He’s short, balding, ornery and downright ugly by anyone’s standards. But countless numbers of fans have grown up admiring and identifying with this unpretentious hero since his introduction to the public in 1929. With one of his cartoons airing somewhere in the world nearly every minute of every day, Popeye remains one of the most widely recognized and best-loved personalities ever.
Popeye is an underdog with a long fuse and a keen sense of fair play. Everyone identifies with him when he finally says, “Tha’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more!” And it seems only fitting that our most unlikely hero would fall for the least likely of sex symbols: Olive Oyl. Flat as a board, with a pickle-shaped nose and fickle heart to match, Popeye’s “goil” puts him through his paces. Her only real competition is spinach.
Popeye made his first public appearance Jan. 17, 1929, in Elzie Segar’s then 10-year-old comic strip, Thimble Theatre, which originally revolved around Olive Oyl’s family. Although he was introduced as a minor walk-on character, Popeye quickly “muskled” his way into the limelight and eclipsed the older characters to become the star of Thimble Theatre. WithPopeye came a host of new, off-beat funny folks such as Swee’Pea, the “infink” Popeye adopted; J. Wellington Wimpy, the world’s most hamburger-obsessed moocher; and Brutus, the hairy “heavy” with the glass jaw.
Segar had a genius for creating strong, memorable characters the entire world knows and loves. “Not even Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse or Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny can top Popeye in the high profile department … (because) both the Rodent and the Wabbit have known long stretches of inactivity between film appearances … (but) the monocular seafarer has seldom been caught without a new adventure in the works,” wrote Michael H. Price of The New York Times News Service.
Popeye made the jump to the silver screen in a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon entitled, Popeye the Sailor from the Fleischer Studios. Nearly 600 Popeye cartoons were made and are still in worldwide syndication. Many are available on video. The Fleischer Popeye cartoons can be seen today on the The Cartoon Network.
In 1980, Paramount Pictures released a live-action musical motion picture in which Popeye was portrayed by Robin Williams and Olive Oyl played by Shelley Duvall. In 1993, Ted Turner’s Cartoon Network celebrated the 60th anniversary of the sailorman’s film debut with “Popumentary,” a series of six prime-time specials.
Known as Iron Arm in Italy, Karl Alfred in Sweden and Skipper Skraek or “Terror of the Sea” in Denmark, Popeye continues to appear in comic books published around the world.
Interestingly, Popeye’s spinach obsession began in the Thimble Theatre strip but became an indispensable plot device in his later animated adventures. Spinach capital Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue in 1937 to honor E.C. Segar and Popeye for their influence on America’s eating habits, making Popeye the first cartoon character ever immortalized in public sculpture. The spinach growers credited Popeye with a 33 percent increase in U.S. spinach consumption and saving the spinach industry in the 1930s!
Today the sailorman has made Popeye-brand canned spinach the No. 2 brand behind Del Monte and he has his own brand of fresh spinach and salads. He has also punched up supermarket sales of everything from Pepsi to popcorn, not to mention millions of T-shirts, caps, jackets, collectors’ watches. There’s even an entirely new digital entertainment genre, the MultiPath Movie. In fact, Popeye was the first character to invade, in an important way, the toy and novelty field. From tin wind-up toys to puzzles and kazoo pipes, early Popeye novelty merchandise now carries staggering price tags in antique shops and flea markets.
And, speaking of collectibles, the U.S. Postal Service featured Popeye in its “American Comic Classics” collection of postage stamps issued to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the American comic strip.
Popeye continues to be one of the most widely recognized and beloved characters in the world. It’s amazing what a little spinach can do!