So there have been “Best of 2009″ lists and “Best of the Decade” lists flying around the internet, pretty much since Halloween or so, maybe even earlier. I don’t have time to do a longer list, or a more comprehensive one, but I thought it would be interesting to talk about my five favorite books of 2009. I admit I swiped the idea from Christopher Butcher’s excellent series on the top 10 game-changing moments in North American manga publication. Although Chris goes into way WAY more depth than I have the time or erudition to attempt; and fortunately he’s Canadian, so he probably can’t even read American and will never know of my theft.
This list is less a “best of,” and more a “my faves;” or rather, the five books that were most important in my comics reading, whether for sheer quality or brain-busting thought-provokitude, or other content or format choices that were impressive or influential on me.
NUMBER FIVE :: POPEYE VOLUME FOUR: Plunder Island
I have made no secret of my intense love of the Popeye reprints from Fantagraphics. Pretty much from the first volume–can it really have been over three years since it was published?–to this one, the once-a-year books are almost always the most pleasant reading experiences of that year for me.
I am a lover of old newspaper strips, although I worry that I’m more a lover of the idea of loving old newspaper strips–with so many reprint volumes coming out lately, I keep buying them but not actually reading them. But they’re such fancy-looking books I can’t help thinking I just MUST have them for my comics library. Sometimes it’s hard to get in the mood to read old newspaper reprints; it’s a little like reading Charles Dickens. Everything is happening at a different speed, all the jokes are nearly a century old; or if it’s an adventure strip the danger is always vipers or poison or something, as opposed to the many and much more dramatic real-world dangers we face today.
Not to mention that, in a newspaper strip, you never know when some repugnant ethnic stereotype will traipse across the page, reminding you instantly that what you’re reading comes, after all, from an often uglier time.
But the Popeye volumes are different, there’s something about them that seems larger than the sum of their parts. Part of it is probably the strip itself, which is completely and unapologetically silly. It’s slapstick and violent and goofy, and it’s far easier to enjoy it on a surface level than one of the more dramatic strips like Little Orphan Annie or Dick Tracy. You don’t need to know much about the setting or the times to enjoy Popeye, it’s all pretty much there in any individual page: Popeye is a one-eyed sailor of almost supernatural toughness and strength, who loves to fight and always looks out for widows and children.
But I would suggest that one of the things that make this particular series of Popeye reprints from Fantagraphics so great is the design of the books themselves. The books’ designer, Jacob Covey, made the books into objects, and not only objects but obviously well-loved objects. The books are large, they’re corporeal, they have real mass and weight and take both hands to hold comfortably. When you lay in bed at night with the book open in front of you, it effectively takes up your entire field of vision–I mean, it’s like 2 feet wide and something like 15 inches tall when it’s open. It’s a case where the actual shape of the book acts as an immersive into the book’s content.
Which helps–Popeye is set in pretty much the prime time of the Great Depression, although it’s never directly referenced. If anything, money is treated with an almost dismissive attitude: Popeye comes into millions of dollars all the time, usually spending it all with a few panels, sometimes on buying houses for “widders,” one time in this volume buying 10,000 sets of pajamas for his adopted son Sweetpea.
I want to say this means something: that one of the most popular strips of the day NEVER referenced what was at the time utter disaster for most people in the United States, certainly many of Popeye’s readers. Escapism? I don’t know, I don’t have a lot of education. Seems like “escapism” is an easy answer though. It’s not so much that money is never mentioned; it’s that it’s often little more than an inconvenience. Moreover, money’s often paired in Popeye with buffoonery. Those hunting money nearly always come to a bad end, while Popeye seems the least interested of any character in money, though he’s forever blundering into great piles of it.
And, even though volume four of Popeye was originally published in papers between 1933 and 1935, the book is littered with tycoons and multimillionaires. Although interestingly, they all spend their money with cavalier disregard for its importance. When Popeye rescues June Van Ripple from drowning, her father is outraged that Popeye won’t accept a reward, and goes out of his way to foist money on him whenever possible, just because that’s the way he likes things: paid for. It’s like in Elzie Segar‘s mind, rich people viewed the world and everything in it in a way completely alien to the average Joe. And, of course, alien to Popeye as well. If Popeye is the kind of salt-of-the-earth Everyman of the Thimble Theatre strips, then it says a lot about Segar’s thoughts on the American everyman in the 1930′s. But again, these are just the buds of thoughts, I think a smarter person would be able to talk about this stuff a little better.
Anyway. I’m more qualified to talk about the look of the book than the subtext. The physical layout of the book is such that you get an entire week of Popeye daily strips per page, which besides being very satisfying to someone like me who loves to sort and organize things, creates a kind of Rorschach-blot pattern of blacks on the page. If you look at the example above, E.C. Segar uses very clear, almost stupidly-clear storytelling, with each character having a little blotch of black in their design somewhere (Wimpy’s jacket, Popeye’s shirt, Olive’s skirt), so that your eye tracks from character to character in a panel. And, as discussed in Rick Marschall’s introduction, Segar rarely moved his “camera” around, or zoomed in or out for closeups or wide shots. For Segar the panel itself was the prime organizing unit in his comics; characters were moving into or out of panels, or the panel itself might “follow” them, but rarely did the panel or composition change, with the exception of occasional double-sized panels for the punch-line at the end.
If you look at the page above, in the third strip from the top, the “camera” follows Wimpy as he goes out to smite a Bruiser brother. In the fourth panel, though Wimpy has jumped nearly out of the panel itself to wield his club, the camera has not moved at all. Segar’s panels operate like little peepholes on the action, with the reader only ever able to see what is happening across his small field of vision. The feeling is multiplied when reproduced like this, with six tiers of strips–in another cartoonist’s hands it would be too cramped and claustrophobic, but somehow it operates in opposition to the innate wide-openness of Popeye himself, to the sprawling violence of the strip. It’s almost like the panel is controlling things a little bit, somehow dampening what would otherwise turn into a non-stop free-for-all, no-doubt spilling into Gil Thorp and Bringing Up Father on the funny pages.
I will say that I was a little let-down by the “Plunder Island” story, which I’d heard from pretty much everybody was the (in the words of J. Wellington Wimpy) “acme” of Popeye stories. As Andy Mansell patiently explained to me, Plunder Island was serialized only in the Sunday pages of the strip, and it took over six months, which I’m sure at the time must have been pretty dramatic. For my money, I still prefer the original Sea Hag story, reprinted in the first of the newer Popeye volumes, which was RIFE with drama. I am way WAY in the minority on this one, believe me; but I also prefer the black and white dailies to the Sundays, although they are reprinted here with what is almost outlandishly high production values.
And to me, the real star of these later volumes is Wimpy anyway. Just as Popeye intially upstaged the characters when he showed up as a bit-player in Thimble Theatre, so Wimpy has turned into the real star of these later strips, certainly the color Sundays. Don’t get me wrong, Popeye is amazing, just the ridiculous lexicon of speech-ticks Segar has given him are enough crack me up any time. But Wimpy has not so much developed into a character as he has simply accrued more and more little running jokes, despicable character flaws, and best of all his unflappable greed. His weird plans don’t make any sense at first, but here at the end of Volume Four, having read these stories for the first time, I will reliably laugh at any mention of “ducks,” the “acme” of anything, or the “Jones boys.”
Volume Four of Popeye was maybe my least favorite of the series so far, but I think less from a failing of the book, and more that my shocking love of these strips (I have never been a fan of the silly cartoon version) has become less new by the fourth volume. They still are the BEST-designed comics being made today, and easily my favorite strip reprints ever, including Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, even my beloved Dick Tracy. I feel myself thinking about their design constantly, especially when looking at some of the many MANY strip reprints being published these days. These Popeye books are made with the kind of love and care and attention to detail that’s rare in comics–it’s clear that their publishers treat this material with reverence, and it makes it even more pleasurable to crack a new volume open each year. I cannot wait for Volume 5!