Popeye The Disgustipated Dictipator

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.

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Royal Fetish: Screwball Monarchy in 30s Cartooning

One of the oddest cultural responses to the Great Depression of the 1930s was American pop culture’s fixation with monarchy, especially as a setting for comedy and satire. The non-comedic pulp-ish adventure into pre-modern civilization was everywhere, of course. From Tarzan and Jungle Jim, to The Phantom, Prince Valiant and even Terry and the Pirates, Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy and Flash Gordon, the connection is obvious. In a ways absent from mainstream American culture in the 1900-1930 span, Americans were fixated on pre-modern, anti-modern, prehistoric and fable-like alternative worlds.

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Wimpy Gives Popeye a Sissy Lesson

In early 20th Century theater and film, the “sissy” was the dreaded antithesis of two-fisted pulp hyper-masculinity, at best, and at worst was a stereotypical euphemism for what was unspoken in general culture, homosexuality. Wimpy, the dandyish, appetite-driven counterpoint to Popeye’s principled violence, is of course Popeye’s best tutor for all things “sissy.” To make this sexual dynamic even weirder we have Popeye’s Pappy bewildered by his prancing progeny. It reads like an unintended burlesque of Popeye “coming out”. Per a previous post, These dailies precede Popeye deceiving the underground demons to come up and fight.

It is important to note that this gender-bending sequence was followed immediately by another adventure cycle involving Popeye getting the crap beaten out of him in a land of highly muscled women. And this is all happening right after E.C. Segar’s death in October 1938. The strip was being continued unsigned by assistants for the time being.

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Premiere Panels: Popeye Comes On Board – Jan. 17, 1929

Even Segar didn’t understand what he had on his hands in this character. Reader response drove Popeye’s permanent addition to the Theatre cast, which had been centered on the self-absorbed, cranky, acquisitive Oyls and family friend Ham Gravy. The strip, already a decade old, had already shifted to lengthy, outlandish;y imaginative adventures. But Popeye introduced a new moral steadfast hero to Segar’s satire and seemed to fuel his absurdist imagination, culminating in masterful extended arcs like Plunder Island.

Popeye and Olive Scandalize Father Oyl (1930)

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.