In 1929, a walkon roll in the popular Thimble Theater newspaper comic strip lead to a lead roll and a place in comedy fiction history.
During the pre-Popeye decade of 1919 to 1928, a young Elzie Crisler Segar gathered a unique cast of characters for his Thimble Theatre newspaper strip. The brash Castor Oyl, his curious sister, Olive and their friend Ham Gravy kidded their way through strips in the slapstick style popular with other strips of the day, like Mutt and Jeff and the Katzenjammer Kids. Appearing in only a handful of newspapers owned by publisher William Randolph Hearst, Thimble Theatre drew a respectable audience in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. E.C. Segar could make people laugh, but something was obviously missing - that spark of uniqueness that defined the extremely popular strips.
Popeye appeared on the scene January 17, 1929 in an apparently temporary role as a grizzled sea dog hired by Castor and Ham to pilot a ship. Part of a larger Wiffle Hen saga, the strange talking new character took Castor, Ham and an Olive Oyl stowaway to Dice Island, where Castor thought to use the Wiffle Hen's magic powers to win at gambling. Popeye was no more than a sailor for weeks, and readers had no clue to this character's heroic possibilities.
Well into the story, after the gaming tables at Dice Island, on the trip back, Popeye's famed toughness, miraculous strength and, above all, heroic honor appear. Our hero is shot by dastardly Jack Snork, who seeks vengeance for the plunder of the casino. Yet, in being kind to the Whiffle Hen when all others ignored the bird and occasionally patting its head, Popeye discovered another magical property to the lowly hen - extraordinary strength and recuperative powers!
"Look, Popeye's rubbing the Whiffle for luck," said Castor.
"You can't be alive!" said and amazed Snort, "I shot you fifteen times!"
"Sixteen," said Popeye as Snort fired again. "A coupla bullets more or less ain't gonna stop me now, Snork. I'm after your neck!"
Several panels of the sailor's famous brawling followed. This weather worn character swaggering around the deck full of lead was the push Segar's strip needed. Soon non-Hearst newspapers were asking to take on the Thimble Theatre strip.
Hearst and his syndicate heads quickly realized they had a popular, marketable hero on their hands. With Hearst's urging, Segar reintroduced Popeye into the strip, making him the central figure of the cast. Within two years after Popeye's appearance, Thimble Theatre was found in nearly every large city in the country.
With this new found popularity, Segar's talents soared, both as an artist and storyteller. From the introduction of Popeye to Segar's premature death at the drawing board from a spleen disorder in 1938, the public saw drawings more polished and narratives more grand than ever before in the strip.
Consider the wonderful cast of characters introduced or reintroduced post-Popeye: the king of bums and most worthless of men, J. Wellington Wimpy; the magical bane of sailors everywhere, the Sea Hag; the tough owner of a sailor's cafe, Rough House; the Wimpy hating Geezil. An infant, left mysteriously on Popeye's doorstep in a wooden crate, became his "adoptik infink son," Swee'Pea. Alice the Goon in 1933 initiated complaints from parents because of her eerie countenance. Eugene the Jeep, living on orchids, popped in and out of the fourth dimension and predicted the future. And Popeye's swindling, violent old dad, Poopdeck Pappy, was kept in check with an occasional slugfest from his son.
After Segar's death, artist Bill Zaboly and writer Tom Sims were called in to handle the Popeye strip. Ralph Stein, Doc Winner and Bud Sagendorf all handled different incarnations of the strip. But the version of Popeye closest to Segar's wild vision continues to be the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons in the 1930s.
Fleischer Studios is known for some wonderful cartooning on Koko the Clown, Betty Boop and what continues to be the best film version of Superman. Popeye's first screen appearance was in Popeye the Sailor in July, 1933. The Popeye/Olive/Bluto triangle was firmly established here, and Betty Boop appeared in a cameo. Bluto had been intended for one episode in The Eighth Sea newspaper strip, but his film popularity assured him an occasional reoccurrence in the strip. Obviously fans of the Segar's Popeye, the Fleischer crew lifted scenes from the newspaper strip to include in their cartoons.
Spinach as a boost to Popeye's already impressive strength first appeared in the Fleischer cartoons, perhaps a needed storytelling element in a brief cartoon.
The Fleischer brothers lost control of their studio in 1942 to Paramount, who renamed it Famous Studios. A disturbing lack of imagination and sheer punch crept into the Popeye cartoons through the `40s and `50s as cartoon makers lost sight of Segar's vision and anti-violence groups gained influence over content. Television cartoons in the 1950s were entertaining for children, but the characters had lost their edge. Hanna-Barbara Studios' version of the sailor in the 1970s played to formula with little improvement.
It wasn't until director Robert Altman and scripter Jules Feiffer tackled the character in 1980's feature film Popeye that Segar's vision returned. Comedian Robin Williams, before his success on the big screen, and Shelly Duvall, the woman born to play Olive Oyl, acted on a crooked, dilapidated, seaside town set that could have been lifted from Segar drawings.
Popeye's most recent foray into television cartooning found him married to Olive Oyl. He and Bluto both have sons. Swee'Pea is nowhere to be seen.
1999's Wedding of Popeye and Olive bring Segar's cast back together for a trip to Nazilia and a battle with Bluto. Writer Peter David did his homework on this one, going back to the sailor's roots and including gags anyone familiar with Popeye would find amusing ("Perhaps," said Wimpy, "Popeye should consider starting a chicken franchise -"). These are well rounded characters, not cardboard cutouts.
Maybe there is hope for these wonderful characters in the next millennium!