I Yam What I Yam!
Ahoy! The First Super Hero!

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Arr, no, it's Popeye the Sailorman, and E.C. Segar's seventy-year-old seafaring spinach eater has the distinction of being the world's first superhero, beating out Superman for the title by nine years! If invulnerability and strength "far beyond the powers of mortal men" are a qualifier, Popeye certainly fits the bill. True, the unprepossessing sailorman never saved the universe, nor does he wear a snappy costume of tights and cape. He has, however, battled a considerable number of sizable opponents with his "special twisker sock," survived falls that would kill an ordinary man, and, when empowered by spinach, can lift horses, houses, and "elephinks."

I never read the Bud Sagendorf Popeye when I was a child. My parents' newspaper, The World Telegram, didn't carry the strip. When I did discover Popeye, at age six, it was in a movie theater, watching one of the  sailorman's cartoons (probably produced by Paramount/Famous Studios) before the main feature began.

The horrendous brutality gave me nightmares for the rest of the week! Popeye had been attacked by his arch-foe Bluto (Brutus in the strip) and had received a merciless beating. After pummeling the groaning Popeye into unconsciousness, the hulking bilge rat had imprisoned him in a stack of tires and then thrust the tires into a barge of cement. After the cement had hardened, Bluto sank the barge. Spinach probably played a part in Popeye's rescue, but I'll never know for sure; I left my seat and and the scene of this horrifying crime. Okay, so I was a sensitive kid!.

Despite all that, I soon reached higher violence threshholds and learned to like Popeye in the Max Fleisher cartoons on my parents' black and white television set. When the Fleischer Brothers first introduced E.C. Segar's popular creation in 1933, their main star was Betty Boop, who had made her debut as a singer three years earlier in Dizzy Dishes. Popeye was an immediate hit, eventually surpassing Betty, who would soon suffer from the stricter censorship of the Hayes Office in the mid-1930s.

Jack Mercer provided Popeye's voice in most of the Fleisher cartoons and Mae Questel, who was Betty's voice, supplied the vocals for Olive Oyl. Audiences particularly appreciated the ad-libbed mutterings that Mercer provided. Popeye was never much of a spinach eater in the syndicated strip, but the Fleishers made the vegetable his prime source of sustenance, enabling him to overcome any obstacle. The studio also introduced other characters into the series. Some, like Popeye's four mischievous nephews, were entirely new creations while others, like Alice the Goon and Poopdeck Pappy, were lifted from the strip.

By 1942 the Fleisher's studio was absorbed by Paramount/Famous Studios and Popeye's spark began to wane. The original imaginative charm of the Fleisher Studios was replaced by wartime fights with the Nazis and and the ever-popular buck-toothed Japanese.

After the war, Paramount's Popeye continued with the formula of getting out of a jam by eating spinach at the last moment; Popeye became predictable. Ultimately, over 450 Popeye cartoons would be produced until the end of the 1950s, and later Hanna-Barbera would bring us Popeye And Son in 1987. But the bulk of the best Popeye cartoons were in the past, produced by Max Fleisher.

Which brings us, in the cart before the horse fashion, to E.C. Segar and Thimble Theater, which I first saw about eight years ago. A cartoonist friend of mine, Dan Steffan, was working on a possible comic book revival of Popeye and showed me some of his reference material. I sat down and read the yellowed strips for the rest of the afternoon, thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

Popeye was the creation of Elzie Chisler Segar , a self taught cartoonist who managed to convince William Randall Hearst to run Thimble Theater as a King Features Syndicate strip. Hearst like the humor and uncomplicated drawing style of the young artist and was also looking for something to rival Ed Wheelan's Minute Movies. The new strip opened in the pages of the most prestigious newspapers in the country, The Evening Journal. The year was 1919 and it would be almost a decade before Popeye made his first appearance. The strip began as a pastiche of old time melodrama, with Olive Oyl and her boyfriend Ham Gravy being bedeviled by a villain named Willy Wormwood. After a while Wormwood departed to be replaced by Olive's brother, Castor.

The strip began to evolve into a continuing series of story arcs, pacing each daily episode with a gag hook that would bring the reader back for another look the next day. Olive, Castor, and Ham began a series of travels. It was on one of these journeys that Popeye made his debut as an invulnerable superhero.

The date was June 10, 1929, and Popeye, in a battle with a villain named Snork, had been shot fifteen times at point-blank range! After spending a night passing in and out of comas, Popeye had revived enough to quickly polish off his opponent. "Popeye," Castor exclaims, "I thought you were shot!" Pointing to his riddled chest, Popeye replies "Well, whatcher think these is, button holes?"

Is that tough, or what?

There was considerable violence in Popeye throughout the strip's long history. Popeye was in countless "fiskfights" and was once strung up! Such mayhem would never be tolerated in today's syndicated news strips. Whether this is fortunate or not has been long debated, especially after the real-life shootings at Littleton. Does violence in the media influence unstable individuals? I doubt that the question will soon be settled, but if society ever decides in the affirmative, most of our museums and major works of literature are in for a major purging.

While Popeye had been recovering from his gunshot wounds, he had spent the night rubbing the head of Castor's good luck charm, the magic Wiffle Hen. There was no real explanation for Popeye's escape from death, just the assumption that magic had saved him. Later Popeye attributed his recovery to spinach, and he occasionally relied on spinach in a particularly harrowing fight, but  by and large there wasn't much emphasis on the veggie in the strip.

Soon Popeye's scrappiness took center stage at Thimble Theater. The young Segar -- he was 34 at the time-- continued to create a wealth of supporting personalities like King Blozo, George W. Geezil, Poopdeck Pappy, Sea Hag, and Roughouse, to name just a few. Of course, the standout in that crowd is the portly hamburger mooching J. Wellington Wimpy, famous enough to have a British fast food chain named in his honor. Wimpy might well have been successful in a strip of his own. Segar's ability to depict the perversities of human nature was a major source of his popularity as a cartoonist.

In 1937 Segar fell ill, and his strip was ghosted by a King Features artist, Doc Winner. Segar recovered enough to work for another few months, but died in 1938. Winner continued on with the strip for the remainder of the year, but was replaced by other artists. Eventually Bud Sagendorf inherited the strip and did a creditable job on it for the entirety of his career. The artist passed away in 1986.

The sailor man also had a career in comics, appearing in print with Brick Bradford and Dick Tracy when King Features made an arrangement with David McKay to put together a package featuring the syndicate's characters. King Comics, first published in 1936, are considered valuable collectors items in today's market. Other Popeye comics publishers include Whitman, Dell, Gold Key, and Charleton (where Popeye had a sixteen-year run under the pen of George Wildman). Most recently, Ocean Comics has published The Wedding Of Popeye And Olive.

And let's not forget the 1980 Popeye movie starring Robin Williams and Shelly Duval, with music by Randy Newman. It got deservedly lukewarm reviews but still had its moments. Duval was born for the role of Olive Oyl, and sometimes, when it's very late at night, I can still hear her singing "He's laaarge..."
 

--Steve Stiles