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Bringing Popeye back

Comic-book publishers have always been archivally minded, but they’re getting more and more so lately. Capitalizing on the buzz around graphic novels and cartooning, some houses are putting together lovingly packaged multi-volume collections of yesteryear’s classic comic strips. The prime example is Fantagraphics’ mammoth Complete Peanuts undertaking, which kicked off in 2004 and is releasing two books per year, leading up to an eventual total of 25 volumes. But as Sam Macklin reminds us in a Geist-by-way-of-Tyee survey piece, other strips are getting similar treatment, including Dennis the Menace (though Macklin doesn’t mention that one), Krazy and Ignatz, Gasoline Alley, and Moomin. The latter two are being collected in book form by the Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly.

And then there’s Popeye. Most of us probably associate the spinach-munching sailor more with cartoons than with line drawings, but he was actually born in the pages of E.C. Segar’s 1920s strip Thimble Theatre. Those early appearances have now been collected in another Fantagraphics project, titled (of course) Popeye Volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam.” As Macklin writes:

Amazingly, the equally resilient Popeye didn’t appear until 1929, by which time Thimble Theatre was already a decade into its run (and Popeye does not enter this particular volume until page 27). It’s easy to see why the character’s mixture of maritime dialect, big-hearted sensitivity and righteous fisticuffs quickly captured the hearts of Depression-era readers. Popeye came to dominate the strip in no time, and the rest, as they say, is history.