Popeye’s Comic Debut
On January 17, 1929, Popeye the Sailor Man first appeared in the Thimble Theatre comic strip.
Cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar created Popeye. Segar worked as a film projectionist before taking a correspondence course to become an illustrator.
After moving to Chicago, Segar met Richard F. Outcault, creator of The Yellow Kid. Outcault encouraged Segar to pursue his dream and helped him find work with the Chicago Herald. Segar published his first comic, Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, in March 1916. Over the next few years, he continued to create comics for the Herald as well as other papers.
In 1919 Segar moved to New York to work for King Features Syndicate. It was there that he created Thimble Theatre for the New York Journal, debuting on December 19, 1919. This strip revolved around the spinsterish Olive Oyl and her brother Castor. For the next decade, Segar continued to develop Thimble Theatre as well as a few other comic strips.
Then in January 1929, Segar needed to create a mariner character to navigate Castor Oyl’s ship to Dice Island. That mariner was Popeye and he was introduced in the January 17, 1929, strip. When asked if he was a sailor, Popeye’s first line was “Ja think I’m a cowboy?”
Though Popeye was an instant hit with readers, Segar wrote him out of the strip. When fans complained, Popeye returned and eventually became the star. In fact, Thimble Theatre quickly became one of King Features’ most popular comic strips in the 1930s. As a result, it was expanded to appear in many more newspapers around the country.
Segar enjoyed his newfound success, making $400,000 a year by 1936. However, just two years later he died of Leukemia and liver disease at only 43 years old. After Segar’s death, a number of artists carried on his legacy, with the comic strip still appearing in newspapers today.
Popeye has also appeared in a number of other mediums. Fleischer Studios first animated him in 1933. The cartoons made Popeye even more popular, and in 1938 a poll revealed that Popeye was the most popular cartoon character in Hollywood. Over the next several decades, Popeye starred in a variety of different cartoons, all the way up to the early 2000s.
Popeye also had his own comic books, radio program, games, and a live-action movie starring Robin Williams. Interestingly, the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong was originally planned to be a Popeye game, but the game’s creators were unable to work out a deal to license the characters. But when that game proved popular, Popeye’s license holders reconsidered and allowed a game to be made.
And the salty sailor was so popular that Texas spinach growers erected a statue in his honor, claiming his endorsement saved their business during the dark days of the Great Depression.
Click here for more from the official Popeye website.
Click here for more Popeye stamps.