He Yams What He Yam: Discovering Popeye Through Popeye Otaku

Adventures of Popeye by Segar, E. C.

There is nothing more convincing than conviction. Who has it? Fans have it. I want to introduce you to a fan I know—a fan whose pure enthusiasm’s already had me buying three separate, rather large books. His name is Troy, but he goes by Popeye Otaku. He loves Popeye. On twitter he lives Popeye, using the sailorman’s singular attitude to phonetic spelling as a matter of course and regularly sharing panels or arcs or words o’ wisdom. It’s a posture that reads natural, an alignment of fandom with decency that serves to make Popeye seem like the greatest thing since canned spinach (ug ug ug) (I’m getting it wrong just to rib you, Troy). Since having begun interacting with this kid I’ve read excellent comics I wouldn’t have otherwise and found myself in absolute awe at Robert Altman’s cinematic adaptation. So I gots ta say thanks, and I yam passink it on. Say hi to the Popeye guy.

So, begin at the beginning: did you choose Popeye, or did Popeye choose you?

Hmm . . . I can’t quite say. I liked the Popeye cartoons when I was really young, I remember wishing I could do impressions of Popeye and Dexter from Dexter’s Lab. Later, in middle school, I looked up Popeye on Wikipedia, and was surprised to find out there was a comic strip. I googled around, and found a fansite for the comic. I remember there was a panel:

E C Segar, Popeye, King Features

Olive is holding a gun. Popeye has grabbed her gun arm, and pointed the gun directly against his temple, and he says “Ya’ won’t miss this time—g’wan—pull the trigger.” And Olive breaks down in tears: “Good heavens! I haven’t got the nerve.”

I was like “Holy shit, the hell kinda comic is this?” So I started buying the comic strip reprints. Actually, my Grandma got most of ‘em for me—one at Xmas, one on my birthday. And I immediately fell in love with ‘em.

(The context for the panel, BTW, is that Popeye had cheated on Olive. When she found out, she immediately—no questions asked—bought a gun and tried to kill him! So Popeye just walked right up to her and put the gun to his head, and when she realized exactly what it was she was doing, she broke down in tears. Then they broke up for a few months. This comic has some crazy shit!)

E C Segar, Popeye, King Features
So break it down for the reader: how old are you? Pretty young for a fan of a strip that began . . . how long ago? Or do you not feel age comes into it?

I’m twenty, I got into Popeye when I was probably about twelve or thirteen. The strip started December 1919—tho Popeye doesn’t show up until January 17th, 1929 (the reprints start about a year before that). But this comic is really timeless. All the jokes and writing and art still really hold up. This isn’t one of those “it’s a product of its time, revolutionary when it came out but nothing special by today’s standards.” The Popeye comic reads just as well today as it did in the ‘30s.

That’s seven or eight years you’ve been a fan, then—has it always been the declarative sort of fandom for you? You’re kind of the Popeye fan as far as I know; remember when I tweeted a picture of that Segar book I bought, and someone cc’d you in as The Popeye Guy and I was like “Yeah he’s why I bought it in the first place, haha”? That’s a notable level of fan-brand. Do you chat Popeye to everyone you know, or is it more a Twitter thing? How come?

I mean, it’s harder to bring it up in normal conversation IRL. But I do recommend it whenever I get the chance. On Twitter, it really just started because I got into a “Popeye mood,” and started blabbing about it and talking like him online. And it’s just sorta stuck ever since. I remember, I was telling someone some trivia, and they said “You’re some kinda Popeye otaku!” And of course that had to become my username. I’m really just trying to spread the good word—it’s sorta a religious experience for me! There is an argument to be had about how there’s something Christlike in Popeye, in his kindness, his forgiveness, and his strong belief you should give everything to those with nothing. But then, the fun thing about Popeye is, despite all that, he’ll still beat the crap outta people for almost no reason! Violence and loving innocence make a helluva package.

E C Segar, Popeye, King Features

I certainly agree. Is there anything that comes close to Popeye, for you? What is it about THIS property (for want of a kinder word) that makes it The One?

Popeye’s a pretty unique series with a pretty unique appeal. I like other stuff, but Popeye will always hold a special place in my heart. Honestly, though, it’s the characters that really make it. Popeye himself is this very complex and humanly contradictory figure, Olive kicks ass and takes names while still getting in way over her head, Sea Hag is genuinely terrifying, Toar is this great big lovable dope. It has a large, ensemble cast, and you just gotta love every member of it.

Imagine someone has come to you for advice on where to start with Popeye. Or several people—one person wants to know where to start generally, one person wants to know where to start as a fan of Olive, one wants to know what the most exciting adventure (or volume) is. What do you tell them?

Generally, I say start with Volume 2 or 3 of the reprints. The thing is, the author of the comic (E.C. Segar, who signed his name with a picture of a cigar) should be an inspiration to artists everywhere—he drew that comic for about twelve years before he got any good at writing, drawing, or comedy! But once he got good, he was a master. The character of Popeye was sort of the first good thing in the comic, and he really created himself. The characters needed to go to Dice Island off the coast of Africa (long story), so they bought a boat and hired a sailor—Popeye. The boat trip took a few weeks of real time, and during that Popeye just started doing interesting and funny things. By the time they got there, he was fairly fully formed.

E C Segar, Popeye, King Features

Anyways, I say start with Volume 2 or 3 and go back to Volume 1—the first one is fascinating to see where everything started, and towards the end there’s some very compelling stories (there was a brief period where the comic became “Popeye and Castor Oyl solve mysteries,” and they’re really something else) (yes of course Olive Oyl’s brother is named Castor). But overall, it’s not nearly as good as the series became, and will give you sort of a wrong impression of it.

If you wanted to go for Olive, start with 2. The last story in there features one of her and Popeye’s best, Skullyville. It puts them in a truly desolate locale, puts them in a truly desperate situation, tears them apart, and then mushes them back together by the end.

If you want adventure, start with 3. It opens with my favorite story of all, a good old fashioned seafaring adventure, “The 8th Sea.” It’s really one of the series best, and is also the only story to feature Bluto.

It’s fascinating to recognise just how popular Popeye was, back in his day. Some of the merchandise photographed in the aforementioned loose Segar biography—! Is the history of his cultural status interesting to you? Are you a fan of Segar himself, or do you constrain your fascination to the man, the strip, the legend?

The ‘30s was when people starting to figure out merchandising was a thing you could make a crap-ton of money off of, and let me tell you—before the console wars, before Sega VS Nintendo—there was Popeye vs. Mickey Mouse, and the competition was frickin’ fierce. I cannot understate just how much these characters were merchandised, appearing on every variety of product and toy imaginable. You heard of the Mickey Mouse Club? Well, before the TV show, there were actually Mickey Mouse Clubs at local theaters that kids could join. And there were the Popeye Clubs. The two-reeler (meaning over ten minutes long) Popeye short “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor” was the only real competition Snow White had! Disney invented multiplane cameras, Fleischer invented “use 3D models for backgrounds.”

So it’s really funny to see where Segar fell into all of this, as this kinda unassuming guy who’d been drawing a crumby strip for over 10 years before he suddenly became a master of the art and the comic became THE MOST UNPRECEDENTEDLY POPULAR COMIC IN HISTORY UP TO THAT POINT. (Outside of Winsor McCay’s tests decades earlier, Popeye was the first comic strip character to be adapted to animation. Usually it was the other way around.) And suddenly he was just making an absolute fortune. A’course, King Features Syndicate was making more. But, seriously, by the mid-’30s Segar had a salary well into six figures. And I don’t think he cared all that much. Sure, he moved to Santa Monica California, finally got the pool room he’d always dreamed of, and hung out with guys like Clark Gable(!!). But he was still a pretty humble man. He’d go out to diners and chat people up. He’d try desperately to figure out to do with all the spinach people kept mailing him (his neighbors got tired of him bringing it over real quick). He’d work in his little workshop (actually, he’d do shit like build his own boats or duplicating equipment to help with his cartooning).

So, I mean, yeah, you could say he’s an interesting guy!

Tell me about what you think Segar’s illustrative strengths were (once he hit that “master” period). Is there anything you see in his work that you miss in popular modern successes?

Segar’s trademark is the uniquely scribbley way he’d draw curves. I’d actually be fascinated to see what his pencils looked like, I can’t imagine a lot of his art without those gorgeous inks. I think the best example is during the epic fight with Bluto—Popeye and Bluto have been fighting for hours, they’re all beat up, their clothes are in tatters, and they’re moving very fast. Because of this, they are drawn as a lunatic mass of scribbles. And yet, somehow, you can see exactly who’s who and what’s what and what it is that they’re doing.

E C Segar, Popeye, King Features
Popeye vs. Bluto, click to enlarge

Segar’s backgrounds are also beautiful and done in a unique style. I just love how he draws docks. Even in very small, character-dominated panels he usually draws a nice backdrop.

A particular trademark was the way he drew pictures on walls.

E C Segar, Popeye, King Features

I can’t really complain about others not drawing in his style today, because he had a very unique style all his own.

Popeye of course had several cartoon adaptations, and a live action movie. How do those fit into your perception of “the canon”? What did they do wrong; what right?

Canon in Popeye is really simple because it’s basically just Segar. He tragically passed in 1938, and the strip hasn’t really been anywhere near as good ever since. And nowhere near as popular—the only other time the comic was well read was when Segar’s assistant Bud Sagendorf was doing it, but even then the quality was far removed from the earlier days. I think there may be reprints of some of Sagendorf’s stuff, but the main Fantagraphics reprints only cover Segar.

Besides that, the animated cartoons never really had a continuity. Most cartoons back then, the only constant was the characters, and they would throw them into whatever situation they could come up with. Like how in Tom and Jerry, sometimes they would start out as friends. The cartoons are very much their own thing. Some of them can be pretty good, especially the early ones—there was a clear drop in quality by the time the ‘40s rolled around.

I do want to talk about the television cartoons. In the ‘60s, King Features (not Paramount, who owned the theatrical cartoons) decided to produce new Popeye shorts for television. They actually did hundreds, and for some reason a fair number of them (very poorly) adapt comic strip stories, including Segar stuff. Because of that, those shorts could feature characters not often seen outside of the comics, such as Sea Hag, or friggin’ King Blozo of all people. They also introduced Brutus, because—as Bluto was only in one Segar story—King Features had completely forgotten they had created the character, so Brutus was introduced as a knock-off. (Can I also mention that Bluto is a name Segar came up with out of literally nothing—I always assumed it was some kinda reference, but apparently not!) A lot of people grew up on those ‘60s cartoons, but they’re not as well remembered as the theatrical shorts (probably because they’re not nearly as good).

Then in the ‘70s, Hanna-Barbera tried doing new Popeye shorts for television, inspired by the early Jack Mercer-era shorts. There was a problem tho—there were very strict restrictions on what you could get away with in children’s television in the US at the time. Because of this, Hanna-Barbera had to write around the fact that Popeye and Bluto couldn’t hit each other! So, it’d be things like “Bluto locks Popeye in a safe.”

The last one they did, in the ‘80s, was the most head-scratching.

Popeye and Son.

E C Segar, Popeye, King Features
Swea’Pea, Popeye’s comic strip, doorstep-discovered son

It had nearly the exact same premise as Goof Troop (it wasn’t the only one either, there was the even more bizarrely-premised Pink Panther and Sons): Popeye and Olive got married and had a kid, and Bluto got married to some girl and had a kid. The main difference from Goof Troop is that the kids are rivals like the parents. What really confuses me though, is how the heck Popeye’s son is blonde? ‘Cause, the kid’s not Swea’Pea (Swea’Pea is nowhere to be found) (also Swea’Pea’s origin in the comics is that Popeye got him in the mail, which is amazing). And for that matter, how is Bluto’s kid a redhead? His mother’s got black hair.

But wait a minute . . . Popeye’s a redhead!!

Anyhow, the biggest flaw in the show is that it’s incredibly boring. I couldn’t stomach 2 episodes—and that was with several breaks!—I’d hate to think what a child would have thought of it. But, because it focuses on more sitcom type shenanigans, it does actually have more continuity than about any other animated version of Popeye, and it has some comic characters like Sea Hag and Eugene the Jeep (which I might add is the origin of the term Jeep, not that the car company would ever acknowledge it).

Robin Williams in Robert Altman's Popeye, 1980
Robin Williams in Robert Altman’s Popeye, 1980

Now, the live action Popeye movie—that was very interesting. It was very much based on the comic strip rather than the animated shorts. Sure, Bluto was in it, and the version of the Twister Punch (Popeye’s hissatsu technique) was more based on the animated version. But it features the entire extended Oyl family, and is actually based on a handful of comic stories. For instance, in the Eugene the Jeep story, Jeeps are animals with fifth dimensional brains that let them answer any question (yes, you read that right). They can’t talk tho, and Wimpy figures this out before anyone else, so he tries to win a bunch of hamburger money at the horse races. Unfortunately, building a Jeep puppet was too expensive, so the movie just made Swea’Pea psychic. Similarly, the Pappy arc is vaguely based on Pappy’s origin in the comics, and the octopus comes from that story.

Honestly I do love that movie, but it has two glaring problems. The first is they didn’t capture the Popeye character at all. They tried to make him this sympathetic, sorta tragic figure like in the comics, but honestly he’s not nearly stupid enough and not nearly wild enough. For instance, there’s a scene in the film where these rough kids are making fun of Popeye, and he’s trying to control his temper so he doesn’t hurt him. Segar’s Popeye would do no such thing! He’d sock ‘em in the mush at the first insult, and say something like “Don’choo guys kno it yain’t nice to go aroun’ insulkin’ people? Learn some manners, ya’ hooliginks!”

The other problem is it has a major lack of focus. The plot just sorta drifts around from scene to scene, and from plot thread to plot thread, seemingly aimlessly. I’ve heard a rumor (don’t know if there’s anything to it) that the rough cut of the movie was like three hours long and they had to gut most of it, which would honestly explain a lot.

But yeah, that’s sorta Popeye. There was a crumby CGI movie a few years ago, and a very interesting new one that Sony was gonna do, directed by the guy who did Dexter’s Lab, Samurai Jack, and Hotel Transylvania. It was going to really play up the slapstick angle, and there was an amazing animation test you can see. Unfortunately, Sony canned it in favor of The Emoji Movie of all things. Not all bad, though, cause then the guy went and did that new season of Jack.

And that’s sort of where it stands. Like I said, the only real continuity around is with Segar, Fantagraphics has some very well-done reprints, and that whole thing’s really timeless. I’d recommend it to anybody!

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money

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