Thimble Theatre: The Pre-Popeye Comics of E.C. Segar

Christmas came early with the welcome arrival of this new tome from Peter Maresca’s Sunday Press, an important and joyous addition to the comics canon. One of comics’ greatest storytellers, Elzie Crisler Segar created a thoroughly American icon with the addition of the Spooneristic, squinty Popeye the Sailor. Popeye’s 1929 entrance in the daily Thimble Theatre marked a literal sea change in a decade-old strip.

In its first tenyears, Segar’s strip focused on the risible relationship of Ham Gravy, his sweetie Olive Oyl, and her brother Castor. He mined sublime comedy from this trio, but Popeye gave the strip star quality. His quirky can-do mindset was manna for Depression-era America. When the Fleischer brothers’ animated studio began Popeye cartoons in 1933, the mumbly tar overtook Mickey Mouse as the nation’s top cartoon character.

Because most of these pre-Popeye strips haven’t been reprinted, only those with access to the chipping, crumbly original newspaper pages or the courage to squint at microfilm are familiar with much of this work. This 13” x 17” hardcover restores to public circulation an unsung epic of 20th-century cartooning. For two years, Segar took Castor Oyl (and, later, Ham Gravy) out West, in a rowdy, atmospheric narrative that, like its desert landscape, is full of peaks and valleys. Segar wasn’t alone in achieving these mega-stories. Rube Goldberg did a similarly long sequence in his contemporary Sunday strip Boob McNutt—another marathon episode that deserves reprinting.

This sequence marks Segar’s rise as a master fabulist. As Paul Tumey notes in his informative introduction (one of three top-flight pieces in this book), Segar entered comics as a lesser light, and had the good fortune to develop his populist art on the clock. From its inception in January 1925, six years after the daily strip’s debut, the Sunday Thimble Theatre was a down-to-earth, rough-edged physical comedy, shot through with its creator’s school-of-hard-knocks philosophy.

Segar’s is a violent world. Fisticuffs and domestic assaults abound in the strip and its topper, Sappo, which tells the story of a rocky marriage. The brutality of Segar’s world is a bit overwhelming, and you may often fear for the characters’ safety.

The flip-side of this comic conflagration is Segar’s love of humanity. Like John Stanley, Segar loved the shortcomings and near-sightedness of mankind. Segar dipped his cup into this bottomless well of humor and made us laugh at our own faults. We may think we’re Popeye, but we’re all Sappos at heart.

This super-sequence also marks Segar’s maturation as a cartoonist. With a literal tip of the hat to fellow King Features employee George Herriman, Segar tucks into these elaborate desert landscapes with mesmerizing results. We feel the sere parch of his settings—the blanket of dry heat, the blazing sun, crumbly rock, and sandy earth—and it puts us into the episodic world of this two-year stretch.

Castor Oyl dabbles in real estate, attempts to mine gold, puts on a traveling show, becomes a bandit, copes with a horse that only goes in reverse, and in the story’s richest sequences, finagles his way into a Native American tribe who have a private spring of “liquid joy”—mineral water that brings euphoria to the imbiber. Ham and Castor’s fumbling attempts to relate to/snow the Native Americans are amusing because we’re aware of their foolishness. The natives receive no condescension—they distrust these two white men on principle. The “laughing water” bridges their cultural difference for a moment:

In this sequence, as an extra in one crowd scene, Segar draws the only caricatured African-American I’ve seen in his work. No attention is drawn to this walk-on, but it’s a bit of a shock to see this small skeleton in Segar’s closet. His overall message is one of acceptance—dumb or wise, small or big, homely or handsome, all are welcome in his world.

Jeet Heer provides some welcome insight on George Herriman’s influence on Segar. The Thimble Theatre creator worshipped Herriman’s work, but strove not to imitate it. You’ll spot Segar’s amusing Inside Baseball-esque reference early in the storyline.

Michael Tisserand, author of the definitive Herriman biography Krazy, offers a piece on the Western landscape in early 20th-century newspaper comics. Reading it makes me long for a volume of James Swinnerton’s work. These historical sidecars enhance the reading experience of this long, dusty work, and puts Segar’s work in perspective with his peers.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed this unpredictable Western adventure, I missed the neurotic personality of Olive Oyl. She appears on the last strip in the book—familiar to those who have read the Fantagraphics reprints of the Popeye material, but seen in a new light as the close to this saga. In its original context, the finale is heartbreaking. And though Popeye had been a fixture of the unconnected daily storyline for over a year, this was his first appearance in the Sundays, and his is an alien presence.

Sappo, the topper strip for Thimble Theatre, shows another side of Segar, and it’s a bumpy ride. The physically violent relationship of pee-wee John Sappo and his towering wife, Myrtle, reads like Edward Albee by way of Harold Gray. This dysfunctional relationship, in which both parties are at fault, is sometimes quite funny—as in a long sequence where the Sappos take in a cartoonist boarder—but most often grave.

Sappo’s domestic narratives take dark turns. In one, Sappo pretends to commit suicide, and then attempts to woo his wife through a feeble disguise as a boarder in his former home. Elsewhere, Sappo leaves his wife after an irreconcilable argument, and she has no intentions of taking him back. Segar could get serious, as he did in some of his best 1930s narratives, but the slings and arrows of this domestic dramedy hit harder. Sappo is as compelling as the Western epic downstairs, but for different reasons.

An engrossing, essential chunk of comics, Thimble Theatre is alive and outspoken. Despite almost a century’s remove, these late 1920s narratives captivate us with their earthy humor, witty dialogue and delightful cartooning. Curating and presenting these overlooked and neglected works is Sunday Press’s stock in trade, and I hope they continue it for many years to come.


6 Responses to Thimble Theatre: The Pre-Popeye Comics of E.C. Segar

  1. Dick Blakely says:

    The timing of this article could not be more relevant. Why? Because there is a new animated Popeye Series on youtube that is a complete abomination to anything having to do with The Popeye Universe.
    Thank you for posting this reminder of the genius behind Popeye’s legacy.

  2. R. Haining says:

    I remember writing Gary Groth seven years ago and asking if Fantagraphics could publish the Pre-Popeye Segar material. He replied and said it was under consideration, but that the economic viability of such a project gave him pause. I’m hoping this project will be successful enough for Mr. Groth or another publisher to do a collection of the best of the daily strips.

  3. Yakov says:

    Never mind pre-Popeye. I’m desperate for a reissue of volume 5, “Wha’s a Jeep.” yikes so expensive used

  4. JeffConn says:

    In response to your point about the caricatured African-American, Segar did do a stereotype a couple of times in the pre-Popeye TT’s. But more often that not, the African-American (or Indian or Mexican) would get the better of our dimwitted heroes Castor, Ham, and Olive.

  5. Chris says:

    I’ve been reading through the Fantagraphics Popeye collections, and three volumes in, I’ve seen plenty of racist caricatures from Segar. Literally every black character that’s shown up so far has giant lips, coal black skin, and a little dog button nose. Check out the cook in the Sunday strip for September 24, 1933. That looks normal to you? How about the African natives of Dice Island in volume one?

    And frequently when they show up, non-white characters are abused for a joke. Check out the Sunday strip for October 22, 1933, where the punchline is a pidgin-speaking Asian cook haplessly getting the shit kicked out of him by Roughhouse. (And he’s also a racist caricature; bucktoothed, yellow-skinned, and slit-eyed just like every other depiction of an Asian character I’ve seen in these three volumes.) There’s also the running gag in the dailies where Popeye beats up the Indian that doesn’t say anything other than “Ugh” every time he sees him, on account of he’s afraid of being scalped. Yes, the joke is that Popeye is an idiot, but even so, it’s of a piece with the kind of abuse that Olive gets subjected to on a routine basis, some of which is really disturbing. Her degradation in the dailies at the beginning of volume two is as creepy as any of Robert Crumb’s fantasies.

    Segar was a great cartoonist, but I question your judgment in your rush to minimize the skeletons in his closet. His strips are “earthy” in a way that anybody who isn’t a white male might not appreciate.

  6. Nick C says:

    Am I mistaken, or are even the “white” characters caricatures also. Not excusing any of it. They all look goofy.

    I wonder if Segar (or his wife) had Indian in their family. He did a cartoon announcement of his daughter that seems to say they have many ethnic groups in their ancestry.

    He lists: Norwegian, Dutch, French, Spanish, Indian, etc.

    Hope he treated all people well in his personal life. It would be sad and disappointed if he didn’t. I don’t know.

    I’m looking forward to getting a copy of this book.

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