Roger Langridge is an optimist, and that is a rare commodity in mainstream comics. He has an ability to take the fundamentals of an established character and tweak them, push them to places that can surprise the reader. I believe it reflects who perhaps Langridge may be as a person, that is, someone who really does believe that people, as long as they care for one another, will rally around one another to ensure that the good or the best intentions will win out in the end no matter the circumstance. Outside of the Popeye series, he has shown these narrative talents crafting stories for the original Muppet Show cast or more literary diversions such as Lewis Carroll’s dreamy abstractions in Snarked or even Burroughs’ John Carter.
His ethic of caring is on display fully in this latest issue of his ongoing revival of Popeye, in which everyone’s favorite sailor and friends must help a former foe, Tor, to gain U.S. citizenship. There is a subtle subterfuge involved for full comedic effect centering on a boxing match, but it is the idea of America, representing an idealized early-to-mid-twentieth century land of prosperity and opportunity, that stands out. I posit it is as true today just as it was a century ago (which is where we can fully place Popeye & Co), that immigrants who came to America wanted only the chance to prove they could be citizens, and Tor, who wants citizenship in this issue, is willing to do anything to attain it even fighting someone he considers to be a friend in Popeye. Tor is only pressured into the fight by a sneaky government paper pusher who believes that those who want to be citizens must not only pass a citizenship test but also somehow prove worth by demonstrating capabilities that “no other American has.” The facial features of the immigration officer are devilish, leering, with his awful toothy grins punctuated by a beak-ish nose, clearly enjoying toying with someone as simply as a man abusing power can. I am not sure how much input Langridge gave artist Vince Musacchia, but such are the small touches of expert characterization in comics. In these first few pages of the issue, Langridge and company have provided something we all have felt in our social and professional lives, the pressure of acting on impulse in order to gain something, whether that be status or opportunity. For Tor, that opportunity is something very precious indeed ,and he is literally willing to fight for it.
I want to take what I believe to be one example of Langridge’s stamp upon the conflicted hero in this issue. Popeye himself is torn about the fight. We are presented with his contemplation about everyone he cares about acting funny in one panel as he is walking away after Tor is unable to confront him about the fight. Here, in this compact moment, is one of those wonderful subtle pictorials of quiet character contemplation that feels neither forced nor requisite, it happens and feels natural, evoking an empathy that is hard pressed in stories. Popeye wants to do the right thing, to not come to blows with someone whom he feels he doesn’t need to confront in such a manner, he simply wants an explanation. This is a far cry from the smack-em in the mouth, funny contradictions attitude on display in the first two issues of the series—this is some very nice character development.
Artistically this Popeye revival has seen numerous talents form the indie world on board in these ten issues, notable for me Langridge himself on some art duties as well as the strange and wonderful Tom Neely. The world of Popeye is a place of bright colors, clear blue skies with red brick stove pipe chimneys, orange siding on houses; it is a cartoon fantasy, and in its design it never wavers from that form. In an age where re-invention on the page means drastic over haul, Langridge and company keep the designs and aesthetics that made the original stories appealing in the first place.
I think it makes some reviewers feel better to just lump this take on Popeye as strictly for kids or those into some sort of retro-chic. To do so is a crime, because if other companies with properties would pay attention, the work being done on this title is truly a capital “E” for everyone—everyone that is that loves comics that make them feel good and provide stories that feel genuine through laughter, anger, contemplation and the occasional tear.