Popeye the Sailor Man

by Sunil Vaidyanathan 9. July 2009 05:31


Blow Me Down!

"I yam what I yam and that's all I yam." – Popeye the Sailor Man


This Spinach eating, Bluto busting sailor man has enthralled millions of children and adults around the world. Despite being uneducated and devoid of social graces, he managed to dominate toon town till the late seventies. This rather unattractive grouchy hero attained his legendary strength from regular supplies of spinach. He managed to find his spinach in unimaginable places and with the super strength the Spinach gave him, he could beat the living daylights out of toughies and bullies twice his size.


In fact, Popeye seems to have more in common with comic strip villains than toon heroes. His moral lesson being simple; any problem can be solved with a combination of violence and nutrition. Although he is impolite, he is good at heart, helpful and extremely chivalrous; the sort of hero everybody identifies with.


Popeye represents the contrast between superficial first impressions and the real depth of human virtue. He has always been measured against a different yardstick, one forged by an era of depression and war; a time when courage and standing by one's promise mattered much more than outstanding achievements. Perhaps there is a little bit of Popeye in all of us – except for two little facts, most of us hate spinach and very few of us think with our fists!

Popeye first appeared on January 17, 1929 as a minor character in Segar's newspaper cartoon strip Thimble Theatre, which had been published since 1919 with protagonists Olive Oyl, her brother Castor Oyl and her boyfriend, Ham Gravy. The stories were complex and included many new characters; some of which would never appear again (like King Blozo). The usage of spinach was rare and ‘Bluto’ the villain responsible for all the commotion, only made brief appearances. Popeye was originally just a hired boatman, but he became so popular that he was given a larger role and eventually Olive Oyl left Ham Gravy to become Popeye's girlfriend. The very silly, fickle-minded and un-attractively lanky Olive Oyl has been responsible for the greatest number of anti-spinach jokes, the most common being “If you eat spinach, you may grow as strong as Popeye but will end up with a girlfriend like Olive.” If she participates in a toon-beauty contest she will certainly rank among the ugliest toons ever created. But despite her silly charm, the Popeye cartoon strip would be rather incomplete without her presence. Her brother Castor continued to be obsessed with his get-rich-quick schemes and enlisted Popeye in his misadventures. Popeye’s wit and strength won him great accolades and he soon took on a new role – as an antidote to Castor Oyl’s character flaws.  In just a few months he outshone his fellow toons and became the unparalleled hero ofthe cartoon strip.  ‘Thimble Theatre’ as it was earlier called now bore the title of its very-famous star ‘Popeye’.


In 1933, Popeye received an orphan in the mail, whom he adopted and named "Swee'Pea".  The other regular characters in the strip were J.Wellington Wimpy, a moocher and hamburger lover who would "gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today"; George W. Geezil, a local cobbler who habitually attempted to wish death upon Wimpy; Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye's outrageously tactless, woman-hating father and Eugene the Jeep, a yellow dog from Africa with magical powers.


Soon, Popeye had a career in films. This jump from toon-town to silver screen happened in 1933 in Betty Boop’s cartoon – ‘Popeye the sailor man’. Segar died in 1938, but that did not slow down the Popeye phenomenon. Within a decade Popeye’s fame grew manyfold. He became the king of toon town; a star among toons!  In the 1950’s, the Fleischer cartoons were aired on television which created a new generation of Popeye fans. The cartoons of the Fleischer era are considered the classic Popeye toons and the toons that followed were less successful. More than 600 cartoon strips were produced over four decades.  The Popeye cartoons of the 70s suffered censorship making him lose his characteristic pipe and the ability to beat Bluto to pulp. His martial skills however returned in the 1980’s, when Paramount pictures released a live-action musical with Robin Williams playing Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. The toon star’s 60th anniversary was celebrated in 1993 with a series of six prime-time specials called “Popumentary” that were aired on Ted Turner’s ‘Cartoon Network’. 


From the very beginning Popeye was heavily merchandised, everything from soap to razor blades was available with his picture on it. Most of these items are now rare and much sought-after by collectors.


Popeye’s character also played a major role in influencing American eating habits; in the 1930’s Spinach growers credited Popeye with a 33 percent increase in U.S spinach consumption! Today, the sailor man has made the ‘Popeye’ brand canned spinach the second largest brand in the U.S. The U.S postal service featured Popeye in its ‘American Comic Classics’ collection to celebrate his anniversary. To this date, the irritable Sailor man continues to be one of the most widely recognized cartoon characters in the world. So, just remember if you are bullied, all it takes is a little Spinach!




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