Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Of Segar's and Spinach

It's the 115th anniversary of the birth of Elzie Crisler Segar, born this date in 1894.

E.C. Segar is one of my top 5 cartoonists of all time. Back in 1919, this little unassuming man from Chester, Illinois, created a newspaper comic strip which would live on LONG after his early death of liver disease at 43 in 1938. He's pictured above with the main characters of his strip "Thimble Theatre", Ham Gravy, Olive Oyl and Castor Oyl.

He had worked assisting on other strips before-hand and even after he created "Thimble Theatre" he would continue working on his craft. The strip began as a gag-a-day strip which parodied popular film and stage production of the day. It starred a small cast of characters who eventually gained their own personalities and new original storylines began.

From 1919-1929, the cast of Castor Oyl, his stalwart companion Ham Gravy and his sister Olive had comic continuities which blended in with the blur of other strips on the page.

Here's the first ever Thimble Theatre strip.

Segar made a good living and even had some endorsement deals, as shown in the example below.
Then one day, Castor and Ham acquired a magical little bird. A "Whiffle Hen" with three hairs on his head, that when rubbed, would bring the person good luck. They decided to charter a boat to take them to "Dice Island" where they would surely break the bank.

They needed a boat and a captain.

This is Frank "Rocky" Feigle.

In the Chester, Illinois of Segar's youth, was a proud, aged, thin old man who had a part-time job sweeping out the local saloon. Frank "Rocky" Feigle. He'd spend most of his days leaning back in a chair in front of the place telling stories. Young kids would have fun teasing him, hoping the salty old fart would give chase, which he would.

One day three young teenage toughs led "Rocky" to the woods on the outskirts of town, where they then planned to rob him. A little later, "Rocky" strolled back down the street and took his position in front of the saloon unscathed. The three boys returned later and sought medical attention from the thrashing the old man had given them.

Segar remembered this old man when he gave Castor and Ham a sea captain.

On January 17, 1929, Popeye the Sailor was born.

Here's his first appearance.

It didn't take long after that initial story, that Popeye kept coming back into the strip, eventually usurping the leads and taking over himself.

There were little obstacles to over come. Olive Oyl was in love with Ham Gravy. But the old sailor was smitten.

Here's that first kiss.

The Popeye of the comic strip is not quite the same Popeye as you may remember from 68 years of bad, watered down animated cartoons.

Popeye was seedy, dirty, raunchy...every adjective you could think of to describe a sailor "down by the docks". But he was always true. Always honest. Always the defender of the under-dog.

Here's a couple of random examples of Popeye from the Segar strip.

Here's a cool old card Segar used to send out autographs on. The blank space in Popeye's word balloon was used to put the persons name. Segar would sign in the lower left hand corner.

Popeye has been a star for 80, almost 81 years. How many cartoon characters, let alone real live personalities can you say that about?

Not many.

And in today's world of cartoons, where style always comes before substance. In this world of "Hello Kitty"'s where a bunch of marketing guys come up with a cute image and...and...well, that's it. In the modern day world, can you imagine someone pitching a character like Popeye to a bunch of media executives?

You've all been softened and grown used to him. Here's a painting by Rick Baker of what a real person who looks like Popeye would look like.

Ain't nobody gonna make a plush figure or a Happy Meal toy outta THIS guy!

Here's the cast of characters from the Popeye strip as drawn by Segar's long-time assistant and successor on the strip, Bud Sagendorf.

Every body's got a favorite in this motley bunch.

Thanks Elzie! You took the most unlikely of characters and made him the idol of millions. An idol to me at least.

Here's a bonus. Swee' Pea's baptismal.

Now you know his full name.

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