By Tom Anderson
Today, though many will still recognise the character of Popeye the Sailor Man, and perhaps recall features such as his strength derived from spinach and his eternal love triangle with Olive Oyl and Bluto, this once-iconic comic strip and cartoon series has largely faded into the background for a variety of reasons. Some have argued that the franchise never recovered from the infamous 1980 live-action movie adaptation (which gave Robin Williams his first role) which is often portrayed as a flop, though in reality it just made less profit than Paramount had hoped rather than a loss. In part the decline of Popeye may also be related to the fact that the character has entered public domain outside the United States (and the US will join the rest of the world in 2025). In fact, copyright laws have played an integral part in shaping the history of Popeye and his cultural impact on the world—which is far greater than one might imagine.
Firstly, a bit of background. In 1894, Eliz Crisler “E. C.” Segar was born, and at the age of 18 decided to become a cartoonist. He went to Chicago and was encouraged and given a break by Richard F. Outcault, often regarded as the father of the comic strip as we know it, the creator of “The Yellow Kid”. Segar’s first strip was a tie-in with Charlie Chaplin’s popular films in 1916 (thus the film tie-in comic strip goes back farther than one might imagine!) Two years later, he moved to the Chicago Evening American paper, part of William Randolph Hearst’s publishing group (Hearst, of course, was the inspiration for Citizen Kane in the titular movie). The editor of the Evening American decided that Segar would do better as part of Hearst’s King Features Syndicate in New York (a media company which exists to this day).
In 1919, Segar began drawing a strip for the New York Journal titled “Thimble Theatre” (interestingly, with the British spelling of theatre rather than the one now standard in America). The name was derived from the fact that the strip’s original purpose was to use a cast of standard characters to parody then-current theatrical movies. Much humour was also derived from the phonetic transcription of various stereotype accents, as seen in other contemporary New York comics such as Krazy Kat and The Katzenjammer Kids. However, Segar began to move on from the gag-a-day parody format to longer-running story arcs. The strip’s main characters were happy-go-lucky lazy chancer Harold “Ham” Hamgravy and his on-again off-again flapper girlfriend Olive Oyl (whose family consists entirely of people with ‘oil’ pun based names, such as her adventurer brother Castor Oyl). In one story arc from January 1929, Castor has obtained an African Whiffle Hen, a magical creature which grants luck on rubbing its head. He and Ham plot to sail to the casino on Dice Island to break the bank there in a typical get-rich-quick scheme. To do so they need to hire a sailor to crew their boat, so down by the docks Castor asks an off-panel character “Hey there! Are you a sailor?” As the punchline, we cut to a very stereotypically dressed sailor with an anchor tattooed on his muscly forearms, smoking a corn-cob pipe, who sarcastically replies “’Ja think I’m a cowboy?” Popeye was born.
Popeye (so named because he had lost one eye in a fight) was intended as a one-off character, who survived being shot by the casino’s henchmen in the story by rubbing the African Whiffle Hen’s head. Fan reaction, however, was so great that—in a pattern later replicated by many US TV sitcoms—Popeye eventually took over the comic strip altogether, his name replaced “Thimble Theatre” as the title and he replaced Ham as Olive’s main love interest. It is therefore often forgotten that he only entered the strip ten years after its debut, and so for example Olive entered the public domain as a character a decade before he did. Spinach also took quite a while to arrive (1932), with Popeye’s original defining feature being his nigh-invulnerability granted by the African Whiffle Hen, prefiguring some of the feats of the first superhero comics from a few years later. There remains a persistent myth that Popeye’s use of spinach is due to the misplacement of a decimal point by a scientist recording its iron content, but this was recently proved to be untrue (unfortunate as it is for chains of AH consequences articles!) 1932 also saw the introduction of Bluto, initially as a one-off villain—in fact this was his only appearance in the original Segar strips. Segar met with an untimely death in 1938, by which point Popeye’s popularity had grown to the point that the strip was continued by other artists and, remarkably, is still going, currently drawn by Hy Eisman.
The reason why the general public’s image of Popeye is so dissonant from this is because of the hugely popular animated serial adaptations made by the Fleischer brothers from 1932 onwards. The Fleischer cartoons combined quality animation with drastically simplifying the source material: the complex story arcs of the Thimble Theatre and Popeye strips did not translate well to what was intended to be a short self-contained cartoon shown before the main live-action feature in a movie theatre. This is where the formulaic plot emerged of Popeye and Bluto (revived as a continuing antagonist) as rivals for Olive Oyl’s love, and Popeye eating spinach to obtain great strength, often as a deus ex machina to resolve the plot. Despite this, one should not overstate the formulaic element, as in fact the Fleischer cartoons did have much more plot diversity than popcultural memory suggests, and only just over half of them feature Bluto at all. Nonetheless, the cartoons increased the popularity of what was already a popular comic strip, not just in the US but around the world, where they had somewhat unexpected impacts on history...
Firstly, the great success of the Popeye cartoons (despite the Fleischers originally being worried enough about a flop to introduce them through the backdoor of what was technically a Betty Boop cartoon) meant that the Fleischers went from strength to strength, and later in the 1930s would secure the rights to adapt Superman, the first true superhero. Not unlike with Popeye, the Fleischer adaptation would have a bigger impact on popcultural knowledge of the character than the original comic strips. It was the Fleischers who first introduced elements like Superman’s ability to fly, because his original ability ‘to jump tall buildings in a single bound’ proved too awkward to convincingly animated. Without this, there would be no iconic image of the flying caped superhero, perhaps most cemented in popculture by Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman in 1978.
The Popeye comic strips, and later the cartoon adaptations (despite the Fleischers thinking the character was ‘too intellectual’) featured the supporting character of J. Wellington Wimpy (usually just ‘Wimpy’), a hamburger-scoffing down-and-out who would always ‘gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today’. Even within—and especially outside—the United States, hamburgers were not so well known in this era (their, much-disputed, invention had probably taken place around 1904) and in the eyes of many burgers became specifically associated with Wimpy. In 1934, Edward Gold founded a chain of hamburger restaurants which borrowed the ‘Wimpy’ name.
The chain slowly spread overseas, and in 1954 the British food company J. Lyons and Co. (best known for tea) purchased the rights to use the name. This was an era in which hamburgers were still decidedly exotic in the UK, and the chain was initially quite successful, peaking at 1,500 restaurants. The Lyons company also had a surprising number of political connections. This was the same era in which a young Margaret Thatcher worked as a research chemist for Lyons investigating new ice cream emulsifiers. The troubled company’s eventual heiress Vanessa Salmon would marry Nigel Lawson, who would one day be Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (and be responsible for economic decisions which changed the course of the UK in the 1990s). Their daughter, Nigella, is now world-famous as a TV chef. Likely a lot of this would have been different without the Wimpy venture, whose Popeye connection was often forgotten (a ‘Mr Wimpy’ mascot was even introduced later on different from the Popeye character, who went on to have his own video game in 1984). The Wimpy chain still exists today in the UK under different ownership and in a much reduced capacity (often regarded as symbolising a vanished era by those who remember its earlier incarnations)—but in the US, where it had never reached more than double figures of restaurants, it ceased to exist on Gold’s death in 1977. No-one purchased the rights to the name from Gold’s estate.
Another character introduced in the Popeye cartoons and later the serials was Eugene the Jeep, a mysterious floating yellow dog-like being from ‘the fourth dimension’ who could only say the word ‘jeep’ and had strange powers including teleportation. ‘Jeep’ was originally meant to be a nonsense word, yet it is hard for people today to read it as that, because to our eyes it now means a kind of all terrain vehicle—so called, according to one etymology, because Second World War soldiers in North Africa thought their Willys MBs and Ford GPWs could move around on all terrain as effortlessly as Eugene the Jeep’s teleportation. Whether this is true or not, Eugene also influenced many other cartoon characters. The Superman comics introduced a trickster villain named Mr. Mxyzptlk in 1944, who was an imp from the fifth dimension, combining Eugene’s powers (and more) with a more malevolent personality (and an unpronounceable name likely inspired by one of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz stories). Mxyzptlk in turn influenced other trickster cartoon characters like Hanna-Barbera’s “Great Gazoo”, most usually associated with The Flintstones. More recently, Eugene’s yellow colour and limited vocabulary are theorised to have influenced The Cheat from Homestar Runner and perhaps even the Pokémon franchise.
Regardless of whether the military vehicle story is true, Popeye certainly seems to have been popular with soldiers on that front, as Spike Milligan adopted his love of the world ‘goon’ (popularised though not invented by Popeye, in particular applied to the recurring character Alice the Goon) from the strip. Milligan records he and his Army friends used it as a disparaging term throughout the conflict—and on his return to the UK, together with Michael Bentine, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, he created a surreal radio show named The Goons. (Though the BBC initially forced them to use the title Crazy People). The Goons influenced all surreal comedy in the UK that followed it, notably Monty Python’s Flying Circus which went on to be hugely influential in its own right, and also effectively launched Peter Sellers’ media career—from which came Dr Strangelove, Being There, The Pink Panther and much, much more.
In 1981, partly due to the recent Robin Williams live-action adaptation (despite its mixed success), Nintendo were looking to obtain the license for Popeye in order to make an arcade game adaptation, with Shigeru Miyamoto heading up the project. Miyamoto envisaged a game based on the Popeye-Olive Oyl-Bluto love triangle, where Popeye would have to rescue Olive from Bluto. In the end, partly because the Popeye licence was both a comic and a cartoon one held by different people (for this reason the comics used ‘Brutus’ instead of Bluto due to mistakenly believing he was part of the cartoon copyright) Nintendo were unable to secure the licence. Miyamoto was told to instead create original characters to fit his game plan. He came up with a damsel in distress to replace Olive, a hulking gorilla (inspired by King Kong) to replace Bluto, and a carpenter to replace Popeye. Super Mario was born—though, as noted in a previous article, he also could not exist without Edgar Wallace and King Kong. The success of Donkey Kong was such that Nintendo were eventually able to get the Popeye rights after all, and released a Popeye arcade game in 1983. But history had changed forever.
These are just the impacts it is possible to track, and there will be many more. So just because a character and franchise are not as prominent as they used to be—don’t forget that so much of what we take for granted today rests on that foundation of influence!