Segar's Funny Pages: The Birth of a Sailor

Popeye's first appearance in Segar's comic strip. The sailorman's personality was much more brusque and his looks less appealing than in the subsequent years.

    Popeye, the world famous spinach-munching, pipe-tooting, under-the-breath-muttering sailorman with bulging forearms and a penchant for fistfights was introduced to the public on January 17, 1929. That day, the gruff mariner walked onto E.C. Segar's (1894-1938) "Thimble Theater," a popular daily comic strip owned by the Hearst's King Features Syndicate, starring Olive Oyl, her family Nana, Cole, and Castor Oyl, and Olive's boyfriend Ham Gravy. Popeye was originally meant to play only a supporting character in a storyline that involved an adventurous hunt for Whiffle Hen, an exotic bird with remarkable magical powers. Despite his "minor" role, the one-eyed sailor succeeded to captivate the hearts of the strip's loyal followers with his charismatic self-righteousness, brusque temper, and humble personality. When Segar decided to retire Popeye (after the episode's conclusion), the strip's fans demanded to see more of the charming sailorman's antics. Segar listened. Not only did Popeye show up again in more of his engaging stories, but the sailorman eventually became the main star of the "Thimble Theater" funny pages, which a few years later were renamed, first into "Thimble Theater, Starring Popeye" and, then, simply into "Popeye." Rather quickly, the pipe-chomping runt sent Ham Gravy, Olive's original boyfriend, into an early retirement by replacing him as the scrawny girl's romantic interest.

     Segar's "Popeye" stories were wildly imaginative, featuring an abundance of interesting characters with wacky personalities. Segar would take his readers on fantastic journeys and introduce them to original fictitious species, such as the eerie humanlike creatures, the Goons, or the eccentric Sea Hag. Segar's outlandishly exotic places often conveyed a somewhat bizarre and uncanny atmosphere in which the strip's creator satirized not only current political and social issues, but also universal human traits and values such as the gullibility of masses, the questions of leadership, war, ideology, etc.

     Popeye fit perfectly into Segar's universe. As America began to slide into the Great Depression, the character's distinguishable self-confidence, take-charge personality and explosive temperament, combined with his strict adherence to his own set of moral principles and ethic codes, made him stand out as a true hero of his era.