August 05, 2007

The Greatest One-eyed Hero of Them All...

...or "I yam what I yam, because he is what he is."

I've been going through my latest Popeye phase. I go through an infatuation with Popeye the Sailor every few years (similar to my recurring obsession with Devo).

Popeye the Sailor was introduced to readers of the Thimble Theatre newspaper comic back in 1929. His creator, E. C. Segar, is widely considered to be a master of the comic strip, influencing generations of later artists in mainstream and underground comics. (Wikipedia has some very informative articles on both Segar, and Popeye.)

I probably got my first images of Popeye from those low-quality "King Features" cartoons made in the 1960s - you know, the ones where the bad guy was named "Brutus" instead of "Bluto". They looked so cheaply made, and every episode had the exact same story arc: Popeye and Brutus would start off as buddies, Olive would entice each of them (like the spindly little siren that she is), and before you know it, Popeye and Brutus would be in a battle to the death to win her affections. Popeye would inevitably chomp down some spinach (how many cans of that crud did he have stuffed down his sailor shirt anyway?) clean Brutus' clock, and get a big smooch from Olive. That's the gist of most of the episodes I ever saw.

I think that most of my generation (boomers or before) probably got their introduction to the Sailor through his cartoon adventures. Of all of the cartoon series produced, the Fleischer Popeye cartoons from the '30s are the best Popeye cartoons ever made, and in fact are probably among the best cartoons ever made of their time. The Fleischer Brothers also made some incredible Superman cartoons back in the 1940s, placing two of pop culture's most popular characters under the roof of the same animation house.

I've read that back during his newspaper strip heyday, Popeye the Sailor was more popular than Superman. Maybe it was the Sailor's humanity and earthiness that appealed to reg'lar folks. To be honest, Popeye really was a superhero in his own right, being tough as hell and practically invulnerable to bullets himself.

In his first adventure in 1929 (a number of years before Superman appeared in the newspapers and almost ten years before Action Comics #1), Popeye easily withstood 16 bullets after rubbing the head of Bernice, the magical Whiffle Hen. His invulnerability was magical, but still pretty impressive. And after he started eating spinach on a regular basis in the '30s, forget about it - nobody could touch the guy. He routinely clobbered guys three times his size, in the boxing ring, in Rough House's Diner, and anywhere else for that matter. Bullets would just stick into his back causing him a mild irritation, which he compared to prickly heat. That's one tough swab.

But, aside from his fantastic abilikies and adventures, the Sailor also retained his good natured humanity. In the Segar newspaper strip back during the depression years, Popeye literally gave the clothes off his back (plus a thousands of dollars) to a destitute widow and a poor single mother who was clothed only in rags. Superman might be able to fly, move mountains and turn back time, but I never once saw him give up his cape to a homeless person. Superman usually flew above that sort of thing, while the Sailor waded right into it.

As a kid, I didn't know how old and influential Popeye was. When I was nine, I remember my Mum joking "I yam what I yam". I knew that it was something that Popeye said, and I knew that people quoted him for fun because they liked him. My Mum and Dad had enjoyed Popeye when they were kids back in the 30s and 40s, the same way I did in the 70s.

Popeye appealed to "the salts o' the ert'"; regular people (maybe blue collar more than white collar), because he didn't look down his nose to anybody. People could relate to him. No grown-ups I knew ever ran around quoting Superman. That would have been too silly.

Back in Segar's daily newspaper strip, Popeye was really quite a little roughneck, practicing diplomacy with his fisks on a regular basis. He was the image of the tough little one-eyed runt beating the hell out of the town bully, and thus endearing himself to the whole town. Back in his mid-30s newspaper strip, Popeye took weird risks too, like starting his own country and experimenting with radio propaganda to encourage immigration, or running a newspaper and beating up bullies in order to drum up new readers. Built with equal doses of slapstick humour and social commentary, it had a lot of messages for the grown-up reader, aimed at the perspective of the masses.

Beyond the original comics and cartoons...

For me, Robert Altman's 1980 movie "Popeye" with Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall was a very big event. It was a fun, silly and (IMHO) well-crafted musical movie in the slapstick genre, but with subtle symbolism and social themes which adults could appreciate without taking anything away from the kid appeal. In many ways, it stayed more true to the original newspaper strips than the Fleischer cartoons. The live-action movie really brought the world of Popeye to life for a new generation. The movie woke me up to the original incarnation of the Sailor as developed by Segar.

Underground cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton were obviously influenced by Segar's work too. Just look at Olive Oyl walking. There's "Keep on Trucking" and "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" right there.

Popeye has certainly mellowed out a bit over the years, mostly in order to not give little kids the wrong messages. The fact is that the world can still be a hard and unfair place for both kids and adults, and Popeye presents different faces to appeal to different audiences. Kids see a funny looking, good-hearted guy who protects woman and children ( But, it also seems like tattoo lovers, bikers, sailors and rugged individualists can identify with Popeye as well. Today's adults can enjoy the tattooed little roughneck sailor who never gives up his independent streak (

Other Links About Popeye:


Snipaw said...

I was once told my a member of the Coast Guard that Popeye in his usual clothing is actually wearing a Coast Guard uniform but I ahve never been able to confirm this.

E. John Love said...

According to what I've read, Popeye is "an independent sailor". He never had any military or pseudo-military allegiance in the comic strips, but in one of the Fleischer cartoons, he was apparently working for the Coast Guard, and during or after WWII, he started wearing a US Navy uniform in the cartoons (the all-white one).

Here's a pic of a US Coast Guard uniform from the past.

It does have some superficial resemblance to Popeye's, although it seems that our Sailor might be wearing blue jeans (at least that's what they look like to me...)