Prochoice Popeye, the Silenced Sailor Man

Another spiritual loose cannon just got pushed off the corporate deck. Cartoonist Bobby London, who writes and draws Popeye, made the big mistake of devoting his strip to the constitutional right that dare not speak its name. He did not get away with it.

At the 11th hour King Features, a division of the Hearst Corporation, awoke to a horrific truth: Popeye had taken up abortion! Worse, a position could be discerned through London’s whimsy, and that position was inarguably prochoice. London’s abortion sequence, five weeks’ worth of strips, was to begin last Monday in the 24 American papers that carry Popeye. But last Friday King sent each paper a fax withdrawing the strips. The same day, the syndicate told London he was through.

The first three weeks’ worth of strips had already been distributed to client papers. And instead of meekly following orders, the Southtown Economist staged a publishing coup last Monday by running all of them at once, along with an article by assistant features editor Ted Cox (a Hot Type predecessor of ours) examining the scandal. The strips are appropriately goofy. The “story line” flirts with incoherence.

The idea is that “Fed’ral Expressk” has delivered to Olive Oyl a hideous “baby Bluto” doll, which she and Popeye decide “has got ta go back ta his maker.” A couple of busybody priests overhear and think Olive is planning an abortion. Olive Oyl calls on the Sea Hag, who also misunderstands. “There’s this baby, Missus Sea Hag . . . sort of . . . it was totally unplanned,” Olive Oyl tries to explain. “They always come to me during a Republican administration,” the Hag mutters. About then a stink bomb sails through her window.

Meanwhile Popeye has decided “ta keep the li’l swab.” Olive Oyl won’t hear of it. “I don’t want my life ruined by that bratty little bundle of bolts . . . and no male-dominated old-boy network can make me keep him!!” she bellows at her sailor man.

“Olive Oyl was not pregnant in the cartoon and she did not have an abortion. So the essential innocence of her character was not marred or sullied in any way,” Bobby London tells us. “I left any kind of commentary to the villains of the strip.”

Who were clergymen, we remind him.

“Who were comic villains, not serious villains.”

But clergymen, we persist.

“Apparently they don’t give Doug Marlette any problems for drawing a comic clergyman in Kudzu and satirizing clergymen topics. I felt I had as much right as Doug Marlette.”

But Bobby London doesn’t have as much right as Doug Marlette. Marlette draws for Creators Syndicate, which allows its cartoonists to own their properties. London owned nothing. The immortal Elzie Segar created Popeye back in 1929 for a strip that was then called Thimble Theatre–and London was the latest in a line of cartoonists King paid to keep the strip going. Popeye’s heyday is decades past, but the strip is valuable to King because of the various licensing agreements it supports. “The Popeye merchandising was good and still is,” says Bill Yates, the King comics editor who hired London in 1986. “But the comic strip Popeye was not doing well.”

It’s next to impossible to imagine a comic strip as screwy as Thimble Theatre–peopled by Popeye and Olive Oyl, Wimpy and the Sea Hag–being launched by a major syndicate today. Segar’s spiritual descendants are underground cartoonists. Growing up, Bill Yates admired Segar so much he took a correspondence course from him. And when he needed someone to take over the daily strip, he knew where to look.

London got his start underground. He’s the creator of Dirty Duck, “based on a wino who sold pencils on 32nd Street when I was working for underground papers.” Dirty Duck debuted in 1970 in the Los Angeles Free Press, later got picked up by the National Lampoon, and eventually ran in Playboy. “I’ve been drawing since I was four years old,” London told us. “Elzie Segar’s the guy who made me decide I wanted to be a cartoonist.”

“He’s a terribly creative young man,” said Yates. “He’s really offbeat. But you know, Elzie Segar was offbeat too.”

In 1987 Yates retired. To replace him King Features brought in Jay Kennedy, a comix product himself, author of articles and publisher of catalogs. “They hired him as well as me because of their bid to become a very hip corporation,” London tells us. “Apparently they want to walk the walk but they don’t want to talk the talk.”

After last week’s Popeye blowup, Kennedy stopped talking period. He took no phone calls and issued a feckless statement: “King Features Syndicate gives a lot of creative leeway to the cartoonists it works with and checks the material for appropriateness when it is delivered. These Popeye strips were not approved and should not have been mailed.”

London likes Kennedy. He blames “higher-ups in the Hearst Corporation, the older generation of people who run the company.” But it was Kennedy who called and told him he had 30 more days to draw what London calls “very innocuous stuff” and then he’d be history.

“I was told I’d ignored their previous warnings,” says London. “He told me I’d been told to, quote, rein myself in, unquote. I wasn’t told that. He’d said, ‘I’ve been told to call you and rein you in.’ I took that as humor.”

London dug a hole for himself at King Features by feuding with the syndicate’s head of licensing when licensing was Popeye’s reason for being. There was a big run-in three years ago over a paperback collection. “He refused to pay me any royalties and he wouldn’t give any promotional budget to the publishers,” London complains.

A few months ago the cartoonist struck back. A new story line found the evil King of Licensing ordering Popeye to go back to the white sailor’s hat he’d worn in the 60s–the King wanted to merchandise it. Trouble was, everyone in Sweethaven who put on one of those godawful hats turned into a mindless zombie. Popeye confronted the King of Licensing on the Isle of Licensing, but as fast as Popeye gulped down spinach the runty despot ate dollar bills, which made him even stronger. He mopped the floor with London’s hero. Popeye got so dizzy his white hat fell off . . . and finally the spinach kicked in! He jammed the white hat down on the King’s head. “The King not only became an idiot,” London tells us, “he became a cartoonist.”

Jay Kennedy called and said the boys upstairs hadn’t much enjoyed the King of Licensing and it was time to rein London in.

Ten years ago, in another life, Kennedy published the Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide. There was a short article in it by cartoonist Joe Schenkman reminiscing about the early days at the Rat in New York. Schenkman remembered “Bobby London, who dropped by the Rat offices with sketchbooks crammed with Elsie Seeger [sic] rip-offs.”

Ripoffs? “A complete lie,” says London, who complained to Jay Kennedy. A decade later he can still hear Kennedy’s response. “Bobby, you believe in freedom of speech, don’t you?”

Comic Complications

A while back, Ted Cox decided to overhaul the Southtown Economist’s comics page. “It had gone to seed,” he tells us. The best strip in the paper was Kudzu, which the Economist picked up after the Tribune dropped it. Popeye certainly had its moments. “And Robotman!” says Cox. “I have a real weakness for Robotman.”

But most of the page was unspeakable.

In Cox’s opinion, the best strip out there that nobody had was Ernie. Ernie is definitely weird: This week’s strips–if only you could see them–have been a series of riffs on “Olympic moose milking.”

But you can’t see them.

Cox thought he had Ernie nailed down. He’d told John Killian, the regional salesman for King Features, that he wanted the strip. It was just a matter of first going through channels at the Economist.

“I got bogged down here with people looking at it,” Cox says. “Finally I called Killian. I couldn’t reach him. I talked to someone in New York and said I wanted to pick up Ernie. Killian called back and said the Trib was looking at it. He’d work to get it in both papers. Then he stalled me a couple of weeks. Finally he said the Tribune had picked it up with an exclusivity clause and we couldn’t get it.”

Was Killian using him to goad the Tribune? Cox thinks so. Killian and John Lux, who’s the Tribune’s comics editor, say no.

At any rate, the Tribune has owned Ernie for a few months now, and it still hasn’t shown up in the paper. “Ernie’s our backup comic,” says Lux. “Generally we buy one backup comic we don’t get in.”

A backup fills the hole when a regular strip gets yanked for a few days, either because it’s veered beyond what a newspaper deems acceptable taste or because the editor wants to find out if anyone misses it.

“Those poor guys–they really want it, huh?” said Lux. “Maybe I should talk to them. I don’t buy to kill. I don’t believe in it. Christ, maybe I’ll give it up to them. It’s not going to take any readers away from the Chicago Tribune to give it to the Economist.”

But not until fall. Lux plans to make some changes in the fall. Ernie may figure in. He hasn’t decided.

“After we got hosed by King we dropped Hazel,” Cox tells us. “We dropped all the King strips we could. Except Popeye.”

Vindictively? we ask.

“They were our worst strips,” Cox says. “We kind of kept Popeye vindictively. Bobby London had a running feud with the syndicate.”

When London was axed, Popeye disappeared.