Apr 23, 2017

Bobby London's Homoerotic, Homophobic Popeye

You may not know this, but E. C. Segar's  Thimble Theater comic strip, which first appeared in 1919, has never gone out of publication (and it's still called Thimble Theater, even though Popeye has been the undisputed star since 1929).

After Segar's death in 1938, Tom Sims took over the strip, then Bill Stein, and most notably Bud Sagendorf, who introduced Popeye and his costars to the fads and foibles of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (here Popeye battles a beatnik).

In 1986, Sagendorf decided to retire, and the syndicate hired 38-year old Bobby London to draw Thimble Theater.

Perhaps an odd choice: London was an underground comic artist whose work appeared in such disrespectable publications as National Lampoon and Playboy.  His most famous character, Dirty Duck, was foul-mouthed, sleazy, and amoral.

When London took over the strip, he resurrected characters who hadn't been seen since the days of Segar, such as Olive Oyl's parents, her brother Castor, her ex-boyfriend Ham Gravy, the prehistoric man Toar, and Alice the Goon.  He also introduced the conceit that the characters had actually been alive since the early 1900s (although they hadn't aged), and were confused and befuddled by the craziness of the 1980s.

The fun was in the juxtaposition of the 1930s characters with 1980s life: Olive taking aerobic classes, Poopdeck Pappy on a skateboard, the Sea Hag opening a disco, Castor Oyl trying to use a fax machine.

The gay-subtext friendship between Popeye and Castor Oyl was still intact, although muted by making them both rather aggressively hetero-horny.

In spite of his radical past, London was quite conservative, and his fear and distrust of this brave new world came out often.

And, occasionally, a dose of pure homophobia.

Of course, London was homophobic in his underground comic days, but one can forgive his depiction of a gay man as a bearded drag queen named Tiger Lily who gets into a multi-sexual orgy.  It was, after all, 1972 only a few years after Stonewall.

But not in 1988, when Castor Oyl says that tv wrestling is "real rough stuff," but Popeye begs to differ.

Take a closer look at the limp-wristed, eyelashed hair stylist.  Not much has changed in 16 years.

In June 1992, London began a continuity in which Olive Oyl receives a Baby Bluto doll, and decides to get rid of it.  Passerbys think that she intends to get an abortion.

Worried over even the implication of the a-word, the syndicate fired London and refused to run the continuity.  They've been running repeats of Sagendorf strips ever since.

See also: Popeye, the First Gay Superhero.

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