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.

Wizardless


I want to talk a little about playing pinball lately, and I know not everybody is even aware you can play pinball lately, what with it not being 1978 anymore, so let me bring folks up to speed. In the old days pinball machines were relatively sedate affairs: the backglass and playfield art would be a picture of, oh, whatever, wizards in space, or boaters being tormented by Neptune, or the background characters of Mary Worth singing. On the table there’d be a bunch of bumpers, which are the mushroom-shaped things you’d think would be called kickers that kick the ball around; and a pair of kickers, which are the triangular things above the flippers that you’d think would be called bumpers; and the flippers, which are just flippers; and a bunch of drop targets, which are the things you aim the ball at and that fall down when you hit them. And the rule set was pretty straightforward: the targets would be themed to either sets of playing cards or else pool balls, and you would try to knock them all down, and if you managed that, they popped back up and you try to knock them down again.

Then someone went and invented computers, and put them in pinball machines, and they also added ramps just too late for the people who made the Evel Kneivel pinball machine, and it all got complicated because the rules could change, giving you, like, eight seconds to shoot the world’s steepest, most inaccessible ramp ever, in exchange for 2.25 billion points. With scores that enormous being thrown around, of course, they had to get corporate sponsorship for their themes and so wizards playing 9-ball in a baseball park wouldn’t cut it anymore. These days a pinball machine is themed to a popular movie/TV show franchise, a comic book superhero, or a band, which is why pinball magnate Gary Stern has been polishing his Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park reboot script for years.

I should say that while pinball scores got kind of out of control back there in the 90s there’ve been efforts to rein them back in, so that a normal good score is only like tens of millions anymore. Some machines have been pretty serious about reducing the score, though: the current world record for The Wizard of Oz pinball is 4, although a guy playing in the Kentucky state championships this year has a new strategy he hypothesizes will let him score 6 or, if the table is generous about giving extra balls, maybe even 7. He’s daft.

Anyway, a couple weeks ago, I had a really good game of The Walking Dead, a pinball machine of such fantastic complexity that nobody knows what all the rules are. The leading theory is that there’s actually just a seed program inside that develops new rules on the fly, so that every time someone works out “OK, if I shoot the ramp three times something good happens”, it’ll suddenly change to, say, “you have to shoot the ramp four times after hitting the Creepy Zombie in the middle twice and identify which presidents George Clinton was vice-president for and maybe slip an extra quarter in the coin slot if you know what’s good for you”. But that one time, good grief, but I was hitting everything and starting modes that nobody even knew existed. I put together a score that was about what I would expect if you added together all my Walking Dead games for an eight-month period and put it together into one game.

So. The next league night, when we play for actual competitive points, I knew I was going to flop badly and yes, it happened. On the table Tales of the Arabian Nights I put up a score of 289,180, and trust me, your pinball friends are torn between laughing and thinking with horror of what if it happened to them. Arabian Nights dates to when scores were just starting to get out of hand, so it could have a theme as uncommercial as legends that have enchanted people for centuries, but still. People who walk past it without stopping to play routinely score 600,000, and people who put coins into other machines at the pinball venue — including the change machine or the machine selling gumballs — will often get a million points from Arabian Nights.

I didn’t just flop; I flopped epochally, like if the “Agony of Defeat” guy didn’t just stumble, but also burst into flames and smashed into Evel Kneivel’s rocket-sled on its way to draining. I honestly feel accomplished, and all set for the state championships this weekend.