Popeye the Everyman
Rediscovering the weird, wonderful, working-class hero of the original Popeye cartoons. Plus: Why spinach.
Like his fellow pop-culture icons from the early 20th century—Mickey Mouse, Dick Tracy, Buster Keaton—Popeye made such a big boom in his day that we are still hearing the echoes. Yet while most everyone knows the basics—the spinach, the drawn-out courtship of Olive Oyl—the sailor who first captured the American imagination has long since faded into obscurity. The Popeye of E.C. Segar's comic strip took part in bizarre adventures populated by a cast of Dickensian characters. And the Popeye of the original animated shorts was a workingman's hero, delighting Depression-era audiences by surviving in the big city with his fists and little else. The Saturday-morning-cartoon versions of Popeye that most of us remember, however, sanded away what had made the original character interesting, leaving only a genial tough guy with a diet rich in leafy greens.
Two recent projects have taken steps to restore Popeye to his original glory. Last fall, Fantagraphics Books published E.C. Segar's Popeye: "I Yam What I Yam," the first of what will be a six-volume collection reprinting Popeye's original comic strip appearances. And this week, Warner Home Video released Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938, a four-DVD set compiling the restored, uncut versions of the Popeye cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios for Paramount. The former made Popeye a household name; the latter made him a global superstar and a box-office draw whose popularity rivaled Mickey Mouse's.
Click here for a video slide show on the original Popeye comics and cartoons.
Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.