Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A few thoughts on the funny strips

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket• Quite sad to wake up this morning to the news that cartoonist Doug Marlette has died in a car accident at the relatively young age of 57. (And strange enough, he was killed in an accident in Holly Springs, Mississippi, right around where I used to live.) He was one of the finer editorial cartoonists of the time and for a while I was a big fan of his comic "Kudzu," which was an endearingly Southern-fried take on life that I felt captured the true voice of the South these days far better than hillbilly stuff like "Barney Google." He even dared to include a preacher as a main character but made him startlingly humane and non-judgmental. There was a gentle good humor to his work that wasn't spectacularly flashy, but it was insightful and witty. In an increasingly bland comics page, his strip was usually one of the few I kept up with. RIP. (Edit to add: A very fine appreciation over at The Washington Post.)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket• In other comic-related news, I was recently reading "Popeye: I Yam What I Yam" Vol. 1 by Fantagraphics books. Everyone thinks of spinach when they think of Popeye, but didja know the original newspaper comic strips Popeye debuted in barely even mentioned spinach? Popeye bounded on the scene in the late 1920s in E.C. Segar's "Thimble Theatre" comic, as a colorful cast addition to the ongoing tale of wisecracking, height-challenged adventurer Castor Oyl (and his soon-to-be-more famous sister, Olive). But Popeye soon took over the entire strip, his oversized personality crowding out many of the characters in free-wheeling, high seas comic adventures as he battled characters like the Sea Hag and the Goon.

If you've seen most of the bland color Popeye TV cartoons, you haven't seen the "real" Popeye, and Fantagraphics is doing a terrific job reprinting these 75+ year old strips in simply gigantic 10x14 inch hardback tomes. They've got a gutsy 1930s spunkiness to them and Segar's simple, crisp antic lines are still a pleasure to view. The strips are a bit dated but just as charmingly anarchic as, say, Marx Brothers movies from the same era. Popeye is actually – stay with me now – kind of a prototype of the Wolverine character – the charismatic, untamed loner who constantly spouts catchphrases and uses violence as his first response. His strength doesn't come from spinach but from simply being a "tough bloke." ("I socks 'em permanent," he boasts). The stories have a rambling make-it-up-daily feel to them but are exciting little adventures that get better as the strip finds its voice (best of all, it's the first of six planned volumes collecting Segar's life work). This beautifully designed hardback has over 200 pages of Segar goodness and is one of the best comics collections of the year. (A far more eloquent review of the book can be found over at, if you want more testimony.) They don't make the comics like this one these days – what little serialized strips are left are bland eunuchs like "Mark Trail" – and that's a shame. "Blow me down," as Popeye himself would say.

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