Friday, August 4, 2017


"Like my vacuum cleaner with the hot rod flames painted on it, or the guy feeding jackets to a large steak knife."

In the early 1970s, King Features (via Charlton Comics) introduced their iconic sailor character Popeye to the general workforce in a series of fifteen free comics aimed at teaching kids about careers. I started collecting these books a few years back (around the same time that I wrote about two of them on the blog, lo these many moons ago), idly as copies presented themselves cheaply online.

"...and THAT'S the trap of COMFORT!"
At first, I collected them as an oddity, but – well, to be fair, I’m still collecting them as an oddity. But the original oddity was merely the sight of removing Popeye from his familiar surroundings and portraying him as a wandering ghost among busy people going about their daily lives. Plus, the team of Joe Gill and George Wildman, despite having shepherded Popeye through his Charlton Comics days, had never to my understanding been celebrated by Popeye fandom (of which I admit to knowing very little; for me, for better or worse, Popeye began and ended with E.C.Segar). I was curious about how they’d handle the property in a wildly off-model universe where fights were verboten and Popeye spoke with the elocution of a Shakespearian actor.

The thing is, the more I read these books – painfully, inching word to word in dense and unlovely prose which had never been intended to be enjoyed – the more I started uncovering an overarching motif to the entire enterprise. Or, at the very least, it started to seem familiar. A surprisingly eloquent Popeye, Swee’pea in tow, narrating his impossible navigation through the tedium of common labor, towards an ambiguous ending -- devoid of catharsis, epiphany or context – spoken in a tone-poem of statistical facts and figures gathered by the United States Bureau of Gettin’ Goddamn Paid.

With every additional instance of Popeye elucidating a marketplace of unremarkable domesticity forever looping in dignity-eroding futility, I came to realize; this is an art film. It’s like if Robert Altman had passed on directing Popeye so they handed it off to Jacques Tati. Only sadder.

Never mind a budget, man, call the cops!

I ask you to take, for instance, Popeye and Consumer and Homemaking Careers, in which Popeye – perhaps inadvertently – dissembles the suburban dystopia and the behemoth of a market which is harnessed solely to maintain it in its permanent state of dizzying entropy. Also he shows you how to be a dietitian!

The arc of these comics does tend to go from white collar to blue collar, leaving the broom-shoving jobs for the end. In this case, however, Popeye must set up the joyless, interminable cycle of American home life. “This family and millions of others have to be supplied with food, clothing and furnishings for their home,” he unlispfully explains, showing Swee’pea an ouroboros of vans, trucks and laborers helplessly looping around the nests of their patrons. I think they meant to make it look chummy and cooperative, but it seems like an indictment.

Popeye’s narrative is central to the book, such as it is. As he wanders from job to job, you begin to wonder what Popeye’s role in this world must be. Here he associates with Dietitians, there he’s feted by Interior Designers, Home Economists and Fashion Designers sing his praises. But as he descends from those lofty positions, he enters the backbreaking world of upholsterers, domestic servants and physical laborers. And yet, there is still no role for Popeye. Popeye the Sad Clown. Popeye the Reflection of Man. No rest, brave sailor, but the rest of the grave, that your tears will hollow from gallows soil. Get to it.

As the mystery of Popeye’s place in this world deepens, the readers are whisked off to a secondary tale, told almost entirely in silence, akin to the sudden aside undertaken in Moby Dick when the Town Ho chapter steps up. AND SPEAKING OF THE TOWN HO how do I do the strikethrough tag, I forget.

There’s a strange aside involving a dark-haired young woman who is apparently making a journey up the career ladder as a domestic servant. Nameless and mute, she nonetheless picks up a gig as a Kitchen Helper (no relation to “Minnie” or “Hamburger”). In short order – to suit her short skirt – she works her way up to Housemaid and then a flirty Nursemaid, getting it on with a cop right in front of her infant ward. Well, I exaggerated there. Still, this all takes place as Popeye rambles on about the specifics of her position, the education requirements, the general rate of job satisfaction and opportunities for advancement. It’s like Himmel Uber Berlin here.

Both of these panels look like the scenes in porn films before the action starts.

As we wrap up and leave the Maid Ho behind, we continue Popeye’s cheery, informative jaunt down the job ladder. As he approaches an office building, we see him comfortably kipping in a lawn chair in a furnace room, eating lunch off an oil barrel, and dusting lamps. Yet, just as you think Popeye has left the ocean and its adventures behind for a cellar bunk under the water pipes, we catch up with him on his delivery route.

Popeye delivers! Does he ever! It’s milk in the morning and drycleaning in the afternoon, but at least it’s portrayed happily. His happy van jaunts into the sunset! He shares the road with merry bread trucks and such. It’s all worked out, it’s a fine ending, at least Popeye has a job which keeps him in the outdoors and moving merrily along. How sad if the high-seas-sailing hero were confined to a dank basement all day? What a wry twist that would be! Well, I’ll just close the book and take a casual glance at the back cover which will certainly not derail my happy speculation …

Maybe this is just where he keeps that garbage can they mention in the song...


wordsmith said...

1. "Dietitian" is comprised of the words "die" and "titian".
2. The vacuum is labeled; the microscope isn't.
3. 600 + 120 + 180 + 10 = 910, not 810. Draw your own conclusion.

neofishboy said...

I'm not sure which is the greater sin: Working out a math problem in pen on the cover of a comic book, or forgetting to carry the 1.

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