PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

The Sailor Man and The Air Pirate

The PopCult Bookshelf

Popeye: The Classic Newspaper Comics by Bobby London Volume 1 (1986-1989)
images (13)The Library of American Comics
by Bobby London
IDW Publishing
ISBN-13: 978-1613778746

First of all, I’m not going to refer to this book by its full title because that’s one heck of a mouthful. Second, I’ve made no secret in this blog of my admiration for Popeye. The legendary Sailor Man is one of my favorite characters from both comics and animation and I am inclined to enjoy the bejeezus out of almost anything he’s in. Third, I have been a fan of cartoonist Bobby London for more than forty years. One of the advantages of having an older brother is that you get exposed to cool things like underground comics and the National Lampoon much sooner than you normally would have been.

The infamous Air Pirates comic
The infamous Air Pirates comic

Bobby London is a legendary underground cartoonist and was a founding contributor to National Lampoon magazine, which pretty much set the standard for humor and comedy in the 1970’s. London contributed stories about “Dirty Duck,” a dirty old man duck character with the personality of a particularly venal Groucho Marx and a perverted boll weevil as his sidekick. Before his National Lampoon days, London was one of the notorious “air pirates” who published an underground comic featuring the classic Disney cartoon characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in pornographic and drug-riddled exploits.

Needless to say, the Disney lawyers went into overtime and quickly used the court system to inform said “air pirates” that their assumption that the characters had somehow lapsed into the public domain was quite incorrect. Ironically, twelve years after the matter was settled, London found himself working for the Walt Disney Corporation designing merchandising art for Mickey Mouse.

Having proven that he could play nice with corporate owned characters, London was picked to replace Bud Sagendorff on the Popeye daily comic strip. Sagendorff had been working on the strip for fifty years at that point, having begun as an assistant to Popeye’s creator, E.C. Segar, and wanted to go into semi-retirement and simply draw the Popeye Sunday page.

Sea Hag returned as a real estate mogul
Sea Hag returned as a real estate mogul

London turned out to be the perfect choice whose writing and drawing style perfectly fit the character. London managed a perfect synthesis of Popeye’s three previous comic strip artists–Segar, Sagendorff, and Bela Zaboly. He managed this while still retaining his own unique style.

This book collects the first three years of London’s Popeye daily strips, with three strips per page and beautiful, crisp production. We get to see the strip evolve from London’s early days creating a two panel gag a day strip to the serial adventure strip that his version eventually evolved into. Early on, it’s strange seeing a traditional looking Popeye dealing with sushi, digital watches, and punk rockers. As London’s tenure progresses we are reintroduced to classic characters like Poopdeck Pappy, The Sea Hag, and Sir Pomeroy.

Sutra Oyl, who was definitely a Bobby London creation
Sutra Oyl, who was definitely a Bobby London creation

In addition to bringing back the idea of continued storylines, London added his own flourishes with more topical references and new characters like Olive Oyl’s very sexy younger cousin, Sutra Oyl, who has a crush on Popeye.

The end result was a completely revitalized comic strip which was not seen by that many people because by the 1980’s most daily newspapers, in their infinite wisdom, started dropping classic comic strips like Popeye, Dick Tracy, and The Phantom in favor of “more contemporary” and much cheaper cartoons like “Pluggers.”

We'll have to wait until Volume Two for the stories that got London removed from the strip
We’ll have to wait until Volume Two for the stories that got London removed from the strip

London’s tenure on Popeye was cut short due to a controversy over strips which were completely misinterpreted. That controversy is only hinted at in this book and I imagine it will be fully addressed in Volume 2, which will collect the remainder of London’s strips from that era. Essentially, the controversy was over a series of strips where Popeye implored Olive Oyl to get rid of a defective cooker she bought from the Home Shopping Network. Their conversation was overheard by a nosy neighbor who assumed they were talking about a baby. The word “abortion” was never used in the comic strip, but rabid pro-lifers latched onto the controversy and protested, getting London booted off what was his dream job.

Like I said, that controversy is only hinted at in the introduction to these strips. What we have here are nearly a thousand daily comic strips starring Popeye, which were originally published from 1986 to 1989. Any fan of great cartooning must have this book. If you liked “Calvin and Hobbes,” you will like this book. If you liked Bobby London’s other work, you have to own this book. And if you call yourself a fan of Popeye, you must have a copy of this book.

This is a major return to form for Popeye The Sailor Man and Thimble Theatre. Bobby London, for a few short years, revived a classic American comic strip and infused it with an energy and vitality that had not been seen since its creator E.C. Segar passed away fifty years earlier. Popeye by Bobby London may well be the comic strip reprint book of the year.