# 238 (VOL. 2 #10): POPEYE VS. WIMPY
In his newspaper strip Thimble Theatre, which starred his creation Popeye, E.C. Segar realized that the comedy would work better if his own trickster, J. Wellington Wimpy, had formidable opponents to overcome. As I mentioned weeks ago, one of my problems with Hanna-Barbera’s Top Cat as a trickster is that his schemes often seem too transparent, and his targets too gullible, to be convincing.
Lately I have been exploring the Sunday strips in Fantagraphics Books’ Popeye Volume 3 collection, most of which center on Wimpy and his continuing efforts to mooch hamburgers from his friends and neighbors.
Typically Wimpy uses his trademark lines in mooching food, like “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” or inviting someone to a duck dinner, adding “you bring the ducks.” Moreover, Wimpy repeatedly goes after the same targets–Popeye, Rough-House, George W. Geezil–who are to different degrees exasperated with his mooching, and determined to resist it. But Wimpy nevertheless succeeds in eating every day. Segar indicates that Wimpy actually has an inexhaustible bag of tricks.
In the Sunday March 19, 1933 strip cafe owner Rough-House convinces Popeye that “you’re wasting your time trying to reform Wimpy.” As they complain about Wimpy, in comes a stranger with glasses and a thick black mustache, as well as a familiar build and outfit, who orders a porterhouse steak. He agrees with Popeye and Rough-House about Wimpy (”‘Tis a pity they did not drown him when a pup.”). Rough-House is delighted with his new customer and boasts, “Here’s one guy he [Wimpy] can’t work.” Popeye likewise overreaches, becoming egotistical: “It’s the bad eggs which makes us real folks shine.” But when the new customer says he forgot his wallet and will pay Rough-House Tuesday, Popeye and Rough-House finally see through Wimpy’s disguise, and Popeye has to restrain Rough-House, who seems to be in a berserker rage, from severing Wimpy’s head with a cleaver!
But on the following Sunday, March 26, 1933, Rough-House’s customers are laughing at how Wimpy fooled Rough-House and Popeye with his disguise. Rough-House says if Wimpy tries that stunt again, “I’ll half-murder him.” The angered Popeye, who says he hates “gettin’ hoomiliated,” says he’ll help Rough-House. In comes a man with glasses, a long white beard, and a build and outfit like Wimpy’s, and Popeye and Rough-House grab him. Again losing control of his temper, Rough-House even tries to use the cleaver on him. Then in walks Wimpy, who asks, simply, “My friend, why are you pulling the old man’s whiskers?” To his credit, Popeye erupts into laughter and says, “Aw, forget it, Rough-House. Ain’t ya got no sense o’hoomer?” But today Rough-House doesn’t, and he grimaces in fury. Wimpy meanwhile maintains his usual deadpan calm. Wimpy’s control of his emotions and usual calm contrast favorably with Rough-House’s inability to keep his cool and murderous but infantile rages. It is a point in Popeye’s favor that his resentment of Wimpy and self-centered sense of humiliation are outweighed by his appreciation of the humorous side of life. He simply can’t stay angry at Wimpy.
So in the Sunday, April 2, 1933 strip Popeye takes his revenge on Wimpy in a humorous way, giving Wimpy a fake hamburger made of rubber. Popeye, Rough-House, and other cafe customers burst into laughter. But Wimpy remains dignified and serious throughout. When Popeye gives him the “burger,” Wimpy says, “I am very. very hungry. You have saved my life.” Surely Wimpy wasn’t literally on the point of death, but he has just reminded Popeye and us that he does need to eat to live. Oddly, Wimpy does not notice that he is eating rubber, not meat: “Again, I have lived. . .again, I have tasted of heaven.” It’s not just that Wimpy needs to eat hamburgers to survive; he is a kind of connoisseur of hamburgers, who likens them to “tasting” of “heaven.” It’s as if his idea of hamburgers–his idealization of them–is more important than the reality. Rough-House, Geezil, and the other customers are disgusted that the prank failed and that Wimpy “didn’t even know the difference” between a real burger and the fake. “Where’s the joke?” asks one customer, and he has a point. The strip ends with Wimpy profusely praising Popeye, telling him that out of millions of people, “you are the only one who buys for me hamburgers,” and that is true. Popeye looks angry and uncomfortable, and perhaps feels guilty over playing this misfired prank on someone who actually does regard him as his only friend.
This Sunday strip also suggests that Wimpy has a certain degree of obliviousness to the bad side of life. As I’ve noted before, Wimpy is very much an optimist, living in hope, and seemingly it does not occur to him that Popeye, whom he considers a friend, would play a prank on him. It is tradition that a trickster is himself capable of being tricked. But Wimpy’s obliviousness serves him as a shield. Even when he is fed the rubber burger, he seemingly doesn’t realize he has been tricked.
Arguably, Rough-House is a much bigger problem than Wimpy. The April 9, 1933 Sunday strip opens with a close-up of Rough-House, his teeth bared, perspiring, growling in rage as if he were a wild animal. Popeye’s concern over Rough-House (”he’s almost crazy”) again shifts his sympathies against Wimpy. Rough-House really needs psychiatric help at this point, but Popeye lets himself be persuaded by Wimpy’s foremost nemesis, George W. Geezil, that “What he [Wimpy] needs should be chasing from town.” And so, amazingly, Popeye leas a mob, with Rough-House and Geezil in front, that literally chases Wimpy out of town. Significantly, Wimpy cannot believe that this is happening to him: “They must think I’m somebody else!” One of the mob gloats, “We scared him plenty.” But Wimpy, with his usual deadpan dignity, simply follows them back to town, unobserved until they get back to Rough-House’s cafe and he orders a burger. He’s like a loyal dog that returns to its master even after being mistreated. This is Wimpy’s way of not giving up: he simply refuses to acknowledge defeat, or even that people dislike him.
By the following Sunday, April 16, 1933, Rough-House has suffered a nervous breakdown. So obsessed is he with Wimpy, that Rough-House furiously repeats Wimpy’s catchphrases. Popeye and others visit the hospital and bring Rough-House flowers. “When a man gets sick,” Rough-House observes, “he soon learns who his real friends are.” But then Wimpy comes in, offering a wild flower, “with all good wishes.” Rough-House faints, and, perhaps shockingly, Popeye and Rough-House’s other visitors beat Wimpy up off-panel. Wimpy, needing to recuperate, commands Rough-House to “move over” but then becomes is concerned for his antagonist (”Why, the poor man has fainted.”) and lies next to him in bed, comforting him. It is very revealing that Wimpy cares more about Rough-House’s state than his own pain. Perhaps this is partly another side of his characteristic obliviousness to misfortune: he is ignoring his own pain. But Wimpy is genuinely concerned for Rough-House. This can’t be an attempt to con Rough-House, because Rough-House is unconscious. It seems that Wimpy regards even Rough-House as a friend, or at least as a potential friend, and is consciously or unconsciously ignoring the fact that Rough-House hates him. There’s a sort of innocence to Wimpy, as if he can’t believe that the victims of his mooching resent him.
The following Sunday strip, April 23, 1933, addresses the question of just how unconscious Wimpy is of opposition towards him. Still in the hospital and still seething, Rough-House complains that Wimpy “ain’t got sense enough to know that he’s the cause of my nervous breakdown.” So Popeye confronts Wimpy, who is bringing another flower to the man Wimpy calls “my old friend Rough-House.” Popeye threatens to hit Wimpy if he doesn’t stop, and then turns his back on Wimpy, not expecting what happens next. Neither, probably, do the readers. Wimpy hits Popeye from behind with a boulder, actually knocking the superhuman sailor down. Then, though Wimpy retains his calm, deadpan look, he points his finger, as if instructing Popeye, and speaks words that are lettered larger and darker than usual, suggesting that he is speaking with more emphasis, and more loudly, than usual. “And now, my friend,” Wimpy states, “I am going to the hospital.” Wimpy is clearly aware that Popeye is opposing him, and has proved he will take violent measures to get his way. Wimpy is insistent on carrying out his mission of charity. It’s also important that Wimpy, though speaking emphatically, remains civil in what he tells Popeye, and even calls him “my friend.” I believe that Wimpy is indicating that although he had to employ violence, he would prefer that he and Popeye stay at peace, and that he even continues to regard Popeye as a friend. Indeed, Wimpy even seems to be trying to will Popeye to remain his friend, despite their dispute. It doesn’t work, and Popeye beats Wimpy, on panel, so badly that Wimpy is hospitalized. But Wimpy nonetheless triumphs; he is put in the bed next to Rough-House’s and offers the flower to Rough-House, who growls in frustrated anger. Again, Wimpy simply does not give up. He will treat Popeye and Rough-House as his friends despite their resentment of him–and despite the fact that he continually mooches from them. Wimpy doesn’t have contempt for the people he tricks into feeding him, but seems to like them–at least Popeye and Rough-House. It’s a little like the way that Bugs Bunny kisses Elmer Fudd: Bugs is another trickster who is fond of the person he tricks. But arguably Bugs is also mocking Elmer with the kiss; Wimpy, in contrast, seems sincere in bringing Rough-House flowers.
Popeye seems the embodiment of the virtue of charity when he gives away his money to the needy. But even though Wimpy usually takes rather than gives, he is arguably even more purely a figure of charity since Wimpy will treat an adversary like Rough-House with such kindness.
It seems shocking that the April 30, 1933 strip opens with Popeye, Geezil and others planning to beat up Wimpy so badly as to hospitalize him “for a week.” Rough-House, out of the hospital, urges them on. Wimpy may not be so oblivious to enmity that he comes unprepared. Popeye and the others are charmed by hearing beautiful violin music. When Wimpy walks in, playing the violin, Geezil erupts in rage. But Popeye prefers the music to his own resentment of Wimpy, and beats up Rough-House and the others to keep them from laying a finger on Wimpy. Not only does Wimpy seemingly lack the rages that overcome Popeye, Rough-House, Geezil and the others, but Wimpy is even capable of creating beauty through music.
In responding to beautiful music, Popeye shows what separates him from other cafe regulars, even though Popeye can be just as violent as they. As Olive Oyl observes in the April 30, 1933 strip, “If music affects you, it shows you have fine sensibilities.”
In a previous strip Popeye said Rough-House, who so quickly flies into rages at Wimpy, was “too sensitive.” Popeye may be too sensitive in his own way. In the April 30 strip Wimpy is able to change Popeye’s moods and behavior by playing different kinds of music. When Wimpy plays love music, Popeye kisses Olive repeatedly, saying “I kin not help it”; when Wimpy plays dance music, Popeye “got to do that dance.” It’s as if Popeye has become Wimpy’s puppet. But when Wimpy plays “Song of War,” Popeye starts growling, hits Olive, and chases Wimpy to the edge of a cliff. Wimpy turns and saves himself by playing “Hearts and Flowers,” which makes Popeye weep, and then a lullaby to put him to sleep.
This could be seen as a metaphor for Wimpy’s trickster ability to manipulate other people. But it also demonstrates Wimpy’s command of his own emotions. Rough-House has anger management problems so severe that they risk his sanity. Geezil goes into angry tirades against Wimpy if he merely thinks of him. Popeye proves so susceptible to his emotions that he cannot resist the effects music has on them. But Wimpy remains calm and deadpan, even as he plays the music that affects Popeye so strongly. Again, I’m reminded of Chuck Jones’ cartoons like Rabbit Fire, in which Bugs Bunny, maintaining his cool and calm, easily manipulates not only the violent but stupid Elmer Fudd but also the angry, egotistical Daffy Duck, who so quickly falls prey to his own emotions.
In the May 14, 1933 strip Segar has Popeye revert to his previous appreciation of Wimpy as a comedic figure. Rough-House has taken a business partner, Mr. Soppy, and goes on vacation, leaving him in charge of the cafe. In fact, this time Popeye even helped Wimpy out by telling Mr. Soppy that Wimpy was “Prince Wellington of Nazilia.” Wimpy was surprised when Mr. Soppy addressed him as “Prince,” but took full advantage of it, conning Mr. Soppy out of a free meal, while Popeye and other customers go into gales of laughter. Popeye is now siding with Wimpy so much that he aids in Wimpy’s con without even being asked! But, as we shall see, Popeye seems more interested in staging comedic situations than in helping Wimpy.
Wimpy is not only a trickster but a variation on another traditional comedy archetype, the glutton. In the May 21, 1933 strip Wimpy has proved so easily able to con meals out of Mr. Soppy that Wimpy has grown too fat to be able to walk unassisted, so Popeye equips him with a wheelbarrow for supporting his enormous tummy!
In the May 28, 1933 strip Rough-House returns from vacation, and Popeye encourages him in thinking that the cafe has a prince as a new customer: again, Popeye seems interested in setting up situations for comedy and watching what results, and he laughs in expectation. His face buried in a menu, Wimpy overreaches by not taking a look at who is serving at the counter. When Wimpy finally sees that it’s the angry Rough-House, Wimpy’s eyes widen in surprise and perhaps disbelief. As Rough-House readies to punch him, Wimpy realizes this time he’s caught and puts his hands together in prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep.” Wimpy tries to talk his way out of the fix, denying his identity, but taken by surprise and flustered, the trickster fails this time, and Rough-House beats him up off-panel, as Popeye seems amused.
Segar has already shown us that there are limits to Wimpy’s usual psychological and emotional balance. In the June 4, 1933 Sunday strip Rough-House needs to drum up more customers, and Popeye suggests hiring a scientist to devise a formula to increase someone’s appetite so much “a man’ll steal the spinach off’n his own kid’s plate.” Just from that description Popeye and Rough-House should have noticed they were overreaching. Not knowing what it is, Popeye drinks the formula, which pushes Wimpy’s constant hunger beyond his ability to manage it. Wimpy becomes a more frenetic version of himself, shouting, “I’m starving!” With no hamburger available, Wimpy eats fish out of a fish bowl; when Wimpy is on the brink of devouring a cat, Rough-House gives up and gives him food instead. This soothes Wimpy’s inner demons, though eating gets in the way of his ability to talk, as Segar suggests by dropping letters from his dialogue. Wimpy invites Rough-House to a duck dinner, adding, “You ing e ucks,” which looks suspiciously like Wimpy getting something past the censors.
In the June 11, 1933 strip a man named Rex Bicker arrives to try to get Popeye to fight the boxer he manages, Bullo Oxheart. Spotting a new target, Wimpy introduces himself to Bicker and proceeds to deluge him with a nonstop flood of words. Significantly, one of Wimpy’s tactics is to keep getting Bicker’s name wrong, until finally, Bicker is so dazed and confused by Wimpy’s verbal assault that he forgets his own name, and calls himself “Mr. Jones.” Popeye and Rough-House recognize that Wimpy is setting Bicker up to mooch a hamburger off him and burst into laughter when Wimpy delivers the coup de grace (”Come have a hamburger WITH ME on you.”). Since this time they’re not Wimpy’s targets, Popeye and, surprisingly, Rough-House can laugh at Wimpy’s con artistry, betraying a certain appreciation of his trickster abilities.
-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson
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