I have always wished that I liked “Popeye” more than I do. I just finished the second to last volume of the collection of Segar’s classic strip and while I can appreciate it as an inspiration for a lot of other work I admire – “Li’l Abner” and Carl Barks’ Duck stories – I have always been as entertained by it as I’d like to be.
However, I am thoroughly entertained by Segar’s Sunday strips. In the dailies Segar is constrained by the task of coming up with a gag for each strip, which seems to hinder the longer narratives. However, in the Sunday panels Segar was afforded the opportunity to create a longer set-up for his punchlines, and of course in the thirties he had plenty more room to do so than today’s comic strip artists have to work with.
I especially enjoy the Sundays featuring Wimpy, my favorite of the “Popeye” cast and the true scoundrel of the strip. One of the ways that Segar was able to break away from the conventions of the screwball strip was to flesh out his characters and give them personalities – Popeye, for one was always looking for a fight yet possessed a true set of morals that always had him doing the right thing and making amends when he failed to do so.
Wimpy, along with providing some of the classic tag lines from the strip, is an ever hungry schemer always using his charm and wiles to bilk people out of their food and money. Essentially any of the Sunday strips featuring Wimpy features the same basic plot – Wimpy sees an opportunity to get money or food and outwits his prey by the end of the last panel, usually without his target knowing that they’ve been duped.
In the twenty panels in this strip, we see a classic example of Wimpy’s ability to outwit. Popeye tells Olive Oyl that he’s going duck hunting in the first panel; in the second panel Wimpy, who always seems to appear out of nowhere – sees an opportunity to get a duck (his favorite after hamburgers – without actually doing much work at all. Segar never shows us Wimpy realizing these opportunities – humorously, he just appears. Notice too that throughout Wimpy has the same nonchalant, hands behind his back posture and expressionless face – one of little remorse or greed. It’s just part of his nature. And given the cramped nature of the small panels Segar uses just the right amount of detail to show where the characters are.
In a classic Wimpy manipulation, he gets Popeye to feel bad about shooting one of the birds, both by making Popeye feel awful and showing sympathy for the duck Popeye has just shot. The panel with Wimpy calling him a “murderer” is set at the end of the second line to emphasize the direction Segar will pursue leading up to the final gag.
Popeye then returns to Olive Oyl and claims that he will no longer be shooting ducks. This change of scene allows the gag that follows – we know Popeye is completely out of the picture, has no clue that Wimpy has pulled a fast one, and in the last two panels we see Wimpy digging up the bird (humorously like a dog) and then roasting it. We know that he will eventually eat it, and Segar economically doesn’t show us that. There is no slobber, no excitement over eating. This is just who Wimpy is – one who hoodwinks others to satisfy his gluttony.
And as always part of the fun of this type of strip is that we know what will happen with Wimpy but we don’t know exactly how Segar will get us there. The Wimpy strips that made me chuckle out loud and I look forward to seeing more of them in the next volume.