This Is How Popeye The Sailorman Became A Worldwide Icon

by Rick Roberts
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Back in the days before television and films were available to the world, the funny papers as comics were called were enjoyable entertainment.

The first comic strip created by Richard Felton Outcault, The Yellow Kid, appeared in 1896 in the Hearst New York American. What followed were other comic strips like Little Orphan Annie, Mutt and Jeff, and the Gumps. Popeye the Sailorman made its entry into comics in 1929.

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How Did Popeye The Sailorman Become a Worldwide Icon?
When Elzie Crisler Segar first created Popeye the Sailorman, it was during a Midwestern tornado. The comic strip was originally known as Thimble Theater.

The Great Depression brought the entire U.S. to its knees economically and farmers were hardest hit. In order to distract Americans from the ravages of the Great Depression, Popeye became a vehicle to increase the sale of food.

However, with the onset of World War II approaching, the character with the pipe in his mouth, sailor suit and cap, anchor tattoos and bulging arms also became a fighter for the good of others. His enemy, Bluto, towered over Popeye but the line, “strong to the finish” always ended each comic strip segment with Popeye besting the bad guys.

In 1919 the character, Olive Oyl, inspired by Dora Paskel, a real-life female from Chester, Illinois made her debut. It wasn’t until Popeye was viewed on TV and in films that Olive Oyl became Popeye’s mostly fickle-hearted girlfriend.

Popeye continually rescued Olive Oyl in TV and films when Bluto, also known as Brutus, kidnapped her. Thus, it is likely that Popeye the Sailorman appealed to everyone who admired his bravery and courage to fight for Olive Oyl’s freedom at a time when World War II highlighted the loss of freedom in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Popeye’s Love of Spinach
Spinach was believed to contain high iron content. However, the backstory about this is based on a misplaced decimal point. Instead of 3.5 milligrams, German chemist Erich von Wolf incorrectly misplaced the decimal point in his research notes on the value of spinach in 1870. So, 3.5 milligrams became 35 milligrams per 100-gram serving.

That was all parents needed to hear to begin serving their children spinach. Children seemed not to like the looks of the dark green leafy vegetable. In fact, in the movie, Poor Little Rich Girl, starring Shirley Temple in 1936, she sings about her dislike of spinach.

In order to get children to eat their spinach, the creators of Popeye adapted spinach as Popeye’s superfood.

In Popeye’s famous words, “Well, Blow Me Down,” the world began to recognize Popeye the Sailorman as an icon of good vs. evil in his never-ending battles with bullies or as Popeye frequently “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”

The modern world knows Popeye the Sailorman as played by the late actor, Robin Williams in the 1980’s movie Popeye. Lesser known is that the fact that the character Popeye was based was the real-life boxer, Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, from Popeye creator, Elzie Crisler Segar’s hometown of Chester, Illinois.

Perhaps, Popeye the Sailorman’s battles against bullying may be a present-day reminder that goodness, strength, and bravery are the best armor against bullying.

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