Nine years before the birth of Superman, the most famous of all superheroes, and long before Wonder Woman, The Flash, or Spiderman, there was this singular, one-eyed sailor who, when in dire situations, would timely find a provision of spinach which would give him extraordinary strength. Popeye, the Sailor, transforms himself, thanks to spinach, into a superhero capable of defeating his most powerful enemies, usually Bluto, who tries to take his sweetheart Olive Oyl away from him.
Popeye first appeared as a comic strip character on January 19, 1919, actually in a secondary role in the King Features newspaper strip, Thimble Theatre, created by Elzie Segar. Don Markstein’s Toonopedia recounts the circumstances of that first appearance: “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.” Castor Oyl is Olive’s sister, Ham Gravy would eventually disappear from the strip. Wimpy –insatiable eater of hamburgers– was added in 1932 and the baby Swee’pea in 1936.
In 1933 Popeye made his debut in the movies, although as part of the already famous series featuring the cartoon sex symbol Betty Boop. “I Yam What I Yam” made that same year by the Fleischer Studios was the first in which the sailor was the main character. More than two hundred animation movies were made although when Fleischer was taken over by Paramount which renamed it Famous Studios, the quality of the films declined. In the 1960s new Popeye cartoons were made for TV but again, they never achieved the quality and freshness of those early ones made by Fleischer.
A live action movie was made in 1980, directed by Robert Altman featuring Robin Williams in the leading role, Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, Paul Dooley as Wimpy, Donovan Scott as Castor Oyl, and Paul L. Smith as Bluto. The movie was well-received by both, the critics and the public. Shot in the island of Malta, the location would eventually become a tourist attraction. Indeed the recreation of the small coastal town where Popeye and his friends were supposed to live was one of the achievements of the movie which brought back the memories of an old popular culture icon mixed with a contemporary look as well.
Popeye’s taste for spinach, although not originated in commercial sponsorship (information issued by health agencies after World War I was emphasizing the nutritional value of spinach as a source of iron), benefitted growers and processors of the vegetable to the extent that Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue to the comic strip character. His craving for spinach helped the town to go through the recession relatively unharmed since it was home to a spinach-processing plant that was producing 10,000 cans a day during the 1930s, thanks to Popeye. Another statue dedicated to the character is situated in Chester, Illinois.
A restaurant chain based in Louisiana and specialized in fried chicken also bears the name of the famous sailor, but the character has also made commercial inroads outside the U.S.: a Popeye company offering sports supplements is based in Canada, and in Chile, there is a Popeye detergent.
At 90, Popeye is still present in some newspapers in the U.S. and abroad, although just as reprints of the works by his last artist and writer, Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf. In 2004 a new TV version, using digital technique was launched by Fox. Of course, some of the old classic black and white films are now available online.