Wednesday, April 16, 2014


So hot off the presses it's scortchin' my pinkies comes this collection of Bobby London-period POPEYE "daily" cartoons, and I'm sure you eighties survivors remember this 'un, right? Y'know, that version of the long-running THIMBLE THEATRE strip that was now being done up by famous underground/DIRTY DUCK/NATIONAL LAMPOON cartoonist London which was something that certainly caused a minor stir back in the days when the fun and entertainment of the comics page certainly was taking a dive, what with the classic strips either dying off or beginning to become mere shells of what they used to mean for depression-era kiddies who got all of their entertainment from these pages and nothing else!

It was '86 when King Features Syndicate, stuck with a property that just wasn't pulling in any readers under seventy anymore, decided to "update" their flagging stock inna one-eyed sailor by getting London to do the honors, undoubtedly figuring that he'd give the strip some "hip" credo. Which he most certainly did, pulling it off not only in a painfully obvious way by tossing every eighties fad 'n feature into the concoction, but by making the strip pretty cutting in a rather politico/sociopathical way!

And for the most part this worked even if London's zeal to poke and prod at the sacred cows on and off the funny pages is what ultimately tossed him out of a job, but mebbee I am gettin' a li'l too ahead of myself (but wha' th' hey...).

But unlike the POPEYE that preceded it, stories inspired by the headlines seemed to be popping into the strip more frequently than not, and while this THIMBLE THEATRE wasn't exactly as topical nor as oafish as DOONESBURY or BLOOM COUNTY are/were you knew where London's allegiances lied. And it sure wasn't with the seventies thumb your snouts at the left wing flakies and right wing stiff upper lipped ones anymore either! Like it was with the rest of the once-free form satirists of the seventies who were suddenly shocked outta their post-hippie complacency when Reagan got elected, it was with the left-wing flakies where London (and the rest of the seventies humor cadre) cast his lot. No more of that DIRTY DUCK humor that lambasted the sixties radicals anymore, bub! From then on in it was all-out war on the stiffies even if some of 'em had more'n a few good ideas rolling around in their minds but that never did matter when you were selling your heart 'n soul to DA MOVEMENT!

London's morally and intellectually superior to the rest of us's values eventually came to a head in the early nineties when he decided to introduce the subject of abortion into a comic that had been toddler fodder for a longer time than any of us could imagine. Not that abortion talk had been alien to them once-slam pow pages as some quickly substituted DOONESBURY storylines would attest to (and I kinda wonder about some of the behind-the-scenes goings on in BLONDIE as well...I mean with a daughter like Cookie you'd think the Bumsteads would be taking a trip to the local reproductive health center on a weekly basis!), but dealing with such a hot potato topic in a strip like POPEYE just mighta been taking the hip radical in the establishment trip just a li'l bit too far beyond the realm of decency, or so your Aunt Gladys might say.

And hey, when was Aunt Gladys wrong other'n the time she mistook her daughter's vibrator for an oral health gum treatment that tasted fishy! The story, or at least what got printed, had to do with Olive Oyl receiving a baby Bluto (or is it Brutus?) doll which she supposedly ordered via Home Shopping Network. Turns out the doll is so repulsive that she doesn't want it so Popeye, doing the most honorable thing, throws the grotesque figure into the trash can. A passing priest overhearing the conversation between Popeye and Olive misconstrues what has been said believeing that Olive got knocked up by the bearded Bluto/Brutus and wants to deep six the sucker, which of course would naturally lead to some mighty hefty belly laughs you just never did get outta ZITS!

That's pretty much where the story ended when London got his own cord cut, and the usual tongue wagging and finger pointing that went on for a short while after did come off about as morally self-righteous as any world-saving type of deeply-offended scion can get even in these garment-rending times. It was back to Bud Sagendorf reruns for the strip and the end of a half-decade run for a variation on the old form that, I will admit, did its best to keep one of the funny papers' once-bright stars afloat in a world where the old classics were being replaced by these cheaply-drawn and unfunny strips that well...reflect the shallow personas and one-dimensional make up of the people who read 'em.

But hey, that MONDO POPEYE paperback I snatched up a few years back was a quickie har-de-har-har in itself so I figured why not get this new volume featuring the first coupla years of London's POPEYE anyway? And frankly it's a good buy if you don't wanna scarf up collectors prices for the MONDO edition plus it's got a whole lot more. And true you do have to suffer through some of those eighties politico woes that seemed about as distant in 1990 as Kruschev did in '67, but you can easily enough "bleeb" over 'em just so's you don't have to put up with the usual editorializing that's always been done up by people who need to be the subjects of quite a bit of editorializing themselves.

Not only that, but these strips can get quite high-larious almost on a level with those DIRTY DUCKs that London was dolloping out in the pages of NATIONAL LAMPOON! Now you ain't gonna get outright sex jokes and snide concentration camp references here, but there is a nice snark that pops up more'n a few times that keeps my belief system high afloat. Of course it ain't like it was back when these people really knew how to dish it out being the equal opportunity offenders they most surely were, but hey I'll take it!

The early quick one-off gags are on-target enough even if the references to various eighties television programs, products and gadgetries are even more obvious than any early episode of HAPPY DAYS rattling off about Studebakers and paint-by-numbers sets. The continuing stores fare better when London is cooking on all cylinders, and tales such as the one where the Sea Hag turns Popeye's home town into a giant shopping complex do have the proper mix of being late-eighties current and high-larious even to the point where the limitations that have been placed on comic strips at the time (size, panels) don't deter much if at all.

Gotta 'fess up that some of the sagas to be found here don't exactly hold up such as the one where Olive moves out of her abode and finds herself as an all-night 7-11 clerk, but it ain't exactly as if  you're about to chuck the entire concept of a Bobby London-helmed THIMBLE THEATRE onto the trash heap of particularly turdly ideas. You might (like I did) object to the portrayal of General Bunzo as a stark-raving capitalist anti-communist (as if pro-communists were just dandy!), and if London only balanced the strip with some fey cowardly world-saving types like he and his radical cronies used to only a good decade back... But, as Kathy Shaidle put it so succinctly recently the left/liberal types have more strawmen than a WIZARD OF OZ convention, so why should I expect 'em to behave differently?

Can you stand it? I guess I can, having had to stand the entire shebang of being talked down to and shamed (well, at least they tried...) by my mental masters for quite some time now. Once ya get around the usual fluff and post-hippie karmik whoozis this stuff is mighty good. Not exactly anything that'll make you laugh out loud (something which I haven't done since my cousin's dog started humping her leg at the family party a good twenny-five years back) but you'll probably emit a few little "arf arf"s from your very own windpipe. And yeah, I'm even planning on getting volume two with the abortion story line, though I do dread the sanctimony that's gonna come gushing from the forward of that 'un!


Bill S. said...

Thanks for the summary of the Bobby London years of Popeye--it inspired me so much, I just ordered a copy of the book. Boy, I must not have looked at a newspaper in those years---all of this is totally new to me. Better late than never...


top_cat_james said...

Give London some credit-the story line that takes place in the Middle East with Popeye battling fanatical jihadists would never see newsprint today.

Also surprising was the level of violence depicted in the strip (beatings, shootings, torture), of which you can be assured would be vetoed by modern day KFS editors. In one sequence, Popeye is actually stabbed to death! Hey, the eighties really were a different era!