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Popeye: Casinos, Moochers, and Adventures Across the Fourth Dimension

In 1929, the plot of the daily comic strip Thimble Theater, was starting another adventure.  The plot sent one of its main characters, Castor Oyl, down to the docks of the fictional town of Sweet Haven to find transport to Dice Island, where he intended to break the bank at Fadewell’s Casino.  Castor was sure he could do it, because he’d recently acquired Bernice, a rare bird called a wiffle hen, which brings good luck when you rub her head.  To get to Dice Island, Castor needed to find a sailor, and find one he did.  Sitting by the docks was a one-eyed, tough-looking old mariner smoking a corncob pipe.  No one knew it yet, not even Elzie Segar, the strip’s creator, but Thimble Theater was about to acquire a new star.  This was the entrance of Popeye the Sailor into the strip, and into American culture.

Castor Oyl first encounters Popeye, January 17, 1929.

From the beginning, Popeye was tough.  More than tough: he was indestructible.  He could get punched, knocked on the head, and even shot with a gun, and nothing would harm him.  (Years later, one of the cartoonists who took over after Segar’s death, Bud Sagendorf, wrote a letter from Popeye, addressing the frequently-asked question of how he lost his eye.  Popeye said it was a terrible story, and if he ever told it, “it would give you nightmares all day long.”  The secret has yet to be revealed.)

The famous romance between Popeye and Olive Oyl, Castor’s sister, is well known, but initially, their feelings toward each other were more contentious.  Olive joined her brother and the sailor on their sea adventure, which Popeye objected to, since “wimminks is bad luck on ships,” as he put it.  Olive just thought of Popeye as too brutal a man, and didn’t care for his company.  Besides, she was already engaged to be married!  Her fiancé, Ham Gravy, had been with her since Thimble Theater’s debut in 1919.  In her eyes, Popeye was no competition.

Ham Gravy’s exit from the strip, as imagined by Bud Sagendorf, years after the fact. (left)  Popeye sweet talks Olive, 1931.

What Ham never counted on was the instant popularity of Popeye.  Readers went crazy for him, and the fan mail for Thimble Theater started pouring in.  Segar, who hadn’t figured Popeye would be such a prominent character, figured he might as well give in.  Besides, he liked his new character, too.  By 1931, two suitors were leading to too complicated a plot, and this was no romance strip!  Poor Ham faded away, while Popeye the Sailor became Olive’s new beau.  They were never engaged, but they were awfully sweet on each other throughout the life of the strip.

Eventually, Segar decided he’d get around to explaining just why Popeye was indestructible.  To do so, he turned to pop science—or, more specifically, pop nutrition.  In the early 1930s, spinach was considered to be a superfood of a sort, due to a mistake made sixty years earlier.  In 1870, a scientist studying spinach put a decimal point in the wrong place.  The result was spinach’s superfood reputation, since it appeared to contain ten times as much iron as it actually did, which is far more than any other vegetable.

While spinach is a good source of iron even if you get your math straight, it’s nowhere near as potent as was believed at the time.  Regardless, it didn’t seem like much of a leap for Segar to state that Popeye is indestructible (or at least incredibly strong) because Popeye eats it.  The result was a spinach mania among children.  Kids started to demand spinach, inspired by the strip.  When the Fleischer Brothers’ animated Popeye cartoons hit movie theater screens in 1933, demand soared even further.  Spinach sales climbed even higher, which was good news for any industry, especially when the country was deep in the throes of the Great Depression.  The city of Crystal City, Texas, in the heart of a major spinach-producing part of the country, erected a statue of Popeye in front of its city hall, out of gratitude for what the character did for the crop.  The statue still stands today, in the town that billed itself as “The Spinach Capital of the World”.

The Popeye statue in Crystal City, Texas.

Spinach wasn’t the only foodstuff that enjoyed a boost from the strip.  Popeye’s friend, J. Wellington Wimpy, well-spoken moocher and aggressively lazy denizen of Sweet Haven, did his part to bring the hamburger to prominence.  Wimpy would saunter into the local beanery, Roughhouse’s Café, and do all he could to trick the proprietor or one of the customers into buying him one—or several.  At the time, a hamburger wasn’t necessarily an all-beef sandwich, but made of any kind of ground meat.  A recurring gag in the strip and in the animated cartoons showed Wimpy chasing animals with a meat grinder, intent on turning them into sandwiches.  Wimpy coined the iconic line, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” which is still quoted regularly by people to express the feeling that they think someone’s trying to rip them off.  (Wimpy’s other line, “May I invite you to a duck dinner?  You bring the ducks,” is not so well remembered.)  The Wimpy restaurant chain was named after the character.  It was founded in Bloomington, Indiana, but today it’s more widespread in the UK than in the US.

Wimpy tries his famous line on Roughhouse, apparently unsuccessfully.

Wimpy, while not an aggressive character, was not especially timid, either.  This makes the suggestion that the adjective wimpy was inspired by him a shaky claim.  On the other hand, while the first appearance of the word wimp in English dates from 1920, it didn’t acquire common use until the 1940s, after Wimpy’s appearance in the strip.  And the word wimpy, to describe someone who is a wimp, didn’t start appearing until the 1960s, so it’s entirely possible that the strip might have created the adjective, or at least given rise to it.

Another word that Popeye sometimes gets credit for is goon.  Goons were scary monsters in the strip who spoke their own, incomprehensible language, and who lived on faroff Goon Island.  However, the word goon dates from 1921, coined by American humorist Frank J. Allen as “a person with a heavy touch,” who “lacks a humorous mind”.  Goons appeared in Popeye about a decade later, and while they weren’t exactly what Allen had in mind, they do come pretty close.  It’s likely that the strip encouraged the use of this word, but it’s hard to say for sure.

The evil Sea Hag gives nefarious instructions to Alice the Goon.  See?  It’s helpful to know another language.

Another word that the strip gets credit for coining is jeep.  This is after the character Eugene the Jeep.  Jeeps are highly intelligent, dog-like creatures from the fourth dimension.  They can move fourth dimensionally, presumably by tesseract, or maybe by some other way.  Segar acknowledged in his strip that this is a very hard thing to explain, but he did try.

Eugene the Jeep makes his debut on August 9, 1936.  Professor Brainstine clears things up for Popeye… sort of.

From this, a false etymology was born that the vehicles that the US Army referred to as jeeps were named for the character.  Although the Army jeep debuted around the same time Eugene did, it’s more likely that this term was borne by the vehicles’ given name: general purpose vehicles, abbreviated G.P., and pronounced “jeep”.  It’s not impossible that the popular strip influenced this word, but that’s a hard claim to back up.

The strip remained popular after Segar’s death in 1938, and the animated cartoons have appeared in movie houses and television screens for over eighty years now.  Popeye’s onscreen nemesis Bluto (sometimes called Brutus) only made his way into the strip after Segar’s demise.  In the 1950s, Popeye was given two eyes and was said merely to squint all the time, perhaps because his mutilated face was considered to be in poor taste for young audiences.  But by the 1960s, animated Popeye returned to having one eye.  However, when new Popeye cartoons were made for television in the 1980s, his pipe was absent, though he’d still whip it out occasionally to toot like a whistle.

In 2004, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the appearance of Popeye, Lion’s Gate Entertainment released a new cartoon called “Popeye’s Voyage: The Quest for Pappy”.  Voice actor Billy West was hired as Popeye.  West said it was “the hardest job I ever had,” and that “it was like having a buzzsaw in my throat”.  West said he put a lot of work into getting the voice right, but only managed when he discovered the throat singers of Tannu Tuva, who are famous for making distinct music in their throats.  Tuvan throat singing actually requires the singer to make two different sounds at once, which is apparently the key to doing Popeye’s voice properly.

The strip still appears in newspapers, but the long, serial adventures are reruns.  The Sunday strips are still new ones, but they’re not connected to the story itself.  Perhaps this is related to the coming status of Popeye changing from copyrighted character to public domain, which is due to happen on January 1, 2025, almost 96 years after his first appearance.


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