First announced at 2011’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, E.C. Segar’s spinach-chomping Sailor Man, Popeye returns to comics in April, and IDW Publishing has revealed exclusively to CBR News that one of comics’ most acclaimed humor cartoonists will be at the helm. Roger Langridge, writer of “Thor: The Mighty Avenger” and writer/artist of “The Muppet Show Comic Book” and the creator-owned series “Snarked!,” will pen the ongoing “Popeye” series, with newcomer Bruce Ozella on art.
Debuting in the newspaper strip “Thimble Theatre” in 1929, Popeye’s offbeat appeal soon led the character to a leading role in the then-ten year old comic. Soon, the strip was billed as “Thimble Theatre Starring Popeye” and, finally, just “Popeye.” “Thimble Theatre” became one of King Features’ most popular strips throughout the 1930s, continuing after Segar’s death in 1939 under the hand of several different artists until Segar’s former assistant Bud Sagendorf took the reins in 1959, continuing the daily strip until 1986 and the Sunday until his own death in 1994. Since then, Hy Eisman has helmed the Sunday strips, while the daily has featured reprints of Sagendorf’s material since 1992. Popeye has also enjoyed success in comic books throughout the decades, with Dell launching a series in 1948 that was later continued by Gold Key, King Features and other publishers before wrapping up in the mid-1980s. In 1999, a publisher called Ocean released the one-shot “Wedding of Popeye and Olive,” written by Peter David and drawn by Dave Garcia.
With the new series pulling into the dock in April, Comic Book Resources spoke with Roger Langridge about his view of the character, his approach to the series, and what makes a good “Popeye” comic.
“I was aware of the character from a very early age from the animated cartoons, which used to be on TV when I was a lad. But I became a really ardent fan after reading the book ‘All In Color For A Dime’ when I was about 10 years old; there was a chapter in there about Popeye and ‘Thimble Theatre’ by Bill Blackbeard, which was a kind of awakening for me in terms of the rich history of the character, and of the comic strip medium generally,” Langridge told CBR. “For a couple of years, I was a total Popeye obsessive. It helped that the Robert Altman film put the character in the pop culture spotlight a year or two later, so there was quite a bit of stuff around for me to absorb, including a Segar reprint or two (and the superior quality of Segar’s work wasn’t lost on me, even at that age). When Fantagraphics started collecting the original Segar strips in the 1980s, I devoured them all. By that point, I guess I was pretty much hooked for life.”
Popeye first appeared in 1929 as a minor character in “Thimble Theatre,” took over the strip and has maintained a level of recognition and popularity to the present day. Langridge attributes the Sailor Man’s enduring appeal to a unique personality and appearance. “I think it’s partly his total lack of pretension, partly his willingness to take a stand, partly his sheer bizarreness — how many other pop culture icons can be said to be ugly, one-eyed, tattooed, with multiple speech impediments and a vegetable fetish? Whatever else you say about Popeye, you have to admit he stands out in a crowd,” the writer said. “In many ways, he’s an unlikely cartoon star. I mean, he’s certainly not cute in any sense of the word! But I suspect that’s part of his appeal — you can still like Popeye after you feel you’ve outgrown other, cuter characters.”
Asked about his own take on Popeye — what makes him tick, in what types of stories he shines — Langridge described a straightforward guy who’s not afraid to throw a punch. “To me, Popeye is someone who thinks in straight lines. Mentally, he’s not complicated. This is right, this is wrong; we need to achieve this, so let’s just go and do it in the most direct way possible,” Langridge said. “He’s not the sort of character who experiences a lot of doubt; on the rare occasions when he does, it’s a real crisis for him. The best Popeye stories generally give him something to feel righteously angry about — that can be an external threat or an emotional one, because he’s quite thin-skinned, emotionally. And, of course, it helps if he’s got an excuse to clobber somebody at some point!”
Langridge, an artist as well as a writer who was responsible for full cartooning duties for BOOM! Studios’ “The Muppet Show Comic Book” for most of its run, said that he is looking forward to the “Popeye” series in part because E.C. Segar had a strong impact on his own work. Langridge was drawn, he said, to “the directness of his style.” “There’s a clear link between Segar’s intentions and the lines he lays down which seems clear and uncomplicated, which I find enormously appealing,” he said. “But working in tension with that clarity of intent is a humanity as well — the lines aren’t perfect, especially when the action heats up and the figures become a blur of broken, frenetic, wobbly lines. It’s a combination that can’t help but draw you in.
“As for his writing, the big thing is that Segar’s work is so incredibly funny. A lot of that is carried by the artwork — Segar could draw characters like Oscar, who were just plain funny to look at without saying a word — but his use of language is a huge part of that as well.”
While Popeye can get himself into some unlikely situations, Langridge does not see him as a mischief-maker, “at least not in an intentional way.” “When Popeye causes a ruckus, one of the funniest parts of it is the fact that he often doesn’t have the slightest idea that he’s doing something controversial,” Langridge noted. “For example, if he took off his pants at a tea dance because he was hot, it would be mischievous if he’d done it with the intention of causing offense, but Popeye isn’t wired like that — he’d genuinely wonder what all the fuss was about (‘I’m hot, ain’t I?’). I like that about him — that he thinks what he’s doing is logical and reasonable even if it’s totally outlandish. The gap between Popeye’s perception of the world and the reality is one of the great sources of comedy in the strip. Great fun to play with as a writer!”
In portraying the comically out-of-touch protagonist, some of Segar’s “Popeye” strips could be quite dark in their humor. Langridge said that there would be a bit of this in the new series, as well. “I’m hoping to hit roughly the same sort of tone as Segar, which means it will occasionally get dark — the comedy will occasionally be quite black (especially where Wimpy’s relationship with the animal kingdom is involved!), and there will be spooky moments,” he said. “But most of the time, I’ll be aiming straight for the funny bone. I’m trying to take the stories somewhere different each time — we’ve got ocean voyages, desert islands, dark slum neighborhoods and boxing rings, as well as the domestic setting we usually see in the strip these days. Hopefully, we’ll be able to vary the tone according to the circumstances.”
With Popeye’s origins in the newspaper funnypages and Langridge’s talent for writing both issue-length adventures (“Thor: The Mighty Avenger” and his current creator-owned “Snarked!”) and shorter, comedy sketch-style stories (“Muppet Show”), CBR asked him how the “Popeye” series would be presented. “It’ll be a mix. Of the ones I’ve written, we’ve got a couple of full-length issues and a couple with two stories, a longer adventure at the front and a short comedy backup story,” he said. “I think most Popeye fans prefer the longer adventures, but I wanted to play with some of Segar’s other toys, like Professor Wotasnozzle, as well — so this was a way of having my cake and eating it. I’ve deliberately made each story quite dense — eight panels per page is the norm — to try and evoke that Segar feeling. We’re not going the whole Segar route of twenty-four panel pages(!), but I felt a bit of density was desirable. It seems to be a good rhythm for the stories so far, allowing us to pack a lot of plot and gags into every issue.”
Langridge is working with newcomer artist Bruce Ozella for the series, an artist whose appeal once again rests in evoking the classic Popeye strips of yore. Asked what Ozella’s style brings to a series like “Popeye,” Langridge said simply, “You mean apart from his uncanny ability to draw like E. C. Segar? I’m not sure you need anything else!”
In continuing the pattern from much of Langridge’s previous work, each issue of “Popeye” will be a self-contained story rather than expanding into multi-issue arcs. “We all felt that was the best way to go, at least to begin with. In the first four issues, we’ve got the Sea Hag, Bluto, the return of Willy Wormwood (‘Thimble Theatre’s’ original baddie, from 1919 — this will be the first time he’s come up against Popeye), a fiendish anti-Wimpy plot by George W. Geezil, and other heavies and ne’er-do-wells. (As I say, the stories will be pretty packed!),” Langridge told CBR. “We’ve deliberately avoided having Bluto as the only major villain like he is in the cartoons (Segar only ever used him once), so he’s not in every issue — but he’s definitely around!”
Given that Popeye first appeared in print more than 80 years ago — another era, by any standard — fans may wonder whether IDW’s take on the character will be a modern update, acknowledge that time has passed, or take some other approach. But Langridge reiterated that the new stories will have much the same feel as the originals, and that includes a sense of timelessness. “We’re being pretty non-specific with the period — partly because Segar’s work was like that, being set in a kind of timeless place; and partly because if we suddenly had the characters using cellphones (or whatever it might be), it would do more than just yank you out of the story, it would slap you vigorously around the head and leave you bleeding in an alley,” Langridge said. “It would just feel very, very wrong — very Not Popeye. So we’re keeping it vague.”
Similarly, there will be no radical leaps for the characters going into the ongoing “Popeye” series. “Things are pretty much as you would expect if you know your Segar — Popeye loves Olive, Olive loves Popeye in her own fickle way, Popeye is a devoted stepfather to Swee’Pea, Wimpy’s always looking for a free meal, etc. It ain’t broke, so we ain’t fixing it!” Langridge said. “Olive’s brother Castor and their parents, Cole and Nana Oyl, are a part of the mix too. (And you may spot Olive’s first boyfriend, Ham Gravy, at some point — if you keep your eyes open!) Other familiar faces will pop up as well — I’ve tried to get all of the regulars from the Segar years in there at some point, even if it’s only a cameo.”
Roger Langridge and Bruce Ozella’s “Popeye” debuts in April from IDW.