"BE adequite," wrote Lindsay Lohan, signing off on her heartfelt missive reflecting on the death of Robert Altman, her director in "A Prairie Home Companion." The misspelling caused titters in the usual gossip venues, but for a reader of the new collection of E.C. Segar's original Popeye comics, Lohan's variant has its charms. From the start (1929), Popeye has entertained us as much by creatively mangling the language as by drubbing a wide variety of his opponents. Few sentences emerge from the mouth of the weirdly muscled old salt in anything close to standard English: "Insinuate" is "incinerate," "coincidence" becomes "coincerdents," and m's and n's tend to cross-migrate if they find themselves in the same word. His most bewildering speech impediment is the replacement of t's with k's. Thus we have "personaliky," "fisks," and the oft-repeated "evil spiriks." (Lohan could rent her idol's 1980 film adaptation for an effective audio version.) Such deviations aren't especially funny the first time around or even the tenth, but eventually you find yourself marveling at this near-mythical sailor's odd charisma and the brisk inventiveness of his creator.
The genesis and success of Popeye, who still appears in newspapers, are as fascinating as his garbled speech. Elzie Crisler Segar, born in 1894, grew up in small-town Illinois, often working as a sort of backstage entertainer accompanying silent films on the drums or operating the projector. After completing an 18-month comic-strip correspondence course, he went to Chicago to seek his fortune. A meeting with Richard F. Outcault -- creator of "The Yellow Kid," the first comic-strip character -- led to a short-lived Charlie Chaplin-based comic strip in 1916. Segar followed this with a strip starring a diminutive WWI doughboy and a local feature called "Looping the Loop." By the end of 1919, he was drawing a strip called "Thimble Theatre" for William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. This theater was to feature performances by a cast of thespians including Olive Oyl, but Segar shortly abandoned the conceit in favor of depicting the actors' offstage lives. The focus settled on Olive Oyl and her family -- father, mother and stubby, money-mad brother Castor -- and Ham Gravy, her nondescript suitor. It took nearly a decade, or about 3,500 strips, for Popeye to swim into view.
Thus he doesn't appear in the first 100 or so strips in this gratifyingly dense collection (which kicks off a six-volume reprint project). The initial story line centers on Castor's unwanted pet -- the rare, doting "whiffle hen," Bernice. She's boxy but endearing, looking like a displaced resident of Segar contemporary George Herriman's "Coconino County." For a long stretch, Castor Oyl tries to kill off Bernice in nearly every strip, like a more murderous Ignatz Mouse. Once he's made peace with the indestructible fowl, Castor is offered dizzying sums of money for her by various competing agents. It turns out that stroking her head bestows gambler's luck, and Castor prepares to fleece a casino on distant Dice Island.
The date is Jan. 17, 1929. Castor spots Popeye and asks if he's a sailor. The one-eyed, rolled-cuffed, astonishingly ugly figure responds in five feisty words (" 'Ja think I'm a cowboy?") that announce his unshakable identity and suggest an entire lifetime already lived, and lived hard. The menacing slouch, the anchor tattoo on a stubbly arm, the alarming puckering at the pants crotch -- Segar could be forgiven for not realizing that this grotesque whimsy would be his ticket to pop-culture immortality. (Segar would have less than a decade left to manage "Thimble Theatre"; he died of leukemia in 1938.)
Though Castor is calling the shots, Popeye proceeds to steal the show in the next episode, when Snork, a disgraced casino employee turned deranged pursuer, unloads 16 bullets into him. "Snork at Sea" is a furious, page-turning tale utterly different in tone from the lighthearted adventures of Bernice or a subsequent pair of mystery stories in which Castor and Popeye play detective. It's an indication of the flexibility that "Thimble Theatre's" format afforded Segar. As Coulton Waugh noted in his 1947 history "The Comics," the bulletproof interlude "is the first hint that Popeye has entered the company of Paul Bunyan and other folk heroes invested with supernaturalism," yet curiously he remains (unlike Superman) identifiably human. In his next appearance, after an absence of nearly six weeks, he's seen shooting craps, and he regularly gambles away anything he gets.
The very name held the seeds of the hero's success: popular "I." A man of little patience, immune to education, allergic to introspection, he nevertheless has an irreducible philosophy that drops the pesky cogito from Descartes and triples what's left: "I am what I am an' tha's all I yam!" But what is he? Segar sets up Popeye as both an unbeatable warrior and magnet for verbal abuse, thus giving him a moral dimension. He's called everything from a "shipwreck in the face" to a "dishfaced mud fence," and if you scrutinize his features, you may see things you wish you hadn't. But his sheer ugliness is part of his appeal: There's a moment of comic-strip satori, several dozen pages in, when you realize the depth of emotion conveyed by that perpetually sour, nearly immobile face, with the pipe jammed in at a fantastically steep angle.
Reading the saga from the start, it seems likely that the Depression became a crucible for fans' ardor. Popeye is self-sufficient, fatalistic; he's a survivor, with or without money. It's strange to see Castor's Dice Island scam giddily unfold in the strips of March 1929, sacks of cash flying out the window as quickly as he can win them. And this is the beauty of such a comprehensive project: In the strip that ran on Black Tuesday, Castor and Popeye learn that they've invested all their Dice Island millions in a nonexistent "brass mine." Popeye's reaction -- his mantra -- seems apt: "Well blow me down."