Part II: The Ghost of Merlock Jones
Compared to those in comics, animated shape-shifters are deficiently mysterious: not concerning their roles in the narrative, but the way in which they change and the effect of the change upon the reading experience. Rather than changing with the help of fluid motion, comics shape-shifters have to pass through gutter. If they were to undergo a change within one panel, they run the risk of muddling the action with what could be interpreted as two separate characters, or the sense of time may simply disappear. The comics gutter actually gives shape-shifters more space, specifically, blank space, negative space, in which they do nebulous, invisible tricks.
Again, as with “Duck Amuck,” we’re reading the following example by transplanting ourselves into the world/medium of the character rather than wrenching him into our own. The laws of cartoon physics (if there are any at all) are frighteningly different from our own, and if we insist on placing a cartoon character in 4-D, conforming to the law of gravity, or the conservation of mass, their abilities and personalities become negligible and boring, respectively.
Merlock Jones first appeared in E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre in June 1932, preceding the start of a new Popeye adventure called “The Eighth Sea.” Castor Oyl, Popeye’s frequent cohort and partner with whom he founded a detective agency in a previous story, fears Popeye will be hurt or killed while visiting the dangerous hide out of Woo Fong, keeper of the precious black parrot that holds the secret to a great treasure. Castor tasks Merlock Jones, a master of disguise, with tailing Popeye and later, once Popeye and his crew are set to sail, with stowing away and guarding the worthless King Blozo. “Merlock Jones,” Castor says giving the sleuth his orders. Merlock, it should be known, has already taken several guises in three daily strips’ time. “...Won’t you let me see your real face?” Merlock replies: “No living man hath seen my pan—not even myself.”
Previously, when he trails Popeye on the way to Woo Fong’s dockside hideout, Merlock’s shape-shifting is drawn as a flurry of hands and motion lines and takes up one panel of space per change. The base form is in the panel preceding the change, the new one following. But when he aims to stow away, the change is quite spectral. We never see Merlock stowing away. It happens in the gutters, so to speak, and in fact the reader, because an entire month passes between Merlock receiving his orders and reappearing aboard Popeye’s ship, could wonder whether Segar redacted Merlock from the adventure entirely. If we re-read the “The Eighth Sea,” returning to this point of absence it’s clear here is where Merlock initially shape-shifts, and that it is indeed absence the non-shape he assumes. Merlock, if our attention is on his whereabouts at the beginning of “The Eighth Sea,” haunts the strip until he reappears a month later.* One week after Merlock receives his orders from Castor, a stow-away appears aboard Popeye’s ship: an old granny named Missus Snoodenbocker who claims to have mistook Popeye’s boat for a ferry. Now, for all the reader knows, and in fact what makes the most sense to believe, is that Missus Snoodenbocker is none other than Merlock Jones. Even though we don’t see it, we know Merlock stowed away, and based on past experience we know he can take whatever shape he chooses. That Missus Snoodenbocker turns out not to be Merlock is less important than that for an entire month her character is possessed by Merlock Jones, and it isn’t until he reappears that she regains her identity: her “self,” effectively. Any other member of the cast would be ill equipped for a haunting such as this. It is the privilege of the shape-shifter.
Besides his ghastly non-presence, his idea-shape that possesses Missus Snoodenbocker, Merlock’s absence does have a concrete representation: the strip-shaped (or page-shaped depending on the format) latticework of the comics gutter. This is the shape that symbolizes the ghostly nature of the shape-shifter that Merlock taps into for an entire month of story. It is a symbol, like the capricious, frenetic illustrator in “Duck Amuck,” of the possibility inherent in the white page. And a shape-shifter, again, because of its kinship with the basic creative process in comics and cartoons, is an accessible tool to help recognize the ethereal properties of cartoons and comics.
-- Ian Burns
*The Fantagraphics collection, Popeye Vol.3, “Let’s You and Him Fight!” provided the structure for Merlock’s absence and return. Specifically: They have created a chapter heading titled “Presenting: Merlock Jones.”