Read Alex Grand’s Understanding Superhero Comic Books published by McFarland Books in 2023 with Foreword by Jim Steranko with editorial reviews by comic book professionals, Jim Shooter, Tom Palmer, Tom DeFalco, Danny Fingeroth, Alex Segura, Carl Potts, Guy Dorian Sr. and more.
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In this episode we will be talking about Popeye and Thimble Theatre newspaper strip and how its creator, E.C. Segar’s innovations affected comic book history.
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E.C. Segar started the Thimble Theatre newspaper strip in 1919, and built up a range of sequential ability by the time he created and inserted Popeye as a side character into his strip in 1929.
As he helped the protagonist, Castor Oyl on his adventures certain traits about Popeye began to surface that seem to appear in later characters that most of us know and love. Just like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Wolverine, Popeye is an orphan.
The relevance of protagonists being orphans goes even farther back than this into Little Orphan Annie as discussed in the Newspaper Strips to Comic Books episode, and appears to be the case for most superheroes. So just like we know very little about Popeye, he knows very little about himself. However, the surprises don’t stop there. One notable story in 1930 shows him taking a large hail of bullets from the villain of the continuity,
which leads everyone around him to question, why doesn’t he die? After defeating the villain, his friend, Castor Oyl forces him to see a doctor who examines him feeling utter disbelief that he is simply walking around with several bullet holes. The doctor says that he “will probably die,” and yet he still lives through the next day.
The doctor gathers a team of Surgeons who operate and are only able to remove a few bullets, and hilariously accidentally leave some tape inside of him.
He gets some rest and eats food, and self-heals himself to a quick recovery shocking everyone around him including his best friend, Castor. During a murder attempt with a sword, a villain notices that he cant cut Popeye’s neck flesh in 1933.
In fact, Popeye’s flesh is so sturdy that the villain mentions the muscles in his neck are like wires. Another adventure he is stranded in the desert where the only water is a terrible poison that kills everything that drinks it. E.C. Segar goes into depth with how poisonous the water is to ingest. Popeye decides to overcome all common sense and drink anyway taking very deep drinks of this vile liquid.
Surprising the reader, he survives drinking a gallon of this poison and the strip calls him a “Super Man.” This strip was in 1931 which was 7 years before the first appearance of the popular Super Man from Action Comics 1, 1938
and 3 years before Doc Savage was referred to as a Superman in a pulp magazine ad shown in the Pulps to Comic books episode. Not only does Popeye have Super durability, internal stamina, he also has super strength shown in this 1932 strip.
In this 1931 strip, he fights a Nazilian Boa Constrictor. This seemed to be a hopeless situation, however
as the Nazilian villain tries to capture Olive Oyl, they watch as Popeye uses his Superhuman strength to literally tear the large snake to shreds in a fit of frustrated rage in a Wolverine-like fashion. The snake is left as a bloody pulpy puddle next to Popeye’s feet.
Wolverine would have a similar frustrated violent rage that left his enemies as bloody pulps like this more child-friendly cover to 1988 Wolverine 1 by John Buscema and Al Williamson.
This frustrated rage would serve Popeye well in situations like this, but apparently stemmed from unresolved violent issues in his past, some of which led to him having his deformed face, with a missing eye. This deep psychological pain, which Wolverine also manifested with disturbed sleep and a danger to anyone who slept next to him, also was exhibited in Popeye in this 1930 Sunday.
But hey, he’s got a heart of gold, and everyone around him feels it. This accidental PTSD nightmare violence to anyone who happens to be in the room was shown with Wolverine in the first X-Men film in the year 2000.
In 1932, Popeye had an encounter with Woo Fong revealing that they both share a shady back story where he spent time in Singapore and actually had allies and enemies. He is actually revealed to be a “One-Eyed Satan” by his old friend.
Wolverine similarly was known as a one-eyed shady adventurer in the land of Madripoor, the Marvel Comics version of Singapore in its pirate hey-day shown here from the Wolverine Series, 1989. This art is by the amazing John Buscema.
Along with this jaded mysterious past in the Orient, Popeye has an arch-nemesis who is a beastly feral version of himself, a sailor in the character of Bluto who 1st appeared in 1932 during the Eight Sea adventure.
Not only have these two enemies known each other for years before both their first appearance’s, Popeye represents the kinder smaller Sailor, and Bluto is the larger, stronger, and feral Sailor who enjoys murdering innocent people. Their fight gets so out of hand that an onlooker comments how they have been fighting for 4 hours, and another calls them, “Supermen!!!”
Wolverine has this same counterpart in Sabretooth as shown here in Wolverine 10, 1989 with this beautiful cover by Bill Sienkiewicz.during one of their own super savage throwdowns.
But despite Popeye’s heart of gold, he, like the Thing and Wolverine, more than occasionally gets his frustrations out during bar fights. Bars are great locations for many anti-heroes.
Both the Thing and Wolverine have spent times in bar’s, drinking as well as fighting in them. Alot of times, barfly anti-heroes like this carry plenty of pain and aggression and need a particular arena to vent that out at people who probably deserve it.
Here is Wolverine in 1989 in a bar fight in a similar rogue fashion as Popeye.
This was certainly the case with the Thing and Wolverine. Wolverine was introduced in a fighting rena in the first X-Men movie in 2000,
and the Thing was a wrestler for a good portion of the 1980s as shown here in this 1985 Thing Comic.
Popeye was no different and would at times make money boxing as a prize-fighter as shown here in this classic Sunday from 1931.
In fact, he is such a great prize-fighter that when he gets angry enough, will obliterate anyone in the ring with him including the referee. In this 1932 Sunday, he is put in the ring with a robotic Iron Man and literally tears the automaton to shreds.
On top of having a heart of gold with super-strength, durability, PTSD and a temper, Popeye, just like the Thing, had an “ugly mug”with one eye, a spastic & atrophied half face that made it tough for women to be attracted to him. His interaction with the opposite sex brought about encounters such as this in 1931 where women were literally disgusted by him.
It is heart warming knowing that Popeye has a tough exterior like the Thing or Wolverine, but also has a sensitivity and loyalty shown in his relationship with Olive Oyl whom he defends with his life on a regular basis and she shows she is special by looking past his outward ugliness.
The Thing also exhibited this type of love/unconditional defense of his girlfriend, Alicia Masters, and Wolverine received the same from his love, Mariko Yashida.
As these traits of Popeye become more evident and repeated in various ways, he shows a tremendous sense of self. Just as Wolverine says that “I’m the best there is at what I do, and what I do isn’t very nice” or the Thing says, “I’m the ever lovin’ blue eyed Thing,” so does Popeye say:
It appears that not only was Popeye a Super Man before Superman, he was also a super strong, super healing, nigh-invulnerable ugly antihero orphan with a heart of gold decades before both the Thing and Wolverine. One thing for sure, that formula exists for each generation, and I don’t think we should ever forget one of the earliest incarnations of that in comic form, Popeye the Sailor man. Considering this comic anti-hero template didn’t outright exist when E.C. Segar developed Popeye is a testament to his spontaneous and sequential genius. Cheers.
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Popeye ©King Features, Inc. , Action Comics ©DC Comics, X-Men 1 ©20th Century Fox, Marvel Two-In-One ©Marvel, The Thing ©Marvel, Uncanny X-Men ©Marvel, Fantastic Four ©Marvel, Wolverine ©Marvel, Photos ©Their Respective Copyrightholders