E.C. Segar: The Eye Behind Popeye

A thousand cheers today for E.C. Segar (Elzie Crisler Segar, 1894-1938), best remembered today for giving the world Popeye and the cast of characters who came with him.

Segar grew up in small town Chester, Illinois where he worked in vaudeville houses, playing drums in house bands, performing on stage, and running movie projectors. At age 18 he began taking correspondence courses to learn how to be a cartoonist. His first strip, in 1916, was Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Capers. Thimble Theatre, for the King Features syndicate, followed in 1919. Originally, Olive Oyl was the main character, along with her brother Castor Oyle, and her boyfriend Ham Gravy. Popeye the Sailor didn’t enter into until a decade later, but he quickly became everyone’s favorite, with his ugly bald pan, squinty eye, and overdeveloped, tattooed forearms. Other characters included the infant foundling Swee’Pea who was created in 1933, and the hamburger-cadging J. Wellington Wimpy, created in 1934.

In 1932, Fleischer Studios launched their series of animated Popeye shorts, and this is where the character truly came into his own. Note, that this is just a couple of years after Disney’s initial success with Mickey Mouse. Popeye would be one of the few animated stars to rival the rodent. The Popeye cartoons are simpler in storyline than Thimble Theatre, and intensified the ritual of spinach eating and fighting with Bluto as a rival for Olive Oyle. And they also introduced the famous raspy voice, invented by a Rhode Island vaudevillian named Billy Costello a.k.a. Red Pepper Sam. (Costello was fired in 1935, the job taken over at that point by Jack Mercer). And the famous theme song by Sammy Lerner, also dates from the earliest films. These old Fleischer Popeye cartoons are just about my favorite things in the world. The muttered ad libs, the strange uncanny movement, they are truly dream-like and exceptionally funny. Most of the stuff we associate with the character: “Ugh, ugh, ugh!”, “Blow me down!”, etc dates from this time.

Segar died in 1938, his daily strips taken over by other artists. It ran until 1994. In the early ’40s, Paramount assumed control of the Fleischer Studios, renaming them Famous Studios. The Popeye cartoons from this era are simplified, and not as witty as the early ones, but they still retain lots of historic charm and have the added benefit of color. These ran through 1957. From 1960 through 1962 there was a straight-to-tv version in which Bluto was renamed Brutus — still more simplified. And over the years there were various incarnations, comic books, toys, a Macy’s parade balloon etc.

I was a big fan of the admittedly imperfect 1980 musical film, scripted by Jules Feiffer, directed by Robert Altman, tunes by Harry Nilsson, and starring Robin Williams. We leave you now with some cool ads I found for the soundtrack album: