Popeye #1 – Roger Langridge (w) Bruce Ozella (a)
Editor Craig Yoe’s affection for classic comics is well-documented by the slew of reprints that he’s put his name to over the years. Most of them, however, have been slapdash affairs, marred by low production values, poor research and a lack of quality control. So, it was an air of trepidation that greeted his announcement that he would be bringing back Popeye as an ongoing comic series. It was obvious that Yoe respected the character, but whether he would be able to recapture the magic of E.C. Segar or Bud Sagendorf was another matter.
It was with great relief, then, that Roger Langridge was announced as the series’ writer — whose pedigree in reviving The Muppet Show for comics made him perfect for the project — along with newcomer Bruce Ozella, whose mimicry of Segar’s classic style is uncanny. Throw in a cover by acclaimed cartoonist (and writer of the Popeye movie) Jules Feiffer, and this has all the makings of a runaway success.
The first issue does not disappoint. Langridge’s writing is almost unrecognizable, so perfectly does he capture the cadence and quirks of Segar’s dialogue, and the seafaring storyline could easily have been wrenched from the original strips. He draws from the classic cast of characters, bringing in Popeye, Olive Oyl, her crackpot brother Castor, Wimpy, The Jeep and Haggy the Sea-Witch. In the only concession to modern readers and the folk-memory of the character, the villain of the piece is Bluto who, despite his renown as Popeye’s nemesis, only appeared once in Segar’s comics. A joke is even made at the expense of the ongoing Bluto/Brutus confusion with his name.
Structurally, it’s always strange when newspaper strips are turned into full comicbooks — the recent Peanuts series from Boom! is a prime example of the aesthetic dissonance of seeing the poetry of that strip turned into a 22-page story. That’s somewhat avoided here, with Langridge and Ozella laying out and structuring each page like a Sunday strip. Much like Tintin, each page has a beginning, a middle and ends on a cliffhanger or a punchline, and narratively it feels much like reading a collection of Sundays, rather than a “proper” comic. As such, much of the relentlessness of Segar’s Popeye is retained, with every page containing a gag, some action and yet another problem for our heroes to escape from.
If there’s any flaw to this, it’s that it’s a little too beholden to Segar, and not enough room is given to Langridge and Ozella to place their own imprint on the character. There are flashes of Langridge — particularly in Wimpy’s song that he sings to himself; the rhyming is unmistakable — but for the most part, it feels like the most faithful tribute act in comics. It would seem that this is Yoe’s stewardship that has demanded this slavish level of accuracy — he reportedly turned-down Tom Neely for the art duties due to being too “off-model” (although it appears this has been redressed and Neely will provide art for upcoming issues) — and has turned the creators into janitors for the property. It’s understandable that he wants to retain the purity of the strip, but Langridge is too strong a talent to be confined like this.
Yet, the writer’s affection for the character’s history is clear, so perhaps the dedication to Segar is intentional on his part. There’s even a fitting tribute to Bill Blackbeard — the editor responsible for saving Popeye, and countless other newspaper cartoons, from obscurity through his obsessive collecting of tearsheets, and who tragically died last year — it would be nice to think that in some other reality, Blackbeard really is living up to his name and sailing boats with Popeye.
How the series progresses and develops will be interesting to see, especially with Neely’s upcoming involvement. If the editorial reins are loosened enough, this could be a real renaissance for the character.
-- Gavin Lees