The Funny Papers

Been reading Vol.3 of the collected Popeye, which is fantastic stuff. Reputation had it that this is the point where E.C. Segar’s newspaper strip really hit the heights, but I wouldn’t quite agree — for me, the stuff really started to work on me partway through voulme 1, and since then everything I’ve read of Popeye, Olive Oyle, Castor Oyle and Wimpy’s adventures has been simply terrific. I particularly enjoy the evolving portrayal of depression-era slang — the phrases used by the characters go through distinct phases, reflecting either the lingo of the day, or Segar’s exposure to it. Partway through volume 1, the word “punk” took hold: “This is a punk country,” “You punk wife!” etc. The exclamation “Good night!” an expression of alarm or dismay, was popular from day one, but has become less common recently. The dismissive “Ah, be yourself!” just made it’s first appearance in Vol. 3, and looks set to be around awhile.

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Meanwhile, I also picked up The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics (unwieldy title!) edited by Paul Gravett, which reproduces a chunk of Secret Agent X-9, a detective yarn illustrated by Alex Raymond (before he created Flash Gordon, I think) and written by Dashiell Hammett. Fun stuff (although the pages are printed out of order in my library edition).

Initially, the shock is how clunkily written it is, considering it’s Hammett. Some of the dialogue is pithy and slangy, but a lot of it is comically bald exposition. The plotting is helter-skelter and action-packed, following the traditional pulp dictum that if you get stuck, have a man come through the door with a gun.

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The second shock is how good it is regardless of the sloppiness. Hammett must have been writing fast, and probably without a game plan. But his convoluted scenario is suspenseful and engaging, some of his characters are very winning (there’s a good vamp, and a verbose fat man somewhat in the Greenstreet vein), and there are occasional bon mots: “This is jolly!” remarks X-9 sourly, while balancing on a plank between two tall buildings, one of which is one fire, supporting two falling persons (the accident-prone heroine and her insane father) and being shot at by an army of gangsters disguised as cops.

Also, it appealed to me that the gang boss X-9 is trailing is known as “the Top”.

I’m thinking of getting the movie serial version of this, in hopes that it might have the same naive charm and frenetic brio.

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Lloyd Bridges again!

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21 Responses to “The Funny Papers”

  1. Your mention of Popeye reminded me of the Altman film. It’s one of my favourites by Altman.

  2. Lloyd was also in Trapped, a B noir, along with John Hoyt and legendary bad girl Barbara Payton, one of a number of pretty-darn-good crime films Eagle-Lion was cranking out in the late Forties, among them the Mann-Alton teamups and Port of New York with a pre-bald Yul Brynner. This one’s public domain of course, directed by Richard Fleischer, who also directed a number of other notable noirs as well as a sizable number of other memorable films, from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea to 10 Rillington Place. Bridges never quite hit the heights as an actor, but I liked him a lot, and if it weren’t for him we’d be without The Dude, son Jeff, as well as The Landlord, son Beau. Crime comics were huge during the Forties here in the States, along with practically every other genre imaginable, selling in the millions back then.

  3. I was just about to bring up Popeye Peter. I remember Shelley Duvall saying everyone always said she was born to play Olive, ans she was quite happy do so in that she had just finished shooting The Shining “where I was crying all the time.”

    It’s not top-drawer Altman but far from negligible. And Harry Nilsson’s score is great.

  4. Popeye and Flash Gordon were the last comic book films that really tried to capture the feel of a comic book-they really drew attention to their roots. Since then all comic book films (a burgeoning genre these days) have taken the Richard Donner Superman route and striven for as much versimiltude as possible. It does mean we ultimately get films like Dark Knight amongst the glut but I miss the self-concious charm of those earlier films.

  5. I guess Dick Tracy tried for a more comic book style, but the problem there was the script. Guillermo del Toro has said “I think most comic book movies are made by people who don’t like comic books and despise those who do.”

    I like the Altman a lot. Appalling that he had to fight for Shelley D as Olive, over the objections of Don Simpson. DS: “Well, *I* don’t want to fuck her, and if I don’t want to fuck her she shouldn’t be in the movie.”

  6. Arthur S. Says:

    Well Don Simpson is a *beep* horrible human being who was a S&M freak. I’ll never forgive that specimen for burying WHITE DOG.

  7. Your first Alex Raymond illustration inevitably brings this example of slangy poetry to mind …

  8. Well um the recent Frank Miller adaptations are also obviously an exception, but what really was the point? Indeed why would you WANT to capture the feel of a comic book in a film, when to my mind Donner’s Superman actually achieves something more? Reeves’ one-man double-act however is a thing of beauty, as is Burton’s second Batman film, which still gets better every time I see it. In fact possibly those films that best capture the joy and unapologetic oddness of comics are original works like Buckaroo Banzai or Kung Fu Shuffle, works that don’t have to stress too much about serving the source material. I do agree that stuff like X Men achieves less by dumping the colourful spandex without coming up with anything smarter, but I’d also include Dark Knight among the failures. That film (unlike Batman Begins) really just makes no sense as a standalone film, particularly once Harvey “Remember what you used to call me at Law School?! SAY IT! THAT’S RIGHT!!! TWO-FACE!!! AND LOOK AT ME NOW! I LITERALLY HAVE TWO FACES!!! HAPPY NOW?!!” Dent has his accident; I find it every bit as unpleasant as Clockwork Orange. Surely watching a man dressed as a bat fight a man dressed as a clown should have SOME element of fun ar at least romance to it, but I may have already said that here.
    Also, js, Altman’s Popeye (which personally I hate) owes a lot to the cartoons (how else could we know what he sounds like?) just as Flash Gordon (which I love) owes a lot to the serials… these are not simply comic book films. I don’t know, for me “self-conscious” and “charm” aren’t two words that sit very easily together.

    By the way, did anybody else know Edison’s Frankenstein is up online? I didn’t even know the thing still existed!

  9. Vintage Krupa.

    Good points, Simon. My one problem with Altman and Pfeiffer’s Popeye is the static and episodic nature of the story — the strip usually has more sense of direction, which is terribly useful in a movie too.

    I have an affection for the Donner Superman, and I agree that Reeve is magnificent. In a way it’s perversely good that he never found another role to equal that one, because he is and always will be Clerk & Supes. And Margot Kidder was a bizarre casting choice that really works. Hackman too. There’s a nice balance between the need for more reality and psuchology, and the fact that too much of those would kill it stone dead. Of course it did go four or five times over the original budget so you can understand why Donner wasn’t asked back.

    I wonder how Dark Knight would play as a standalone? I liked it better than the first one, but for me they both suffer from overinflation, and action sequences that go on too long, are overly noisy and don’t do enough to advance the plot (but, in a break from modern fashion, they do advance it a LITTLE). Agree that some sense of flair and panache and romance would be nice.

  10. I find Batman to be a throughly exhausted character. He does nothing for me.

    Unlike Judex.

  11. As for Superman, I’ve always preferred Jimmy Olsen.

  12. One one level, Batman is a millionaire who gets his kicks out of beating up street hoodlums, ie poor people. Rarely does anyone address this.

    Judex is a great thing, both versions. A pretty schematic character, maybe, but it’s the cinematic world he inhabits that’s so alluring.

  13. Excellent point about hoodlums. Maybe Orson Welles would have addressed that. Did you ever come acoss that hoax? I lose no sleep over the “Heart of Darkness” that never was, but man do I wish Welles’ first feature had been, say, this:

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=iU0Ivs55-Hw

    (Welles lost “Batman” would also have made a much better MacGuffin for “Flicker”, given it was the Cathars who invented the “Homme qui rit”).

  14. Excellent point about the hoodlums. Maybe Orson Welles would have addressed that – Did you ever come across that hoax? I lose no sleep over the “Heart of Darkness” that never was, but man do I ever wish Orson’s he’d made a better version of, say, this:

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=iU0Ivs55-Hw

    (Welles’ lost “Batman” would also have made a better MacGuffin for “Flicker”, given it was the Cathars who invented the “Homme Qui Rit.)

  15. Arthur S. Says:

    JUDEX is terrific because on one level he’s totally banal but on the other he’s a complete enigma and the scene where he comes to that ball with that headdress is one of the all-time great entrances ever. Franju said that he originally wanted to do FANTOMAS but was stuck with JUDEX and so his film is a hommage to both. But there’s more of FANTOMAS in JUDEX. And in the film many times, the bystanders, the extras play key roles in capturing the bad guys.

    The issue with BATMAN is that he’s essentially a kinder, gentler Dr. Mabuse. He’s rich, he’s a master of disguises and various physical and mental disciplines. This wouldn’t make him a bad character provided he was more anarchic except here he’s fighting for banal boring social reforms. What’s interesting about Superman by contrast is that he’s someone who isn’t comfortable with the power that he has but obviously likes being able to fly and leap tall buildings in a single bound and who tries to restrain himself. As Clark Kent he identifies greatly with the likes of Jimmy Olsen. So he’s kind of a symbol for democracy and responsibility and him being from another planet kind of makes him the definitive immigrant.

    With Spider-Man you have the democracy of Superman and the neurosis of Batman mixed together, he is dedicated to protect a society that doesn’t deserve him and like Batman has more in common with the villains he fights than with the citizens he claims to like. The strangest part about BATMAN and SPIDERMAN is that they don’t really make a strong personal choice. They pretend that they do it because something bad happened to them whereas SUPERMAN chooses to be SUPERMAN. He doesn’t live in bad faith unlike the other two.

  16. Superman can be viewed as America’s idealised self-image: all-powerful, but using that power for pure ends. In that sense, he’s by far the bigger fantasy, not just because he has outrageous superpowers.

    Batman is closer to being an allegory for how American society actually works, the wealthy oppressing the poor with all the technology at their disposal.

    The Marvel characters generally have a more developed sense of soap opera, and they tend to be unpopular with the public in their world, like Spiderman and the X-Men, which IS more realistic. In reality, everybody would hate Superman!

  17. I have actually holidayed at Popeye’s Village in Malta, built especially for the film in one of the most beautiful little coves you can imagine. Nobody goes there now, but they still have a weedy Malt wandering around dressed as Bluto, saying “I keel you weeth my bar hans” to mildly puzzled children. One of the strangest places I’ve ever been, and I’ve been to the Nashville Wax Museum.

  18. My producer chum Nigel visited Malta, but alas, Sweethaven was closed for the season. There should be more standing sets you can visit. If they’d left the sets from Cleopatra intact, maybe the project would have turned a profit by now.

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