I recently finished reading Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent for the first time and found myself in need of a little mental palate-cleansing. I first turned to The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer for the third time... sort of. That book was originally published in 1965, but I always think ot it as a mid-seventies thing because I received my copy for my tenth birthday. The book comprises text in the front, comics in the back. I made a really good effort when I was ten to read through the text, but I felt an almost physical tug from those brightly-colored Golden Age classics pulling me to the back of the book. I tried reading a chapter at a time but, frankly, ending up skimming them more than giving them a deep read. I did read enough of the Superman chapter to realize that Feiffer was pretty much full of $#!t when it came to his philosophy of superheroes (and was dismayed, decades later, when that philosophy was carried over into a popular film) but, apart from that, his book is written with such a joie de vie for comics that it makes a perfect counterpoint to Wertham's bleak Seduction of the Innocent.

The Great Comic Book Heroes was reissued in the early 2Ks (I think it was), but without the comics. I took that opportunity to "re-read it for the first time." But I didn't buy a new edition; I read my HC, in-depth for the first time, but was able to resist the temptation of the comics in the back (which I did read many, many times over in my youth and since). So this was my third time through (or second, depending on your point of view). I enjoyed it immensely, but it is very short and I found myself in need of more "mental palate-cleansing."

That realization led me to All in Color for a Dime, the 1970 collection of fanzine articles edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson. Like Seduction of the Innocent, All in Color for a Dime has achieved nigh-legendary status (in certain circles). Also like SOTI, it had been out of print and difficult to obtain for a number of years. When it was reissued in 1997 I snatched it right up... then let it sit on the shelf for 25 years. I read one chapter per day of SOTI and posted my thoughts as I went along. AICFAD comprises eleven essays so, for the next week and a half, I plan to read and post my thoughts on one essay per day.

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4. "The First (Arf, Arf) Superhero of Them All" by Bill Blackbeard

I've encountered this "Popeye as superhero" idea from time-to-time over the years; I guess this is where it originated. I don't necessarily agree with it, anymore than I agree when the same idea is applied to Bugs Bunny (which I have also heard), but Blackbeard presents a compelling case. "Of far greater interest to Segar and most of his readers," continues Blackbeard, "was Popeye's scrappiness and cheerful contempt for most social conventions, including 'correck' speech." I always attributed Popeye's "superpowers to cartoon physics, but that sentiment I agree with. I must admit, I didn't "get" Segar's Popeye when I first encountered it; appreciation, for me, would come years later. 

"Yet the popularity of Popeye with the public during the heyday of Segar's strip far surpassed anything Superman or any other comic book or strip superhero every knew. Far more people flocked to movie palaces in the thirties to see the Max Fleisher Popeye cartoons (just to see them, in many cases, when the semi-feature-length Popeye specials were released) than ever went to watch the Superman or Batman serials." That's comparing apples and oranges and I take it with a grain of salt (to mix a few metaphors), but Popeye was, undoubtedly, popular. 

"The Segar strip had the widest newspaper subscription of ant comic in history until Schulz's Peanuts of the today." That's a statistic I question, too... or at least I would if it came from anyone else but Bill Blackbeard. "The comic strips of Superman and Batman (both early and later versions) were small potatoes by comparison." That I agree with. "The [theatrical] Popeye cartoons were for a long time the single most popular children's TV series--until their appeal was ruined by the addition of TV-produced originals which lacked the imagination and fantasy of the earlier Fleischer work." Having grown up watching those "TV-produced originals," I agree with that, too. 

It is this paragraph which best sums up the appeal of Segar's Popeye to me: "The fact is that the young Segar--he was 34 when he conceived Popeye--was fascinated with the absurdities and perversions of human behavior, and no other cartoonist ever portrayed the knobbier variations in temperament and motivation so graphically and unforgettably. Segar liked people, particularly people despised by the public at large. He tended to champion their forlorn stand against the world, without losing sight of the antisocial biases and torments that made them what they were. the depth and seriousness of his understanding are always evident beneath the grand comic sporting on the surface, as in the work of the greatest comic artists."

"At initial glance, there appeared to be very little that was prepossessing or impulsive in Segar's style. Mostly, it seemed to be comprised of squiggles and blobs, some of which wore hats and some of which wore smokestacks, with the latter usually subordinate to the former. His characters had dots for eyes, flat ovals (in most cases) for faces, simple peg noses, one-line mouths, and curlique ears, while their hair was a loop or a half dozen sketchy lines. The backgrounds looked, at first, like something turned out desperately as last-minute pulp art."

"Unlike any book of popular or academic interest," Blackbeard laments, "the run of a comic strip cannot be simply plucked off a library shelf or ordered at a book store; nor, like most widely appreciated pieces of graphic art, can it be looked at in a gallery or found reasonably well-produced in a number of accessible forms. This seems decidedly unfair." That may have once been true, but in the New Golden Age of Comics it is true no longer. With "The Library of America Comics" series, IDW is the publisher which has made a greater number of affordable comic strip collection than any other, and Fantagraphics has collected Popeye's entire run, from the character's introduction until Segar's death, in six, handsome, over-size volumes.

Damn. Now I've just added something else to my "to read" pile. 

I've long thought of Popeye as what I call an "ur-super-hero", that is, a character that had many, though not necesssarily all, of the characteristics of what would later be called "super-heroes".  Sherlock Holmes is another character that I think of that way.

I have been a Popeye fan for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of watching the Popeye theatrical cartoons produced by Fleisher/Famous Studios when they were broadcast daily on a dedicated Popeye series that, in our area, was hosted by one Captain Jolly. That was my Popeye. All In Color For A Dime was my introduction to Segars original. One of these days I will get around to picking up those Fantagraphic collections.

As for Popeye being the first super hero - I certainly never thought of him in that way. And as Blackbeard points out, unlike super hero comic book stories, Popeye's powers were never the focus. To Segar Popeye's powers are incidental to the character and the stories he wanted to tell.

There was a stretch of Thimble Theater where the strip mostly focused on Popeye having adventures with Castor Oyl that felt to me almost like a prototype of the Challengers of the Unknown.

I wouldn't say that Popeye was the first super-hero.  To me, Superman is the first "super-hero" as we know them.  But to my mind, Popeye is a step towards the "super-hero", having what are effectively "super-powers" and using them to fight for what's right.

doc photo said:

As for Popeye being the first super hero - I certainly never thought of him in that way. And as Blackbeard points out, unlike super hero comic book stories, Popeye's powers were never the focus. To Segar Popeye's powers are incidental to the character and the stories he wanted to tell.

Baron and Doc Photo Johnson are right!

In that I agree with them. Superman is almost by definition the first superhero. A great many characters supplied elements that Siegel and Shuster consumed and regurgitated in the Man of Tomorrow, but I wouldn't call them superheroes -- again, because they preceded the character who brought all those elements together and whose name is used to define the genre.

And why call them superheroes, when they are so much more? I don't want to weigh down Sherlock Holmes or Popeye with the genre requirements of the superhero, because they are such unique characters on their own. They deserve to stand alone as what they were, not pigeonholed into a huge category that includes the likes of Red Bee and the android Captain Marvel ("Split!").

And of all the Ur-superheroes (great word, Bob), The Phantom probably comes closest to a true superhero, given the costume. But really, he fits better in the jungle-hero model, like Tarzan (also an Ur-superhero). There's also The Shadow, John Carter of Mars, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Sheena, Mandrake the Magician, pulp's The Spider, Robin Hood, King Arthur, Hercules, Doc Savage, biblical Samson, the Lone Ranger, Buck Rogers, Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon and many, many more. Even monsters like Frankenstein's creature and Dracula might count.

They are all Ur-superheroes, but I refuse to categorize them as JUST that. They all happened to contribute something to adventure fiction that was eventually used in the superhero genre, but each of them were unique in their own way in their own time and owed very little to each other. They should be celebrated as such.

I love superheroes. But in the case of Ur-superheroes, stripping them of what makes them unique to fit the genre is step down. And an insult to them. Each could repeat Popeye's confident statement of identity, "I yam what I yam, and that's all that I yam."

Baron and Doc Photo Williams are right!

Not Johnson??

I'm glad I'm running a bit behind today; I wouldn't have wanted to interrupt the discussion. In any case, I don't have much to say about the next chapter, which is pretty straightforward. 

5. "Okay, Axis, Her We Come!" by Don Thompson

This chapter, written by the future editor of the Comics Buyer's Guide, tells the history (again, concise but complete) of the 30-year history of the publisher variously known as Timely/Atlas/Marvel. Regarding the title, I always thought Roy Thomas invented the Invaders' catch-phrase out of whole cloth (as I never encountered it anywhere else before or since), but I'll bet he copped it from here. He has an interesting theory that the "Golden Age of Superheroes" coincides with World War II and the "Silver Age of Superheroes" with Viet Nam. (He also tries, unconvincingly, to tie in the Korean war.) In a clear case of confusing correlation with causation, whoever wrote the introduction opined: "This brief introduction is no place to analyze that record in depth, but if the three cycles of the hero comics and American wars are more than coincidence it certainly offers something to thing about. Much as we all love heroic adventure comics, it would be a small price to pay if giving them up meant giving up war."

I have to keep reminding myself that these essays were written (or at least updated) in 1970. Marvel had only 30 years history behind it at the time; by now it has had an additional 50. 

He has an interesting theory that the "Golden Age of Superheroes" coincides with World War II and the "Silver Age of Superheroes" with Viet Nam. (He also tries, unconvincingly, to tie in the Korean war.)

In 1970, when this edition was published, protests against the Vietnam war were at their height. I think this influenced these statements.

WWII was on everyone’s radar. The entire country was affected by the war, whether or not a family member was serving. Superman and Batman began in 1938 and 1939. The war had begun in Europe but most Americans didn’t think it affected them until Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941. At that point publishers were trying to cash in on the huge sales of the first superheroes.

The Korean War was not on TV like the Vietnam War. Unless a family member was serving it wasn’t front-of-mind for most Americans. It’s unlikely that it affected the publishers and readers. I think EC was the only publisher that recognized it.

By 1960 DC had all of its new heroes being published. Marvel started its heroes in 1961. At that time most Americans hadn’t heard of Vietnam. In 1965, when ground troops finally started to be sent there the Silver Age was half over. Most Americans still didn’t think about Vietnam until the troop levels (and the number of draftees and deaths) increased, particularly between 1967 and 1969. Marvel recognized the Vietnam War in a handful of stories. A few smaller publishers did gung ho military stories. Warren did more realistic stuff in Blazing Combat. The title was driven out of existence by distributors and the Defense Department.

At the time, it appeared that Roy Thomas was the only writer who acknowledged that Marvel had a Golden Age. 

The reprints that appeared in Fantasy Masterpieces and Marvel Super-Heroes were stunning, with Simon & Kirby, Burgos, Everett and Maneely. Rare treasures included the Sub-Mariner Vs Human Torch issue and the two adventures of the All Winners Squad! 

"Doc Samson"

I'm gonna assume you meant "Doc Savage", Skipper.

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