Thimble Theatre presents Popeye: Volume 1 1986-1989
by Bobby London
IDW Publishing, hardcover, $39.99
There are some bits of comic strip history to which we fans all bow, but few of us have ever been lucky enough to actually experience firsthand. For instance, the near-legendary science fiction Connie stories from the late 1930s; scarce as all get out in the original tearsheets, and reprint books have barely scratched the surface. Yet we speak of those sequences in hushed tones.
To me, one of the most important of those ‘white whale’ classics is the stint by Bobby London on Thimble Theatre. Popeye is, of course, a comic strip legend initially set on his course by the genius of E.C. Segar. So strong was the strip and the cast of characters that decades of other cartoonists at the helm did not do irreparable damage to the franchise. What did happen, though, was that Thimble Theatre, at least since the 1970s, was little more than a legal requirement for a set of licensed characters to maintain their copyrights.
Enter Bobby London, underground cartoonist, member of the infamous Air Pirates, National Lampoon and Playboy contributor. His work was not only raunchy and anti-establishment, as one would expect from those credentials, but also clearly lovingly devoted to classic comic strips from the early decades of the century.
When London, amazingly enough, snagged the gig of drawing the daily Popeye strips in 1986, the comics world was simultaneously flabbergasted, intrigued, scared, and skeptical. It seemed like King Features was going out on a very thin limb indeed. Would London behave himself, or would we find Popeye and Olive bumping uglies in our Monday morning paper (those rare few of us who actually still had Thimble Theatre appearing there, I should say).
It turned out that London not only behaved himself (for the most part), but that his love of classic comics made him take this gig seriously. After a short stint of daily gags, London did the seemingly impossible — he began writing long continuities that played out in increments of two tiny panels per day.
Since very few of us actually got to see these strips when they originally ran, we who were interested mostly got the news of London’s Popeye work through the fan network. We knew that he resurrected the daily stories, but very few of us actually got to see them. We heard that they were good, but that was all second-hand.
Therefore, I’m thrilled that IDW has seen fit to finally let us judge firsthand. Having just finished volume 1, I can say that I am amazed and impressed. While it is of course impossible to tell Segar-quality stories at the rate of two panels per day, London did give 100% of his considerable genius in adapting the microscopic format to telling surprisingly intriguing, funny stories.
Because it is London, they’re not just silly stories, either. They weave in messages about pollution, junk food, war in the Middle East, and other modern issues. Thankfully, Popeye is not stuck in some weirdly behind-the-times world that many comic strip characters are, like Jiggs running around in a top hat in the 1980s.
Do yourself a favor and check out Bobby London’s Popeye, if only to be amazed at what London could accomplish in such a tiny space (did I forget to mention that the art is superb, too?). I’m certainly looking forward to Volume 2 of this series, in which we’ll presumably get to 1992, and see London meet his unfortunate Waterloo.