Friday, June 23, 2017

Forgotten Books: E.C. Segar's POPEYE (1929-1938)

I grew up with Popeye cartoons at the theater and on TV, with Dell Popeye comic books, and with the newspaper strip by Bud Sagendorf. And I thought I knew Popeye. I was wrong. The real Popeye sprang from the pen of Elzie C. Segar in 1929, and lived until 1938, when those not-quite Popeyes took over. While some later artists duplicated his look, none were able to fully capture the strip's wild humor.

I met the genuine article in 1984, when Fantagraphics began their first series of reprints. Volumes 1 through 4 featured Sunday strips in black and white in a large (11 x 15") format, while the dailies took over with volume 5 in a smaller (11 x 8 1/2") size. There were 11 volumes in all. Being thrifty, I bought the paperback editions, but there were hardcovers issued as well. 

The strips were amazing. Sundays sometimes had continuity and were sometimes stand-alone shorts, while the dailies had the best of both worlds - gags enmeshed in long adventure stories. Segar introduced the world to characters like the Sea Hag, Alice the Goon and Eugene the Jeep (yeah, the word--and name--Jeep, came from Segar).

Beginning in 2006, Fantagraphics struck again, reissuing the whole thing in six large (10 1/2 x 15") hardcover volumes as E.C. Segar's Popeye, This time, dailies and Sundays appeared in each volume, though in different sections. On the plus side, the Sundays were printed in color, but on the down side, the daily panels were smaller (some say too small). Another downer was that these books were bound in extremely fragile paper-covered cardboard. The corners got chipped and ugly quick, and the copies my local library bought were destroyed and discarded within a couple of years. The color is nice, but for readability I'd recommend the 1984 series.

The strip, called Thimble Theater, began in 1919, centering on Olive Oyl and her family. By 1929 it was largely a comedy-adventure following the exploits of her brother Castor Oyl and boyfriend Ham Gravy. When one of their adventures that year required a ship, they hired a sailor - a character slated for a temporary minor role. And you know what happened. He stole the show.

Here's a Segar sample - a complete Sunday story from August 1, 1935. Future superhero artists must have been inspired by his ability to depict violence, while an unborn boy named Robert Crumb was clearly influenced by his style.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Forgotten Books: BIG RED'S DAUGHTER and TOKYO DOLL by John McPartland

Somehow, John McPartland slipped under my radar. He wrote thirteen novels back in the ‘50s, and I’d never heard of him until I got this book. But Jeez, it was worth the wait. This guy was a hell of a writer.

These two novels are extremely different in cast in setting, but have several things in common. Both are narrated by first-person tough guys, and the prose is top notch. Both narrators are good with their fists and enjoy using them, even when they lose. And each encounters a babe who immediately becomes THE woman, the only woman who matters and who could ever matter. And both novels are of the grab the reader by the throat and drag him all the way to the end variety I’ve come to expect in Stark House’s line of Crime Classics.

Big Red’s Daughter, from 1953, plays out against the bohemian jazz scene in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Our hero Jim Work is fresh out of the navy and looking to start college. But his life takes a crazy turn when his car smacks into an MG driven by a world class asshole called Buddy Brown. After a brutal fist fight, he meets—and falls for—Buddy’s girl, a tall long-legged blonde named Wild Kearney. Yep, “Wild” is her real name, as well as her demeanor.

Jim is instantly sucked into Wild’s world of spoiled twenty-somethings rebelling with whatever methods are at hand—in this case drugs, booze, jazz and sex. That wouldn’t be so bad if not for the presence of Buddy Brown, a sadistic psychopath who is addictive to all women, and Wild in particular.

Next thing he knows, Jim is dodging the cops who want him first for one murder, then another. Buddy’s evil aura looms over the whole landscape, while Jim’s obsession with Wild colors his every move. 

When he’s caught, this exchange sums it up:
     “Quite a week end for you, Work,” said the policeman next to me in the back of the car. “Kill a girl. Kill a guy. Escape from jail. Almost beat a man to death in front of his mother. Shoot another man.”
     “It’s been quite a week end,” I agreed.

And there’s more to come. Read it and see.

Tokyo Doll, also first published in 1953, is a high octane thriller set—you guessed it—in Tokyo. It’s 1949, and the U.S. Occupation is about to end. The commies are chomping at the bit. That’s when ex-serviceman Mate Buchanan is recruited by an unnamed agency to save the world. Or so he’s told. 

A Japanese scientist, the story goes, created a virus that healed radiation on a test subjects after the bomb hit Hiroshima. Mate’s job is to get that virus, by any means necessary, before the Reds get it, and before the old guy has a chance to destroy it. The plan is for Mate to seduce the scientist’s daughter, in hopes of ferreting out his hiding place.

But before finding the daughter, Mate foils an assassination attempt on the Tokyo Doll—a lovely American babe who sings to GIs on Armed Forces Radio—and falls hard. The Doll, another tall leggy blonde (methinks McPartland has a type), claims to fall for him too, but she’s messing around with a wealthy Japanese dude, and Army Intelligence suspects her of being a Red. 

Meanwhile, the scientist’s daughter, also a beauty, dims Mate’s ardor by chopping off her current boyfriend’s manhood. Seems the guy—a U.S. Army officer--was dumping her and returning to his wife. Now Mate has to hide her from both the police and the army while he makes unwilling love to her, all the while pining for the Tokyo Doll.

More trouble: The police suspect him of murder, a guy twice his size want to murder him, and the Army thinks he’s a traitor. They’re convinced the virus is a weapon rather a cure, and are frantic to destroy it before the Reds get it. And the Tokyo Doll? She’s still professing her love, while messing around with Mate’s arch enemy and acting Redder than ever. 

What to believe? Who to believe? And what the heck to do about it? If Mate completes his mission, will he be saving the world or dooming it? Yikes!

Two great reads, one great writer. You can’t lose on this one.