Popeye is a sailor character created in 1928 by Elzie Crisler Segar for his Thimble Theatre comic strip (subsequently renamed after Popeye himself). He is the protagonist of many comics and animated cartoons, who is best known for his squinting (or entirely missing) right eye, huge forearms with two anchor tattoos, skinny upper arms, and corncob pipe. He can occasionally be seen smoking his pipe but usually he toots it like a tugboat and sometimes uses it as a weapon by blowing the smoke in his enemies faces. His strength varies among his portrayals: as per the original comics, he is superhumanly strong and can lift huge objects, while in later adaptations he is not quite as mighty until he gains a boost in strength by eating spinach. He is known to mutter when he speaks and mangle the English language (e.g, he calls elephants and infants "elephinks" and "infinks", respectively). Popeye's creator, E. C. Segar, characterized him as violent and uncivilized yet introspective and with a high moral fiber.
Popeye has a long and rich history spanning nearly a century and is one of the most recognizable and beloved cartoon characters in the world, consistently ranking among the elite best cartoon and comic characters ever created.
Creation and development in Thimble Theatre
Popeye was created by E. C. Segar and debuted in the January 17, 1929 Thimble Theatre strip. The Popeye character was inspired by a man Segar knew in Chester, Illinois: Frank "Rocky" Fiegel. While originally introduced as a minor character (with the actual star of the strips then being Castor Oyl), Popeye's popularity eventually grew to the point where he became the main character of Thimble Theatre, with the strip now focusing on his adventures and hijinks. Initially, Popeye was portrayed as a very strong and seemingly uneducated but very savvy sailor who would gain extraordinary luck and resilience when he rubbed the magical Whiffle Hen Bernice, but by 1932, he began to favor spinach, crediting it as a healthy source of strength. As the strips started focusing more on Popeye, he began to form a relationship with Castor's sister Olive Oyl after she had left her previous boyfriend Ham Gravy, and the two would eventually go on to become one of the most recognizable couples in cartoon history.
Popeye's huge popularity led him to be adapted into animation, which would only be loosely based on Thimble Theatre. In the various cartoons by Fleischer Studios, he would usually have to rescue his girlfriend Olive Oyl from Bluto, his rival and sometimes friend. Some of the cartoons take a different approach, like him rescuing Olive from another threat, dealing with something alone, fighting a small enemy he cannot beat, or watching over his adopted son Swee'Pea. As these theatrical shorts deviated from Segar's strips quite a bit, many characters from the comic never made an appearance or only appeared once (like Castor Oyl and the Goons). However, other characters like J. Wellington Wimpy (who sometimes served as Popeye's sidekick), Poopdeck Pappy and, more rarely, Oscar would make semi-regular appearances in the shorts. Eugene the Jeep also made some appearances but would not be used as often as the above. George W. Geezil also made only two appearances alongside Popeye. Many of these cartoons mostly focused on Popeye's adventures and antics along with Olive and occasionally Wimpy as they tried to resist the antagonistic Bluto. While not appearing as a sailor very often (as Popeye was usually portrayed with a number of odd jobs) the stories in the cartoons would involve his brawling escapades or his adventures in certain areas of the world while doing impressive feats and preserving Olive's safety and their relationship.
World War II
During the World War II-era animated shorts, Popeye was a member of the U. S. Navy and his outfit was changed to a white Navy suit, and he would continue to look like this in animation from the 1940s through to the 1960s. During Fleischer Studios' final years, the shorts they produced were WWII stories focusing on Popeye's heroic attempts to help America fight the enemy, mostly the Japanese and Germans. The cartoons with these battle scenes have often been banned from television for being considered too "politically incorrect".
Also, in the 1940s shorts, Popeye gained four nephews named Pipeye, Peepeye, Poopeye and Pupeye, who originally debuted in an earlier short within a dream sequence as his children, before being made recurring and turned into his nephews. However, their exact relation to Popeye remains unclear and the parent of his nephews has never been properly identified.
When Famous Studios took over the production of Popeye theatrical shorts in the 1940s, they made drastic changes which abandoned almost all traces of Thimble Theatre and focused largely on plots involving Popeye, Olive, Bluto in something resembling a love triangle, without many other characters appearing and with very few shorts deviating from that setup, which involved Olive falling for Bluto and Popeye beating him after eating spinach in an oft-repeated formula. Also of note are Famous Studios' remakes of Fleischer cartoons (such as Goonland, itself a loose Thimble Theatre adaptation), heavily changed by Famous to remove all traces of Segar creations outside of Popeye, Bluto and Olive, i.e. Popeye's Pappy replacing Goonland's Goons with what might be considered racial caricatures of Africans led by a Bluto-like cannibal, with the only thing in common between the two versions being the rescue of Pappy - who would go on to make only two more appearances after this (one of which contradicted the established fact that he left his son shortly after his birth). Supporting characters who were notable friends of Popeye and even had several appearances in Fleischer cartoons, such as Wimpy, Pappy and Swee'Pea, were featured less than a handful of times: Wimpy only appeared in two shorts (aside from flashback-oriented stories) and others such as Eugene the Jeep never appeared at all. Popeye's role as an adventuring sailor was also reduced to a point where he was barely ever seen at sea or in the Navy other than in a few shorts mostly from the war period, as the majority of stories preferred to avoid doing more adventurous and fantastical stories and focus on Popeye's everyday life, his vacation hijinks or the "love triangle" setup.
Popeye's portrayal in the animated adaptation (such as the theatrical cartoons and especially the Famous outings) has alternately been criticized for giving him a single means to solve all of life's problems (unlike in the older strips), or praised for bringing children to eat healthy. This reliance was most exaggerated in the short How Green Is My Spinach, which presented Popeye as being helpless without spinach (and portrayed other vegetables as ineffective), spoofing the cartoons' own formula but at the same time providing a rather questionable message.
In the fifties, Popeye's cartoon catalog was sold by the Paramount studio to the a.a.p., National Telefilm Associates, U.M.&M. TV Corp., and Harvey Films companies to be broadcast on television. Animated shows were also made for television in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
First television series
In 1960, the first Popeye the Sailor animated television series was produced for ABC which proved successful. Like the earlier theatrical cartoon series, it would use many elements that were already well known, mostly the basic storyline of Popeye trying to keep his sweetheart Olive safe from the hands of other male suitors while using spinach to remain fit and healthy. Unlike the theatrical shorts however (especially the Famous Studios shorts), this TV series made a more prominent attempt to bring back characters and elements from Thimble Theatre back to Popeye's side, such as his old friend J. Wellington Wimpy, who had been considerably absent during the Famous era, and the show even included characters who never had the chance to appear in animation, such as Popeye's old lucky charm Bernice the Whiffle Hen and even Alice the Goon, King Blozo and Rough House (yet while bringing in more Thimble Theatre elements, very few episodes were a direct or accurate adaptations of the strips and had no real continuity between them). Notably, the only character that failed to return was Bluto himself, who was instead replaced by his lookalike/brother Brutus, due to King Features incorrectly thinking that the former was not originally a Thimble Theatre character. While the show did involve Popeye's love life, episodes actually focused more on his adventuring around the world (and beyond) not unlike the Fleischer and comic strip incarnation, and also brought back other Thimble Theatre antagonists rather than relying solely on Brutus, like the sinister Sea Hag and Toar the caveman, who proved to be a true challenge for Popeye. As in the final Fleischer cartoons and most Famous shorts, Popeye still wore his Navy uniform, an exception being the pilot episode "Barbecue for Two", where he did wear his original outfit.
The All-New Popeye Hour
In 1978, Hanna-Barbera Productions, with King Features Syndicate, would produce a new Popeye television series, The All-New Popeye Hour. Unlike the previous show, this series had higher-quality animation and was more akin to Segar's work and Fleischer cartoons than other Popeye animations, with Popeye more regularly seen as an adventurous sailor. Popeye's look was once again changed for this series, this time it was a permanent return to his classic outfit, however he still wore his Navy hat, making it something of a combination of both styles. The series also gave characters such as Alice the Goon more prominence, having her co-star with Olive in their own segment, Private Olive Oyl. This show focused more on adventure than past animations: there were entirely new segments dedicated to sailing the seas and searching for adventure, as in Popeye's Treasure Hunt. Popeye and the Sea Hag's relationship was also more accurate to the strips than the previous series, with the Hag wanting to marry Popeye, much to the latter's disgust. Oddly enough, Popeye's signature spinach can would have special effects on other characters, such as Olive and Swee'Pea, who would unusually turn into actual superheroes.
Popeye's first movie
In 1980, a theatrical movie called Popeye was released, featuring an original story and serving as a more faithful adaptation to Segar's Thimble Theatre. It brought almost every friend of Popeye's to the silver screen, although it portrayed the well-known sailor as having an initial aversion to spinach, and the setting took place in a port town called Sweethaven. It eventually went on to gross $49,823,037; more than double the film's production budget.
Popeye and Son
In 1987, the latest animated series focusing on Popeye was produced, entitled Popeye and Son. The series was unique in the Popeye franchise for taking place later in Popeye's life, where he had finally married Olive Oyl, settled down and had a son of his own (a notable change considering the rarity of having well-known cartoon characters actually move on with their lives). The series shared similarities with its predecessor, The All-New Popeye Hour, having various references to Thimble Theatre and other media in Popeye's history such as the theatrical film, with the cartoon taking place in Sweethaven. However, the series didn't prove as popular as its predecessors and was eventually cancelled after 13 episodes. Being the last animated Popeye series on television, it can be considered somewhat fitting that it ended at a later and happier point in Popeye's life.
In 2001, Popeye received a tribute show on Cartoon Network titled The Popeye Show, which only featured classic shorts but also adding trivia info and facts about Popeye as well as occasionally showing unaltered original versions of the shorts, with the series going on to have 45 episodes. In 2004, a CGI-animated TV movie titled Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy was produced by Mainframe Entertainment for Lions Gate Entertainment and King Features Entertainment. An attempt at a full-fledged animated theatrical film was also made by Sony Pictures Animation for release in 2012, with test animation made by Genndy Tartakovsky, yet production on this film has apparently remained on an indefinite hiatus.
In 2012, IDW Publishing began a brand-new Popeye comic book that primarily stays faithful to the character's original comic strip incarnation by E. C. Segar and Bud Sagendorf, and features countless throwbacks and references to Popeye's old adventures and even features the return of many (if not all) of the characters from the classic era. As the series is more faithful to Segar and Sagendorf's work, the plots of each issue follow more closely to the original format of the older comics rather than the cartoons, and the art even replicates Segar's style flawlessly. In 2013, IDW held a special crossover event where they depicted many of the settings in their comics as being invaded by the Martians from the 1962 trading card game and 1996 film Mars Attacks, with Popeye facing off against the 1962 incarnation of the Martians in the special Mars Attacks Popeye.
Popeye's unique and commonly used design is one that is immediately recognizable, being always depicted as a gruff-looking yet skinny sailor with a large cleft chin, a single eye, a mostly bald head and very large forearms with anchor tattoos, while his outfit normally consists of a black dress shirt with a red neckline and sleeves with blue edges along with blue pants, brown shoes and a sailor's cap. During his first introduction in Thimble Theatre, Popeye's appearance was not too different from his current one, the only difference being that his nose was noticeably larger, but it would be gradually reduced as the strips continued.
Following the attack of Pearl Harbor in 1941 by the Japanese which made the US take part in World War II, Popeye's design remained unchanged, however, in the cartoons he was now made a member of the U. S. Navy and given the appropriate naval attire, consisting of the standard white uniform with a black neckerchief, black shoes and a small Navy cap. He would continue to wear this outfit until the mid-1960s. During his Famous Studios run, Popeye's eyes were also slightly enlarged to look a bit more realistic rather than looking like black dots, and he was also portrayed as having two eyes in both Famous Studios and the 60s television series, which would occasionally be seen in several shorts.
By the 70s, Popeye's design was changed once again to resemble his classic look but while still wearing his Navy cap from the war. His eyes were also changed back to their black dot appearance. From then on, media and merchandise would continue to portray Popeye with his classic look or his 70s look, and rarely his Navy look.
Birth and early life
Popeye was born the son of Poopdeck Pappy and an unnamed woman in a typhoon in Santa Monica. Shortly after his birth, his father Poopdeck left home and was never seen again, leaving the young Popeye without a father. Popeye would then devote his life to that of the sailor's way, and sailed the seas looking for fights and adventure as well as any clue to the whereabouts of his long lost Pappy. At an unknown but early time in his life, Popeye became engaged in "the mos' arful battle" of his life with unknown opponents, which cost him one eye.
Later in life (at the presumed age of around 34 according to Bud Sagendorf), Popeye would offer his seafaring services at local ports; it was there he would eventually meet the ever-ambitious Castor Oyl and his sidekick Ham Gravy, who sought Popeye's services in order to travel to the gambling paradise of Dice Island and make it big using the luck-enhancing powers of their mysterious pet, Bernice the Whiffle Hen, and through them he would meet Castor's sister, Olive Oyl who at first was not too fond of the sailor and vice versa. Even her first words to him were bitter, "Take your hooks offa me or I'll lay ya in a scupper", and they fought bitterly---and hilariously---for months until finally realizing that they had feelings for each other. It was at this point that Olive left her womanizing fiancee Ham Gravy to be with the gruff sailor she now loved. Since then, Popeye and Olive have remained almost inseparable and happily in love.
Since his debut in animation, Popeye has had many unique songs for himself as well as many tunes dedicated to him.
- I Yam What I Yam
- Swee'Pea's Lullaby
- Blow Me Down!
- I'm Popeye The Sailor Man
- William Costello (a.k.a. Red Pepper Sam) from 1933 to 1935
- Jack Mercer from 1935 until his death in 1984
- Jackson Beck during the brief time Jack Mercer served in World War II
- Mae Questel from 1945 to 1946
- Harry Welch from 1945 to 1947
- Maurice LaMarche from 1985 to 1990
- Billy West in from 2004 to 2006
- Floyd Buckley (radio)
- Dave Coulier (Robot Chicken)
- Jim Cummings (commercials)
- Robin Williams (live-action film)
- Tom Kenny (2014 animation test)
Popeye's gallery can be viewed here
- According to Bud Sagendorf (the original assistant to E. C. Segar and a longtime Thimble Theatre writer and artist), Popeye is 34 years old.
- In the theatrical cartoons, Popeye was instead portrayed as being 40 years of age, as stated in the Fleischer cartoon Goonland (where Popeye says that his father left when he was born 40 years ago) and in the Famous cartoon The Ace of Space, in which a martian machine lists his age as being 40 as well.
- Popeye | The Home of Popeye the Sailor Man website
- Don Markstein's Toonopedia Popeye page
- Popeye at the Internet Movie Database