The Propulsive Pugnacious Power of Popeye

And I don’t just mean his fisks!   We read the first Popeye adventure in Thimble Theater for my History of American Comics class on Monday and when I reads Popeye, I wantsta talk Popeye (and talk like Popeye). I assigned my students to follow up on R.C. Harvey’s analysis from  “What this Country Needed Was a Good Segar” in The Aesthetics of the Funnies. The question I had them address was:

Harvey says that Segar exploits the visual-verbal balance of the medium to promote suspension of disbelief and open the door to fantasy—we accept impossible realities because of his drawing style.  How else does Segar exploit the capacities of the medium?  How do the words and pictures combine to convey plot, pacing, characterization, mood, tone, or some other element (or the necessity of reading the words and pictures together, as Inge pointed out in the article on Outcault—how does Segar exploit the interdependence of words and pictures in his comic strips)?  Identify and explicate one instance of Segar’s mastery of the medium.

Harvey gives the example of Popeye’s forearms:

“Segar’s finishing touch was a stroke of visual comic genius. Popeye’s bulging forearms, those watermelons attached to his body with pipe cleaners, give “ham-fisted” a visual metaphor. Although the graphic device defies anatomy and affronts common sense, it succeeds remarkably in suggesting pugilistic power. Popeye’s arms evoke the velocity
of his swing: it’s as if the centrifugal force of repeated roundhouse punches have shoved all the sailor’s muscles into his extremities. His arms suggest the enormous impact of his blows: ballooning around his hands, his arms convert his fists to sledgehammers that gain more striking force by being at the ends of long handles. In comparison, the bulging biceps of conventionally constructed comic book superheroes seem scarcely sufficient to their tasks-as if too far removed from the point of the impact, the striking fist. But all Popeye’s muscles-and most of his weight-are bunched just where they’ll be felt the most: right behind his knuckles. Conceptually and visually, Popeye is the comic epitome of the perfect fighter.” (164-165)

This assignment was well worth doing. It forced the students to attend to the visuals of Segar’s strip, specifically to the comics-specific elements of the art.  And they came up with a lot of good stuff–it’s amazing how comics analysis can emerge from reading and discussing even without much theory (besides McCloud’s Understanding Comics).

One aspect of Segar’s work that I asked the students to look at was the propelling nature of his strips.  Why do we feel compelled to keep reading?  Why did I have to repeatedly force myself to stop reading Popeye at 4 am when I was working my way through the Complete EC Segar Popeye?  One student came up with an answer, cliffhangers.

The student pointed out that every day’s strip ended with a suspenseful cliffhanger that added an extra layer to the plot, but still managed to be a surprise and to propel him to read the next day’s strip.  Another student even called this “annoying” because it made her want to keep reading.  Here’s a three day sequence of the days’ final panel:

Popeye cliffhanger 1

Castor, Olive, and Ham’s worried looks makes us wonder what will happen next.

Popeye cliffhanger 2

We know Snork’s intentions, but will Popeye notice him?

Popeye cliffhanger 3

Even though essentially nothing has happened in this day’s strip, the suspense builds because we are waiting for the tension to resolve–we’re waiting for Snork to fire his pistol. Will Popeye die?  Will he stop Snork?

Of course, Popeye ends up taking 16 bullets from Snork and surviving because of the luck he rubbed off the Wiffle Hen, but at this moment we don’t know that.  And the fight between Snork and Popeye occurs off panel. We experience it through the emotions of Castor, Olive, and Ham, who can’t see the fight themselves.  It makes for very compelling reading.

And that’s something that newspapers seem to have forgotten. Comic strips are one of the few things that newspapers have an essential monopoly on (or did until recently).  The newspaper was the only place to get your daily fix of the comic strips, but newspapers kept shrinking and shrinking the size of the strips.  Segar was able to use six panels for each day’s installment, but cartoonists today are lucky to be able to fit three into the space alloted, and little action can be shown.  If strips had maintained Segar’s propulsive genius, people might have kept buying and reading newspapers and they wouldn’t be in the situation they are in today (though I realize there are bigger issues, but comic strips from the beginning were a circulation booster but they rarely got the credit they deserved).

And at their current reproduction size, cartoonists cannot convey the intensity of emotion of the old days.   I’ll close with this clip from later in this adventure showing Olive Oyl and the look of hate:

Olive's hatred

Ain’t she marvelous?!

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