60s Popeye: revisiting the Incident at Missile City

Incident At Missile City has a story credited to Howard A Schneider. The director is Seymour Kneitel. Which tells us this cartoon was made by Paramount Cartoons, formerly Famous Studios, formerly Fleischer Studios. So these are people who know how to draw Popeye, even if they had just spent a decade not doing a single interesting thing with him. This is the first time I’ve looked at a Paramount-animated cartoon since I stumbled into reviewing these systematically.

King Blozo is one of the comic strip characters who somehow never made it to the screen before the 60s. At first glance, this seems odd. He’s a good character in the comics, a beleaguered monarch who needs Popeye to save him from doom on all sides. His lone comfort is reading the comic strips. Big mood, the kids say. But I can see where King Blozo and his land of Spinachovia work better in the open-ended serial-comic adventure. They can take as much time for his silliness as anyone wants. If you just have a six-minute cartoon, though, is the overhead of explaining these people need Popeye to fight someone for them worth it? Why not just have the villains pick a fight with Popeye? Blozo’s fun, on the page, but it’s not like he has a dynamic personality or a great catchphrase or anything. Of course, if he were animated more, maybe we’d find a side of him that’s more animation-ready.

There’s at least one compelling reason. It’s implicit here. Voyaging to Spinachovia, and to King Blozo’s land, shifts the landscape. It justifies stepping into stranger and more surreal territories. There’s a base level of unreality in Popeye anyway: his superhuman strength, and the way it can be transmitted by spinach. The magical powers of the Jeep and, before Eugene, the Whiffle Hen. Goon Island. Besides spinach, though, these are all intrusions from outside the normal world; they come from uncharted corners of the world.

Beauty contest judging lineup at Missile City, with a set of hourglass-figure missiles with banners reading 'Miss Jupiter', 'Miss ICBM', 'Miss Sputnick' [sic], and 'Miss Pioneer'.
Two of the many questions this scene raises: why are living missiles so sexually dimorphic? And, “Sputnick”?

And so going to one, even one with a familiar-ish name like Spinachovia, justifies going to a surreal place. Here it’s Missile City, one inhabited by missiles with faces. It’s a weird premise. It makes me think of those little plot cul-de-sacs that L Frank Baum would sometimes put into a Wizard of Oz novel, where they spend a chapter in the city of living kitchen utensils or animate china dolls or something like that. We get a bunch of spot jokes about the world as anthropomorphic missiles would build it. (This is an especially strong feeling since the Missile City leader is this jolly fellow who wants to show off. And calls himself mad. And is honestly a bit ineffective.) And then King Blozo screws things up and we return to the plot. Missile City’s invading Spinachovina to secure spinach; Popeye settles things with some punching and the explanation that you can just grow spinach, you know.

If you allow the core crazypants assumption behind this story, that of a city of living missiles, it’s a pretty solid cartoon. Missile City has a coherent reason for attacking Spinachovina. King Blozo has good reason for calling in Popeye. Popeye gets to save the day for everybody. The animation is competent, as you might expect from people who could draw Popeye in their sleep, and spent the 50s doing so. It looks inexpensive — notice Popeye covering his mouth to say things — but not ever bad. If the series kept to this level of imagination, storytelling, and animation then the King Features Syndicate cartoons would likely have a much better reputation.

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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