Unlike actors and Ashton Kutcher, cartoon characters can’t decide what products or ideologies they endorse in their off-time. Snoopy has no say in whether he sells MetLife. The Ninja Turtles most definitely get high — they are pizza-eating sword collectors named after artists — but they have to warn kids off drugs anyway.
And Popeye, the cursing, brawling sailor man, had to learn a whole new vocabulary in the 1970s, to teach kids about their career options in a series of educational comic books.
Culture writer Alan Scherstuhl examines one of these comics, Popeye and Consumer and Homemaking Careers, on his comic book history blog Gone & Forgotten. Even with Popeye’s boosterism, says Scherstuhl, the comic makes the employment landscape look bleak.
It doesn’t help that Popeye talks like a US government-commissioned educational film and not like Popeye. “Interior decorators and designers are creative people,” he tells Olive Oyl while rowing a boat in Central Park. “Their job has to do with ideas as well as people.” These long speeches sound weird coming from Popeye’s abstract half-pipe of a mouth.
Scherstuhl has been carrying the educational Popeye torch for years; he wrote about the comic series in 2010 for LA Weekly, inserting juicy panelswhere an unsettlingly articulate Popeye narrates, “House maids are not required to be high school graduates. Most girls acquire the skills they need in this work while they are growing up in their own homes.”
Scherstuhul compares these with the original comic, where Popeye punches his friends on the jaw and delivers lines like “I’ll sock ‘im til I croaks an I’ll poke ‘im in the eye with me spirik after — an’ I ain’t dead yet neither.”
Thanks to this dissonance, Popeye’s presence only heightens the absurdity of the comic’s claims, undercutting their depiction of a Richard Scarry world where every housekeeper can work their way up the ranks, where service workers are polite and thankful and treated well in turn, where anyone can make it. It’s as realistic as a world where Popeye is a well-spoken career counsellor.