You probably already know who Popeye the Sailor Man is – or you have at least encountered the cartoon figure at some point in your life. The Popeye cartoons have been distributed throughout the world since the first piece was made in the early nineteen hundred.
Popeye is the lead character. A sailor with a characteristic look, who grows stronger when he eats spinach. He is depicted as being rude and not the smartest around, but despite this, he still always manages to solve the crimes that the police have not been able to. The stories deal with a variety of themes. In most of them, Popeye is solving a mystery of some sort, and fighting off the bad guys.
As any cartoon Popeye exhibits some extraordinary talents, the most outspoken one being that he gets super strong when eating a can of spinach. The pipe that he is always smoking also has some extraordinary features to it, as Popeye has used the pipe as a torch, as an engine, as a periscope, and as a whistle.
One of the appealing factors about the Popeye character has always been his blunt manors and the fact that he, despite a lack of intelligence, always is portrayed as a good-hearted man, whom the other characters can trust.
In this article, we will be diving deeper into the story of Popeye the Sailor Man. We will discuss who created the cartoon and how it developed, as well as its cultural influence. And it is safe to say, that Popeye has had a cultural influence on our world. Not only do people around the globe recognize the character, but what sprang from a comic strip is now a TV show, a videogame, and a web series.
Creation of Popeye the Sailor Man
Popeye the Sailor Man was first created by Elzie Crisler Segar in January 1929. Elzie C. Segar was born in Chester, Illinois who even in his early years showed a talent for creativity, playing several instruments and helping at the local film theater. In his early adulthood, he decided to become a cartoon artist and moved to Chicago, Illinois. Here, Elzie C. Segar started publishing at the Chicago Herald and the Chicago Evening American.
Segars editor, William Curley, saw talent in Segar and sent him to New York to publish in the New York Journal. Here, Segar began his career at the New York Journal by publishing the stripe Thimble Theatre, which debuted on December 19, 1919. The strip’s leading characters should be very familiar to fans of Popeye the Sailor Man, as they included Olive Oyl, Castor Oyl, and Ham Gravy. The comic strip had been running for ten years before the character of Popeye was created.
The character of Popeye was introduced on January 17, 1929. He was never meant to be a recurring character of Segars cartoons, but the audience reaction to the gruff sailor sealed Popeyes fate in the cartoons. So, in reality, it was a happy accident that brought Popeye into modern pop culture. The Argentinian scholar Sofie Poggi actually called the development of Popeye “discursive Darwinism”, meaning that the most popular character survives the longest in a franchise (Poggio 2020, 117).
In the beginning, Popeye wasn’t in the military but a merchant sailor. It wasn’t until 1937 that he joined the Coast Guard. Thus, the foundation of Popeye’s military career may have been laid by Segar, but it wasn’t Segar who actually placed Popeye in the navy. When Popeye enrolled for the U.S Navy, Segar had been dead for 3 years, as Segar died of leukemia at the age of 43 in 1938.
Inspiration behind Popeye the Sailor Man
You’ve probably already seen the images floating around the internet of the allegedly “real inspiration behind Popeye”. And the image clearly looks like a real-life model of Popeye. He has got the infamous crooked face and smoking a pipe – although Popeye smokes a corncob pipe, whereas this sailor smokes a billiard-type pipe.
But is this man really the inspiration for Popeye the Sailor Man? Judging by Google’s algorithms then yes.
Unfortunately, Google isn’t always right, and this is a case in point. The sailor on the picture could not have been the inspiration for Popeye, as the picture was taken during the second world war – many years after the world was initially introduced to Popeye. In reality, the sailor was a crew member of the HMS Rodney in 1940. So, in theory, the man portrayed in the infamous picture could have inspired the navy aspect of Popeye, but certainly not the character’s general traits.
However, there might be another man who Segar had in mind when creating Popeye. Frank “Rocky” Fiegel was a Polish immigrant who settled with his family in Chester, Illinois – Segars hometown. At least that’s how the rumor goes in Chester. Fiegel was tall and never one to turn down a fight. However, Fiegel served as a bartender and not a sailor. However, some sources claim that Fiegel was fond of sailing and wished to head out on adventures. Fiegel did however look like Popeye and loved to smoke a pipe. He also had a strength that could somehow resemble that of Popeye – which is why he allegedly won most of the fights he partook in.
While it is safe to assume that Segar did draw inspiration from people in his hometown, the rumors about the influence on Popeye didn’t surface until after Segar had died. Therefore, it is questionable whether these rumors are legitimate or not.
Evolution of the character
From the first introduction to Popeye the Sailor Man in 1929, his appeal to the general audience only grew. More and more people found the cartoons enjoyable which reflected in the sales of Segars strips. It also affected the storylines themselves, giving Segar the funds to actually develop complex storylines for his characters.
This not only secured Segar’s financial situation but also the longevity of Popeye. By 1938, according to Brian Walker, Thimble Theatre earned Segar 100.000 dollars a year, which meant that the publishing companies and the newspapers were interested in keeping the strip going even after Segar had passed.
From 1938 to 1959 several artists were hired to produce more Popeye content, which eventually developed into a separate Popeye the Sailor Man cartoon.
From 1958 to 1986 Forrest Cowles Sagendorf took over the production of Popeye. Sagendorf had known Segar and worked as his assistant.
Popeye eventually made it onto the big screen in a live-action film with the prominent cast of Robin Williams as Popeye, Paul Smith as Bluto, and Shelly Duval as Olive Oyl. The film was a musical comedy film produced by Paramount Pictures and premiered on December 6, 1980. The film was never a success, but its reputation has improved over time.
From 1980 to 1990 Bobby London was the main creator of the Popeye strips. London however, landed in a dispute after he tried to turn an issue into a discussion on abortion. This prompted the licensing department to fire him.
While Popeye featured in comic strips throughout the 1900s several other forms of media were also used to tell stories about the gruff sailor. Sagendorf who produced the strips also produced comic book versions of Popeye along with a variety of other writers.
Popeye the Sailor Man in other media
Most of us probably remember the animated cartoons of Popeye, which was first released in 1933 by Paramount Pictures. The animated series further elevated the popularity of Popeye. This resulted in a contract between Fleischer Studios and King Features where Max and Dave Fleischer were given rights to produce and distribute Popeye as an animated series.
It was in these animated series that Popeye began eating spinach to gain strength – before that he rubbed a chicken’s head, which means that one of the most iconic features of Popeye was actually developed by Max Fleischer.
The Paramount production of Popeye stopped in 1957, but is still distributed today, and has even aired on Cartoon Network from 2001-2004. Today Warner Home Video owns the right to the Paramount animated series.
But Popeye is more than just a cartoon. In 1933 Sammy Lerner composed the song “I’m Popeye The Sailor Man” which has seen numerous covers and was used for the Fleischer cartoons.
Popeye was also adapted to a radio show from 1935 to 1938 and has also found his way to the world of gaming. In 1981 Nintendo created the first Popeye game, but since then numerous Popeye games have been produced.
Cultural influence of Popeye the Sailor Man
Of course, Comics are children of general culture.
“The comic book industry’s main concern in both ages has been to publish guaranteed product, and whenever possible, to exploit its properties in other media and consumer products.”Paul D. Lopes in “Demanding Respect: The Evolution of the American Comic Book”
The same is true for the Popeye franchise, which has successfully developed from a small comic strip to a worldwide phenomenon that utilizes every medium available.
Since Popeyes first appearance in 1929, the character has been used as a cultural anchor and as a marketing tool. Because of his popularity, companies have sought to gain profit off the Popeye franchises. In Chester, Illinois a “The Popeye & Friends Character Trail” can be experienced as well as a museum and gift shop in the old theater that Segar worked in as a youngster.
Popeye’s use of spinach has also given rise to several companies trying to earn profit from the beloved character. For example, Allen Canning Company has a line of spinach called “Popeye Spinach”.
Advertisements aside, Popeyes influence is clearly felt today. Not only has Popeyes phrases and coinages developed into regular parts of our languages (an example is the word “goon”), but even medical professionals have included Popeye references into their vocabulary, referring to the biceps as the “Popeye muscle”.
Surely, Popeye the Sailor Man remains a part of our cultural history and will continue to be for many years to come.