A Modern Take on Popeye for His 90th Birthday

You might know Popeye the Sailor from trawling YouTube for clips of theatrical cartoons from between the 1930s and the 1950s. You might know him from the handful of television series’ built around him: 1960’s Popeye the Sailor, 1978’s The All New Popeye Hour, 1987’s Popeye and Son. You might even know him from Robert Altman’s terrific 1980 live action musical, Popeye, starring the late comic legend Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. Or maybe you know Popeye through pop culture osmosis and referentialism in shows in like The Simpsons, Draw Together, and Family Guy.

But however you know Popeye, you know Popeye. You know him by his oversized forearms. You know his anchor tattoo. You know his coarse mannerisms and gravelly accent, the consequence of a lifetime spent smoking a pipe. Most of all you know that he is strong to the finish explicitly because his diet is rich in spinach, that leafy green vein of iron. No wonder he’s got such a mean right hook. He’s got metal flowing through his fists.

Popeye’s a colorful icon of masculine identity, and has been for almost a century; the surly old salt just enjoyed his 90th birthday on January 17th this year. Even at that age he retains all of his punchy, pulpy vitality, but of course with age comes change and even evolution. No macho icon stays the same forever. Arnold Schwarzenegger popped up in buddy comedies and kid films all over the 1990s. Bruce Willis took a sadsack role in one of Wes Anderson’s deadpan classics. After a while, even the toughest guys soften up, if only just.

And that’s okay! Close your eyes and think of Popeye right now. Picture him in your mind’s eye. What do you see? Likely something along these lines:


Or maybe this:


Or perhaps especially this, because who the dang heck is Popeye without a can of the green stuff:


Come to that, who is Popeye without his lady love, his main squeeze, Olive Oyl, that tall, gangly, beloved symbol of femininity and feminine authority? She’s the beacon of light that has routinely, over the years, led the otherwise curmudgeonly Popeye toward civility, or as close to civility as a guy like Popeye can get. So maybe when you picture Popeye, you can’t help picturing Olive Oyl, too; he’s saved her from harm more times than anyone can count, after all:


They’re a cute pair. Too cute. Like any couple, though, they have their problems:

David Reddick

And like any couple, their don’t always have the best communication:

Jeffrey Brown

If the last two strips jump off the page differently than the rest, that’s because they are, respectively, drawn by David Reddick and Jeffrey Brown, and they’re two original pieces of art introduced for the resurrected “Popeye’s Cartoon Club.” Back in Popeye’s younger days, E.C. Segar, Popeye’s creator, made a habit of sharing artwork produced by fans at the end of his Thimble Theater comic strip, the stage on which Popeye made his debut; he liked giving his readers the chance to share space with his own creation. Segar was that kind of dude.

January 17th, Popeye’s actual birthday, saw the return of this lovely inclusive tradition on Comics Kingdom, which, in 2019, expands considerably on Segar’s intent by allowing artists in 2019 a forum for presenting their own contemporary takes on Popeye’s representation. For Reddick, that means Popeye occasionally steps in it with an unintended but nevertheless backhanded compliment; fellas, never compare your better half to a leafy green. For Brown, that means men are from Mars and women are from Venus; ladies, wonder as much as you like about what’s on your man’s mind, but be warned that he probably ain’t thinking any profound thoughts.

Which probably explains why his wardrobe is stuck in the 1930s:

Lar deSouza

It’s the 21st century, Popeye! Men wear scarves and quarters socks and skinny jeans now! They even wear skinny overalls! They cut their hair with side parts and fades! They use makeup! They put oil in their beards! Get with the program! Or maybe don’t, because hipster culture being what it is, all things retro are now current. Leave it the Fab Five steering Netflix’s Queer Eye For the Straight Guyrevival—being Antoni Porowski, Jonathan Van Ness, Bobby Berk, Tan France, and Karamo Brown—to single out Popeye’s 1930s look as the hot new trend for men’s fashion. Of course. How modern!

Speaking of modern:


Nothing says “2019” like getting emojis inked over your brawniest bits! It is, as Popeye puts it, “lit.” They’re not even matching emojis: One’s sad, and one’s blushing. What that’s supposed to mean for Popeye is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Maybe one forearm’s bashful and the other’s clinically bummed out?

Jay Fosgitt

But not every Cartoon Club strip reimagines Popeye through today’s pop culture. Some of them just stick with the character’s history, paying tribute to his roots, however much they defy continuity. Once upon a time, for instance, Popeye didn’t get strength from chowing down on spinach; instead, he got “luck” from giving Bernice the Whiffle Hen’s head hairs a gentle scratch. Spinach didn’t come into the strip until 1932. What artist Jay Fosgitt presupposes is that maybe Bernice and spinach have an unspoken, and kind of weird, and not all that sanitary connection.

Erica Henderson

As a bonus reference, here’s Erica Henderson resurrecting Ham Gravy, full name Harold Hamgravy, Olive Oyl’s original suitor before Popeye entered her life; Hamgravy had a wandering eye, a fondness for women of means, and an aversion to honest work, which handily explains Olive eventually turning toward her affections to Popeye. Fun fact: Hamgravy originally hired Popeye as captain of his ship for a treasure hunt. See how well that worked out for him? Not only was Popeye more popular than Hamgravy as a character, he wound up getting the girl, too.

Henderson adds a slice of modernity here, with Popeye and Olive caught up in a mob of paparazzi snapping photos and begging for interviews. What’s very much in keeping with the strip’s history is Hamgravy being passed by and ignored by Popeye’s and Olive’s fawning public.

Carol Lay

And Carol Lay, too, sticks to that history with her own strip, the only one of the group to capture Popeye in his element: Socking dudes in the gob in defense of a woman’s honor. Grant that the woman isn’t Olive Oyl, and instead a total stranger, but Popeye doesn’t suffer jerks gladly no matter who they’re bothering, and besides: He’s always ready to punch men very hard if they dare upset her. That’s how we best think of Popeye anyway—as the well-muscled mariner, the fightingest rough ever to grace the funny pages, even at 90 years young.

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