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Popeye almost didn't get off the drawing board

E.C. Segar, creator of the iconic comic strip character, was suffering a bad cold but decided to head to his Santa Monica studio anyway. On Jan. 17, 1929, readers were introduced to the pipe-smoking sailor with the huge forearms.

March 13, 2011|By Anthony Mostrom, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • E.C. Segar, Popeye's creator, is held by an actor portraying the strong-armed, pipe-smoking sailor.
E.C. Segar, Popeye's creator, is held by an actor portraying the strong-armed,… (unknown, Courtesy L.A.…)

It was during the peak of another punishing cold and flu season of years past — this one in January 1929 — when one of the most recognizable heroes in comics was born in a Santa Monica artist's studio.

The flash of inspiration responsible for this American pop icon almost perished in the epidemic. As the artist's assistant would later tell it, cartoonist E.C. Segar was suffering a bad cold that day and considered staying in bed. Impelled by an austere work ethic that had served him well in life, Segar instead drove to his office at 4th and Broadway (the building is long gone) and began thinking up a week's worth of ideas for his syndicated comic strip, "Thimble Theatre."

The strip starred pint-size Castor Oyl, his sister, Olive, and her boyfriend, Ham Gravy. Round, cute and plump, Segar's bulbous characters looked as if they were fashioned out of doughnuts, hot dogs and inner tubes. Segar was plotting a story in which Ham and the Oyls traveled to "Dice Island" to do some gambling.

But first he needed to get them there, so readers opening their newspapers on the morning of January 17, 1929, saw Castor prowling a pier ("All we've got to do is find a crew and sail.... Gee, I'm glad we got rid of sis."). Pointing to someone, he shouted: "Hey, there! Are you a sailor?"

The next panel depicted a deformed-looking man with huge forearms, wearing nautical garb, smoking a pipe and squinting severely. "Ya think I'm a cowboy?" came the answer. If the original artwork for that daily — the birth of Popeye the Sailor Man — still exists, its value is astronomical.

A small, wiry man, Elzie Crisler Segar grew up in a poor family in Chester, Ill., on the banks of the Mississippi. Even as a boy he was determined to be rich, and he took jobs painting billboards and hanging wallpaper. At 17, he enrolled in the W.L. Evans School of Cartooning, which later produced Chester Gould of "Dick Tracy" fame.

At 20, Segar moved to Chicago and landed a promising gig taking over "Charlie Chaplin's Comic Capers" for the Chicago Herald. When that paper folded, Segar created "Looping the Loop," a goings-on-about-town feature, for the Chicago American. "Thimble Theatre" came soon after, appearing in the New York Journal in 1919.

Segar met and married Myrtle Johnson in Chicago. They soon moved to Los Angeles and by 1926 were living in a Spanish Colonial house at 7518 Willoughby in Hollywood. Three years later the couple, now with two children, were living comfortably in a two-story house on 17th Street near Montana ("Nice fat check every week!" Segar wrote gratefully to Evans).

Segar had no idea just how fat his checks would become after the invention of Popeye. Indeed, he flirted with the idea of dropping the character after the "Dice Island" story ended. Who would have guessed that a character so grotesque of face would be so instantly loved, his fame so long-lived that he would become part of a Google logo 80 years later? Say the phrase "I yam what I yam," and people know whom you're quoting. Popeye's 1930s theme song is so universally known it rivals the four opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth and the TV show "Dragnet."

Popeye's compelling combination of bizarre image, screwy lingo, ham-fisted violence and right-versus-wrong ethic proved irresistible to Depression-era Americans. He was also, according to scholar Bill Blackbeard, the first major comics character who possessed superhuman strength (in one 1936 daily, Popeye walked obliviously through a wall).

Some locals have long held that Popeye was based on a retired Norwegian sailor, Olaf "Cap" Olsen, who operated fishing barges from the Santa Monica Pier. Recent scholarship has revealed that Popeye was inspired by a character in Segar's hometown, Rocky Fiegel, a pugnacious barkeeper who left his mark on many a head with his own real-life fists.

Was Popeye for kids? Ultimately, yes. Early on, publisher William Randolph Hearst demanded that Segar tone down Popeye's violent "assaulks" with his "fisks" on his "emenies." Saccharine "moral lessons," addressed directly to children, crept in. But Popeye conquered the world and Segar worked furiously at the drawing board, usually at home and late into the night, taking occasional breaks at a billiard table he had installed (he also fished regularly with the Santa Monica Rod & Reel Club).

His salary and the royalties that piled up from dolls, toys, games, buttons, pipes, wristwatches, dime banks, comic books, radio shows and animated cartoons made him rich indeed. By 1936, he was making $400,000 a year.

Segar was happy and productive when he died unexpectedly of liver failure at the age of 44. For his teenage assistant Bud Sagendorf, it meant the end of a memorable youth. The weekly late-night trips to the Santa Monica Pier, to sit in a small boat with Segar and laugh and fish while coming up with ideas for comics, would be no more. Ghost artists of varying quality would continue the strip. In the end it was the animated movie incarnation of Popeye, he of the gravelly voice and formulaic spinach-eating, that would win the day in the nation's collective memory.

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