E.C. Segar seemed to love the screwball monarchy set piece that captivated 1930s comedy. He used the premise of the madcap cartoon kingdom at least three times: once in the early 30s defending Nazilia, later in the 30s when he installed Swee’Pea as a king, and most notably in the sailor man’s founding of his own kingdom of Spinachova in 1935. Starting on April 22, 1935 with Popeye’s decision to build an ark and ending with him abandoning the utopian venture in defeat and disgust on March 19, 1936, Popeye’s act of radical escape from Depression-Era America was among the longest continuities in the history of Thimble Theatre. But the Spinachova epic was important in a number of ways. It was the closest Segar came to political satire. The tension between “dictipator” Popeye and his “sheep” (the people) is basically a political one that turns the trendy populism and folk romanticism of the day on its head. It was also a saga of defeat for Segar’s hero, an extended example of our otherwise heroic, even super-powered folk moralist showing all manner of very human weaknesses. And finally, most importantly perhaps, the episode was Segar at his absurdist peak, a tour de force of relentless zany side trips, inane situations and surreal resolutions that were the cartoonist’s hallmark. While Thimble Theatre’s Plunder Island storyline was likely Segar’s most successful continuity in developing character, plot and comic suspense, he was using the roomier canvas of Sunday pages for deeper, more immersive sequences. The Spinachova saga was executed across nearly a year of dailies, which may give us the fullest picture of this artist’s range within the truncated cadences of this format.
“I Yam King of Ten Thousand Fatheads”
In a pretzel of twisted history and malapropisms, Popeye’s plan to build his own ark is basically a political act, a quintessentially American one, and one that was steeped in the sensibilities of 1930s culture. With capitalism creaking under the weight of its own excesses, persistent depression and unemployment, war fears brewing in Europe, historic droughts gutting the agri-conomy, the cultural impulse for re-creation, simpler social structures, just starting over, were everywhere. As comic as Popeye’s invocation of “Christiffer Columbia” may be, the idea of escaping the modern world and reinventing society on simpler terms certainly struck a chord. But of course, the project goes off the rails pretty much from the start. Popeye’s financier for the ark venture, Mr. Sphink, is hopeless misogynist who stipulates that women are not allowed on the ark or future country. This mens-only rule leads to havoc later. But Popeye’s original sin in chartering this new land is denying his own fundamental nature. As Coulton Waugh wisely observed about Popeye in his 1947 The Comics, Popeye’s “immortal statement of being” — “I yam what I yam an’ tha’s all I yam.” No simple adage, that. Within the context of the 1930s it is a declaration of democratic identity. One “yam” would have been “esoteric,” Waugh contends. Two would have been fascistic, show no regard for others’ fate or community. But “three ‘yams’ define him as a democrat, and in inheritor of common weaknesses, whose fruition must be found in union and understanding.” (Waugh, p. 199). And as I argued in my piece on Plunder Island, Popeye’s blend of righteous anger, violence, compassion, morality and distaste for irrational authority, brutes, bullies and cons embodied a populist heroism that resonated especially well with Depression-weary audiences.
It is in declaring himself “dictipator” of the as-yet unfounded country that Segar gives his hero that Shakespearean tragic flaw that will spell his doom.
As typically an avatar and defender of the common man, Popeye puts himself in an odd place as a leader of “sheep.” His ten thousand ark passengers and eventual citizens of Spinachova are anything but salt of the earth commoners. Segar spends much of this year-long story lampooning the mob as small-minded and self-interested. They refuse to go to war against attacking natives; they dodge the draft; they complain about wanting to go home; and they don’t even like spinach. Throughout, Segar draws his mob in the same inert, undifferentiated way: a cluster of open maws whining in unison. “We wish wooing.” “We’re sick of Spinachova.” “We’d rather be living cowards than dead heroes.”
For his part, Popeye proves himself a feckless leader. He is forever lamenting that the mob is just a bunch of “sheep” and “fatheads,” that he he often tries to trick into action. Some of this leads to the epic’s best absurdist moments. When draft dodgers taking an eye test claim a massive “X” looks to them like an “S”, Popeye simply declares them correct. How can they object if they can’t see the letter in the first place? At one point Popeye slips into drag to satisfy the crowd’s demand for women. And eventually, when the mob roars that they now want a republic, not a benevolent dictatorship, Popeye simply swaps out his crown for a top hat. He even admits to betraying his own essential Popeye-ness. “I got to fool the angry mob which is howling outside. I got to go against me principles an’ be a hypocrick.”
To be sure, Segar was only the most abstract of political satirists. Like many of the screwball monarchies of the 30s, Spinachova allowed for broad, inoffensive swipes at political hypocrisy, the folly of war, mob rule, the petty self-interest of leaders. Segar gets his shots in. In one of my favorite bits of political silliness, an attacking admiral pleas with Popeye to stop threatening to personally dismantle his fleet and “Be reasonable… . “You go ashore and oil up your guns and we’ll have a nice little war. You shoot at us and we’ll shoot at you.”
And Popeye himself is implicated in all of this, since Spinachova is his folly. It showcases a host of poor judgments and frailties. He falls in love with a mermaid at one point, and then an enemy spy. His hold on power is tenuous and subject to fooling or strong-arming his own people. He is subject to the whims of his wealthy underwriter Sphink. He foolishly follows the empty ideology of positive thinking in believing “what men kin imaging, men kin do.” He insists on kissing all 10,000 brides he secured for his countrymen before passing them on. Popeye even has an open mic moment when he panders to the mob’s self-importance during the radio address only to broadcast his contempt for them when he think the sound is off.
Popeye’s imperfect character is central to his populist heroism. Like the best American heroes of our tall folk tales like Paul Bunyan, Popeye has “super-human” qualities. His strength of course is his signature. But even in the sailor’s inaugural adventure inThimble theatre, he shrugs off a barrage of gunfire and a torso of bullet holes, an invincibility that would serve him well over the years. And yet Segar was too wry or sly to let his he-man fall into the same traps of bland, eccentric hyper-masculinity of later pulp and comic strip adventure. The heroism of the Shadow, Spider, Terry, Flash, Phantom, etc. seemed to require an unflinching, nigh-perfect male stoicism. Playing to boyish (and insecure) fantasies of awe-inspiring male prowess could suffer no qualification, let alone nuance. There is a direct line from these adolescent dreams of ultra-male power and perfection and the truly juvenile constructions of the costumed comic book superhero. Segar’s Popeye got his cultural power from his all-too human emotions: soft-heartedness, hair-trigger rage, and not a small amount of sheer horniness. The Spinachova misadventure underscored all of those aspects of a cartoon protagonist that was on one hand truly absurdist in his antics and yet a richer, more varied, identifiable figure than the more “realist” adventures offered.
But ultimately, the Popeye’s Ark/Spinachova story arc highlights E.C. Segar’s unique imaginative energy and excess. The relentless episodic absurdism of Thimble Theatre is on full display here. Consider just some of the situations and resolutions Segar plots here. A boatload of his citizens is swallowed by a shark, which Popeye engages in hand to hand combat. The “dictipator” objects to Brutia’s full frontal attack before he is ready, so he dismantles their ships one rivet at a time. He falls in love with a mermaid, until he visualizes the a fish-tailed Popeye Jr. that might result from their union. When the men of Spinachova seem ill-prepared to take on attacking forces, he creates a spinach-feeding machine that stuffs them with the nutritional superfood. Popeye draws eyes on the closed lids of an unconscious enemy general, who he turns into a ventriloquist dummy to issue fake orders to his lieutenants. The set pieces are as antic as any of Milt Gross’ eccentric exaggerations or Smokey Stover’s visual absurdities. But Segar manages to extend these screwballisms into premises that extend for days and spawn other silly riffs, and somehow makes them part of continuity structure rather than just a punchline.
And here is where I think I have come to appreciate what a masterpiece Thimble Theatre was not only of comic strip art but of popular culture generally. It absorbed into a coherent cartoon world so many genres. He sent Popeye and the Oyls into every type of adventure – western, high seas, small and large con games, suspense, crime and detection, war, palace intrigue, sports, deserted islands, to name just a few. Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse may have been its only equal in plumbing all of the genres of popular art. But even more than Gottfredson, Segar also invested his characters with psychological depth, even tragedy. He brought pathos to his expanding theater of character types, from the embittered Sea Hag, to the venal Wimpy, from the sensitive Goon to the conniving Castor Oyl. His world was as deep as Herriman’s, even in its philosophical asides. But the sheer inventiveness and relentlessness of his absurdism Segar’s special genius of the comic strip form was his ability to combine into a single continuity strip so many of the genres, conventions and humorous techniques used across the range of comic strips. Coulton Waugh went so far as to say of the Popeye character, God bless him, he is America.” In many respects Popeye and his Thimble Theatre was the quintessential American comics strip. It was large. It contained multitudes. It was America.