Two legends in one photograph. The man on the right is Tom Hatten. We’ll talk more about him later, but first let’s discuss that guy on the left. You may think you know him, but do you know it all? If you only know him through his cartoons on TV, then you probably have just scratched the surface. Popeye has quite a history.
The wonderful book “Popeye: the first 50 years” by Bud Sagendorf gave me a renewed appreciation of the character and the comic strip. In the history of the American newspaper comic strip, Popeye is legendary. The original strip by E.C. Segar is considered one of the greatest of them all. Why? Well, I’m sure part of the secret lies in the character himself. Popeye is unique. He’s not just a guy in a sailor suit. He’s a guy with limited intelligence but seemingly endless power. He’s a guy with morals. He’s a guy who isn’t afraid to beat the crap out of people if he has to.
The strip began as “Thimble Theater”, and featured the adventures of the Oyl family. (That’s right, before there was Popeye, there was Olive Oyl!) It was a fun strip, but in many ways not too unusual for its time. Then came Popeye, who quickly took over the strip. Kind of reminds me of Elmo. :) The point is that Popeye’s character alone was enough to bring out the best in the comic strip. Although many other great characters found life there, Popeye became the “stabilizing force” that kept everything flowing.
A few years ago, Fantagraphics books republished all the Segar Popeye strips, giving us a great view into Segar‘s genius. There is an extremely funny sequence in which Popeye finds an error in the dictionary. When trying to explain to someone that “I yam what I yam,” he opens up the dictionary to get a proper definition of the word “yam.” The dictionary explains that a yam is a kind of a sweet potato. Popeye realizes that this must be an error. “You wouldn’t expect me to say, ‘I sweet potato what I sweet potato, and that’s all that I sweet potato‘, would you?”
Then came the legendary animated cartoons, starting with the Fleisher black and whites, continuing on with the Famous Studios & Paramount colors, then the King Features TV series, then the Saturday morning series. When you add it all up, guess who has made more cartoons, Bugs Bunny or Popeye? POPEYE!
If you came to visit me in the afternoon when I was six years old, and I wasn’t watching PBS, I was probably watching a Popeye or Bugs Bunny cartoon. That was the fun stuff for kids in those days. Incidentally, I’ve always believed that a Popeye/Bugs Bunny team up would be one of the best cartoons of all time. Both characters are similar and could play well off of each other- after they get over their ego problems. “Now see here, rabbit! This is me ship, so you’d better do as I say.” “Oh, brudder.”
Popeye, like Batman, is the subject of one of the most popular folk songs of all time. You know the one. “I live in a garbage can. . .” are among the lyrics. I call it a folk song because it has been passed on through the oral tradition from one third-grader to another for the last several decades!
But perhaps Popeye’s most important contribution to comics was his role in the inspiration for Superman. Listen to this quote from Fred Grandinetti’s “Popeye: An illustrated history” :
Jerry Siegel, one of Superman’s creators (along with Joe Shuster), readily admits that the animated Popeye cartoons were a primary influence. He envisioned similar fast-paced action turning on the hero’s superhuman strength, but played straight instead of for laughs. With the addition of a few other influential types - notably Tarzan, very popular at the time - Superman was the inevitable result.
Like so many other legends (including Bugs), the character of Popeye was not created solely for children. He was created to entertain. But he has been thrust into the category of “children’s entertainment.” That’s why you don’t see him cursing today like he did in the comics (with the little squiggle balloons, of course). And his pipe? “I keeps it to toot,” he tells his nephews in one of the TV cartoons. One time I even saw a metal poster of Popeye (sans pipe) saying “No smoking!”
Popeye isn’t even in the Navy! Check out this site from the official Popeye fan club:
Well, we shouldn’t be surprised at this. Perhaps the time has come for the world to know the truth. There is something about Popeye that I first joked about in one of my silly audio tape stories (they were the precursor to my silly home movies). It is, of course, just a joke, but it’s so much fun to think about that I thought I’d share it with you all. Ladies and gentlemen, Popeye is faking it.
He doesn’t like spinach.
Think about it. Have you ever heard him say that he likes spinach? No, of course not. Why is he always eating it? Because he’s always in trouble! If spinach gave you colossal super-strength, wouldn’t you eat it if you had to? If you had to rescue your favorite sweetie from the clutches of an evil villain, wouldn’t you be willing to eat virtually ANYTHING to do it?
Watch the cartoons. When does he eat the spinach? Not when he first gets hurt or insulted. It’s when he absolutely has to! When he has no other choice! What does he say before he eats it? “THAT’S ALL I CAN STANDS, I CAN’T STANDS NO MORE!” Does that sound like someone who likes to eat spinach? In the comic strip, he virtually never ate spinach! And again, when he did, it was only when he had no other choice.
In the movie, Popeye makes it clear that he does not like spinach. The only time he eats it is when Brutus forces him to. Could it be that this is how Popeye first learned of the power of Spinach? Remember folks, the song doesn’t go “I’m strong to the finich because I like spinach!”
This silly theory somehow makes Popeye an even more engaging character. The fact that he would pretend to be something that he really isn’t makes him somehow even more powerful. And more human.
I’m sure that the National Enquirer is going to use this information to the detriment of Popeye someday. Until then, please keep this a secret. If Popeye finds out about this, he’s going to blarst me into the next dimension. The next thing you know, we’ll all find out that he really has two eyes. . .
Now you know about Popeye, but what about Tom Hatten? Well, Tom Hatten and Popeye are old friends, and if you grew up in the Los Angeles/San Diego area, you probably think they are the same person! Tom hosted the Popeye cartoon show on KTLA in Los Angeles for many years. I remember watching the show in the late 1970s early 1980s, when it included both the black & white and color Popeye cartoons, along with Super chicken, Tom Slick and George of the Jungle! What more could a kid want?
Tom has a great history as well. You can read all about it on this great tribute page:
Mickey Mouse and Popeye are approximately the same age. Both arrived on the scene in 1929. When Mickey Mouse turned 50, he got a prime-time special featuring several stars. Popeye turned 50, KTLA had a show featuring Tom interviewing Shelly Duvall (from the Popeye movie) and a bunch of kids singing “happy birthday!” Sorry, Mr. Eye, that’s the best you can get. But don’t feel too bad. We heard virtually NOTHING when Mickey or Popeye turned 75! Hey, age discrimination is bad enough when it’s among people! We shouldn’t be ashamed to let our fictional characters grow old.
If you have any video tapes of Tom Hatten’s Popeye show, please contact me for a possible trade! I’d love to see it again. You can reach me through my e-mail, or by messaging “Sesameguy” at Muppet Central forum, or the Square One TV forums.
What brought about this Popeye post? Simply the news that the Fleisher cartoons are coming to DVD! There are already some fine Popeye collections out there, but this one sounds like it will be more geared toward the Fleisher fans. Here’s the link from tvshowsondvd.com:
And speaking of George of the Jungle, it looks like George may be swinging into DVD himself, soon. (I’d qualify this only as a possible future release, since we don’t have anything definite other than one person who said it is on the way. A good journalist relies on more than one source! ) Here’s the post:
If you REALLY want to get into Popeye, there’s one book that will just about cover it all. Fred Grandinetti’s “Popeye: An illustrated history” has a terrific overview of the character and a guide to all his cartoons. Whew! It is a few years old now, but if you’re a die-hard Popeye fan, it’s worth finding a copy.
Popeye has a fan club! It’s full of people who love the character and love collecting memorabilia about him. They meet in Chester, Illinois every year to share their appreciation of the sailor. (Chester is the hometown of E.C. Segar.) Here’s their web page: