Book Review: Popeye: Classic Newspaper Comics, Volume Two 1989-1998: A Surprisingly Modern and Adult Take On The Classic Character

Popeye is not something I’ve ever cared about. No wait, scratch that, I loved the Robert Altman movie starring Robin Williams as the Sailor Man. But all the other incarnations were nothing I was ever really interested in. I do remember watching the cartoon at my grandmother’s as a kid. I don’t remember seeing it at home which means it must have been on a cable channel we didn’t get and that I only watched it because it was boring at Grandma’s. We used to pretend to be Popeye every now and again but there is really only so many times you can pretend to eat disgusting spinach in order to get out of a trap and beat up Bluto.

I’ve never read any of the comics, I don’t think our newspaper carried it, nor have I read any books or seen any of the movies other than the Altman masterpiece. I’ve not seen one of those cartoons in probably 25 years and have never had any warm sense of nostalgia over it.

I say this to now admit that I was taken by complete surprise reading the strips in the collection. It is at times brilliant, hilarious, very modern (for the late ’80s – early ’90s) and often political. It is also extraordinarily bizarre. There is a long series of strips where Popeye gets a ride on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine to the fourth dimension, another one where he battles dozens of Blutos from every incarnation of the character both on paper and the screen. Famously, there is series about Olive Oyl’s addiction to the Home Shopping Network which ends in an allegory about abortion and ultimately cost London’s job and King Features (Popeye‘s newspaper syndicate) pulled three weeks worth of strips from syndication.

One look at Bobby London’s resume – which includes being a founding artist for National Lampoon, creating the Dirty Duck comics (which is exactly what you think it is), and drawing comics for various other underground publications – and you stop wondering why Popeye got so strange during his tenure and start wondering why they hired him for such a mainstream comic in the first place.

The answer lies in London’s love for the artistry of comic drawing. While he was certainly a counterculture artist, he had also studied many of the classic comic strips and was a big fan of the original Popeye series. At the time, Popeye was still a very popular character, but had grown rather artistically stagnant trying to appeal to more and more of the masses. London promised to punch it up and return it to its earlier glory.

Flipping through its pages, I’m still kind of surprised he lasted as long as he did. This is a strip that, just before his tenure, was more concerned with how Wimpy was going to get his next hamburger. London takes the reigns and suddenly their are multiple rants about the Republican party, anti-war messages, and some rather brilliant stabs at the corporate hands that were feeding him.

And let’s not forget abortion. London had to know he was on his way out before even thinking of penning such a screed. Yet he still gave it his all. The story finds Olive addicted to the Home Shopping Network. She buys everything in sight blowing all of their money. After being confronted by Popeye about it, she declares she’ll give it up. A late item arrives – a baby Bluto doll. Hearing Popeye and Olive arguing over the doll and with Olive making promises to get rid of it a local priest thinks they speak of a real baby and plan to abort. He rallies the troops to keep this from happening while Olive consults with the Sea Hag. All hell breaks loose. Readers didn’t know how it ended because the strip was pulled from the papers. Until now. This book completes the stories with strips that haven’t been seen in two decades.

As per usual, the Library of American Comics has done an outstanding job collecting these strips. They are hard bound in a beautiful-looking cover and each strip had been meticulously copied with original run dates printed at the bottom of each page. There is a very informative essay at the front of the book giving background information on the character, comic strip, and London’s tenure.

I received this book thinking it would be a chore to read. Popeye seems so dated, so old, so unfunny. Opening the pages was a revelation. Bobby London’s run is one of the most original, interesting, and bizarre set of newspaper comic strips I’ve ever read. This is a must have for any comic lover.

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Mat Brewster

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