Happy 90th Birthday Popeye!

by Oliver MacNamee

While we have banged the drum to remind you all that this December we will be – should be – celebrating the centenary year of Olive Oyl, before that, this Thursday the 17th of January, sees her long-time love, Popeye, celebrate his 90th. So, let us be the first to wish you a Happy Birthday, Popeye, and here’s to you!

Originally introduced to the King Features’ Thimble Theatre newspaper strip on January 17th 1929, that appeared in the New York Journal, Popeye was supposed to be just another bit-part cast member hired by Olive’s brother, Castor Oyl, to sail a ship to Dice Island, but he soon became the most popular character of the strip.

Unlike the spinach-swilling sailor we are all familiar with today, Popeye’s initial ‘powers’ were linked to luck and particularly one Bernice the Whiffle Hen. Whenever Popeye would rub Bernice’s head, she would grant him good luck. Something at the very heart of Castor Oyl’s plans for his time on Dice Island where he hoped to break the bank at the island’s casino using said luck.

First appearance, Jan. 17th 1929

Popeye helped to win the day, but then abruptly left the strip. But not for long. A swell of popularity saw him return and, as they say, the rest is history.

And what a history. Popeye was quick to be animated by Fleischer Studios in 1932, and has been a feature of animated shorts ever since; on the silver screen and on television. It seems every generation has had their own Popeye to grow up with. He’s also starred in his own live-action film, featuring Robin Williams and Shelly Duval, and directed by Robert Altman. Not the most successful of movies, if counting the box-office takings, but I still have a very fond spot for this curious little film. I dare say many more do too.

But it has always been in the comic strips that Popeye has offered the most. After creator E C Segar’s death in 1938 (who it’s believed based Popeye on a local character, Frankie ‘Rocky’ Feigle from Segar’s home town of Chester, Illinois; a man who’d never lost a fight in his life), many other artists took over until finally Bud Sagendorf took the reigns in 1959. He would stay on the strip until 1986, but continued to produce the Sunday strips until his death in 1994. Sagendorf, arguably, returned the strip to its glory days and made great use of old-school Popeye characters, good and bad, thereby ensuring Segar’s legacy would survive for at least another few generations readers. Characters like the Sea-hag, Alice the Goon and Poopdeck Pappy all helped grow the strip and Popeye’s extended family.

Interestingly, Popeye is not only one of the most iconic comic strip characters of the 20th century, but his strip has also been responsible for the inclusion of the word ‘jeep’ into the English language, courtesy of the cute yellow creature Segar and Sagendorf created between them. Popeye has appeared in adverts for anything and everything over the years too, ensuring his character is recognisable all around the globe, and even holds the honour of being the first ever brand/icon to take over the lights on the Empire States Building in 2004 to celebrate his 75th anniversary. The lights of this New York mainstay glowed spinach green from January 16th -18th 2004.

In recent years Popeye comics has had a home at IDW who continue to release volumes of classic Popeye newspaper strips as well as create their own new comics, such as Roger Langridge’s Popeye series from a few years back that read as a love letter to Segar and Sagendorf’s strips with art evocative of the greats that have worked on Popeye. I loved it, as it really captured the who vibe of those original Depression-era comics. And, while there seem to be no plans that I can fathom to celebrate this American icon’s birthday, take this as a head’s up people. After all, with Popeye now in the public domain here in Europe, what’s stopping anyone from marking the occasion, right?

Just don’t go forgetting Olive Oyl’s bigger, bad-ass birthday come December.

And, if you do get the time, do visit the Popeye website where you’ll find all things Popeye related there. It’s a great, informative and entertaining site. And, while you’re at it, maybe go visit the official Popeye and Friends YouTube site, established in 2017, where you can get familiar with the most recent, de-aged rendition of everyone’s favourite sailor and his pals. You certainly can’t say this salty old sea dog isn’t keeping up with the times, now can you?

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