Happy Birthday Olive Oyl As She Celebrates Her 100th Anniversary

by Olly MacNamee

Before we had Popeye, who celebrated his 90th anniversary earlier this year, we had Olive Oyl and her family of misfits, starring in the daily newspaper strip Thimble Theater created by E C Segar. But, having earlier in the year had the opportunity to directly ask IDW’s Chris Ryall what they were doing to mark this auspicious occasion, he looked at me blankly. However, when I’d heard they’d acquired Sunday Press, which Segar’s Thimble Theatre was part of, I still held out hopes that the publisher would do something – even rushing through a ‘Best of’ featuring Olive Oyl – to celebrate. But no. Frankly, I was amazed at the lack of fanfare for Popeye and even more amazed at the ignorance of this first dame of comic strips. So, it’s left to us to bang the drum for her.

A 1921 promotional comic for Thimble Theatre and The Five-Fifteen

Fist appearing in The New York Journal on December 19, 1919, Thimble Theatre was only the third successful comic strip dreamt up by E C Segar, and included regular characters such as her first less famous boyfriend, Harold “Ham” Gravy; and her brother, Castor Oyl.

Having taken inspiration from characters in his own hometown of Chester, Illinois, it was reputed in a 2004 New York Times article that the real-life inspiration for Olive Oyl was one Dora Paskel, who “looked like the character she inspired, but was otherwise unlike the daffy and devoted Olive Oyl. Children watched her long, shadowy figure behind the counter at the general store she owned, but they would seldom go in.”

By 1925, this humble little strip had been syndicated, having built up a fan base of readers slowly but steadily. Little did Olive Oyl, and in particular her soon-to-be-jilted boyfriend, Ham Gravy, know that a certain sailor was to wipe away all there hard fought fame and dominate the strip from 1929 onwards.
And, in many ways, that made Olive Oyl a second class citizen in her own strip. She would fall into the stereotypical role of the damsel in distress, although she will never succumb to the fashion dictates of the day and there is some comfort to be had in Olive Oyl forever being a ‘flapper’ in her presentation. No-one – or at least not many ( I have seen a Tijuana Bible of the era that does besmirch her, and others) –  has ever felt the end, thankfully, to try and sexualise her as so many other female protagonists have had to suffer in their own lifetimes. Although a series of cartoons made by Famous Studios did attempt to make her a more vain, more shallow and more than happy to be fought over by Popeye and Bluto. But, over the last 100 years, she has pretty much remained the same, for good or for bad.

And, wherever Popeye went, Olive Oyl was surer to be there too, as his popularity eclipsed others around him. So, we had Olive Oyl animated in the highly successful Fleischer Studios cartoons (1936), Olive Oyl as played by Shelley Duvall in the underrated Robert Altman helmed Popeye film starring Robin Williams (1980), and Olive Oyl in a video game (1983), amongst many other forms of merchandising and licensing over her past century. Heck, there’s even a pricey perfume or two naked after her, produced by Moschino.
pricey perfume by Moschino

In the more recent IDW all new Popeye comics (2012), there was an attempt to update her, while still remaining true to her roots a something fo a feisty, scrappy woman, but with no sign of a new series – maybe because she, like Popeye, has fallen into the public domain – who knows when we’ll see this centenarian again. But for now, have a very Happy Birthday, Olive! Here’s to another 100 more.


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