Popeye: A 1931 daily strip.
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Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features
First Appeared: 1929
Creator: Elzie Segar

Cartoonist Elzie Segar had been chronicling the adventures of Castor Oyl and his pal, Ham Gravy, in his King Features newspaper strip, Thimble Theatre, since 1919. Ten years later, Castor and Ham embarked on an adventure that was to involve overseas travel, so on January 17, 1929, they went to the docks to arrange transportation.

"Hey there! Are you a sailor?" Castor called to a one-eyed man wearing a nautical outfit, with an anchor tattooed on his arm.

"'Ja think I'm a cowboy?" said Popeye, who at that moment became an integral part of the Thimble Theatre cast. Within a year, Ham was written out of the strip and Popeye replaced him as the sweetheart of Castor's sister, Olive. Wimpy was added to the cast in 1932, and Swee'pea in 1936.

Popeye made his first animated appearance in Betty Boop Meets Popeye the Sailor (1933), one of several cartoons in which the popular Fleischer cartoon star met various comic strip characters, in hopes that some might prove popular enough to merit cartoon series of their own. The trial balloon didn't fly with Henry or The Little King, but it did with Popeye. The same year saw the release of I Yam What I Yam, the first of a long series of animated shorts in which Popeye received top billing.

The Fleischer Studio was taken over by Paramount Pictures in 1942, and renamed Famous Studios. Although it never achieved the heights of the Fleischer quality, Famous continued the Popeye series until 1957. In that year, the entire package of 228 cartoons started appearing on television.

During the 1960s, more short Popeye cartoons were made as TV originals. These were mass-produced in several animation studios, all over the world, and varied in quality. Many cartoon aficionados consider these to have diluted the product, and hold that the original Fleischer cartoons are the best.

All this time, Popeye continued to star in the Thimble Theater comic strip, now titled Popeye in many newspapers. Segar died of leukemia in 1938, and the strip was taken over first by Charles H. "Doc" Winner and later by Segar's assistants, Bela Zaboly and Forrest "Bud" Sagendorf. Sagendorf assumed total control of the strip in 1958, and his run continued for decades. From the 1940s to the '60s, Sagendorf also wrote and drew a series of comic books that are highly prized by collectors today. He also did a series in the back pages about crazy inventor O.G. Wotasnozzle, taken from the topper to the Thimble Theatre Sunday page. Under other artists, the comic book (published first by Dell Comics, then Gold Key, King and Charlton) continued until 1984. Sagendorf died in 1994.

In 1980, Popeye was made into a live-action feature film, starring Robin Williams as Popeye, Shelly Duval as Olive Oyl, Paul Smith as Bluto, and Ray Walston as Popeye's father, Poopdeck Pappy.

Popeye appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 1995, but that's nothing special — so did Flash Gordon, Terry & the Pirates, Brenda Starr, and lots of other "Comic Strip Classics". But of all comics and cartoon characters, only Popeye is the subject of not one but two statues. Likenesses of the spinach-eating sailor stand in Chester, IL (Segar's home town) and Crystal City, TX (which calls itself the spinach capital of the world).

During the late 1980s and early '90s, the Thimble Theatre/Popeye comic strip was written and drawn by Bobby London, who in his earlier, "underground" days, had created Merton of the Movement and Dirty Duck — the latter of which found a mainstream outlet in National Lampoon and is still running in Playboy. His stint came to an abrupt end with a sequence about a doll, which he used as a metaphor for abortion. Tho readers gave little or no evidence of serious objection, the syndicate, whose licensing department wasn't happy about London's contemporary approach to the strip, gave that as its reason for firing him.

Today, the daily strip reprints Sagendorf's material. The Sunday is by Hy Eisman, whose other credits include Little Iodine.


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Text ©1999-05 Donald D. Markstein. Art © King Features.