Toon Musings: London’s Popeye
A goodly proportion of comic strips in any given comics section of a daily newspaper are what are sometimes referred to as “zombie strips”; that is, the original creator of the strip is dead. In most cases, the strip is carried on by an assistant, a family member, or by some other artist or team that the syndicate hires for just that purpose. The new version of the strip may compare favorably with the original version, or it may not; it depends on the talent of the new author(s), and also in how big a piece of the strip the syndicate owns, and how protective they are of their right to exploit it.
Some time ago, Fantagraphics published a six volume collection of E. C. Segar’s Popeye, the spines of which spell out the name of the eponymous sailor man. I own ‘O’, which collects the daily strips from 1931 and 1932. Segar liked to tell months-long humorous adventure stories in his strip, full of colorful characters, exotic locales, bizarre situations, and frequent violence. He created the Popeye character as an employee of King Features syndicate, and as such, the sailor was considered a “work for hire” and to this day is owned by the syndicate. The strip grew wildly popular, and over the decades spawned songs, cartoon shorts, comic books, a movie, and all manner of merchandise. When Segar died in 1938, the syndicate turned the strip over to a succession of cartoonists to carry on, most notably Bud Sagendorf, who took the reins in 1959. In 1986 Sagendorf wanted to cut back to Sundays only, so King Features began the search for a cartoonist to take over the production of the weekday strips. Bill Yates, the editor at the time, was a fan of E. C. Segar and actually took a correspondence course from the man himself. Faced with the task of finding the next cartoonist to carry the torch for one of the syndicate’s most venerable and lucrative properties, he turned his eye to the world of underground comix.
Bobby London, for those of you who may have been fans of the old National Lampoon magazine, is the creator of Dirty Duck, a character of his who first saw light in the L. A. Free Press in 1970. London was one of the Air Pirates, a group of rogue cartoonists who aimed to stick it to The Man by drawing lurid, politically radical parodies of Disney characters with the aim of getting sued and/or prosecuted. He grew up a big fan of of the Fleischer Popeye cartoons and later of Segar’s strip version, along with other strips of the period, such as Mutt ’n Jeff, Barney Google and Krazy Kat; and his style developed to reflect those influences. He was tapped by Yates, and started drawing the daily Popeye in February of 1986 as a gag-a-day strip, at the syndicate’s behest.
As his tenure wore on, he gradually reintroduced old, mostly forgotten characters and locales and also reestablished the multi-week story continuity that Segar preferred. From a fan’s point of view, he did an absolutely marvelous job. His art was loose and very deft, while still maintaining a 1930s sensibility, with many homages to the old classic strips that London loved. From a writing standpoint, he infused the strip with a sly wit while still staying true to the original characters. The humor also became more topical and contemporary, with gags about greedy developers, cellular phones, discos, biker gangs, racial prejudice, ad agencies, and the Home Shopping Network. He also tackled some controversial (and often political) topics such as radical Islam, war in the Mideast, censorship, capital punishment, licensing and merchandising, and ultimately, abortion. It was a breath of fresh air.
In 1992, London’s patron Yates was out. The suits at the syndicate were eager to promote a more family-friendly Popeye. King Features was fed up with the strip’s controversial subject matter, and though London says he never got a negative letter from a fan, they fired him and yanked several weeks of strips from circulation, and instead reran old Sagendorf strips. A TV show from 1987, Popeye and Son, perhaps better reflects the direction the syndicate wanted to take their property. It ran for one season.
Bud Sagendorf, who had been drawing the Sunday strips during London’s stint on the dailies, died in 1994. Today, the Sunday strips are drawn by the very inoffensive Hy Eisman. The daily strips are still reruns (and re-reruns) of old Sagendorf dailies, mostly from the seventies and early eighties. King features still owns and manages the property that is Popeye, and as far as the daily strips are concerned, has what to them must be a perfect relationship with an ideal cartoonist: a dead one. The only losers: originality and relevance. As for the London strips, enough time has passed. They’ve been collected in two highly worthwhile volumes, for which comics purists should be grateful. The brand is safe, since only pointy-headed fanatics like me read these collections of old strips, and King gets another payday. Scoreboard! London has this to say:
“Well, they can all rejoice. I’m not in the Popeye business anymore. They can do whatever they want with him now, it’s all the same to me. But as long as I was the proprietor of Elzie Segar’s newspaper strip, that wasn’t gonna happen. Not on my watch. No, sir.” …“All of it, from start to finish, was first rate. I have no regrets and clearly, neither does King Features, otherwise they wouldn’t have published it all in two delightful volumes. Of course, they had twenty years to think it over.”
And that, folks, is the syndicated comic strip business. There’s now talk of a new Popeye movie in the works.
And then, there’s this:
It’s to be a drama. Looks like there’s some blood in that stone yet!
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.
Prochoice Popeye, the Silenced Sailor Man/Comic Complications (Chicago Reader)
Review: Popeye, The Classic Newspaper Comics — Volume One: 1986-1989 (The Comics Journal)
Popeye and Son TV Cartoon from the 1980s (YouTube video)