Review by Win Wiacek
Bud Sagendorf assisted Popeye’s creator E. C. Segar in producing his newspaper strip, and in 1958 would take it over, but for ten years beforehand he kept his hand in by producing Popeye’s regular adventures in comics.
When Popeye first appeared, he was a rude, crude brawler: a gambling, cheating, uncivilised ne’er-do-well. As his popularity grew, Popeye mellowed somewhat. He was still ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows, but the shocking sense of dangerous unpredictability and comedic anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed. However, it was fully present in Sagendorf’s comic yarns.
Popeye Classics collects those yarns in their entirety, in a beguiling full-colour hardback format. This opening volume combines the first four 52-page quarterly issues from 1948. First, though, we have an effusively appreciative introduction by inspired aficionado and historian/publisher Craig Yoe and a fabulous collation of candid photos and letters, plus strip proofs, original art and commissioned paintings. ‘A Bud Sagendorf Scrapbook’ further contains an Activity Book cover and greetings card designs.
As seen in the tester compilation The Great Comic Book Tales by Bud Sagendorf, the initial episode finds mighty muscled, irrepressible “infink” Swee’ Pea enquiring “Were there ever any pirates around here?” before doing a bit of digging, after which the full-coloured fun begins with ‘Shame on You! or Gentlemen Do Not Fight! or You’re a Ruffian, Sir!’ A barrage of psychological tricks are employed to put the prize-fighting Popeye off his game.
That also features Olive Oyl, and over the remainder of the strips we see the rich and varied cast that bounce off Popeye, all presented in Sagendorf’s surreal style. Who else would have sinister unprincipled villain Sam Snagg tattooing an invisible secret diagram onto the baby Swee’ Pea’s body? While Popeye may have mellowed, his ancient, antisocial crusty reprobate Poopdeck Pappy never did. The elder mariner was a hard-bitten, grumpy lout quite prepared – even happy – to cheat, steal or smack a woman around if she stepped out of line. Fed up with eating spinach, Pappy hides his meals and steals the wherewithal to secretly subsist on a diet of candy, cakes and sodas.
Popeye’s most formidable foil, though, was master moocher Wellington J. Wimpy, here setting a couple of stories in motion, and accompanying Popeye on a search after the mistake of believing his baby boy tough enough to wander around town unsupervised.
The pattern Sagendorf followed was to produce one longer story and shorter back-ups, the former exemplified by an epic 32-page spooky maritime epic as the superstitious sailor reluctantly agrees to transport 250 “ghosk” traps to ghastly, radish – and phantom – infested ‘Ghost Island’. It’s a cunning yarn of mystery and over-zealous imagination starring many cast regulars and preceded by a hilarious map of the route replacing the inside-front cover gag. Equally unpredictable is the later trip to sagebrush hellhole ‘Dead Valley’, where local bandit boss Dead Valley Joe assigns his scurvy gang the task of dissuading or despatching the uppity easterners before they uncover the region’s incredible secret. It’s a grim wilderness Popeye has endured before: an arid inferno no sane man would want to revisit unless a scientist hired him to.
One final brace of Swee’ Pea shorts then sees the wily kid orchestrate free baseball views for his pals before indulging in food politics to win over a stray cat and wrap up in amiable style these jolly, captivating cartoon capers. Bring on Moon Goon and More.