I was raised to like Popeye from a very young age. It isn’t difficult for a young boy to enjoy Popeye, what with the ass-kicking and chick-getting (well, one chick, multiple times) and generally outrageous greatness of the character. To instruct a child to like Popeye is to tell them to eat a heaping bowl of sugared cereal and run around screaming all morning, until a lunchtime temper tantrum lands them in the Naughty Chair. Though my initial liking of Popeye was wholly instinctual and natural, a deeper, nerdier understanding of this fictional character was imprinted upon me by my father, his own obsession with Popeye seemingly unique and not passed down by my grandfather.
It is difficult to describe my father. It seems that whenever I talk about him, I paint a picture of a relatively unpleasant guy. He isn’t really unpleasant at all, he’s just passionate about the things he enjoys and entirely dismissive of everything else. This is not unlike any other pompous type who has refined their tastes to the ultimate, except my dad doesn’t have extremely refined tastes. He likes classical music and has a tremendous collection, and he likes depressing Russian novelists. He also likes Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons from before World War II. He loves Doctor Who. He giddily enjoys underground comix from the 1970s and once had a huge collection of National Lampoon magazines (until I pilfered and destroyed them through poor storage). He enjoys Marx Bros. movies and slapstick shorts from the 1940s and 50s.
My point is that my dad has a pretty eccentric taste which runs the gamut from high art to commercial design and fart jokes. And so it is with Popeye, a franchise he has been waxing about since I can remember. I don’t actually recall the precise moment he decided to school me on Popeye, but if it was like the other times he dropped his brand of condescending science, I suspect the scene was: me watching a post-World War II Popeye cartoon from Paramount on television, he walks in the room and calls it a piece of shit, then alludes to older, better Popeye cartoons, implying that they are so great so as to be withheld from my moronic generation, lest we be too dazzled by their brilliance and stab our eyes out with Transformers toys. The fact of these legendary cartoons having been established, he would then proceed to tell me more about their undeniable awesomeness whenever he happened to catch me watching an inferior Popeye cartoon in television syndication. He’d tell me that the good cartoons were done by the Fleischer Bros., an animation studio that handled Betty Boop and Superman cartoons (not the crappy Superman cartoons that you remember, but other, better, more secret Superman cartoons…)
Then my dad would eventually tell me that these other great cartoons that I hadn’t seen weren’t even the best evidences of Popeye. No, the first, best version of Popeye ran in a comic strip called Thimble Theater in the 1920s through to the 40s (the strip would eventually be retitled Popeye.) Drawn by a guy named E.C. Segar, they captured a movement and wildness that was as indescribable as it was unparalleled. Would that I could see these comic strips, finally I would know beauty. But alas, I am presented with only the inferior, “white sailor’s cap Popeye” as opposed to the incredible “captain’s hat Popeye,” as my dad put it. And so my life was already rendered a pale version of his, a simulation of a much fuller, more interesting time when things mattered.
Around 1987, Fantagraphics Books released some of the old Popeye strips, in a very bad reproduction. The printing was so bad, the ink was barely fixed to the paper and could be rubbed off with your finger. Still, I could see glimpses of greatness through the smudges and blotches, even detecting that elusive movement my father couldn’t stop jawing about. Of course, even staring right at the strips wasn’t good enough for my father, who reminded me over and over that the poor reproductions of the comic strips I was seeing were meager facsimiles of this dimension-shattering piece of serial art. However, I had to admit: my dad was right. These early Popeye comic strips were awesome, as Popeye swore and fought and instructed the reader in proper moral fortitude, they really did kill the Paramount cartoons I was raised on. Right around the same time Fantagraphics released their reproductions, there was a film festival downtown of old Fleischer Bros. cartoons. And you know what? They were fucking awesome. Fuck you, dad, not for being smug but for being right.
Fantagraphics began re-releasing the old Popeye comic strips a couple of years ago; right now they’re about to put out volume five of six. I’m not sure if they’re using original plates or even the original mock ups, but the reproduction is incredible. Well worth checking out if you like Popeye. Chances are, you weren’t instructed to like Popeye as a kid, so you might be unaware of this other, greater character that’s been kept from polite society for decades. Check him out, I think you’ll find him a lot more interesting than that white sailor’s cap Popeye that used to hawk fried chicken.