Popeye the Sailor Man, Comics' First Super Hero
(originally published in the Summer 1991 issue of Once Upon A Dime)

Ask a group of comics fans who the first super powered hero in comics was and you won’t hear Superman. You might hear Popeye the Sailor Man. While he lacked an identity concealing costume, he did (by eating spinach) undergo Captain Marvel-like or Hour Man-like transformations to a far more powerful, indeed superpowerful, version of himself.

Popeye is one of the greatest comic strip characters of all time. Since his creation in 1929, the character has become a comic strip and cartoon icon. Who among us doesn't know the "Popeye the sailor man" song or recognize Popeye's distinctive laugh? Popeye’s enduring popularity is especially amazing since he was initially intended by Segar as a throwaway character.

The comic strip we know today as Popeye was originally called Thimble Theatre. First conceived by cartoonist E.C. Segar as a burlesque of stage melodrama when created in 1919, Thimble Theatre evolved into a madcap rambling humor-action serial by the late 1920s, featuring the adventures of Olive Oyl and her family.

Plotlines frequently revolved around the schemes of Olive's brother Castor to get rich quick. In the 1929 sequence that introduces Popeye, in fact, Castor has inherited the rare and unique whiffle hen, a hen that has the ability to grant good luck to anybody who rubs the three hairs on her head. Castor, as you might expect, decides to try his luck in a gambling casino with the hen. To get to the casino, they hire a ship which happens to be manned by a certain squinty-eyed sailor man named Popeye.

Segar had intended on writing Popeye out of the strip at the end of the whiffle hen adventure. However, Segar and his syndicate were so inundated by letters from fans who loved the character, they quickly decided to keep Popeye in Thimble Theatre.

Popeye was a sensation that immediately captured the attention of comic strip readers. When he first appeared in the strip, Thimble Theatre appeared in only a half-dozen newspapers. By 1933, Popeye had become a national icon, appearing in cartoons as well as innumerable pieces of merchandising ranging from tin figurines to napkin rings to pencils with Popeye's face on them.

Something about the sailor struck gold in the early days of the Depression. Perhaps it was his personality that people loved so much. In a world where unemployment was an epidemic and poverty pervasive, it was easy to despair. But Popeye was a positive character, a man whose physical abilities and charisma would carry him through any crisis.

He is sometimes called the first super-hero due to his great strength (even without spinach!), but he was also a super-hero due to his unflagging joy and passion in life. No matter how much he was in peril due to the schemes of the Sea Hag or any of his other antagonists, Popeye would always triumph.

Popeye thought with his fists. He never minded a scrape. Heck, like any good sailor man, he loved a good fight! Popeye frequently got involved in boxing matches, fights he would always win even though his opponent was invariably twice his size.

The Sailor Man also thought with his heart. His love for Olive Oyl was as deep and passionate as any love in comics, topped only by his love for his adopted son Swee'pea.

Under Segar, Popeye was a great hero with a heart of gold. He represented America's view of itself during the Depression: no matter how tough the odds, American passion and fighting spirit would triumph.

Most of us who grew up in the 1960s and 70s know Popeye from the cartoons he starred in that were made between the 1930s and 1970s. In 1980, a full-length live action Popeye movie was released. I recently decided it would be fun to go back and re-watch the movie. I have distinct memories of driving home from the movie with my friend Paul, who I called Andre for reasons that escape me now. I remember Andre and me raving about the movie and singing the rousing song that opens the movie. “Sweet… Sweethaven. God must love us,” the song went. I remembered that song for years, and before I popped in the movie I found myself humming the tune in anticipation of the wonderful time I was expecting to have.

The first few minutes of the movie are indeed wonderful. It starts with a short excerpt from the old Fleisher black-and-white Popeye cartoons – a nice touch of nostalgia – and quickly switches to a shot of Robin Williams, as Popeye, arriving in the ramshackle fishing village of Sweethaven. His arrival is greeted with the very song I remember so nostalgically, and it is indeed a rousing song, a perfect curtain-raiser. The tune introduces the viewer to the amazing set of the town of Sweethaven and to the bizarre citizens of the town. We see cute shtick and hear a charming song, and the audience is expecting the whole movie to drift along on a cloud of whimsy and charm.

Instead, after the song ends we get a cute scene that involves Popeye paying a series of absurd taxes that seems to be directly out of the E.C. Segar comic strip that inspired the movie. Once Popeye pays his taxes, though, the movie suddenly dies. He wanders through the village to find a boarding house and he starts mumbling a tune under his breath. The mumbling in the old black-and-white cartoons would only fill space between action scenes, but in this movie, the mumbling threatens to overwhelm anything else in the film. I kept expecting the mumbled song to suddenly explode into another production number; instead, Popeye keeps mumbling the song for a good two or three minutes, and I just strained to make out what he was singing.

And right there the movie loses its momentum, in a moment that is emblematic of the whole movie: over and over again, there’s a charming or fun scene followed by one that makes no sense and deflates the audience’s goodwill. By the end of the movie and its notoriously awful ending, I lost my attention span and found myself looking around for a book to read rather than watch the movie.

I’m sorry to say it, but in my opinion, the movie Popeye is an absolute mess. It was the product of a number of decisions that, taken independently, probably made sense. But cumulatively, the decisions produced a train wreck.

Popeye was surely produced due to the runaway success of the Broadway musical Annie, which was based on the famous 1930s comic strip Little Orphan Annie. What girl who grew up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s didn’t know the words to Annie’s heartwarming song “Tomorrow”? However, it took many years for Annie to make it to the big screen. For the summer of 1980, the studios wanted an Annie-style blockbuster. What character would have even better name recognition than Popeye? The comic strip was appearing in hundreds of newspapers around the world, and the Popeye cartoons were running every day in syndication in nearly every city around the country. Robert Evans, producer of such classics as Chinatown, Marathon Man and Urban Cowboy would produce the film, and Robin Williams, then a hot star of Mork and Mindy, would star.

The big mistake made with this film was in assigning the direction of it to Robert Altman. Although I think he’s one of the finest directors of the 1970s, Altman was uniquely ill-suited for this movie. Popeye was based on a popular comic strip. Comic strips demand clear, bold and internally plausible plots in order to work well. However, Altman’s gift was in creating movies in which the plots and motivations of characters were deliberately muddy. In films like M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Nashville, the plots don’t follow a sequential line as much as they seem to ooze off the screen. His characters are always motivated by their own interests, to almost seem smaller than life in their views of the world.

If Popeye was going to be true to the comic, Altman would have to ignore the impulses that brought us ambiguous antiheroes like Hawkeye Pierce, his very strange version of Philip Marlowe and his alcoholic Buffalo Bill. They were a far cry from bold Popeye, whose whole world view could be summed up with the motto “I yam what I yam.” Basically everything that Robert Altman does well - create a world and allow skilled actors to bring it alive through improvisation and subtle editing - works against the movie. Where the movie should have a clear internal logic, like the comic, it instead meanders all over the place

So, faced with presenting a film that was in dramatic contrast with his type of film, Altman ended up releasing a film in which he seemed to make a halfhearted attempt at a summer blockbuster. It looks great – reportedly the set of the mythical city of Sweethaven took nine months to create in the remote island of Malta – but the plot makes little or no sense and the style of the film is all wrong for its subject matter. What should be bright and colorful and fun just ends up mainly being muddled, weird and hard to understand.

I desperately wanted to enjoy the movie of Popeye. I had great memories of it, I love Altman, and a couple of the songs are wonderful. But the truth is that by the end I found it almost impossible to watch.

It's not worth the effort to seek out the movie, but it's definitely worth the effort to seek out reprints of E.C. Segar's original comic strip. The strips are so charming and inventive, and the character so wonderful, that it's impossible to resist.

-- Jason Sacks

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