By Michael Aushenker
Upon discovering his pet Bernice the Whiffle Hen confers magical powers of luck to its keeper, greedy Castor Oyl enlists Ham Gravy, his sister Olive’s bland boyfriend, in a bid to score some quick cash with a trip across the water to Dice Island. All they need is a ride off the pier.
“Hey there! Are you a sailor?” Castor Oyl asks a craggy man with giant forearms and an anchor tattoo.
“Ja think I’m a cowboy?” the stranger responds.
And with that, Popeye the Sailor Man was born on Jan. 17, 1929.
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It was in the mid-1920s that Santa Monica cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar, nearly a decade into his syndicated comic strip “Thimble Theater,” suddenly felt the urge to paint. Segar struck up a bargain with an artist he saw sketching on the Santa Monica Pier: if Segar would lease a studio and equip it with art supplies, the man would give him painting lessons. Segar, an avid fisherman who liked to cast a line off the pier and would allude to the Santa Monica Rod and Reel Club in his strips, procured an office at a brand new building at Broadway and Fourth Street, now long gone but at the time the tallest in the city.
While the painting lessons never happened, Segar held onto the office as a workspace, where — while reportedly in the grips of a deadly flu bug that was going around — Segar created one of the most enduring cartoon characters of all time, or so writes Segar’s assistant, Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf, the cartoonist who later inherited the syndicated strip, in his 1979 book “Popeye: The First 50 Years.”
Launched in 1919 in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, “Thimble Theater” had initially starred the squat Castor Oyl and Popeye’s skinny future paramour, but the homely one-eyed sailor — whom Olive initially found repugnant — became so beloved by readers that the strip was later renamed “Popeye” after its show-stealing star.
“Popeye is one of the great creations of the 20th century,” said film and animation historian Leonard Maltin. “I think of Segar as an American Charles Dickens.”
For the likes of Maltin and many cartoonists, such high praise is not hyperbole. Along the way of chronicling the Sailor Man’s saga, by-products of Segar’s fertile imagination entered the lexicon as American idioms. The word “goon” comes from the character Alice the Goon, a lackey of the Sea Hag, the last witch on Earth and an early Popeye nemesis. “Jeep,” today associated with the former military vehicle, was swiped from Eugene the Jeep, a mysterious magical animal who joined Popeye on various adventures.
Popeye became so popular with children in the 1930s that sales of spinach spiked dramatically across the U.S.
“Segar was a great storyteller at a time when people really immersed themselves in the comics section of their daily newspaper,” said Bill Griffin, who created “Zippy the Pinhead” for King Features Syndicate, a division of Hearst Corp. that has been home to Popeye since his inception. “He didn’t just create memorable, funny characters. He brought a whole world to life [including Popeye’s hometown] Sweethaven — populated by a wonderful cast of supporting characters.”
That cast also included Swee’ Pea, a foundling left at Popeye’s doorstep; Popeye’s father, Poopdeck Pappy; and Wimpy, the world’s most loveable money-welching mooch.
“Segar’s character design alone puts him in the Hall of Cartoon Giants,” Dan Piraro, creator of the single-panel cartoon “Bizarro,” wrote in an email interview. “I’ve been an avid fan of Popeye since I was a small child. He was perhaps my first cartoon hero. I wanted to eat more spinach to be like him but alas, could never stand the stuff.”
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Born and raised in Chester, Ill., Segar was 18 when he learned to cartoon through a correspondence course. After moving to Chicago, he befriended cartoonist R. F. Outcault (creator of “The Yellow Kid” and “Buster Brown”), a founding father of the American comic strip. Outcault helped Segar land a comic strip gig in 1916 with the Chicago Herald, where he drew “Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Capers.” In 1918, Segar married Myrtle Johnson and Hearst’s Chicago Evening American hired him to create a strip. That strip failed, but it was less than a year before Segar bounced back with “Thimble Theater.”
Popeye’s arrival came less than three decades into the birth of American comics, when the longest running strip at the time was “The Katzenjammer Kids,” which debuted in Hearst’s New York Journal supplement the American Humorist in 1897. In Segar’s era, the American comic strip had little competition from other media, with movies still a nascent phenomenon and TV and the Internet mere science fiction. But Popeye’s fame only grew with the advent of new technology.
Animated theatrical shorts by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, which Paramount Studios put in movie theaters before feature films, cemented Popeye’s position in the American imagination. It was in these black-and-white cartoons, beginning with Popeye’s screen debut during a Fleischer Betty Boop cartoon, that key elements of the Popeye mythos surfaced: Popeye’s trademark laugh and mumble, the catchy theme song, Bluto as Popeye’s eternal adversary, the can of spinach as augmenter of Popeye’s supernatural strength to Superman proportions.
“The Fleischer cartoons are the Holy Grail for animation students and Popeye is the crown jewel,” said King Features Syndicate Editor Brendan Burford.
But where Segar’s cartoons imbued Popeye with a sense of danger, “the Fleischers softened him somewhat,” Maltin said. The tradeoff, of course, was “they also extended his life through the enormous popularity of those cartoons.”
Roger Langridge, who recently wrote a Popeye comic book series, agreed.
“The Fleischer cartoons, I think, made Popeye a much safer (and, to my mind, more boring) character, so, in that regard, I’m sure they’re in a large part responsible for Popeye’s wider success in the culture generally, and the reason he’s remembered today by anyone rather than a few hardcore comic strip aficionados,” Langridge wrote in an email interview from his home in New Zealand.
That did not, however, alleviate tensions behind the scenes. Max Fleischer’s son, Richard Fleischer — a major entertainment figure in his own right, having directed “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Fantastic Voyage,” “Dr. Doolittle” and “Soylent Green” — chronicled strife behind the cartoon in his 1993 memoir “Just Tell Me When To Cry” and his 2005 book, “Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution.”
Popeye was also the center of a bitter rivalry between the Fleischers and Walt Disney over animation supremacy. It was with a trio of Popeye two-reelers (“Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor,” “Popeye Meets Ali Baba and His Forty Thieves” and “Popeye Meets Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp”) that Fleischer Studios innovated full-color animation and depth of field, but Disney beat them to the big screen with the first full-color animated feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” in 1937.
By 1941, internal friction had turned brother against brother within Fleischer Studios, and the two were fired by Paramount. Popeye shorts continued, adding the sailor’s nephews Peepeye, Poopeye, Pipeye and Pupeye but losing the Fleischers’ wit.
Segar did not live long enough see Popeye’s success as other companies, including Hanna-Barbera, kept the cartoon going. Segar died in Santa Monica from complications of leukemia and liver disease in October1938. He was 43.
Bud Sagendorf continued Popeye until 1986, when Bobby London took over the dailies, leaving the Sundays for Sagendorf. Since Sagendorf’s 1994 death, King Features continues to syndicate “Popeye,” rerunning Sagendorf’s weeklies, while Hy Eisman, 87, draws new Sunday episodes.
Burford admits that circulation for “Popeye” has fallen off in recent years, but he attributes it to the character’s success in other media “eclipsing his identity as a comic strip and making him more global.” That said, “it’s worth keeping it going [as a comic strip],” Burford said, adding that King Features still offers original Segar strips for syndication.
Today, a permanent exhibit of Popeye history stands at the Santa Monica History Museum. At Woodlawn Cemetery, walking distance from the building where Popeye was created, E.C. Segar and Myrtle Segar, who died in 1978, lay side by side.
“It’s a shame [Segar] didn’t live long enough to see how popular he became,” said Debbie Brooks, operator of Spinach Can Collectibles, a Popeye-themed museum and store in Segar’s hometown of Chester.
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Myriad publishers have printed Popeye comic books over the decades, but kicking the spinach can forward has recently been a struggle.
“Segar’s always going to be a tough act to follow,” wrote Langridge, who received critical acclaim for his “The Muppets” licensed comics and took up Popeye for San Diego-based IDW publishing.
“Segar was not a natural cartoonist. The first year or two of ‘Thimble Theatre’ are pretty amateurish. It’s clear that Segar really pushed himself hard to make himself better. Complacency seems not to have been Segar’s style,” Langridge continued. “The editors and I were all in sync about wanting to get as much of a Segar flavor in there as possible, so we thought it was worth the effort.”
Even with the blessing and oversight of King Features, IDW’s “Popeye” struggled in the market. After its April 2012 re-launch, “Popeye” sank like an anchor from 12,250 monthly copies to 4,621 by February 2013 (a one-off mash-up, “Mars Attacks Popeye,” sold 7,748 comics in December 2012). Compare that to the all-ages licensed-comics phenomenon “My Little Pony,” which hit the market with 95,384 units in November 2012 and has averaged 40,000 ever since.
Whereas Popeye had once been a television staple — famously for Westside locals on host Tom Hatten’s Sunday morning KTLA telecast “Popeye and His Friends” (1952-1985) — the fracturing of America’s collective attention span has cast Popeye adrift. Despite a pedigree of talent that included director Robert Altman, screenwriter/cartoonist Jules Feiffer, stars Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall and a Harry Nilsson soundtrack, a 1980 live-action film underwhelmed commercially and critically.
But Popeye could be poised for a major comeback on the silver screen
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In 1987, Frank Caruso was working as an artist for MAD magazine rival Cracked when King Features’ Grant King needed a freelancer to draw Popeye. Now 27 years later, he’s a vice president on the creative side of the company.
Caruso said he has a deep personal connection to Popeye and takes his role as custodian of the character’s visual integrity very seriously.
“As a kid growing up in New Jersey and hanging out at the boardwalk, I always loved Popeye,” he said. After winning a concession stand game, “I had my choice of the whole stand. Every character figurine was there, and I took Popeye. I kept it all through the years — through high school, in my jacket.”
With artist Steve De Stefano (creator of DC Comics’ ‘Mazin Man), Caruso continues to create Popeye art and contends the character’s brand may not be as dormant as it appears, with requests for product licenses and packaging art remaining strong.
“Not a day goes by when a request [for Popeye] comes in from around the world,” Caruso said.
From the early days of Popeye’s Chicken to the Boy Scouts of America to a TV Guide cover in which the Sailor Man hoists fellow nautical toon SpongeBob, Popeye has been around us all along. Caruso produced Popeye art for the MGM Grand’s 1993 Las Vegas opening as well as for Universal’s Orlando theme park in 1999, where Toon Lagoon features an animatronics-peppered Popeye ride. In 1997, Caruso worked with Wilco to achieve a faux Fleischer feel for the video for “Dawned on Me” — the lead single off the popular alternative-country band’s eighth album — after Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy approached King Features about his idea to insert band members into a vintage black-and-white Popeye cartoon.
Brooks, a former cosmetics chemist who, with computer programmer husband Michael, has run Spinach Can Collectibles since 1994, said many people continue to embrace the Sailor Man. As heads of the official Popeye fan club for decades, they also serve as organizers of the annual Popeye Picnic. For 35 years, Chester — an hour south of St. Louis; population: 5,000 — has held a three-day celebration of Segar’s legacy on the weekend following Labor Day Weekend, a parade and fair attracting thousands. Chester’s police officers and firefighters wear Popeye emblems on their uniforms throughout the year.
“It’s three days of Popeye. The town totally celebrates Segar,” said Caruso, who oversaw design work of statues in Chester based on Popeye, Wimpy, Bluto, and one featuring Olive with Swee’ Pea and Eugene the Jeep.
Brooks said she receives customers from more than 70 countries and all 50 states in search of Popeye goods, which are becoming scarcer in recent years.
“Internationally, they’re still making it like crazy,” she said. “They’re making Betty Boop like crazy. But not in the United States. And usually it’s aimed at the baby boomers. We need stuff for kids.”
While Popeye’s street cred may have sunk among American kids, there is movement to remedy that.
Sony Animation is currently in production on a 3D Popeye animated feature set for release in 2015, directed by “Samurai Jack” creator Genndy Tartakovsky from a screenplay by Jay Scherick and David Ronn (“The Smurfs”). Avi Arad, the man who put Marvel super heroes in multiplexes, is producing.
In the meantime, King Features also lends the strips’ characters to public events nationwide, allowing Popeye and Olive Oyl to champion the cause of eating more greens (spinach included) during last year’s inaugural Eat Well Santa Monica campaign.
“When I think of iconic characters, Popeye is there with Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse,” Burford said. “That’s me saying this as a fan of comics, not as the editor of King Features. I love the Popeye and that world.”