# 236 (VOL. 2 #8): WIMPY REDEEMED
Next to Popeye himself, J. Wellington Wimpy is the greatest character that cartoonist E. C. Segar created for his Thimble Theatre comic strip. That may surprise those of you who know Popeye and Wimpy basically from animated cartoons. But Wimpy is a character who expresses himself not through action like Popeye–indeed, Wimpy usually remains still and seemingly expressionless–but through dialogue. Aficionados of the Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s love the comments that Jack Mercer, the voice of Popeye, seemingly ad libbed in recording the dialogue. (By the way, 2010 is the centennial of Mercer’s birth.) Nevertheless, dialogue is not a strong point of Fleischer cartoons, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they reduced the very verbal Wimpy to a mere moocher of hamburgers. But to read Segar’s comic strips about the character is to continually discover new and surprising layers to Wimpy’s personality.
A few weeks ago I began critiquing the Sunday strips featuring Wimpy in Fantagraphics Books’ Popeye Vol. 3, which reprints Segar’s Thimble Theatre from the 1930s. One of Wimpy’s catchphrases in the strip is inviting someone to a duck dinner, adding “You bring the ducks.” In the January 15, 1933 strip Popeye is again amused when Wimpy pulls this on Rough-House for the umpteenth time. Enraged, Rough-House challenges Wimpy to a fight. “It’s men like you who start wars and cause the downfall of nations,” replies Wimpy. That seems a rather grandiose claim, but this strip first ran in the 1930s, when World War I was a recent memory and Europe was moving towards World War II, and wimpy may have a point. Befitting his name, Rough-House does want to settle disputes with violence, and he has difficulty controlling his intense rages. Wimpy, in contrast, not only usually avoids violence, although, as we shall soon see, Segar will experiment with Wimpy as a fighter, but will even treat his adversaries as friends: when Rough-House ends up in the hospital in later strips, Wimpy brings him flowers.
Popeye suggests that Wimpy and Rough-House settle their dispute through a prize fight for charity; presumably Popeye thinks that this will set rules for the fight, and do some good as well.
Trying to train for the fight, Wimpy proves unable to lift a barbell. Popeye persuades Rough-House to give Wimpy some hamburgers and spinach to eat. “Ya wouldn’t fight a man which is weak from hunger,” says Popeye, providing another indication of the real suffering at the basis of Wimpy’s comedy.
I keep reading that Segar rarely mentioned spinach as the source of Popeye’s strength in the comic strip. Certainly spinach turns up less frequently than in the animated cartoons, in which part of the formula is having Popeye boost his strength at a crucial point by eating spinach. But I see spinach being mentioned repeatedly in Popeye Vol. 3: even the profits from the Wimpy-Rough-House prize fight are to “go for buyin’ spinach for poor kids.”
Upon eating the burgers and spinach, Wimpy becomes superhumanly strong, and bounces the barbell off his bicep: tonnage is nothing to me now.” Does spinach make even Wimpy strong like Popeye? (If it works like that on everyone in Popeye’s world, why don’t his enemies eat any?) Or is Segar suggesting that hamburgers are to Wimpy what spinach is to Popeye? Whatever the case, Segar obviously decided this was a mistake and immediately dropped the notion of a super-strong Wimpy.
So when the prize fight begins in the November 2, 1934 Sunday strip, Wimpy relies not on super-strength but on iron concealed in his boxing gloves. Rough-House has iron in his gloves, too: “You’re just as crooked as I am,” Wimpy observes. Popeye gets rid of their iron, but then Wimpy punches Rough-House from behind. It’s certainly in character for Wimpy to cheat, but it seems odd to see Wimpy acting so violently. Perhaps Segar had once again gone down the wrong road.
So in the following Sunday strip, January 29, 1933, as the prize fight continues, Wimpy instead leans against a post, faking being hurt. This seems more true to Wimpy’s generally peaceful personality. In fact, by the end of this Sunday strip, we learn that Wimpy has even bet on Rough-House to win the fight.
Exasperated, Popeye demands that Wimpy fight, and points out that the fight is being broadcast on radio, and that Wimpy’s mother might be listening: “What’ll she think of her boy?” Perhaps unexpectedly, Wimpy begins weeping: again, Segar is showing the pain beneath Wimpy’s clownish facade. “Popeye, I am broken-hearted! I have disgraced the name of Wimpy–do you really think Mother is listening in?” Certainly we have seen that Wimpy is fully capable of lying, but this seems sincere. This Wimpy is not a violent person at all, but “for mother’s sake” he takes a swing at Rough-House, and, to his surprise, knocks him out.
After the fight, in the February 5, 1933 strip, Wimpy is back at Rough-House’s cafe and, ever persistent, pulls his usual trick of inviting him to a duck dinner, “you bring the ducks.” Furious, Rough-House punches Wimpy, and Popeye, who comments later in the strip that Wimpy is “a frien’ of mine,” retaliates by hitting Rough-House hard. “The trouble with you is yer too blasted sensitiff,” says Popeye. That suggests that Rough-House’s hot temper is due to being overly sensitive, having too little control of his emotions, and that the usually deadpan Wimpy and Popeye are rather stoical in comparison. While Wimpy may not be a violent person himself, he’s something of a voyeur of violence. When Rough-House’s friends object to Popeye hitting him, Wimpy comments, “Let’s you and them fight,” and so they do, as Wimpy settles in for a big burger dinner, served by a woozy Rough-House.
In that strip Popeye declared that “Rough-House can’t hit Wimpy. . .cause he’s a frien’ of mine.” But by the following Sunday, Feb. 12, 1933, Segar seems to have changed his mind about Popeye’s attitude towards Wimpy. Now Popeye decides, “I guess Rough-House was right.” Popeye criticizes Wimpy to his face for having “no blasted self-respeck.” He continues, “Ever’ man on Eart’ is susposed to do sumpin’ important” but “Yer a hooman flop–ya ain’t got absolukely no egocism. How kin ya have self-respeck without ya got some egocism,” by which, I expect, Popeye means that Wimpy has no ambitions: “Ya wants to be jus’ mediocum,” which means “mediocre” in Popeye-speak. “I ain’t got no sympathy for a loafer–yer lower’n a worm, tha’s what,” Popeye concludes.
Wimpy characteristically seems immune to insults, whether he consciously ignores them or is oblivious to them. In later strips, no matter how much his nemesis George W. Geezil thunders insults and threats at him, Wimpy remains unmoved. But Geezil deals in empty bluster; Popeye is giving Wimpy a piercing critique of his personality. As a result, Wimpy again begins to weep: “You hurt my feelings,” he says simply. Popeye immediately feels guilty and sorry: “Yer okay. Why, yer a swell guy.” Then Popeye returns to his original attitude to Wimpy at the start of this series of Sunday strips: “When they ride ya, jus’ say “I yam what I yam an’ that’s all I yam.” Of course, that is Popeye’s catchphrase about himself. Not only is Popeye accepting Wimpy, faults and all, but he even seems to be suggesting that Wimpy is like himself, that they are each true to their nature. Popeye and Wimpy end up at Rough-House’s cafe, where Popeye apparently buys him a big dinner, complete with spinach. Wimpy lavishes “my friend” Popeye with praise, inviting him to a duck dinner. “You bring the ducks, Popeye,” Rough-House comments cynically. And yes, Wimpy has once again succeeded in getting someone–Popeye–to feed him. But does that mean that Wimpy was faking when he broke down in tears? He could have been, but I suspect that Wimpy really does regard Popeye as his friend, and was genuinely hurt by his criticism. Remember, Wimpy claims to have no other friends, and, as we saw in the prize fight, Wimpy does seem to have a sense of guilt over being such a passive failure in life.
In the following Sundays Segar demonstrates that this second interpretation is correct. At the start of the February 19, 1933 strip, Popeye is again sharply criticizing Wimpy, but this time not out of disgust but a kind of tough love: “I ain’t tryin’ to hurt your feelin’s–I’m bawlin’ ya out on account of I wants ya to change yer ways an’ be a man.” Wimpy replies, “But you say such awful things about me.” When Wimpy is conning someone, he uses grandiose, flowery language. The fact that his reply to Popeye is so simply phrased indicates that Wimpy is not pretending here: he really is hurt, and perhaps realizes what Popeye is telling him is largely true.
Then, surprisingly, Wimpy’s mother, whom he hasn’t seen in fifteen years, arrives. Segar could have drawn her as a caricature, looking like Wimpy in drag, but no, he draws her as realistically as he can, and treats her seriously. She has recently lost the cottage where they lived; this may be an allusion to the Great Depression. Wimpy embraces his mother, and they clearly love each other. To his credit, Popeye will not let Wimpy’s mother know what a failure her son is. “He’s the finest man I knows!” Popeye declares, saying, rather over the top, “He should been a presidink like Georgia Washenting.” But in between those statements Popeye adds what he may truly believe: “I knows they’s good stuff in him.”
But maybe Popeye doesn’t fully realize how true that is. In the February 26, 1933 a narrator in a caption, presumably voicing Segar’s own beliefs, calls Wimpy “the most complete loafer who ever lived.” But now Wimpy confronts his own guilty conscience over his life: “What will poor Mother think when she learns I’ve amounted to nothing?” Still covering for him, Popeye tells Mrs. Wimpy that he would “trust Wimpy with anything I got,” whereupon Wimpy seizes the opportunity to borrow five dollars from him. Out of Mrs. Wimpy’s presence, Popeye, enraged at Wimpy’s mooching (”I’ll make a man out of him for his mother’s sake or bust his blasted head.”) hits him. But then Rough-House reveals that Wimpy spent only ten cents on a burger and spent the other $4.90 on flowers for his mother. This surprises Popeye, and probably surprises the readers as well.
It is unusual for Wimpy to give gifts. In the February 12, 1933 strip Popeye had complained to Wimpy that “Yer jus’ like a octopipuss–ya takes what ya kin reach but ya don’t never give nothin’.” Despite his violence, Popeye is the opposite: a highly generous man. In the March 5, 1933 strip Popeye buys a hamburger stand for Wimpy as a means to make enough money to support his impoverished mother. “I don’t do good deeds to get credick,” Popeye explains, “I does ‘em on account of they oughter get done.” Perhaps surprisingly, Popeye then reveals that he is religious, but that’s not his motive for charity. “An’ if ya does good deeds jus’ to get yerself a swell seat in heaven, yer selfish. The only reward ya should expeck for doin’ right is the sort of cumfertable feelin’ which ya gets from doin’ it.”
Running a hamburger stand, though, is the wrong job for a comedy glutton like Wimpy, because he can’t stop himself from devouring all the burgers. Although Wimpy usually has a placid, gentlemanly, even erudite manner, when his hunger overpowers him, he starts acting like an animal. He explains to Popeye that a customer ordered a burger, “but when I tried to hand it to the customer, my teeth would snap at it–snap at it, sir, like a dog.” Segar is thus comically exposing the animal passions that may lie beneath a person’s civilized surface. I wonder if he may also be satirizing addiction in Wimpy’s uncontrollable lust for burgers.
Popeye, the embodiment of selfless charity, gives Wimpy nearly all the money he has, five thousand dollars, so she can buy back her house. Popeye is not simply helping out Mrs. Wimpy but Wimpy as well: “If she stays here she’ll find out what a arful thing ya are.” Typically, Wimpy reacts by pretending he doesn’t need charity: “I’ll not accept it as a gift–I’ll pay you back Tuesday.”
But hasn’t Popeye made a colossal mistake by giving Wimpy the parasite five thousand dollars? Actually, no: Popeye may think that Wimpy is an “arful thing,” but Wimpy does indeed give his mother the full five thousand dollars, enough for her to buy back her home “and have plenty to live on.” (Five thousand dollars was worth far more in 1933 than it is today.) Typically, Wimpy does borrow two nickels from her “for telephoning purposes” and then uses it instead to buy a burger. But mooching ten cents out of five thousand dollars is easily excusable.
Perhaps Wimpy, who lacks “egocism,” simply has no desire to be rich, and is content just surviving from burger to burger. Similarly, though Popeye repeatedly earns or finds fortunes in Segar’s strips, he typically gives the money away as charity. Again, I remind myself that these strips first appeared in the depths of the Great Depression. By not caring about money, Popeye and Wimpy, each in his own way, triumph over the Depression. They not only survive in this time of hardship, but they do not fall victim to depression in the Depression. Part of Popeye’s heroism lies in his willingness to give away large sums of money to help the less fortunate. Popeye’s own “egocism” does not involve becoming wealthy. And Wimpy, in selflessly turning all that money over to his mother, proves surprisingly heroic as well. However much Popeye feels “disgusk” at Wimpy, one can see why Popeye nonetheless regards Wimpy as his friend.
But friendship, oddly, does not stop Wimpy from becoming Popeye’s rival in love, surprising as that may seem. In the Sunday, March 13, 1933 strip, Wimpy declares to Olive Oyl that he has fallen in love with her. Reading her personality correctly, Wimpy tells her that he has a million dollars worth of gold, something that indeed interests her. But as Wimpy embroiders his story of how he lost the million in gold in the Arctic snows, Olive refuses to believe it, and turns to Popeye when he arrives. But then out walks Wimpy, telling Olive, “I thank you for a pleasant evening,” as Popeye reacts in shock, reading who knows how much into Wimpy’s simple statement. But this is only the beginning of Popeye and Wimpy’s competition in romance, as we shall see when I return to this Wimpython in coming weeks.
-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson
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