to another absurdist deception. Popeye’s head pokes through a hole in a barrelhead to fool the Hag into thinking Wimpy has done the deed. The ruse is inevitably broken of course when Popeye can’t keep himself from laughing at the sight of Wimpy romancing the Hag.

Which brings us to yet another sentimental turn in the Plunder Island sequence – Segar redeeming both Alice the Goon and the Hag herself. Popeye is poised to do in the Goon once and for all when Alice’s Goon child calls out for his “Mama.” Popeye melts at the scene and leaves mother and child Goon in loving embrace. Likewise, the Hag is setup as an anti-feminine villainess, as repulsive inside as outside. And yet she proves easily romanced by Wimpy’s fake advances, becomes a scorned lover when betrayed, and seems genuinely wounded when Popeye chuckles at the site of this romance. Segar is compelled to have his duplicitous cast find their consciences somehow and even give emotional depth and sympathy to his villains.

All of Segar’s talents for absurd situations, wild physical violence, and a cast of truly self-absorbed characters offset by a folk moralist helped make Thimble Theatre a remarkably self-contained world. It had its own weird cadence and tone. The violence was often spontaneous and eccentric. And this well-animated action was in stark contrast to the extensive terse dialogue between antagonistic characters that Segar posed like static, limp marionettes in narrow tightly staged panel sequences. Segar’s characters often looked like they were conversing in a closet, cut off from any environment. And yet, the Popeye character was very much a creature of the Depression. In comic strips and in the Fleischer Brothers’ wildly popular cartoon iteration, Americans responded to Popeye’s ready fists and no-nonsense response to the pretensions and empty authority around him. Clearly he channeled widespread frustration Americans deservedly felt towards the institutions, social classes and supposed progress that had failed them. Popeye quick anger, righteous fists, wry asides and responses to more “civilized” landlubbers echoed the class and social tensions of the Depression. He embodied a populist response to the age that also took shape in John Steinbeck’s fiction, the scholarly interest in American roots music, humor and culture. And on some level, Segar himself understood this connection between his slapstick hero and the culture. He resolves one of his greatest storylines with Popeye depressed despite his wealth and revived only by relieving the poverty around him.

6 thoughts on “Peak Segar: Plunder Island (1934)

  1. Pingback: Premiere Panels: Popeye Comes On Board – Jan. 17, 1929 – Panels & Prose

  2. ’m obviously late here, but this is one of the most rhetorically meaty and insightful articles I’ve ever read on Segar and his work, touching on a number of valid points in a style that manages to harmonize academic fluidity with legibility and precision (unlike, say, the dually pyrotechnical and baffling academese of Donald Phelps’ work on the subject). I salute ye.

    On the topic of Segar, I find your classification of Popeye as a “folk moralist” (relative to the more ambivalent characterization of Ham Gravy and the Oyls in the 1920s) to be an intriguing talking point that seems to be raised surprisingly seldom (an issue which, I think, stems from the chronic unavailability of the 1919-28 pre-Popeye era in reprints; a few partially-complete daily storylines are now floating around Reddit, but these still seem paltry relative to the complete anthology Fantagraphics or IDW should have published years ago). Having read through the entirety of Segar’s run (with the somewhat unintuitive aid of for the Ham/Castor era) last year, what struck me most profoundly about the strip’s 1920s storyline is their varyingly visible bleakness: Ham and the Oyls are unrelentingly impulsive and acquisitive, often wielding highly changeable motives that they pursue with fervency almost on an impulsive whim (see the number of consecutive strips in which Castor refers to his fighting cockerel Blizzard affectionately as his “pal” before intently and unabashedly threatening to slaughter him for food if his winning streak is broken only the next day, with virtually no transition between or conspicuous rationalization of Castor’s change of mindset) and proving remarkably willing to throw other characters under the proverbial bus on a whim. Simultaneously, however, they’re also chiefly presented as an extension of a universe dominated by these behaviours and mindsets: Ham and the Oyls seldom encounter true “villains” to which they are heroic counterpoints, but more commonly fall afoul of crooks who happen to be even more acquisitive and unprincipled (one mid-1920s storyline features Castor spending his recently-earned small fortune on a public bridge he “buys” from “Mr. Municipal”; said swindler is never confronted or apprehended, but simply vanishes following the scam, thus transforming Castor into his own antagonist in a searing display of distinctly non-sentimentalist storytelling) or, while not necessarily “more” immoral, simply luck into outfoxing them (as with Castor’s first wife, who abruptly-yet-“amiably” withdraws his entire recently-gained fortune from their joint bank account to run away with her previous husband). As these “antagonists” are thereby less symbolic counterpoints to the values (if any) Ham and the Oyls represent and more representative of the deceptive layers of assumption or faulty social ideologies into which they dive with aplomb, the “Thimble Theatre” of the 1920s often reads as markedly non-sentimentalist: unlike its Depression-era reboot/continuation, there is no semblance of a “moral normal” nor single character exemplifying a semi-consistent set of reader-identifiable ethics to prevent the bottom of a given narrative from falling out beneath the protagonists’ feet, hence they’re basically entombed within their cycles of acquisition – Castor gains and loses several fortunes through his failure to successfully synthesize his lofty ambitions with legitimate insight, while Ham and Olive fruitlessly oscillate between vehemently striving to acquire each other romantically (Ham even ends up “with the dogs” in one storyline following a breakup) and rejecting each other for failing to meet an “ideal” mould almost arbitrarily (given that both Ham and Olive often alternate between hopeful projection and thinly-veiled contempt for the “funny-lookin’ dame” and “long-nosed sap” they’re respectively dating, often between consecutive panels). Bizarre and absurd though its gags often were, Thimble Theatre’s universe was thereby soberingly inescapable: characters could ostensibly only hope to break free of the stagnant neuroses and presumptions in which they rested Vladimir and Estragon-style through the acquisition of wealth, a process that, while blindly and hyperbolically lionized by the American society of the Roaring Twenties, nonetheless succeeding only in temporarily trapping them within a different set of confining assumptions before they inevitably lost their fortunes anyway through some simultaneously absurd and macabre turn of fate.

    The strip’s eventual changeover to a star vehicle for a folk moralist sailor wielding supernatural qualities virtually unknown to the impulsive twentysomething scrappers of the earlier strip is particularly fascinating to me in this light. Although Segar’s tragically early demise left us with crushingly sparse information on the mindset behind this transition (although one 1936 interview I’ve uncovered does intriguingly feature Segar insinuating that he created Popeye in 1923, possibly indicating a desire to cover or reduce the length of time he’d authored the strip for before happening upon an eventual cultural icon), I suspect that, as Segar’s storytelling and gag sensibilities became more intricate (both “Dice Island” and the epic “Great American Desert Saga” in the Sunday strip are noticeably more sprawling and outlandish than any storylines Segar had committed to prior), he increasingly outstripped the confines of his original cast: his newfound open propensity for more fantastical circumstances freed up his strip’s settings to branch into increasingly twisted and absurd forms, demanding rapid juxtapositions in character behaviour than Ham and the Oyls, more creatures of cutthroat urbanity, could shoulder beyond a certain capacity (the aforementioned Desert Saga perhaps being the limit of this, as solid as it is). When potentially combined with both Segar’s advancing age (which may have reduced his propensity for drawing and relating to twentysomething entrepreneurs in favour of the noticeably more middle-aged Popeye and Wimpy) and underlying burnout from ten years of Ham/Olive/Castor storylines, Popeye seems to have been forged almost as a pent-up authorial response to the absurdity of Segar’s universe: in “Dice Island” alone, he lampshades the absurdity of Castor’s casino ploy (“well blow me down…”) and actively lambasts the protagonists for their shameless financial greed. As Popeye’s role expanded, he increasingly seems to have evolved into an intriguing counterpoint to the strip’s bleak, volatile universe: his more luridly-proportioned traits (his superhuman strength, nigh-invulnerability and gentle humanitarianism) alternate at a similar rapidity and can easily subvert (rather than merely furthering or playing around) social mechanisms (given his typical inability to be imprisoned, “exercuted” or duped for cash conventionally) yet, in a counterpoint to Ham and the Oyls, insists on his identity as a unified entity. Resultantly, Popeye is a whirl of vividly bizarre traits sandwiched into a single package, but, unlike much of his supporting cast, contrasts with (rather than endorsing) the setting via his ability to unite these into a (somewhat) consistent moral code. Due to this shift, I think, the strip’s focus increasingly shifted during the 1930s from a sobering illustration of being caught in the “web” of early capitalist culture to an exploration of the ways in which “morality” (in however bizarre and unexpected a form) and “immorality” functioned within such a universe. This, I suspect, was the impetus for Segar dropping Ham and Castor in favour of Wimpy (as you basically noted); whereas Ham and Castor are mildly differing permutations of Segar’s ambivalent conceptualization of the “urban everyman” archetype, Wimpy is basically a lurid hybrid of W.C Fields and a folk trickster in the Anansi vein (with a dash of faux Chaplin-esque romanticism and sunniness thrown in for good measure) capable of both contrasting Popeye’s elevation of the strip’s moral stakes and shouldering Segar’s darkly absurd juxtapositions. This seems to have been a major revelation to Segar; after years of gradually receding tentativeness, it’s astonishing (particularly when reading the strip in order) to witness him exploding from numerous repeats of “Ham and Olive gold-dig to negate their dysfunctional relationship” plots to the nuanced characterization and stylized aplomb of “Plunder Island” within just four years.

    Sorry for the wall of text – I don’t mean to hijack your article or anything, I’ve just had this on my mind for a while.

  3. Thank you for the comment. It would be great to have organized access to Thimble theatre in the 1920s, and I have written elsewhere on the sheer venality of the Oyls in this period. They were not alone among darker visions of the the family in the 1920s. The unsentimental view of the increasingly nuclear American family can be found in Tuthill’s magnificent The Bungle Family. I have found some troves of 1920s Thimble Theatre at the I Love Comix archive. Also the Newspaper comics page for Popeye has downloadable content. Hope that helps.

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