Created by Elzie Crisler Segar in 1929 for his newspaper comic series Thimble Theatre, Popeye the Sailor has since become one of popular culture's most enduring and iconic characters. Not only has he featured in his own comic strips for the last 80 years but also appeared in many TV shows, movies and video games.
Popeye did not appear until Thimble Theatre's 10th year of publication. The original focus of the comic strip series had been the strong-willed 1920s flapper Olive Oyl, her brother Castor Oyl, and Castor's best friend and Olive's on-again off-again boyfriend Ham Gravy: the trio were often involved in get-rich-quick schemes and adventures that displayed a complexity, wit, and surreal sense of humor seldom seen before or after. Popeye entered the series as a minor character, nothing more than a sailor hired for one such adventure, but he rapidly became the centerpiece of the comic strip series. Originally, Olive Oyl wanted nothing to do with the crude sailor, but eventually she fell in love with him, and her former boyfriend Ham Gravy disappeared from the strip, soon to be followed by her brother Castor Oyl.
Although Popeye displayed great strength and resilience from the start, his physical abilities reached their current superhuman level as the result of the magical Whiffle Hen, Bernice, who granted supernatural levels of luck to anyone who rubbed her feathers. Shot multiple times by an evil casino owner during his first major adventure in the Thimble Theatre comic strip series, Popeye spent the night lying in bed next to the Whiffle Hen and continually rubbing its head; the next morning, he was fully recovered. When the man who'd shot him expressed shock at Popeye's survival, Popeye merely pointed to a bullet hole in his chest and commented that it "aint no button hole!"
In 1932, Fleisher Studios began a series of cartoons starring Popeye and various other characters from the Thimble Theatre comic strip series. Fleisher came up with the idea of tying Popeye's superhuman strength to eating spinach and ignoring the Whiffle Hen altogether.
By the time of E. C. Segar's death, all comic strips starring Popeye had come to follow the Fleisher Studios cartoon continuities and interpretations instead of the original Thimble Theatre continuity. Not only was this Popeye dependent upon spinach as a sort of vegetable "power up", but this Olive Oyl had little in common with the flapper of her original appearances, and her brother Castor Oyl and former boyfriend Ham Gravy were altogether forgotten.
In the Fleisher cartoons, after eating spinach, Popeye has demonstrated the ability to punch some to the Moon and even close the Grand Canyon by pulling it together with a rope. The cartoon Popeye's pipe has many abilities including, a torch that can be used to open a can of spinach or it can spin, giving him the ability to fly. After eating spinach he usually blows through his pipe making a steam whistle sound and often makes a muscle, his arm tattoo briefly turning into a comedic commentary on his burst of power, such as explosions or hammers pounding anvils. In the cartoons, Popeye's love interest is Olive Oyl and is the primary cause of tension between Popeye and his rival (and occasionally former friend) Bluto. Bluto is more than a match for Popeye until Popeye eats his spinach.
In Other Comics
Popeye was seen in Chew #44, portrayed as a viresarantheacist, someone who is able to get stronger by eating spinach. He was killed by the Vampire Cibopath.
In 1973, Superman fought a parody of Popeye, a sailor named Captain Strong who obtained his superpowers from eating extraterrestrial seaweed that had ended up in the Atlantic Ocean somehow. The alien seaweed turned out to be a dangerous narcotic, slowly driving Captain Strong mad as well as killing him, but Superman discovered this before it was too late, and Captain Strong survived with sanity intact and a permanent level of strength slightly greater than that of the strongest normal human. Captain Strong returned several times as an ally of Superman, and by the time the character was retired, he had married his equivalent of Olive.
Popeye The Sailor Man (1933)
"I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man. I'm strong to the finich, cause I eats me spinach. I'm Popeye the Sailor Man."
Popeye made his film debut in Popeye the Sailor, a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon. Although Betty Boop has a small cameo appearance, the cartoon mostly introduces the main characters: Popeye's coming to rescue Olive Oyl after being kidnapped by Bluto. The triangle between Popeye, Olive and Bluto was set up from the beginning and soon became the template for most Popeye productions that would follow.