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Dean Mullaney has a bit of good news for fans of former Popeye writer and artist Bobby London: The next volume of the Library of American Comics’ collection Popeye: The Classic Newspaper Comics by Bobby London will include the first three weeks of the abortion-themed sequence that got London fired — and six weeks’ worth of unpublished strips that were never sent out to newspapers.
Here’s what happened back in 1992, as related at the time by London in an interview with the Comic Art and Graffix Gallery: After writing a strip in which the Sea Hag said “Drat! There goes Roe v. Wade” without getting any pushback from his editors, London figured the topic was fair game and created a storyline in which Olive Oyl, who has a serious Home Shopping Network addiction, gets a baby robot she doesn’t remember ordering and decides to send it back. Despite the fact that the robot is a spitting image of Bluto, Popeye’s arch enemy, Popeye wants her to keep it. Two clergymen overhear them arguing and jump to the wrong conclusion, that Olive Oyl is “in a family way” by Bluto and wants to get an abortion (although the actual word is not used in the strip — the clergymen just call it “the A-word”). One clergyman muses that she must keep the child, and when the other one points out that Bluto is the son of Satan, he retorts, “You fool!! Without Satan, we’re out of a job!! No Satan, no US … You dig?!!”
In an interview with the Chicago Reader, London maintains his point was to make fun of the villains of the strip, the clergymen, and he added, “Apparently they don’t give Doug Marlette any problems for drawing a comic clergyman in Kudzu and satirizing clergymen topics. I felt I had as much right as Doug Marlette.”
Not so, as it turns out: As the Reader pointed out, Kudzu was a creator-owned strip while Popeye was the property of King Features Syndicate, and London was essentially doing work for hire. His editor, Jay Kennedy, called and told him to do 30 days’ worth of “innocuous” strips and hang up his pen.
When Kennedy made that call, three weeks’ worth of strips had already been sent to papers. The syndicate recalled them, but one paper, the Southtown Economist, ran them all at once, with an article explaining what had happened. Mike Lynch posted part of the sequence on his blog a few years ago, so those strips have been seen before.
But the other big news is that the book will also include another six weeks’ worth of strips, including strips that London drew after he was fired to fulfill his contractual obligation — and that King Features sent right back to him. So this is the first time the end of London’s six-year run on the strip will be collected and published.