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The Origins of Popeye

VO: Rebecca Brayton
He is the world’s first true action hero, despite being a cock-eyed, pipe-smoking sailor. He was created by Elzie Crisler Segar, and made his debut in the daily comic strip “Thimble Theatre” on January 17th, 1929. There, he appeared in the story “The Adventures of Ham Gravy.” Originally, a supporting character, the middle-aged sailor with large muscular forearms and anchor tattoos came to play an important role in the tale and eventually became the star character. Soon after, he appeared in animated features, got his own series, and movie starring Robin Williams. Today, he remains a popular icon of physical strength, and will forever be associated with Spinach. Join WatchMojo.com as we take a look at the origins and history of Popeye the sailor man.
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The Origins of Popeye

He is the world’s first true action hero, despite being a cock-eyed, pipe-smoking sailor. Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we’ll be taking a look at the history of Popeye the sailor man.

Popeye was created by Elzie Crisler Segar, and made his debut in the daily comic strip “Thimble Theatre” on January 17th, 1929. There, he appeared in the story “The Adventures of Ham Gravy.”

Originally, he was a simple supporting character. However, the middle-aged sailor with large muscular forearms and anchor tattoos came to play an important role in the tale. This was after he was originally brought on to help Gravy and his girlfriend Olive Oyl search for the legendary “Whiffle Hen.”

After slowly becoming the central character during the course of the adventure, he was discarded once the story concluded.

The artist was surprised when a swarm of fans was displeased with this decision, and he quickly brought the sailor back. This time Popeye took Olive Oyl as his girlfriend, and the comic was re-named “Thimble Theater starring Popeye.”

Soon after, Popeye cashed in on the growing popularity of animated cartoons. He did so by appearing in Betty Boop’s 1933 episode entitled “Popeye the Sailor.” The character wasted no time in introducing himself to an entirely new audience by singing his trademark song.

Following this, Popeye was given his own long-running series of theatrical shorts by Paramount Studios, and the first of these was titled “I Yam What I Yam.”

During this time, several changes to the character took place. For example, Popeye became 34-years-old, was born in Santa Monica, California, and his home became the fictional town of Sweethaven. There, he interacted with his father, the wayward sailor Poopdeck Pappy, his sweetheart Olive Oyl; and his adopted child Swee’Pea, whom he found on his doorstep.

Meanwhile, his strange adventures took him all over the world. He also faced enemies such as Sea Hag and Bluto, and this large, bearded character constantly fought for Olive Oyl’s affection.

Through the changes, Popeye retained his gravelly voice and speech impediment, and was given the full use of two eyes, though one remained squinty to maintain his tough look. However, the nature of his strength changed greatly from his origins in the comics. Popeye no longer became invulnerable by rubbing the head of the rare Whiffle Hen. Instead, Popeye ate spinach to restore and amplify his strength. Interestingly, spinach made him invincible to bullets, capable of flight, and able to swim extremely fast.

By 1938, Popeye became the most popular cartoon character in the United States, and even dethroned Mickey Mouse for a short while. His heart of gold, unwavering morality and ability to wield fists of fury are all credited with this upswing in fame.

His popularity was further fueled by the American audience’s perception that he represented them as a whole, especially in terms of how he dealt with bullies. Meanwhile, he gave an incredible sales boost to spinach.

The character eventually faded from the limelight, but made a comeback in the late 1970s with his own television show entitled “Popeye and Friends.” Robin Williams brought the iconic character to life in the spectacular 1980 live-action movie.

Cinema’s first true action hero, Popeye has appeared in over 700 cartoons throughout his long career, and remains a popular icon of physical strength.
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