Book Review: Popeye: The Classic Newspaper Comics, Volume One: 1986-1989 by Bobby London: Absolutely Fabulous

When it comes to reprints of classic comics, The Library of American Comics from IDW Publishing are the absolute gold standard. I own a half-dozen of their books, including collections of Felix the Cat, Blondie, and Polly and Her Pals. Popeye has also been a longtime favorite, although I was sadly unfamiliar with the Bobby London period, from 1986-‘89. So the new Popeye: The Classic Newspaper Comics, Volume One: 1986-1989 was a bit of a gamble for me.

After reading this fat collection of daily strips, I am now embarrassed to admit that I was not hip to London’s Popeye before. These two-panel strips are fantastic, with some of the funniest newspaper comics I have ever seen. I am talking laugh-out-loud funny here, as well as being smart, irreverent, and edgy.

In the Introduction, Andrew Farago sketches out a brief biography of London, who was a founding contributor to National Lampoon. London also contributed to the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Playboy, and was one of the “Air Pirates.” The Air Pirates team created an adults-only Mickey Mouse comic that led to a headline-grabbing, decade-long court battle with Disney. London’s credentials amounted to some significant achievements in both the underground and the mainstream media. He was not the safest choice for Popeye, but he turned out to be a great one, at least for a while.

Popeye had been in a holding pattern for decades before London came along. The character was created by E.C. Segar, as part of his Thimble Theatre, which began in 1919. Popeye’s first appearance was on January 17, 1929, and the venerable sailor man was an instant hit. There were a series of artists who drew Popeye after Segar died in 1938. Then in 1959 Bob Sagendorf took over until he retired in 1986. It was Sagendorf who London took over from in 1986.

London’s Popeye was defiantly of the ‘80s. His strips mention the Cabbage Patch Kids, Rambo, MTV, Julio Iglesias, answering machines, Ghostbusters, Miami Vice, Reebok shoes, professional wrestling, even Billy Idol, who is called “Billy Brat.” Remember Phil Donohue? Popeye gets a job as his bodyguard, and is told to “clobber anyone who is spoiling for a fight.” So Popeye decks Phil, who was always spoiling for a fight. I would have loved to have clobbered Phil Donohue myself back then.

Music fans of the decade might remember the “backward masking” trial of Judas Priest. As insane as it sounds, the band’s music was literally put on trial for causing a fan to commit suicide. In one panel, Olive is reading about it to Popeye, and in the next panel the Sea Hag is screaming “I want my MTV!”

For the first few months, London was writing strips with no continuity outside of the characters. As he got more comfortable with the job though, he began to write longer, “themed” strips. The first of these ran for a week, all centered on his discovery of bottles with messages in them. The final message he reads says “Frankly, I prefer the old Coke.”

Hot on the heels of the messages, London devotes a week to Olive Oyl’s search for a younger man. The one dated September 18, 1986 might be the funniest Popeye I have ever read. I have to wonder if it is a nod to John Crawford’s Baboon Dooley Rock Critic. In the first panel, some dorky faux-hawked geek introduces himself to our hero, “So you’re Popeye…I’m Nerdley Von Wurlitzer III…Olive’s new boyfriend…Olive’s told me a lot about you…You’re an interesting dude. I’m a rock critic for SPIT magazine…the pay isn’t much, but I get free CDs. In the next panel Popeye mutters to himself “If I hit ‘im, I’d be ashamed of meself.”

London really hit his stride with a four-month storyline about gentrification. Not only is it funny, but it touches on things that began in ’80s, and really continue to this day. Popeye calls it “building candyminimus,” but what London is addressing is the wholesale destruction of historic buildings and areas to build generic shopping malls, and condos. The Donald Trump-style villain is the Sea Hag, and what better place to set it in than Popeye’s stomping grounds of Sweethaven?

I wish I had been paying attention to the daily Popeye strips at the time, because Bobby London was treading an incredible line. His Popeye was exactly what a pseudo-hipster in his 20s (like me) would have loved. He apparently crossed the line when he proposed a satirical storyline about the abortion battles. Fitting, I suppose.

The final page of the book touts the upcoming Volume Two of London’s Popeye, which I am guessing will contain the Sunday strips. Who knows, those may be even better than the dailies, although it would be hard to top them. I read through these in record time, and will not only go back to them, but show them off to my friends. Popeye: The Classic Newspaper Comics, Volume One: 1986-1989 is a keeper, without question.

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Greg Barbrick

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