Click Here to EnlargePopeye, a Masterwork in the Medium
Not Just a Superhero but a Superlative Comic Strip Character

To designate Popeye the first superhero in comics, which many enthusiasts are prone to do, is to fall considerably shy of properly assessing the cartooning achievement of his creator, Elzie C. Segar. It is the 75th anniversary this year of Popeye's debut in the newspaper funnies, but the strip he appeared in (first as a mere walk-on), Segar's loping comic strip saga, Thimble Theatre, had been going for almost a decade without the one-eyed sailor. With the arrival of Popeye, a minor miracle took place on Segar's tiny stage. Popeye turned out to be the perfect vehicle for expressing Segar's narrative and comedic talents.  With a character so congenial to his genius, Segar converted what had been an adequate but undistinguished comic strip into a classic, a masterpiece of the art form.

            Born in 1894 and raised in the Mississippi river town of Chester, Illinois, Segar began his apprenticeship in the entertainment industry at the age of twelve, working in the Chester Opera House, which offered both movies and live performances on stage.  He drew ads for slide projection and posters for the entrance of the building, he played a drum to accompany the movies and changed the reels, and sometimes, when the show inside was over, he re-created the performances outside on the sidewalk in chalk.  He took the 18-month W.L. Evans Correspondence Course in cartooning, and when he was certified as a cartoonist in the spring of 1916, he went to Chicago where he found a cartooning job on the Chicago Herald.  On March 12, 1916, his first comic strip work appeared on the Sunday pages where he took over a pen-and-ink incarnation of the country's most popular movie comedian called Charlie Chaplin's Comic Capers.  His drawings made a crude attempt at realistic (albeit comic) rendering, and when the strip perished a year later, Segar continued in the same style on April 23, 1917, with another strip, Barry the Boob, about a nutty soldier in the European War. 

            When the Herald was absorbed by the Hearst empire the next year, Segar went to the Chicago American, and on June 1, 1918, he employed a simple, bigfoot cartooning style to do Looping the Loop, a vertical strip that made comic commentary on movies, plays, exhibitions, and other newsy doings in downtown Chicago.  Late in 1919, Segar was sent to Hearst's New York Journal, presumably to do another vertical format feature. For the Journal, one of cartooning's legendary pioneers, Ed Wheelan, had been producing a motion picture parody strip, Midget Movies, in which Wheelan's repertory cast of actors and actresses "starred" in stories that spoofed popular movies of the day.  Wheelan left Hearst in 1919 to resurrect his strip as Minute Movies for the George Matthew Adams Service, and Segar arrived at the Hearst works to take Wheelan's place.  Following the now-established custom of naming comic strips of this kind as if they were miniature motion picture houses, Hearst christened Segar's endeavor Thimble Theatre, and the curtain went up December 19, 1919.  But the show went on without Popeye.

            Thimble Theatre was supposed to parody movies and stage plays, and Segar cast the strip with "actors" who would take parts in the lampoon productions:  Willy Wormwood, a moustache-twirling villain akin to Desperate Desmond; the pure and simple heroine with a hysterical scream in her throat, Olive Oyl; and her stalwart (if not overly smart) boyfriend, Harold Hamgravy (who would soon lose his first name and become Ham Gravy).  But after a few short weeks of daily or weekly productions along the intended line, Segar abandoned the original plan and focused instead on his actors and their real (as opposed to "reel") adventures.  And with the introduction shortly thereafter of Olive's brother, the pint-sized Castor Oyl, the strip found its footing.

           Castor Oyl was, in Segar's words, "Olive's foolish brother, not exactly half-witted but exceedingly dumb.  Just this dumb:  when Olive's pet duck fell into a deep hole and no one could extricate it, Castor came by with a water hose and floated the duck to the top. He was clever in his own inimitable way.  He even invented coal that would last forever, and he fireproofed safety dynamite so it couldn't explode." But Castor wasn't merely kooky.  He was maniacally ambitious.  He wanted money and success, women and power.  Having almost no special abilities that would enable him to achieve these ends, he pursued his aims with no more than single-minded, dogged determination.  As an obsessive seeker after wealth and power, Castor was the perfect 1920s protagonist--a caricature of the materialistic go-getter, the icon of the age.  He soon emerged as the star of the strip.

            Castor's greedy ambitions motivated the strip throughout the decade, one get-rich-quick scheme after another. Daily installments ended with comic punchlines, but the story of one day's installment did not end with the last panel's laugh:  Segar strung the dailies together, stretching stories out for a week or more.  Soon the stories meandered on for months, but such was Segar's comic inventiveness that people enjoyed the ramble.  One of Segar's devices for creating suspense and maintaining interestingly comic continuity was to introduce wildly eccentric characters into his stories.  The strip would focus for days--even weeks--on the Dickensian quirks and foibles of some minor character.  As this character kept us entertained, Segar could, at the same time, inch his story along, day by day.

            Popeye was one of these characters.

            In one of his get-rich-quick plans, Castor turns gambler.  But not before he has a sure-fire system:  his uncle has given him a Whiffle Hen, a good luck bird that guarantees winning at games of chance for anyone who rubs the three hairs on the bird's head.  Castor decides to take the Whiffle Hen to an offshore gambling hell called Dice Island and use the bird to fleece the gamblers.  Castor buys a boat, but the boat has no crew, so Castor goes in search of one.  And that's what he hires:  one–namely, Popeye.  On January 17, 1929 (just ten days after Tarzan and Buck Rogers debuted), Castor approaches a one-eyed tattooed barnacle of a seadog with a corn-cob pipe standing on the dock, and he hires him.

            "Hey there!" says Castor, "Are you a sailor?"

            Confounded by Castor's inability to perceive his occupation from his nautical garb and demeanor, the sailor replies with biting sarcasm:  "Ja think I'm a cowboy?"

            "Okay–you're hired," says Castor.

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            Popeye is clearly no fool.  When he sees that he must do the work of a 12-man crew, he demands the pay of twelve men.  And so off they sail for Dice Island.  The upshot of the adventure is that, with the help of Popeye, Castor and company clean up the gambling hell–and Popeye moves onto center stage in Thimble Theatre. As venerable comics historian Coulton Waugh tells it (in his 1947 classic, The Comics):

It was on this voyage to Dice Island that Popeye revealed the great quality that endeared him to Thimble Theatre readers.  His mean employers had been depriving him of his slender wages through the use of the Whiffle Hen.  Discovering the trick, Popeye very justly got to the Whiffle Hen first.  Result:  two "broke" employers.  Cap'n Oyl ordered Ham Gravy to thrash the offending one-man crew.  Ham Gravy sought a solo audience, saying: "I'm gonna wipe up the deck with you and step on your face.  I'm like that."


But it wasn't Ham Gravy's fist that set off the explosion; it was Popeye's.

            Ham Gravy, angrily, with black eyes:  "You're just what I thought you was--a low-down roughneck.  I won't fight with you."

Popeye was ready with his fists from almost the moment of his introduction.  Rather than redress injustice with words and sweet reasonableness, Popeye simply bopped it on the nose. Waugh observes: "The readers liked this.  Here was someone who did what, ideally, they would have done.  Letters began to pour in to Segar, praising the new character.  Segar took the hint.  If they wanted a fight, they'd get it."

            Before the fighting got too fierce, though, Segar made his fighter a gladiator who could last through any series of battles.  Since he reacted with his fists instead of his feet or his mouth (as did the other less violence-prone characters in the strip), Popeye seemed, in comparison, more than ordinarily strong.  What began as a simple comic comparison between a roughneck sailor and a pint-sized schemer became, as Segar fine-tuned the focus of his comedy, an exaggerated comic contrast.  Popeye's ordinary (probably) prowess at waterfront tavern brawling was elevated over the years to superhuman strength as he proved himself again and again superior to a series of successively more intimidating foes.  Before too long, his reputation as a superman was well established.

            The process began almost immediately when Segar enabled Popeye to survive otherwise mortal gunshot wounds.  Shot sixteen times during the escape from Dice Island, Popeye recuperates in the ship's hold--cradling the Whiffle Hen, rubbing the hairs on its head, and hoping he'd have the "luck" to survive.  He does, of course--and thereby established himself as indestructible.  A brawler of superhuman strength who is also indestructible, Popeye is a formidable fighter indeed.

            Segar's finishing touch was a stroke of graphic comic genius.  Popeye's bulging forearms, those watermelons attached to his body with pipe cleaners, give "ham-fisted" a visual metaphor.  Although the graphic device defies anatomy and affronts common sense, it succeeds remarkably in suggesting pugilistic power.  Popeye's arms evoke the velocity of his swing:  it's as if the centrifugal force of repeated roundhouse punches have shoved all the sailor's muscles to his extremities.  His arms suggest the enormous impact of his blows:  ballooning around his hands, his arms convert his fists to sledge-hammers that gain more striking force by being at the ends of long handles.  In comparison, the bulging biceps of conventionally constructed comic book superheroes seem scarcely sufficient to their tasks–as if too far removed from the point of the impact, the striking fist.  All Popeye's muscles–and most of his weight–are bunched just where they'll be felt the most:  right behind his knuckles.  Conceptually and visually, Popeye is the comic epitome of the perfect fighter.

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            Popeye's fame and his association with spinach were derived more from the Fleischer Studio's animated version of the strip, which series started in the summer of 1933, than from the strip itself. Segar had forced Popeye to consume a bowl of spinach on February 28, 1932, in preparation for a encounter with an iron-jawed braggart (the iron content of spinach being widely recognized at the time), but Segar didn't make much of this leafy plot ingredient. Spinach appeared occasionally in the strip after the appearance of the animated Popeye, but the invigorating vegetable was seldom as integral to Popeye's success in the strip as it was in the Fleischer films. Segar's forte in the daily strip continuity was prolonging Popeye's idiotic predicaments; Popeye punched people out only after agonizing delay. On Sundays, the sailor took up prize fighting as an avocation and was often in the ring, socking his opponents. In the movies, however, Popeye's very existence was defined by his pugilistic feats.

            Segar made canny use of his hero's abilities.  He was inventive enough that he didn't need to rely on Popeye's amazing capabilities for his stories.  The Thimble Theatre stories continued to roll on, introducing more minor characters with comic eccentricities and involving them in fantastic plots–sometimes ignoring for weeks on end the spectacular abilities of the strip's star performer.  Still, Segar knew better than to deny his readers indefinitely the pleasure of seeing Popeye in vivid action.  Eventually, the cartoonist would unleash his hero, and Popeye would proceed with businesslike dispatch and no fanfare at all to settle the hash of the bad guys with a few unequivocal punches.

            Our immense satisfaction at this turn of events in every story derives from two aspects of the strip:  the nature of the bad guys and the nature of the avenging hero.  Elementary:  the bad guys deserve what they get.  They are invariably self-seeking and heartless:  brutal and inhuman, their very excesses are exaggerated to the point of comic caricature (hence, our enjoyment of the strip even while we wait for Popeye to set things right).  In contrast to this extreme (and therefore comic) villainy stands the strip's hero.  Popeye burns with moral fervor.  There are few "grays" for Popeye:  he knows what's good and what's evil, and he has no doubts about which he should choose.  He is nonetheless kindly and charitable, willing to forgive most human foibles.  But if a supposed foible is revealed as fully-fledged villainy, Popeye moves inexorably to redress the wrong.  In this, as Waugh says, Segar captured the essential aspect of the American character–the impulse to act with pragmatic decisiveness.

            "Popeye," Waugh says, "is action incarnate.  He wastes energy; his temperament is ardent; even his good deeds are done with intensity, with fierce face and furious tempo. ... He proceeds always under full steam, with fluttering flags and bands playing.  God bless him, he is America."

            Popeye has gone through several cartooning custodians in the decades following Segar's death in 1938. Tom Sims inherited the writing assignment, and his scripts were illustrated, at first, by Doc Winner, then by Bill Zaboly. After Sims left in the early 1950s, Ralph Stein took over, but in 1958, the whole assignment fell to Bud Sagendorf, who had been the heir apparent all along: he had started assisting Segar in the early 1930s while still a teenager. Sagendorf wrote and drew Thimble Theatre, daily and Sunday, until 1986, when the daily was taken over by erstwhile underground cartoonist, Bobby London, who carried on in Segar's manic tradition but was summarily taken off the strip in the summer of 1992 when he seemed about to take a position supporting abortion. It was a circumstance of surpassing oddity: Olive gets an ugly doll in the mail and wants to get rid of it; some clerical hangers-on overhear her and Popeye talking about returning the doll "to its maker" and assume Olive is talking about a pregnancy and abortion. The sequence was approved by King Features and distributed–and published. Then London was fired. The strip went into reruns at that point, and in 1994, the Sunday assignment was assumed by Hi Eisman, a veteran cartoonist with a long list of credits. He did comic books with Smokey Stover, Nancy, Tom and Jerry, The Munsters, Little Lulu, Blondie, Katy Keene, Archie, and Felix. He pencilled Kerry Drake Sunday and daily, 1957-60; Bringing Up Father dailies 1960-64; and finally got a byline drawing Bob Dunn's Little Iodine, 1967-84. And he has the distinction of also producing the world's longest running comic strip, the Sunday Katzenjammer Kids, which he's written and drawn since 1986.

            And if this diatribe isn't enough on Segar's Popeye–if, in other words, you'd like to know more about the times in which the character was created and how that contributed to his success and about nuances of Segar's storytelling style, and if you'd like to know how else Segar achieved brilliance a second time with a subsidiary character named Wellington J. Wimpy–well, then you need a copy of my book on the "aesthetic history" of the comics, The Art of the Funnies, which has an entire chapter on Segar (from which the foregoing was pirated mercilessly). For a preview of the book, click here.

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