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# 240 (VOL. 2 #12): WIMPY IN LOVE

cic-wimpy-01In his introduction to one of Fantagraphics Books’ earlier set of volumes reprinting E. C. Segar’s Popeye comic strips, comics historian Rick Marschall argues that Popeye’s supporting player J. Wellington Wimpy is a “scoundrel” with a “lack of conscience” who can and does “betray” everyone. But in reviewing the Sunday strips in Volume 3 of Fantagraphics’ current series of Segar Popeye reprints, I’ve discovered that Wimpy is more complex than that. He does indeed have a conscience, though it is repeatedly overwhelmed by his animalistic appetite for hamburgers.

There are a month of 1933 Sunday strips about Popeye’s boxing match with the enormous Bullo Oxheart, in which Wimpy acts as referee, though he keeps being distracted from the fight by his efforts to mooch a meal off a friend, Eddie, who is sitting in the audience off-panel. But Popeye is the central character of this sequence of Sundays, each of which Segar uses to underline how “the well known weed called spinach” boosts his strength. Indeed, at this point Popeye’s strength has clearly reached superhuman levels. At the end of the June 18, 1933 strip Popeye, with apparent ease, lifts an entire house up from its foundation. “‘Sa good thing I been eatin’ spinach lately,” Popeye comments, laughing. In the June 25, 1933 strip Popeye commends a boy who yells “I want spinach!” so Segar may be emphasizing spinach to induce his younger readers to follow their hero’s example. Popeye has become a role model, whereas Wimpy decidedly has not.

After winning the fight, Popeye tells Wimpy in the July 16, 1933 strip that he intends to donate half of the prize money “to a institution wich’ll buy spinach and cod liver oil for poor kids.” Wimpy asks him “Pardon me for being so personal, but how does it feel to give away money like that?” Note Wimpy’s unusual level of politeness here. He seems genuinely intrigued by Popeye’s generous nature, and has enough insight to recognize that this is a very personal matter to the sailor. Wimpy’s politeness may also be another sign that he genuinely regards Popeye as his friend.

When Popeye asks him, Wimpy implies that he has never given away anything himself. (For the purposes of this particular Sunday strip Segar has intentionally or not ignored the earlier sequence in which Wimpy selflessly gave his mother thousands of dollars.)

Though he isn’t articulate in a conventional manner, Popeye’s way with language has its own sort of vivid poetry. Popeye tells Wimpy that “Givin’ charity makes ya feel swell inside. . .It’s hard to explain, but right now I got tickles in me chest wich tells me I done sumpin wort’ while, see?”

Surprisingly, Wimpy decides to experiment: he says he has a dime (an unusual occurrence for him) and will use it to buy a hamburger for an impoverished man sitting at the counter in Rough-House’s diner. (Now there’s a sign of how much inflation there has been since 1933!) There is no reason to doubt Wimpy’s sincerity: he could easily buy a hamburger for himself instead. Moreover, Wimpy’s portly build is evidence of his continual success in feeding himself. In contrast, the thin stranger sitting at the counter has his tongue hanging out; Wimpy notes that this is a symptom of starvation. Indeed, the stranger seems genuinely to be in a sad state: “I have no money and no friends,” he tells Wimpy, and “I haven’t had a bite for days.” Keep in mind that this is 1933, so the stranger may very well be intended as a victim of the Great Depression.

Wimpy puts his hand on the stranger’s shoulder, tells him, “You may not have money, but you have a friend. J. Wellington Wimpy is your friend,” and orders a hamburger for him. Again, there is no reason to doubt Wimpy’s sincerity at this point.

But matters change when the hamburger arrives. Holding the burger, Wimpy begins snapping his teeth furiously, like a wild animal. Yet he simultaneously speaks in a calm tone, as if he were dispassionately observing his own behavior: “Isn’t it odd how my teeth snap at it? I have to hold it with both hands to keep it from going into my mouth.” He speaks as if the hamburger would force itself into his mouth if he didn’t stop it.

It’s also as if Wimpy’s appetite, his animal nature, is at odds with his conscious mind and better nature, as if he has a kind of split personality. Since Wimpy is a variation on the archetype of the glutton, it should be no surprise which side of his personality wins. The surprise lies in how quickly and completely that battle is won. Distraught, his tongue hanging out once more in hunger, the stranger asks his newfound friend, “Didn’t you buy that hamburger for me?”

Expressionless as usual, Wimpy replies, “I beg pardon? What’s the name, please?” It sees that Wimpy is pretending not to know his new supposed friend in order to keep the burger for himself. But is it possible that the gluttonous side of Wimpy’s personality has submerged his weaker, charitable side, and that Wimpy has to some extent actually forgotten about his promise to feed his starving acquaintance? Wimpy’s conscience had briefly awakened, but once he is exposed to the presence of a hamburger, his hunger proves dominant. Wimpy’s id overrules his superego.

Then Wimpy begins licking the hamburger with his tongue. In part this may be to partially satisfy his hunger, but it may also be that the trickster aspect of Wimpy is surfacing. Now he has an excuse for not giving the hamburger to the stranger, but the starving stranger says he still wants it. “What kind of fellow are you, anyway?” Wimpy asks, acting shocked at what he clearly considers the starving man’s loose attitude towards hygiene.

Once again putting his hand on the stranger’s shoulder, as if reverting to his former attitude of friendliness, Wimpy says he will just take one bite of the burger and then give it to him. Perhaps Wimpy still means to be generous, by his own standards, but then he opens his mouth wide, devours virtually the whole burger in a single bite, and hands the stranger what amounts to a mere scrap.

This wouldn’t be funny if the stranger were left to starve, but the genuinely generous Popeye gives him some money. Popeye scowls disapprovingly at Wimpy, who says, as if nothing had gone wrong, “I don’t know whether it was the bite of the hamburger or the charity–but I feel very lovely inside.”

I like Wimpy’s use of the word “lovely.” Popeye says two Sundays later about Wimpy that “No use gettin’ mad at him–he jus’ don’t know no better.”

When his mother came to visit, Wimpy’s conscience and sense of shame did overrule his usual greed for food. But ordinarily Wimpy doesn’t have an ordinary kind of conscience; he sees nothing wrong in mooching food from his friends, or starving strangers, or anyone else. He idealizes food, especially hamburgers, so satisfying his hunger is to him “lovely.” Perhaps Wimpy also finds it “lovely” to exercise his trickster skills in procuring food; mooching is his talent, his vocation, and perhaps even his artform.

In the July 23, 1933 strip Wimpy goes to the aquarium “for some relaxation,” and Popeye comes along. While Wimpy distracts a guard with chitchat, he surreptitiously hooks a fish in a tank behind his back; Wimpy then smuggles the fish out of the aquarium in the back of his pants. Was Wimpy lying to Popeye when he said his goal at the aquarium was “relaxation”? Maybe Wimpy does find employing his trickster skills in this way relaxing, just as other people do fishing where it’s legal to do so. It’s notable, too, that Wimpy ends this strip by inviting Popeye to dine on the fish with him. After all, Wimpy does indeed seem to regard Popeye as his friend, although he also wants Popeye to supply the tartar sauce for dinner himself.

So far Popeye feels both disgust and amusement at Wimpy’s mooching ways. But now Wimpy, surprisingly, becomes an antagonist to Popeye. Just as Wimpy does not allow friendship to get in the way of his quest for burgers, it is no barrier to his sex drive, either. You might have thought that Wimpy had sublimated his libido into his lust for hamburgers, but no. In the July 30, 1933 strip Rough-House has hired a pretty new waitress, who, we learn the following Sunday, is named Lucy Brown. Popeye immediately starts flirting with her, whereupon Wimpy literally comes between them and starts chatting with her himself.

In my research on tricksters, I’ve learned that the trickster is typically himself susceptible to being tricked. That may seem unlikely, since tricksters are so clever, but it appears to be true. For example, Superman traditionally thwarts his own trickster nemesis, Mr. Mxyzptlk, by tricking him into saying his name backwards. Perhaps the point is that the trickster can be so confident of his own cleverness that he underestimates his target’s ability to best him at his own game. So here Popeye tells Wimpy he’s wanted on the phone, and Wimpy not only believes him, but says hello into the phone over and over again before finally giving up. Apparently it never occurred to Wimpy that he hadn’t heard the phone ring.

So Wimpy returns to Popeye and Lucy the waitress. Popeye in effect tells Wimpy to go away, Wimpy turns his back, as if in defeat, and then Popeye proposes marriage to this woman he just met!

In the Fleischer and Famous Studios Popeye animated cartoons, it is Olive Oyl who often comes off as fickle, switching her affections between Popeye and Bluto. So it is quite a surprise to see from the original Segar comic strips that, early on, at least, it is Popeye who is the fickle one.

Hearing Popeye propose, Wimpy immediately sees his opportunity, turns around, and simply asks, “How’s Olive Oyl?”, shocking Popeye. Wimpy may not be able to fight the super-strong Popeye physically, but Wimpy can fight effectively with words. Wimpy quickly moves in, bending over the startled Lucy, as if enacting a love scene out of a movie, although Wimpy’s idea of romantic dialogue is distorted by his usual preoccupation: he invites her to duck dinner, adding “You bring the ducks.”

Then Popeye plays trickster again, advising Wimpy that he has forgotten to put on his pants, and wrapping a tablecloth around Wimpy’s waist. The trusting Wimpy believes Popeye, feels too embarrassed even to look down to see if Popeye is right, and rushes out of the diner. Once again, Popeye’s amusement supplants any anger he may have felt at Wimpy: laughing, he tells Lucy, “I was go’ner ast ya to marry me, but I kin not get serious on account of laughin’ at ol’ Wimpy.” It would seem that Popeye’s attraction to Lucy wasn’t that serious since his amusement at Wimpy proves the stronger emotion.

At the beginning of the following Sunday strip, August 6, 1933, Wimpy asks Popeye why he won’t let him talk with Lucy Brown. “Is this not a free country?” By Wimpy’s lights, it seems he thinks he merely wants a fair chance to compete for Lucy’s attentions. Alpha male Popeye declares “she’s gon’er be my sweety” and tells Wimpy to “beat it.” (Since this is 1933, neither man considers Lucy’s opinion about this.)

So Wimpy seeks out Olive Oyl and tells her that Popeye has a “new sweetheart,” Lucy Brown. You might think that Wimpy intends to get Lucy for himself. But no: sticking his nose literally in Olive’s face, Wimpy declares, “If he don’t want you, I want you.” Having decided “it is time I should take unto myself a wife,” Wimpy is determined to get one, and it doesn’t seem to matter whom. (It does appear as if Wimpy is only going after women whom Popeye has already picked out, as if he considers Popeye a guide in such matters.) But the comics Olive is considerably less fickle than her animated counterpart, and far from being as passive as Lucy: she knocks Wimpy down (So that’s why she’s such a good match for Popeye!) and declares, “I want Popeye and nobody but.”

Olive races to the diner and angrily confronts Popeye, who, shaken, resorts to the Wimpyesque tactic of denial: “What girl?” Popeye asks, though Lucy is standing right there. Seemingly guilt-ridden, Popeye pleads the Fifth Amendment, but Wimpy urges Olive, “Let’s you and her fight”: maybe Wimpy considers two women fighting to be a turn-on. He soon gets his wish, and Popeye, seemingly forgetting his rivalry with Wimpy, asks him to help break the fight up but each taking hold of one of the women. Perhaps showing his true loyalty, Popeye grabs Olive, and advises her not to start fights; Olive looks bewildered and distraught, now that she’s coming out of her fit of rage. And then both Popeye and Olive discover that Wimpy not only took hold of Lucy but now has clasped her in his loving embrace, as he radiates cartoon hearts. He’s back to fixating on Lucy as his sweetheart. (Lucy looks somewhat annoyed.)

But on the following Sunday, August 13, 1933, we learn that Popeye is now conducting a clandestine romance with Lucy. Back to treating Wimpy as his friend, Popeye asks him to act as if Lucy is Wimpy’s girlfriend if Olive Oyl turns up. This is a big mistake. Olive does indeed turn up at the home of Lucy and her father, whereupon Wimpy, radiating more cartoon hearts, begins cuddling Lucy. But whenever Olive attempts to leave, Wimpy persuades her to stay. So Wimpy gets to cuddle Lucy for hours, until Olive finally leaves at midnight. “Popeye, you are, indeed, a fine fellow,” says Wimpy. “There aren’t any men who’d allow me to pet their sweeties.” Possibly Wimpy is just trying to placate Popeye. But it also seems quite possible that Wimpy sees nothing wrong with manipulating the situation with Lucy and Olive and that he genuinely considers Popeye to have shown generosity in letting him hug Lucy for hours. (Again, Lucy’s own opinions are not consulted.) But this time Popeye erupts in rage, punches Wimpy in the jaw, and throws him out the window. And thus begins a series of Sundays in which Segar physically punishes Wimpy for his trickery.

But in the following Sunday strip, for August 20, 1933, Wimpy is back to mooching food from Popeye. Wimpy keeps calling him. “Old pal of mine,” but Popeye, perhaps reacting to the last few Sunday strips, angrily refuses to give him any food. But then Popeye holds up a potato, which appears to have two eyes and a nose, and Wimpy claims it is the image of his late Uncle Hymie. Breaking down in tears, Wimpy goes on and on about what a wonderful man Uncle Hymie was. “Surely you would not eat that potato,” Wimpy says. Popeye, now in tears himself, agrees to give Wimpy the potato as a memento of his uncle. The final panel finds Wimpy sitting under a tree, eating the potato: “‘Tis a pity that I have no gravy to put upon Uncle Hymie.”

The simplest interpretation of this episode is that Wimpy was simply conning Popeye out of the potato and made up the whole Uncle Hymie story. But I’ve come to think of Wimpy as a complex, ambiguous figure. I think it is entirely possible that Wimpy did have a beloved Uncle Hymie and was genuinely moved to tears by his memory, but that still would not stop Wimpy from devouring a potato that looked like his dead uncle. As usual, Wimpy’s appetite overrules his emotions.

Wimpy referees Popeye’s next prize fight in the Sunday strips, which is noteworthy for the way that Popeye’s opponent literally twists Popeye’s body out of shape, but without causing him any real harm, in a further display of Popeye’s superhuman power.

In the September 17, 1933 Sunday strip, Wimpy returns to the aquarium, having accepted Rough-House’s bet that he can’t catch another fish there. This time Wimpy has overreached, perhaps because he is trying to win a wager. He hooks an eel, which slithers in and out of his pants, in a weirdly phallic gag (which is shown on the cover of Popeye Vol. 3). The guards see this, and they start kicking Wimpy. It’s as if Segar now feels that Wimpy can’t always get away with his trickery, even though these punishments don’t deter Wimpy at all.

Just how far will Wimpy go in the service of his appetite? In the September 24, 1933 strip Wimpy tries his usual mooching tricks on Popeye, Rough-House, Geezil and other diner customers, who all furiously refuse. Unperturbed, Wimpy starts reading the paper and then, uncharacteristically, his eyes go wide. Then, even more uncharacteristically, he punches Geezil in the face. As a policeman arrives, Geezil reacts with his usual angry bluster (”Could he smush me in the schnozzle? Could he? Could he? COULD HE?). But after Wimpy hits the policeman too, Wimpy is taken to jail. And then Rough-House, Popeye and Geezil see what Wimpy read in the newspaper: hamburgers are now on the jailhouse menu. Wimpy has exchanged his own freedom for a steady supply of burgers!

By the following Sunday, October 1, 1933, Wimpy has regained his freedom. So how can his appetite drive him still further? Wimpy has just inherited a cow, and attempts to trade it to Popeye, who is substituting for Rough-House at running the diner for a day, for hamburgers. But Popeye keeps saying no, even as Wimpy whittles down his request from ten burgers down to one, and keeps calling Popeye, with increasing emphasis, “old pal of mine.” Nothing works, and for once Wimpy, despite his deadpan demeanor, seems desperate. Finally Popeye agrees to lend Wimpy some bread, an axe and some kitchen utensils. After Wimpy leaves Popeye says, “I kin not help feelin’ sorry for ol’ Wimpy” and leaves to invite him to have a hamburger. But it is too late. In the final panel Popeye is so surprised, perhaps shocked, that he levitates off the ground. Wimpy has killed and butchered the cow, whose head lies grotesquely on the ground, and turned its body into a tall mound of hamburgers! Of course we all know that hamburgers are made from dead cattle, but it’s still startling, and even macabre, that Wimpy would kill the cow himself and grind it up into food.

Segar must have liked the idea of Popeye running Rough-House’s diner in this Sunday strip, because on the following Sunday strip he and Olive open their own cafe. But after the first month of this new storyline, Wimpy reclaims center stage. When Olive gets sick, Popeye hires Wimpy to fill in for her as a waiter. Initially, Wimpy resolves to do the right thing, even when serving a hamburger steak to a customer: “Get behind me, Satan. . . it is my duty to deliver this bit of beef to our patron.” But once again, the id of Wimpy’s appetite overwhelms the superego of his conscience. He talks the customer into thinking the hamburger is infected with bugs, and after the shaken patron leaves, Popeye lets Wimpy eat the steak. “He is, no doubt, a peculiar person,” Wimpy tells Popeye about their lost customer. In this case Wimpy is clearly, consciously deceiving his “old pal of mine.”

Popeye’s charitable feelings towards Wimpy have resurfaced, and the following Sunday, November 12, 1933, Popeye gives Wimpy a tryout for a job as a waiter, but this time carefully keeps an eye on him. Wimpy again tries to do the right thing, repeating his “Get thee behind me, Satan” mantra while bringing a hamburger to a customer. But once again, when one side of Wimpy consciously resists his hunger, his unconscious forcefully emerges, and he finds himself instinctively snapping his teeth at the burger and then devouring it, seemingly in one gulp. “Sorry, sir, I’m indeed sorry this had to happen,” Wimpy says, and he may indeed mean it. Wimpy tries to bring him another burger, but says, “Heavens! I feel that great desire again–the urge to gobble it down!” Is Wimpy putting on an act, or is he in the grip of a comedic but real addiction to food? He gobbles this burger, too. Finally, the disgruntled customer fetches his own burger, whereupon Wimpy hurls a pot at him, knocking him out. “A hundred percent,” says Wimpy, holding the burger; “Not a single one got away from me.” Watching all of this, Popeye confesses, “I kin not bawl ‘im out on account of laughin’.”

But by the following Sunday, Popeye has grown so angry at Wimpy’s mooching that he pays a policeman to put him in jail. “It isn’t right to treat poor old Wimpy that way,” says Olive. “Shame on you, Popeye.” But Popeye goes down to the prison to literally laugh in Wimpy’s face.

Then Wimpy begins weeping: “You laugh at my sorrow. You hurt me.” As Wimpy goes on, talking about his mother, and about how “life hasn’t been very kind to me,” Popeye finds himself weeping in sympathy, and finally bails Wimpy out of jail. Wimpy expresses his gratitude to “my friend” and then resumes trying to mooch a hamburger from him. Once again the reader may wonder to what extent Wimpy is consciously manipulating Popeye’s emotions and to what extent Wimpy’s sadness at being “hurt” by a friend is real. My hypothesis is that both possibilities are true and that they coexist. I suspect that Wimpy’s stoic, expressionless demeanor covers real pain over his poverty and loneliness. Popeye may be Wimpy’s dupe, but he also really is Wimpy’s only friend.

Segar’s exploration of Wimpy’s character reaches a climax with the November 26, 1933 Sunday strip, the last in this volume. Popeye’s friend Bill Squid bets Popeye that Wimpy would “choke his grandmother for a hamburger.” Despite Popeye’s disgust and even cruelty towards Wimpy in past strips, Popeye seems more naturally to look on the bright side, and contends that Wimpy has “good qualities, too.” Popeye even tells Wimpy, “ever’body seems to be down on ya an’ tha’s why I got sympthity for ya–I yam always for the underdog.”

Popeye goes so far as to dress up as an old lady and pose as Wimpy’s grandmother, whom Wimpy hasn’t seen in thirty years. Bill is amazed that Wimpy cannot see through Popeye’s obvious disguise (”Is he dumb?”), but Wimpy is a trickster who is easily susceptible to being tricked.

As Wimpy’s grandma, Popeye sits down to eat a hamburger. Wimpy flatters her and asks for a “bite” of the burger but “she” says no. Then Wimpy begins snapping his teeth at the burger, and “Grandmother” is outraged that Wimpy has “absolukely no self-control.” Thwarted again, Wimpy goes further than we’ve seen before in this book and, yes, actually begins choking his “grandmother.” His id is in full control: Dark Wimpy is unleashed. “Grandmother” rebukes Wimpy, who begins weeping with shame: “I’m sorry! Heavens! What did I almost do?” But his dark side overwhelms Wimpy again: he snaps at the burger, jumps on “grandmother,” demanding the burger: “Curse you, grandmother!” The disguised and disgusted Popeye finally stops Wimpy by hitting him.

However rough and violent in his manners, Popeye is an idealist and a true hero who adheres to and enforces his code of morality. Wimpy is neither hero nor idealist, but a flawed man driven by his natural drives, notably his appetite. Yet somehow they belong together as a team, like the similar pairings of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or Tamino and Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

And in the grand finale to my Wimpython, I will turn to the renowned “Plunder Island” storyline in Fantagraphics’ Popeye Vol. 4, in which the team of Popeye and Wimpy faces its ultimate test when both confront the strip’s archvillainess, the Sea Hag.

Warning to my faithful readers: I am in the process of moving from New York City back to my home town near Boston. So there may be a week or two when I won’t be posting a new “Comics in Context.” But rest assured that once I have Internet access set up at my new home, “Comics in Context” will be back!

-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson

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One Response to “Comics in Context #240: Wimpy in Love”

  1. David Gerstein Says:

    Peter, I’m really enjoying your Wimpython—but I don’t think “Plunder Island” really ought to be the finale. There are some very interesting later occurrences of Wimpy-affection and Wimpy-generosity in stories following after that…

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