1. Popeye is old. I don’t mean the strip is old. Everybody knows the strip is old. I mean Popeye himself is supposed to be a senior citizen. He’s a grizzled old sailor, with emphasis on the old, with extra old added on. Although his official bio now describes him as 34, according to the Segar-era strips he’s in his sixties, and his father (more on him later) is pushing 100. That’s why Popeye is bald and missing an eye. Because of the oldness.
2. Popeye’s mythic origin is fundamentally flawed. In his youth, Fionn mac Cumhaill, the trickster hero of Irish folklore, gained his powers by tasting the flesh of the bradan feasa, the salmon of knowledge, which contained all the knowledge in the world. When Fionn mac Cumhaill burned his thumb cooking the salmon and automatically stuck the burned thumb in his mouth, the knowledge flowed from the salmon into Fionn. After that, Fionn mac Cumhaill knew everything and could access any information he needed by sucking on his thumb.
Popeye, in his old age, got his incredible toughness by staying up all night below decks rubbing the head of Bernice the Wiffle Hen, a bird with the power to bestow supernatural good luck on those who touched her. All the luck flowed out of the hen and into Popeye, rendering the hen useless to would-be gambling kings Castor Oyl and Ham Gravy and transforming Popeye into an unstoppable demigod.
Later, as everyone knows, the story was changed so that Popeye gained his strength from eating spinach. This introduced the crucial element of consumption that gives the core myth its memetic power, but in the process the totemic animal was lost. It’s a shame we can’t have both, the animal and the vegetable, but everyone forgets about the hen.
3. Popeye is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. E.C. Segar drew Thimble Theatre for ten years before introducing Popeye. It took him the length of the entire run of Calvin & Hobbes just to find his main character. Popeye sidled in through the seedy back docks. He was not the kind of hero you could plan for. Who could have predicted that a cranky old sailor who looks like he smells funny—everyone in Thimble Theatre looks like he or she smells funny—would become the idol of millions, making Mickey Mouse shake in his polished red shoes and enduring for generations beyond?
If you are a writer, if you are an artist, you have to learn to open yourself to Popeye, to be ready if Popeye should happen. But at the same time you have to know that Popeye will probably never happen. Maybe there’s a hen you can rub.
4. Popeye is a dick. He’s a lot more heroic in the cartoons. In the Segar strips, aside from sporadic and whimsical urges to aid the downtrodden, a.k.a. widders and orfinks what ain’t got none, Popeye devotes himself largely to being an insufferable cuss. This is, after all, the guy who not only kicked poor Castor Oyl out of his own comic strip, but banged Castor’s sister just to show he meant business.
He’s consistently awful to Olive, of course.
Back in the day, Segar got complaints that Popeye was a bad role model for children. He solved this problem as every similarly beset writer should: by creating a nearly identical but even more meretricious character to make Popeye look good by comparison. Thus the strip gained Popeye’s father, Pappy, who looks exactly like Popeye with stubble. Apparently aware that he lives in a crudely-drawn strip, Pappy sometimes disguises himself as his son by shaving so he can make time with Olive.
5. Bobby London got Popeye. None of the other legacy cartoonists really have. They love Popeye, I’m sure. They want to do right by Popeye, to pay just tribute to Segar’s creation, to be responsible bearers of the standard. London, by contrast, used his run on the Popeye strip to see exactly how much he could get away with before an outraged syndicate, newspaper market, readership, and world kicked him out for the sake of common decency. He probably made some people cry. And that’s what Popeye is all about, Charlie Brown.
6. You can go to Sweethaven. The village built for the 1980 movie still stands. Looks cleaner now, actually, judging from the photos. It’s in Malta and is open to the public as a tourist attraction, complete with movie props, stage shows, and a movie theater showing clips from the film.
I like the movie. It’s messy and mumbly and wanders all over the place, which suggests that the filmmakers got Popeye too. The strange grimness of the musical numbers always makes me smile. As far as superhero movies go, it’s higher on my list than Iron Man.
7. Popeye Ruined My Life. I found Thimble Theatre in the old Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics in my high-school library. It was something I hadn’t seen before: a funny adventure strip, a gag strip with a story. It had long stories, stretching for months or years, with pirates and gamblers and thieves. I wanted to do that, and I did, and now I’ve been doing it for ten years. Without Popeye. All you can do is be ready.
Comic strips, unlike comic books, boast a genteel legacy. The elegant stagework of Little Nemo, the bohemian poetry of Krazy Kat, the quiet philosophy of Peanuts, the Disneyfied poly-sci of Pogo…it’s all so very convincingly Art. Even the rugged adventure strips are rugged in a pleasant, Brylcreemed, magazine-illustration way. And then there’s Popeye, who cusses and fights and brags about cussing and fighting, who comes staggering up drunk from the lower decks inhabited by all those weird old Jazz Age strips with the blotchy art and spindly lettering and betting tips and Yiddish and plop takes and Nov Shmoz Ka Pop? I don’t know what kind of theater Thimble Theatre is, but Winsor McCay probably wouldn’t want to do his quick-draw act there. Popeye hangs on, indestructible (because of the hen), the last of a tougher, smellier, funnier breed.
He also has a damn catchy theme song.
Update by Noah: This is the first in roundtable on Popeye. You can read the whole roundtable here.