Thursday, April 17, 2008

POPEYE: Bobby London's Final Weeks

Every week I hear about cartoon controversies (Tom Spurgeon has Your Danish Cartoons Hangover Update a couple of times a week; the latest one is here). They have been going on since before the Muhammad cartoons.

Here's a little info. about the big Popeye controversy from 16 years ago with, so far as I've been able to tell via Web searches, the unseen final weeks of Bobby London's tenure on the strip. Maybe you've heard the story, maybe you haven't. Regardless, here is the background on what happened, as well as the strips themselves.

From 1986 until he was fired in 1992, Bobby London had a dream job: drawing POPEYE for King Features Syndicate. When asked if Segar was a seminal influence on him, London replied:

"Segar was, as far as my career, as far as making a decision to be a professional cartoonist, Segar was the seminal influence in my career. I've been drawing cartoons since I was four years old. I grew up as fascinated with the Max Fleischer Popeye because I used to get beat up by big, fat kids all the time, so naturally I sort of gravitated to Popeye because he kind of took care of all the fictitious bullies in my head. But as I got a little older, as I reached junior high school age, I stumbled upon the legendary E.C. Segar version, which I had heard about from my dad, when he would talk to me about it, and, uh, he regaled great stories of Olive Oyl's mysterious little brother, Castor Oyl, and...the Sea Hag and a lot of other characters, so when I actually saw these old strips, I was mesmerized, and it joined the ranks of some of my other favorite old-time strips that I admired at the time, like Mutt and Jeff, and Barney Google, but I would chance to say that it really took front and center in my imagination."

-- from S.C. Ringgenberg's 1992 interview with Bobby London at the Comic Art & Grafix Gallery

Years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Bobby London. We got together a couple of times, when he lived in NYC. I heard his story of how this was his ultimate gig, to follow in the footsteps of Popeye's creator. He was picked to continue the strip by Bill Yates, who had learned cartooning via a correspondence course with E.C. Segar himself!

In 1992, London, who, at that point, was both writing and drawing the strip for six years, introduced a Home Shopping Club storyline for Olive Oyl. Thus begins the below controversial and, so far as I understand, final three weeks of the Popeye strip under London's direction. They're scanned from copies of proofsheets, so the quality is not great.

Popeye is copyright King Features and is currently drawn by the one and only Hy Eisman.




There you have it. Please make up your own mind.

12 comments:

Dan Beyer said...

Interesting. I have cartoons more "firable" than this. But I will say topics like abortion and showing a baby, albeit a "toy", thrown in the garbage didn't feel right in a Popeye strip. Should London have been fired? No. The editors could have come up with a better solution.

Jason Michelitch said...

Those strips are hilarious. The syndicate should have had a spine.

That said, it does hit the triumverate for getting fired from a job: negative portrayal of clergy, reference to a hot-button issue (abortion/dumpster babies), and using the name of a large corporation which can breathe down your syndicate's neck. That London was fired doesn't come as any sort of surprise.

Kıvanç said...

This is wonderful stuff, comics love middle class thing and it has to be shocking and sensational.E.C.Segar knew it and so London.This is the way Popeye strips should be.I feel sorry for King Syndicate not for London. Very heroic attempt and a great tribute to Segar from London!

D said...

Those strips were rather enjoyable, and probably better than most of what else was on the comics page. I actually want to know what happens next. But yeah, abortion and Olive's sleeping around do seem a bit risky.

Scott said...

Best Popeye strip I've read in a long time. That both London was fired and nobody is surprised that he was, is testimony to the sorry state of syndicated comics strips in the modern era.

Kıvanç said...

My apologies, I forgot to give reference to Crumb; "-...comics have always lent themselves to the lurid and sensational...there is something rough and working class about comics."

Kıvanç said...

My apologies, I forgot to give reference to Crumb; "-...comics have always lent themselves to the lurid and sensational...there is something rough and working class about comics."

Whit said...

It's a model of comedic construction and only becomes indefensible once Olive's right to choose is so flamboyantly depicted as a hot button issue by the dense clergy. There is nothing wrong with it yet everything wrong with it simultaneously. Just illustrates how updating classic comic strip characters successfully can be so tricky to pull off. If the syndicate had a major beef with London, they should've worked with him rather than turning tail and running. You could carve a better backbone out of a turd, par for the course in corporate America, which has only grown worse in the ensuing years.

Codename Sailor Earth said...

Is that all?

The strip comes across as a misunderstanding a nosy busybody has from eavesdropping on Popeye's conversation. I can see why it would be considered "mildly disturbing" but clearly not bad enough to be fired over. And considering the decade in which the strip was drawn, I fail to see the problem. There were more families that openly discussed abortion when the strip came out than ever before. The scandal of abortion was pretty much done away with back in the 1970s, when the series "Maude" allowed one of the main characters to get rid of her baby.

I know that some of you out there are pro-life, but take into consideration how many starving kids are born into this world, to parents who didn't want them but had them ONLY because some nosy busybody forced them into making a decision they never wanted to make. How many unwanted kids are bouncing around in foster care right now, because their parents didn't want them?

Unless YOU want to adopt the baby that a woman wants to give up, then shut it. Abortion is only between the parents and the doctor, and I think it's unfair when people throw fits over the slightest mention of the term.

I also do not feel it was fair for Bobby London to be fired over a handful of panels. Certainly, he could have done much worse.

Shade said...

I think another reason the syndicate was upset were the panels poking fun at clergymen who talk incessantly about Satan.

Mikey D. said...

I'm a big fan of Bobby. I remember this... I read it when it come out and saw the news afterward. He never should have been canned imho. It did not warrant or justify termination. Once again. IMHO

Popeye Fan said...

1) I don't think that abortion should be a subject for fun.
2) I don't think that the strip was very funny anyway. Underground comics/alternative comedians have a habit of confusing "shock" statements with humor.
3) The artwork is pretty poor compared with that of E.C. Segar, who I'm sure wouldn't consider the subject in any way acceptable.