The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History

By Robert C. Harvey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
What This Country Needed Was a Good Segar Popeye and the Great Depression

Before crossing the threshold into Thimble Theatre, let us pause here under the marquee to salute the signal accomplishments of that strip's creator, Elzie Crisler Segar. Segar did not shape the medium of comic strip art as Roy Crane did in Wash Tubbs or Harold Foster in Tarzan or Alex Raymond in Flash Gordon or Milton Caniff in Terry and the Pirates. But that is not surprising: Segar's work was--and is--inimitable. He did not therefore set a pattern that others could follow. Segar was an exemplar of a different sort: in his strip, he conducted a persuasive demonstration of the sorts of things this narrative art could do. He exploited the possibilities of the form, plumbing its unique capabilities. And in the process, he created one of the most unforgettable characters in twentieth- century fiction, and he constructed a morality play of profound and lasting import.

Popeye was born at the brink of that economic and social watershed that divided the prosperous Roaring Twenties from the hardscrabble Depression thirties. And the time of his birth and the period of his development have as much to do with his greatness as does the excellence of the strip and the genius of its execution. The Depression years were terrible for many of those reading the funny pages in the nation's newspapers, but those years were the golden years in the history of the comic strip. The times and their technology conspired to enable the medium to flourish as it never had before (and never would again). As might be expected, some of the distinctive character of the 1930s emerged as a direct consequence of what happened in the 1920s.

The 1920s in America roared with the exuberance of a nation shaking off the fetters of the Victorian era, it roared with the defiance of the young rebelling against outmoded conventions and mores, it roared with the outrage of the older generation at the audacious behavior of their offspring, and it roared with the sound of cash registers ringing up sales in celebration of the country's unprecedented prosperity. Underlying all the roaring was another sound--a hum. A quiet hum at first, quiet but persistent. A hum that grew in volume until it became a steady drone and then, finally, a thunderous rumble. It was the sound of business enterprise, of manufacturing and commerce. It was the sound of twentieth-century America.

In the wake of World War I production efficiencies and the modern manufacturing developments that made them possible, America was converting to a mass production, mass consumption economy. In this new economy, the congenial itinerant peddler of yore quickly disappeared from the national scene, elbowed out of the way by the more aggressive salesman, that predator of the marketplace who cajoled or seduced the consumer into con

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