#234 (VOL. 2 #6): DIARY OF A WIMPY CON MAN
Most of us probably first saw Popeye in one of his hundreds of animated cartoons., but he originated in Elzie (E. C.) Segar’s newspaper comic strip Thimble Theatre in 1928. Although Thimble Theatre had been running for ten years when he made his debut, seemingly as a minor player for a single story arc, Popeye quickly became the lead in Segar’s large and colorful cast of characters. But only a handful of those characters made it to the screen in the animated cartoons produced by the Max Fleischer Studio in the 1930s and early 1940s, and by Paramount’s Famous Studios (the Fleischer Studio minus the Fleischers) in the 1940s and 1950s. Most of these cartoons followed a formula in which Popeye competed for Thimble Theatre leading lady Olive Oyl against his rival Bluto, who appeared relatively briefly in only a single storyline during Segar’s run on the strip. Popeye’s adopted baby Swee’pea, Poopdeck Pappy, Eugene the Jeep, and even, in one cartoon, the monstrous Goons also made it into some of the Fleischer cartoons.
But apart from the central Popeye-Olive-Bluto triangle, the Segar character who appeared most frequently onscreen was hamburger aficionado J. Wellington Wimpy. He even plays prominent roles in two of the Fleischers’ animated Popeye featurettes, Popeye Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936) and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937). This surely testifies to Wimpy’s popularity in the Popeye newspaper strip.
But Wimpy in the animated cartoons is only a superficial shadow of Segar’s great creation in the comic strip. Wimpy certainly acts in character in the Fleischer cartoons: he devours hamburgers when he has them, tries to mooch them when he doesn’t, using his trademark line “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” and will even trail after a small bird in the hope of turning it into a meal. Basically the cartoons reduce Wimpy to the familiar stock comedy character of the glutton.
Recently Fantagraphics Books has been reprinting Segar’s Thimble Theatre from the storyline introducing Popeye in a handsome series of hardcover books, at the rate of one volume per year: they are now up to Volume Four. The cover of Volume Three features Wimpy himself, and I was surprised to discover that Wimpy dominates virtually all the Sunday strips included in this volume. Although Popeye is the lead character in the daily strips in this volume, he is more often than not Wimpy’s straight man in the Sunday strips in this collection. Indeed, it is clear that while Wimpy may be a minor supporting character in the animated cartoons. he is the second most important character in the Thimble Theatre newspaper strip, playing far more of a role than even Olive Oyl.
Wimpy is a variation on a character archetype that goes back to the ancient Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence: the parasite. This character type can be fixated on food and on trying to get food. But he does not turn to work to get his meal; rather, he lives off the charity of others, often deluging them with empty flattery to get what he wants.
One can see this aspect of Wimpy in the first Sunday in Fantagraphics’ Popeye Volume 3, from October 9, 1932. (As usual in these analytical essays, I issue a spoiler alert.) Popeye has been invited to Olive’s party, but realizes that he carries the odor from all the onions he has been eating. So Popeye sprays himself with perfume to compensate, but goes too far. At the party Olive and the guests are repelled by the overdose of perfume. Popeye leaves the party and retreats to his hangout, Rough-House’s restaurant, afflicted by melancholy: “I yam a misfit. I tries to do the right thing, but I yam always wrong.” This is an important part of Popeye’s appeal as a character. He may be the super-strong hero of the strip, but he is an outsider in society, ugly, uneducated, and maladroit at various social proprieties, with whom we can empathize. As a combination of proto-superhero and social misfit, Segar’s Popeye foreshadows the later Marvel superheroes.
In this moment of Popeye’s vulnerability, Wimpy showers him with praise. “My friend, you are heavenly,” Wimpy tells him, loudly sniffing his scent. “Your fragrance takes me back to childhood when I lay among the geraniums in my mother’s garden.” As Wimpy pours on the flowery flattery, he seemingly cannot help but reveal what is really on his mind, and what his true icon of beauty is: “Your most delightful perfume reminds me of blooming pastures wherein dwell cows, of which are made ground beef sandwiches.” And then Wimpy makes his pitch: “My friend, will you buy for me a hamburger?”
Popeye doesn’t fall for it: “No!” So Wimpy moves away from Popeye, takes a clothespin, affixes it on his nose to block the smell of Popeye’s perfume, and then looks over at Popeye with a deadpan expression on his face. Since Wimpy’s strategy didn’t work, he drops the flatterer’s mask. Popeye reacts in shock while Wimpy remains cool and quiet: if he can’t get a free hamburger out of Popeye he will take his revenge by letting Popeye know what he really thinks of his “heavenly” fragrance. And thus we see that Wimpy is no ordinary version of the comedy parasite.
Wimpy is also a variation on another comedy archetype that often turns up here in “Comics in Context,” and in the August 27, 1933 Sunday strip in this collection, he seems well aware of it. The strip opens with Popeye and Rough-House discussing how they are both fed up with Wimpy’s continual mooching. But soon they are instead puzzled as to why Wimpy hasn’t tried to mooch any burgers today. Wimpy explains that he injured his jaw and therefore can’t open his mouth wide enough to eat. Rather than feel sorry for him, Rough-House decides to take this opportunity to play “a mean trick” on Wimpy, and Popeye, Wimpy’s nemesis George W. Geezil (more about him later), and other patrons of Rough-House’s establishment gather to watch. Rough-House then presents Wimpy with “the finest hamburger I ever made,” a large burger indeed, for free. The other customers look on in amusement at the idea that Wimpy can see this burger but can’t eat it. With his usual deadpan expression, seemingly unwounded by this “mean trick,” Wimpy says he expected this from “my tricky friend.” Then he adds, “But as you can see, I too am quite tricky,” and he opens his mouth enormously wide, as if in a great, triumphant grin, and shoves the giant hamburger right in. J. Wellington Wimpy is, after all, one of the greatest trickster figures in comic and cartoon art.
In these early Sunday strips from 1932 and 1933 we can see Segar experimenting with Wimpy, developing the character, sometimes changing his mind about him, and experimenting with Popeye as well. Popeye has an ambivalent attitude towards Wimpy in these early strips, shifting back and forth, perhaps reflecting an ambivalence in Segar’s own attitude towards Wimpy.
In the October 20, 1932 strip Rough-House has grown so infuriated with Wimpy’s mooching that he pulls out a gun. But Popeye stops him, saying, “I sez ya ain’t gon’er shoot ‘im! He’s okay–it takes all kinds of people to make a world.” Nevertheless, there are already limits to Popeye’s tolerance. Rough-House’s restaurant is infested with flies as well as Wimpy (another kind of pest?). Popeye sprays Wimpy with sugar syrup, so the flies will swarm around him, lures Wimpy outside with a hamburger, but then puts the burger on the branch of a tree, out of Wimpy’s grasp. Back at Rough-House’s Popeye laughs at having rid Rough-House of both his problems.
But in the following Sunday, Nov. 6, 1932, Wimpy returns, with the flies still following him. One of Wimpy’s admirable qualities is his persistence; like Popeye, he (usually) doesn’t give up. Rough-House puts a hamburger in a basket attached to a dog, which then runs out of the restaurant, with Wimpy in pursuit. Popeye is displeased, apparently feeling that Rough-House has gone too far. But Popeye is amused when Wimpy returns with both the dog and the burger. “As a rule, gentlemen,” Wimpy declares, “I am an inactive man, but when there’s a sandwich at stake, I am both limber of leg and fleet of foot.”
Popeye seems to admire Wimpy’s triumph here. For one thing, Popeye tends to sympathize with underdogs, and for another, Popeye has much more of a sense of humor than Wimpy’s adversaries Rough-House and Geezil. Moreover, Wimpy has pulled off a feat of sorts here by catching up with the dog. In these strips Wimpy is repeatedly called a “loafer,” but as he himself observes, he is very willing to exert himself in pursuit of his goal, the hamburger. Wimpy has no regular job, but perhaps his true vocation is trickery: he certainly works to persuade people to feed him.
Something else notable about Wimpy is his sense of dignity. Notice his elegant use of language in that previous quotation. He is an unemployed man who is continually, in effect, begging for food. But there does not come off as an aggressive beggar who might repel the readers, nor does he seem pathetic. Even as he does undignified things he has a certain dignity in his manner and his speech, as if what he is doing is utterly respectable, as if his attempts to con people out of hamburgers is a job like any other. There are exceptions, as we shall see, when his hunger gets the better of him.
Significantly, in the January 15, 1933 strip, when, urged by Popeye, Rough-House offers Wimpy hamburgers and spinach for free, Wimpy protests, “I cannot accept charity, my friend. Charge this to my account.” Rough-House points out, “You ain’t got no account.” Wimpy proudly replies, “Then take it away,” before his hunger gets the better of him, and he ads, “Leave it here.” This suggests that Wimpy’s sense of dignity prevents him from admitting to being a beggar or a charity case. Hence, when Wimpy promises to pay somebody Tuesday for a hamburger today, he isn’t just conning someone: Wimpy is trying to maintain the fiction that he is not the desperately impoverished man he actually is. (As Rough-House notes at one point, Wimpy never shows up on Tuesdays.)
Though Wimpy does not actively seek out work, he is not opposed to employment. He regularly serves as the referee in Popeye’s boxing matches, and in these strips when someone offers Wimpy a job, he accepts. For example, in the Nov 27, 1932 strip Popeye suggests that Rough-House give Wimpy a job shooting the mice infesting the restaurant. (Rough-House’s diner is clearly not of the highest caliber.) Wimpy accepts but then keeps missing the mice when he shoots and fears he will never succeed. But then Wimpy finds a mouse caught in a mousetrap, shoots it, and turns it in to Rough-House in exchange for a hamburger. Wimpy continues to show Rough-House the sane mouse over and over, pretending it is a different one each time, and getting a burger each time. Popeye is about to tell Rough-House that Wimpy is cheating when Wimpy looks fixedly at Popeye and says emphatically, “My good friend–I am hungry–very hungry.” Popeye shuts up.
Reading this strip, I felt as if the comedian, Wimpy, had suddenly revealed the pain behind his comedy. Segar created Wimpy during the Great Depression; these strips were published in the early 1930s, when many people were indeed jobless and going hungry. Maybe this fact helps explain Wimpy’s popularity with newspaper strip readers of the 1930s: here is a penniless man who is a survivor, who lives by his wits, persists and retains his dignity, even though he is reduced to living on the charity of others. Wimpy’s mooching may make us smile, but it is something he must do to survive.
So in the next Sunday strip, December 4, 1932, when Rough-House complains that Wimpy is just a “loafer,” Popeye retorts, “Rough-House, ya got to take people for what they are–Wimpy is what he is–the same as I yam what I yam.” Wimpy may not pursue getting work, but Popeye, at this point, is not about to penalize Wimpy for that. Popeye recognizes that Wimpy is simply behaving according to his essential character, and wants Rough-House to be more tolerant of that, perhaps implying that Rough-House should indeed help feed him.
This strip too raises the curtain on the sadder aspect of Wimpy’s existence. Wimpy notes that he has “no friends, no pals.” Perhaps, then, when he elsewhere calls Popeye “my friend,” Wimpy isn’t just flattering him: he seems to long for friends to help him, indeed, for companionship. In this Sunday strip Wimpy even declares, perhaps alluding to the Depression, “It’s a cruel world. Better I should be dead–no longer can I stand my hunger.” Seeing Wimpy head for a pier, Popeye even fears that Wimpy will commit suicide. But instead he finds Wimpy simply fishing for food. Once again, this is a a source of Wimpy’s appeal: he doesn’t let this “cruel world” destroy him but keeps trying to survive in it, hoping for the best. Maybe he will catch a fish.
In the January 1, 1933 Sunday strip Rough-House complains that if he shoots Wimpy, he’ll be hanged. Again Popeye counsels tolerance, and perhaps having a sense of humor, telling Rough-House that he “takes life too serious.”
In this Sunday installment Wimpy discovers he has just inherited $25 from an uncle, a tiny sum that nonetheless seems huge in the context of this strip. Nos that Wimpy can actually afford to pay him, Rough-House plies him with food. But while Wimpy is eating, he is besieged by bill collectors, who claim all of his inheritance. And so when it comes time to pay for his dinner, Wimpy once again resorts to his trademark pledge of paying you next Tuesday. Rough-House seethes with angry frustration but Popeye is amused by the absurdity of it all. Wimpy, seemingly sincere, tries to comfort Rough-House by saying, “Cheer up, my friend–I have another uncle.” Again, Wimpy is characteristically optimistic: maybe someday he will get another inheritance.
In the October 30, 1932 strip, not only was Wimpy not bothered by the flies in Rough-House’s cafe, but he said that flies liked him: “That’s because I’m sympathetic to all dumb animals.” At the start of the January 8, 1933 Sunday strip, Popeye too feels sympathy for an animal when he sees a man kick a dog. “Poor little swab,” Popeye says, comforting the dog; then, outraged, he calls to the dog’s tormentor, addressing him as if he were the real animal–”Ahoy, ya beask!”–and then beating him up. Popeye then takes the dog to Rough-House’s to feed him hamburgers. Wimpy begins barking at the dog, who then brings the burgers to Wimpy. “Lissen, Wimpy, the first time was funny,” says Popeye in annoyance, “but now yer tryin’ to take advantage of a dumb animal.” Popeye has sympathy towards “dumb animals,” but it appears that Wimpy actually speaks the dog’s language. That implies that Wimpy is somehow closer to the world of nature than even Popeye is, though each is an outsider in his own way in the world of human society.
So there is a lot more to Wimpy’s character than first meets the eye, and we shall see still more in weeks to come.
-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson
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