Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Essays on Comics Characters: Popeye!

Hey, the title just says "comics" -- it doesn't differentiate between comic books and comic strips, right? Besides, the one-eyed sailor has been featured in comic books almost as long as he's been around!

Popeye was created by Elsie Segar originally as a "guest" character in Thimble Theater, his daily comic strip which featured Olive Oyl, her brother Castor (and the other Oyl family members) and a bunch of other oddball types. The plots were sort of parodies of melodramas of the day, and while the strip was popular, it was still missing an element.

And lo, there came a day when Castor needed to find a sailor for an adventure he and others were going on, and at the docks of Sweethaven, he found Popeye. Unnamed at first, and looking a bit different than we are accustomed to today, Popeye was asked if he was a sailor, to which he replied, "Ja think I'm a cowboy?"

To be fair, it was an appropriate response, given that he was dressed then, as now, in his sailor attire.

Obviously, the one-eyed sailor with a "face like a shipwreck" (as Olive herself described him once) must have been an immediate hit with Thimble Theater readers, as Segar brought him back, and he basically took over the strip, quickly becoming the central character. Think how Fonzie took over Happy Days, but even more so, and you'll get the idea.

Popeye proved to be a most versatile character. For someone who was a sailor, he didn't spend all his time out at sea. He could spend months on an adventure entirely landbound, such as when he helped a starving homeless girl out.

Popeye found himself surrounded with more oddball characters as time went on. Of course, there was J. Wellington Wimpy, who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today (something he actually said more often in the cartoons than the comic strip... there he'd often invite someone over for a duck dinner... if they bring the duck; when confronted, he'd often claim his name was Jones, "One of the Jones boys"), and Alice the Goon, the Sea Hag (who appeared in a couple of long stories), Swee'pea, and many more. Sometimes characters would go years between appearances!

Much has been written about how the cartoons used spinach much more than the comic strip did. Certainly, the strip didn't have Popeye gulping down a can of spinach for instant power, like in the cartoons, but he certainly ate his fair share there (and he attributes his strength to it, as well)! Bill Blackbeard, in his essay on Popeye reprinted in All in Color for a Dime, attributes Popeye's near-indestructibility to rubbing the head of the Wiffle Hen for luck, and he's probably right there. But one can't discount the possibility of good DNA! His father, Poopdeck Pappy, was certainly spry, strong and tough for a man of his advanced years, so Popeye had to have had it in his genes to an extent.

To many people, Popeye is seen as a very violent character, and certainly, he commits a fair amount of violence in the strips, but more often than not, this violence is done to right a wrong he's seen. He doesn't make a habit of just beating on someone just for the heck of it, but if they deserve it, he'll smack him one! To be honest, most foes require just one punch.

As many of you probably already know, Bluto was never a main character in the original strips. He was used in one storyline that happened to be running when the first cartoons were being developed, so that's how he was chosen there.

The Fleischer cartoons didn't really make much use of the various characters... aside from Popeye, Olive, Wimpy, Swee'pea, and Pappy, nobody else really appeared (well, Eugene the Jeep did in a few of them). The later Paramount Popeyes used even fewer characters, obsessed as they seem to have become with Popeye's nephews (who were never in the comics). I seem to recall the later made for TV Popeyes did at least use the Sea Hag, but I haven't seen those since I was a kid.

Honestly, I don't know if the current Popeye comic has any new stories, or if they're all reprints (the Free Comic Book Day edition I saw reprinted some of the newspaper strips, and I seem to recall reading that the comic's reprinted some of the older comic books). You'd think with a Popeye CGI feature in development that new Popeye books would be coming, but we'll have to wait and see.

So, here's how I view Popeye and several of his supporting cast members:

Popeye is the toughest guy around, bar none. If he were crossing the street and a car happened to hit him, the car would be totaled while Popeye wouldn't be harmed at all. He defends the weak and helpless, especially those who are being taken advantage of by others. He will try to do things the right way, but if those efforts prove futile, he'll resort to using his great strength. He mangles the English language like nobody else, but is still quite understandable. Eats spinach for at least one meal a day.

Olive Oyl is Popeye's "sweet patootie," and he is devoted to her... possibly a little more than she's devoted to him. She can be insanely jealous, and often accompanies Popeye on his adventures, especially if she thinks there's a chance he'll meet a woman who will try to steal him away from her. As much as she acts like a damsel in distress, she can still hold her own in a fight, especially if it's against someone she thinks has harmed Popeye or her relationship with him. If she and Popeye disagree on something, she tends to get her way, to Popeye's eternal grief.

Wimpy is Popeye's best friend, although sometimes Popeye wonders why he considers Wimpy a friend. He's unreliable, and tends to let his stomach do the thinking for him. He's a con artist supreme, especially where food is involved. He can butter up even his worst enemy to the point where that enemy thinks of Wimpy as a friend... until Wimpy's cheated him out of something.

Swee'pea is Popeye's adopted child. He's a boy, and as tough as his adopted father. He's a lot smarter that most anyone gives him credit for (except for Popeye, who thinks Swee'pea is a genius, naturally). While he's usually portrayed as an infant, I wouldn't mind aging him a little bit, and getting him out of the nightgown and into some proper clothes, perhaps putting him into kindergarten. He's the only person who can get Popeye to see things his way easier than Olive.

Poopdeck Pappy is an ornery cuss who refuses to act his age. The way he behaves, you'd think he was a wild college boy instead of a man who's well over 100. He has very old-fashioned ideas about everything, especially women (who find him adorable... often getting engaged to him before Popeye sets things straight). He doesn't seem to stick with any one thing for very long, except for adventuring.

The Sea Hag is one wretched woman. She hates Popeye and his friends with a passion (especially Wimpy and Pappy, who each refused her affections). She has no fear of Popeye, even though she probably should. She likes to keep her plans mysterious, and often uses her magic to change her appearance to a beautiful woman. She probably still has a soft spot in her heart for Wimpy, the only man she's ever given a second chance to.

If new Popeye stories were to be produced, I'd love to see the whole cast from Thimble Theater brought in, from Roadhouse (who runs the burger joint Wimpy often goes to, especially when he has money) to Geezil (who hates Wimpy) to Alice the Goon, Toar, Eugene the Jeep, and everyone in between. While I liked Bobby London's approach to Popeye, I think that it missed the spirit of adventure that the original strips had. Popeye's a sailor, and he should go sailing on a regular basis, discovering new lands that don't appear on any map of the world. The beauty of Popeye is that his adventures can take place pretty much anywhere (and usually have), with about the only realms left for him to explore are the past (I'd love to see him cross over with Alley Oop, whose forearms and lower legs are similarly shaped to Popeye's), outer space, and even under water (did Popeye ever find a version of Atlantis? I know he's met up with a few mermaids, although he never romanced them like Pappy did). It would require a writer who can keep the humor going as well as the adventure, and an artist who can keep the cast looking like themselves, if not necessarily slavishly copying Segar's style (there were a few black and white Popeye books which featured Popeye looking not unlike Robin Williams' portrayal of him, and those didn't work for me).


  1. IDW has published some new comic-books of Popeye. And they were quite good, using the amazing cast of characters of the classic strips.

  2. George Geezil from Thimble Theatre also shows up in two of the Fleischer Popeye cartoons: "Clean Shaven Man" and "Olive's Boithday Presink."


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