It didn’t take long for Popeye and Olive to hook up after the pugnacious sailor joined the Thimble Theatre in 1929. Popeye because part of the Sunday Theatre in 1930, which is now being reprinted by Fantagraphics. E.C. Segar’s characters had a special kind of grittiness and irascible repartee. And here we see how Thimble Theatre could get remarkably raw. Popeye and Olive’s noisy smooching gets under Mr. Oyl’s skin. The sexuality of the younger generation in 1920s America had been an important topic of discussion across media. WWI had exposed an entire generation to less inhibited European attitudes towards sexuality. The arrival of the automobile especially created a way for boys and girls to escape the scrutiny of their parents. Moral arbiters worried publicly about this new wave of “petting parties” where youth explored their bodies in troubling ways. Apparently, Olive Oyl and Popeye used the Oyl living room for their own personal petting party.
It took a full week of strips for the eponymous hero of Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician strip to make his grand entrance. June 11, 1934 was the first strip, which evokes some of the feel of a classic mystery wind-up. But on June 15, in what has to stand as one of the most unambiguously racist intros in pop culture history, Mandrake’s “servant” Lothar heralds the coming of his “master.” One doesn’t even know where to start here. Falk’s full bore colonialism is more fully and relentlessly explored in his later The Phantom series whose origin we covered here and whose fetishes we covered here.
For all of its weaknesses, Mandrake remains important both to comic strip and comic book history in that his is the first strip to move towards a super-powered hero. Mandrake’s “magic” is only nominally super-natural, in that it is based on the power of suggestion and influence over others’ minds. But it precedes the appearance of Superman by 5 years and aldo nods towards costumed heroism, which would be more fully introduced in Falk’s The Phantom.
On Oct. 4, 1931 Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy launched with the strip above. To commemorate the birthday of my personal favorite strip of all time, I am gathering some of the pieces I have written around Dick Tracy over the last couple of years.
Retribution was Chester Gould and Dick Tracy’s model for justice from the beginning. The strip started in 1931 literally as a revenge narrative. Standing over the murdered body of his fiancé Tess Trueheart’s father, civilian Tracy swears vengeance on the killers. He quickly joins the police force, but the themes of retribution and conviction by poetic justice remained a hallmark of the strip across four and a half decade run. From the beginning Chester Gould unapologetically crossed the lines of good taste. By the late 1930s in criminals like The Mole, B.B. Eyes, Flattop, Pruneface and the like, Gould started using outward disfigurement as expressive of inner villainy. And the level of explicit violence and even torture in Dick Tracy was unlike anything else on the comics page, or elsewhere in pop culture for that matter.
The revenge motif was baked into the strip’s moral universe. Tracy villains didn’t just need to be sought, caught and jailed. They needed to be hounded and often tortured along the way. Many of Tracy’s prey ended up behind bars, but just as often they met poetically just ends. Gould turned the grisly, fitting deaths of villains into his own special kind of art. Here are some examples from the first two decades of the strip that highlight Gould’s dark talent for retributive justice and capital punishment Dick Tracy style. At these climactic moments we see most clearly the visual, moral and often bizarre world,
Final Curtain for Whip Chute – 1939
Subtlety was not in Chester Gould’s quiver. Here he triple underlines his irony.
B-B Eyes Gets Dumped – 1942
More than anything, Gould loved to kill and humiliate Tracy villains in slo-mo. Here, B-B Eyes hides in a garbage barge in the final leg of a desperate flight from justice, only to get dumped, trapped and drowned. Gould had a special talent for using the panel. framing and zoom techniques to communicate feeling through his use of space. His signature tight shots on dead villains often conveyed the loneliness and claustrophobia of death itself.
Flattop Gets Spiked – 1944
In 1944, Gould concocted two of his most venal villains. Flattop was simply psychopathic as a hit man, and he would be followed by The Brow, who was sadistic and a spy. Hiding beneath a ship being constructed, Flattop gets hung up on protruding spikes, leading to another close-up of deserving death.
The Brow Is Killed By Patriotism – 1944
Far and away the most inventive and stomach-turning death in the first decades of Dick Tracy was the impaling of The Brow. I covered this in greater detail and with more context elsewhere. But here again is the wartime spy getting impaled on the flagpole commemorating the city’s war dead. The bending flagpole is a gruesomely brilliant touch to amplify that moment of maximal tension that will ultimately pierce the villain.
Gargles Eats Glass – 1946
Falling through a skylight, again in comic strip slo-mo, Gargles gets sliced across three panels. And Gould can’t resist giving us his final shudders. In fact Gargles hangs on until the next strip so his final words exonerate an innocent suspect just in time for Christmas. One of the hallmarks of Dick Tracy was the strip’s extremism, Gould’s penchant for balancing unmatched graphic violence and angry vindictiveness with maudlin sentimentality. This sequence leads up to a Christmas strip that celebrates the villain’s death and the joy of the season.
Mumbles’ Cry for ‘Elp’ – 1947
Making a speech impediment somehow expressive of a villain’s evil was a questionable move to begin with. But Gould doubles down on this conceit by having Mumbles frantically, futiley hail for “ELP”.
T.V. Wiggles Can’t Move – 1950
Gould loved to draw in that little bit of grisly business to convey violence. While he used a heavy, cartoonish line and unreal, expressionist style that set the strip far apart from the illustrative style of most adventure strips, Gould used other ways of communicating hard-boiled reality. He had a penchant for objects penetrating bodies. Bullets often passed through their targets in shootout sequences. And as the deaths of The Brow and Gargles showed, the impaled body has a special place in Gould’s sense of horror. The death of T.V. Wiggles comes from fallen metal sheets that form an ersatz coffin. But it is that little corner of metal piercing a flap of neck flesh that telegraphs the experience of death itself.
Mr. Crime and Judge Mix Blood and Money – 1953
Mr. Crime was among Tracy’s most ruthless, pitiless villains of the 50s, and in the context of the Gould moral universe I am surprised (and a bit disappointed) that he suffers a simple shootout with Tracy. In fact Gould reserves the grisliest image for Mr. Crime’s extorted dupe, Judge Ruling. When cornered, the corrupt Judge chooses suicide. But of course Gould can’t give us a gunshot sound effect heard through a closed door. We have to get an image of Judge Ruling eating the gun, complete with cheek lines to suggest how deep he has planted the barrel. But we’re not done with this duo. As is his wont, Gould closes in for a final tableaux of both villains swimming in their own blood and money.
Flattop Jr.’s Near Miss – 1956
Flattop Jr. was indeed the son of the original Flattop, but he was framed by Gould as a neglected youth who embodied the overhyped scourge of the 1950s – the juvenile delinquent. He appears to meet his end in a theater fire he himself set to cover his escape. Despite the massive explosion Gould depicts dramatically, and the presumption of having died in the inferno, Jr. turns up later where his genuine death takes place in the middle of another villain’s cycle. And so that final contemplative panel here turns out to be ironic.
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, et.al), 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.