Popeye’s Island Adventures: Popeye gets a birthday without Shorty for once


King Features Syndicate has clearly decided to try reintroducing Popeye to the popular culture for the 90th anniversary of his debut and 100th anniversary of the Thimble Theatre comic strip he debuted in and took over. Part of this is a cute weekly comic feature, drawn by a host of different artists, called Popeye’s Cartoon Club. Part of this is surely this whole Island Adventures project. This week’s cartoon, Popeye’s Birthday, suggests that the two-minute shorts started publishing a few weeks late. The cartoon just missed the 90th anniversary of the character’s debut. (I don’t know whether Popeye has a canonically established birth date. I would imagine if he has, then it’s been contradicted several times. His debut date is as good a choice as we can have.)

After last week’s honestly baffling cartoon this was a comfortably straightforward story. Olive Oyl organizes a surprise birthday party for Popeye. Bluto tries to crash it. Along the way, Eugene has to delay Popeye from stumbling into the party before it’s ready. Everybody’s doing things for reasons that make sense.

So here’s something I noticed about Bluto trying to crash the party: nobody even knows he’s doing it. That Olive Oyl is able to hang Bluto as a piñata by accident is absurd in a way that I like a little bit more each time I think about it. Later, he tries to grab Popeye’s spinach(?) cake with a fishing line, and just swipes the garbage instead. Nobody cares. In principle, I like the subtle ridiculousness of his schemes failing so badly he goes unnoticed. But it does mean the first time Olive Oyl or Popeye see him is when he falls on the cake. And that’s a thing he wasn’t trying to do.

This is another good bit of situational irony. But it makes Popeye’s and Olive Oyl’s retribution disproportionate. It feels unfair, at least unless you suppose Popeye knows when someone deserves it. Which, yes, Popeye does. One of the earliest Thimble Theatre stories with Popeye has him slugging the bad guy every time he’s on panel, with no in-character justification beyond a Columbo-like awareness that this is the bad guy. Hm. Maybe I’m the one interrogating this text from the wrong perspective.

I like how Eugene’s best idea for distracting Popeye is to shove him into a chair and start juggling. And the off-screen escalation of the juggling that still bores the Sailor Kid. Bluto’s fantasy that a big can of spinach will let him turn into a giant and chase Popeye is a cute, odd bit of kid logic. Although I guess it’s not out of line with what happened to Bluto’s tooth. (It’s reusing the walk cycle from Scramble For The Egg and I would have sworn at least one more cartoon, too. The same banana model’s being reused, too.)

It’s nagging at me how much Popeye’s been a reactive character the last few storylines. In each case it’s understandable. You can’t throw much of a surprise birthday party for someone and have them be the character who drives the story, unless the story is them spoiling the surprise. But not every short has to have every character doing everything. Even if there were more than two minutes for it.

Is the project to reintroduce Popeye working? I don’t know. My love noticed at the mall this weekend a small child wearing a winter jacket with Olive Oyl and Eugene the Jeep on it. And one of the contestants had to guess the price of a can of spinach ($1.29) on The Price Is Right today. So that’s something. Meanwhile I keep watching Popeye’s Island Adventures, and leaving my thoughts about them at this link.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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