American Popeye

American Popeye

By Zak Sally

My dog is named Elzie Crisler. Sometimes people will ask where I got such an "interesting name", and since it is an interesting name, I tell them.

Unless, of course, the person is, like myself, a cartoonist. In this case, the question never arises because any cartoonist worth their salt knows there is only ONE Elzie Crisler, for now and forever, and it is followed by Segar. If they don't know that name, God help 'em. They should probably hang up their pen.

E.C. Segar
E.C. Segar. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Schulz and Robert Crumb and just about every cartoonist in between agrees—in the world of people who draw pictures with words in them that tell stories, Elzie Crisler Segar is in the Pantheon. His comic strip, "Thimble Theater" which he drew from 1919 until his untimely death 70 years ago this month, stands as One of the Greatest Strips of All Time.

So why haven't you heard of it?

Well, because Elzie Crisler Segar also created Popeye the Sailor Man.

Popeye appeared as a bit character 10 full years into the Thimble Theater strip, and the public went nuts for him. Segar made him the starring man, and he became one of the most enduring characters that ever came out of America. The spinach came later.

Thimble Theater
The first appearance of Popeye in the Thimble Theater (1929). Art by Elzie Crisler Segar. (Copyright King Features Syndicateds) Click here to read the entire cartoon strip.

For those of you who have never experienced Segar's Popeye in his original form, I highly recommend going directly to the source. Fantagraphics Books is about to release the third volume of their handsome, hardcover Popeye reprint series. (Full disclosure: Fantagraphics also publishes some of my work. Don't let that stop you.)

As Popeye made his first appearance in 1929 and was very much a product of those Depression-era times, a person might think the material would feel dated (though considering today's economic turmoil, 1929 doesn't seem that far away). That person would be wrong. The work still crackles with energy – great characters, great story lines and flat-out LAUGHS. It's raw cartooning at its very best.

'Cause I eats my spinach

The Fleisher animated shorts released by Paramount Pictures beginning in 1933 were the first Popeye stories to heavily feature spinach. In the Thimble Theater strips, Popeye did say he owed his strength to the leafy vegetable, but was rarely seen eating it.

Popeye's popularity has helped boost spinach sales so much that the spinach-growing community of Crystal City, Texas erected a statue of the character. Another Popeye statue stands in Alma, Arkansas, hometown to the company that produces Popeye branded spinach and self-proclaimed "Spinach Capital of the World."

But to me, the legacy of Segar and Popeye goes a lot deeper than a funny cartoon sailor with bad grammar and a taste for spinach. The work has an emotional punch that's rare in any form. There's something very serious and very real going on in Popeye's world that defies anything I can put my finger on. As Segar himself said: "Popeye is much more than a goofy character to me… He represents all of my emotions, and is an outlet for them. I'd like to cut loose and knock the heck out of a lot of people, but my size and good judgment hold me back."

Having been born just 37 years ago, my going on about "Depression-Era scrappiness" or-what-have-you should be taken with a grain of salt. But there's something simple and beautiful about the fact that everyone is fighting their way out of something in Thimble Theater, punching their way through an America that was in the midst of a full-on collapse. There is no prevaricating or rationalizing, and precious little room for analysis. In Popeye's world, you look whatever it is facing you straight in the eye, see it for what it is, and then you a) lie down or b) fight.

And Popeye wouldn't lie down for anyone.

But he would give you the coat off his back in a heartbeat. He would (and often does) give any fortune he's got to someone less fortunate without a second thought. He's never a bully, and chances are, he's going to help the little guy in whatever situation arises (he's even elected King for a while, but is too damn sensible for that racket, so he quits).

Popeye is humble when he needs to be, he has humilicky. Though he's far from perfect, he holds himself accountable. There are plenty of times in the strip where Popeye realizes he's screwed up, and puts himself in jail for a while - or just flat out admits he was wrong, and then tries to make it right. He's man enough to face his failings and his mistakes.

At the risk of sounding pretentious (and there has NEVER been a less pretentious comic strip than Segar's) Popeye is, in a sense, analogous to America itself: both are the toughest of the tough, and cannot be licked. Like America, Popeye is of no particular nationality or creed or religion. Popeye is rough but no bully, and is neither particularly pretty (has a self-described "face like a hatchet"), nor particularly smart (and I mean all that in a GOOD way).

Alike as they are, I fervently wish that my country conducted itself like the big-armed sailor as a rule. And maybe in our best moments, we do. But we still have a lot to learn from Popeye.

Popeye Universal
(Photo by Luis Perez)

Whether or not you buy my Popeye-as-American ideal argument, what's indisputable is that nearly 80 years after his first appearance, and 70 years after Segar's death, despite the cartoons, movies, video games, kids' underwear, and spinach salesmanship, Popeye's personality remains undiminished. Popeye is MY America - flawed and maybe even a little ugly, but big enough to take punches as much as he gives them. And it may be some romantic notion of an America that died with my grandfather, but I'm sticking to it (and so is my dog).

He still is what he is and that's all that he is.

And I thank Mr. Segar for giving him to me, and to all of us.

Popeye Dollar
(Original illustration by Zak Sally) Click here to enlarge this image.

Zak Sally is a comic book artist, publisher and former bassist for the band Low. He lives in Minneapolis, where he runs La Mano Press, and actually loves spinach, probably thanks to Popeye.