By Leroy Douresseaux
December 19, 2006 - 16:54
Designer: Jacob Covey
Editor: Kim Thompson with Eric Reynolds
Those old enough remember that in the 1980's Fantagraphics Books, under its "Nemo" magazine imprint, published two book series reprinting the run of Thimble Theatre comic strips that featured the strip's signature character, Popeye. Now, the company will reprint those Popeye comics again in a new six-volume hardcover series. Each volume will feature a run of B&W dailies and color Sundays under the same cover, whereas the earlier Popeye collections reprinted the dailies and Sundays each in their own series.
Although Thimble Theatre, the creation of E.C. (Elzie Crisler) Segar, began publication on December 19, 1919 (in the Evening Standard, a New York City paper), the character Popeye did appear in the strip until January 17, 1929. Popeye may have been intended to be an incidental guest character (according to comic strip historian Richard Marschall), but the public adored the character and he remained. It was Popeye who turned Thimble Theatre from an obscure newspaper strip to an American sensation, and Popeye would go on to gain his greatest fame as a star of animated cartoons.
Popeye Volume One (subtitled "I Yam What I Yam") begins with the September 10, 1928 episode of Thimble Theatre - four and half months before Popeye's first appearance. However, Popeye appeared right in the middle of a long, involved, multi-chapter adventure that begins when Castor Oyl ( Olive Oyl's brother) comes into possession of a magical Whiffle Hen - a rare African bird highly sought after by many nefarious characters. It would be disconcerting to begin with the very episode in which he first appears rather than with the beginning of the storyline in which he first appears.
The rear section of the book also holds about a year's worth of Popeye color Sunday strips. That section begins with the March 2, 1930 Sunday episode, which was Popeye's first appearance in a Sunday Thimble Theatre.
This book's production values suggest a book that should cost more than $29.95. At a size of 10.5" x 12.5," it is a sturdy hardcover with crisp printing on thick paper. In fact, the reproduction of the B&W doesn't lose the intricate and delicate pen work of Segar's B&W art. Book design wunderkind, Jacob Covey gives Popeye Volume One a catchy, colorful vibe that attracts the eye the way a bouncy rhythm captures the ear's attention.
As for the content of the strips: Segar was indeed brilliant, and Thimble Theatre wasn't one thing, but was the sum of many genres and visual cues borrowed from other storytelling mediums. Segar took Thimble Theatre, basically a romantic adventure strip and decorated it with a variety of frostings, fillings, and decorations. It was like Marx Brothers comedy and silent movies, but mixed with generous portions of the kind of surrealism found in Lewis Carroll and also the social satire of Mark Twain. It's a Jazz Age strip jiggy with conflicting characters and clashing motivations
Segar's work was a unique experience then and now, but he made Thimble Theatre enjoyable for any person who could pick up a newspaper and at least read the comics. This new reprint series is essential for the library of those who love the classic American comic strip.