Monday, December 04, 2006

Graphic Lit: Popeye and Dick Tracy

“Popeye Vol. 1: I Yam What I Yam”
Fantagraphics, 200 pages, $29.95. 
“The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Vol. 1: 1931-1933”
IDW Publishing, 352 pages, $29.99. 

The past few years have been pretty good ones for fans of the funnies, as classic comic strips like “Peanuts,” “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Gasoline Alley” have been collected in lavish and lovingly detailed volumes.

Now, two seminal strips have recently been added to the fore: Popeye with “Popeye Vol. 1: I Yam What I Yam,” and Dick Tracy with “The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Vol. 1.”

Both characters are iconic figures that still resonate today. Unfortunately, most folks are unaware of just how good the source material is.

That sailor man

In the annals of American humor, Popeye ranks up there with Mark Twain and the Marx Brothers.

That statement may surprise those readers whose opinion of the squinty-eyed sailor is based solely on the fitfully funny animated cartoons, which would be most of you.

The truth is the strip, at least in the hands of its creator, E.C. Segar, is much smarter, funnier and more delightful than those old three-minute cartoons could ever hope to be.

Whereas on screen Popeye fought a continuous and increasingly dull battle with Bluto over Olive Oyl, on the newspaper page Popeye battled a variety of foes, often without the help of spinach, and rarely in an attempt to woo Ms. Oyl.

Bluto himself is nonexistent for most of the strip’s run. He didn’t show up until much later and disappeared shortly after having his clock cleaned.

While the cartoon Popeye mostly stayed at home, Segar’s character traveled to strange lands, solved mysteries, investigated the supernatural and even became king of a small nation at one point.

And while the cartoons mainly focused on the Popeye/Olive/Bluto troika, the strip had a rich and varied cast that included Wimpy, the Sea Hag, George Geezil and more.

Fantagraphics (which initially collected the strip back in the 1980s) spared no expense in producing this oversize volume (the first of six), and their hard work paid off. This book is gorgeous, featuring a die-cut front cover and an introduction by Jules Feiffer.

Bursting with verbal play, over-the-top slapstick and character-derived humor, Segar’s Popeye is unlike any strip of its time or since. If you’ve never read it you’re missing one of the great works of the past century. It’s that good.

Dick Tracy

Chester Gould was a struggling cartoonist in 1931 when, fed up with the rampant crime in his home city of Chicago, he decided to start a strip about a no-nonsense police detective. The rest is history.

Well, not quite. It took Gould a number of years before the strip settled into the stylized, expressionist and intensely violent work we know today. Deformed villains like The Brow and Flattop didn’t make their way into the strip until the late ¤’30s, and inventions like the 2-Way Wrist Radio didn’t show up until after the war.

What’s surprising then, is how good the early strips collected in this initial volume are. While Tracy may be going up against mundane (in comparison) thieves and blackmailers, these early comics crackle with sharp dialogue and nail-biting plots.

For the most part, IDW did an excellent job publishing this material, though the initial design and format apes that of the best-selling Peanuts volumes a little too closely and not necessarily to the strip’s benefit.

The later Sunday strips, for example, suffer being printed at a considerably smaller size than the dailies. Perhaps future volumes could spread the Sunday strips over two pages, since Gould’s art deserves to be printed as large as possible.

That being said, most of the strips here look beautiful — crisp and sharp — and show off Gould’s development as an artist. Auxiliary material like an interview with Gould sweeten the pot considerably.

It will take a couple of volumes before the strip reaches its zenith, and I hope readers are willing to maintain their interest and keep buying these books. As good as this material is, the best is yet to come.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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