Ask the Archivist: “The Private Life of Popeye”
Hello DailyINK Friends!
Today we have made it to blog entry No. 100! To celebrate, I offer an exciting, hard-hitting, in-depth interview with our greatest star: POPEYE.
In early 1931, POPEYE was the runaway hit of the syndication world, building into a circulation powerhouse for King Features and the client newspapers that put Popeye to work on their comics page.
Released in March 1931, King Features Syndicate put out a short series of promotional spots called “The Private Life of Popeye” to use as extra publicity for the famous sailor. (alternately titled “Popeye’s Life Story”)
I might be assuming too much, but as he drew accompanying artwork, (available with or without Ben-Day dots) E.C. Segar himself had a hand in providing the uncredited copy, or at least he went along with it, so it’s worth a read. Your humble editor has combined the four installments here:
Revealing Known And Unknown Facts About Popeye’s Amazing Early Life
Rumors now current that Popeye was born at the age of forty and is steadily growing younger are totally unfounded. The horse-shoe fisted sailor was only two or three years old at birth, a normal infant in every way. He was always willing to take his pipe out of his mouth for the morning bottle of malted hardtack.
Impressed by early home training as number 185,764, Popeye refrained from getting into serious fights until he was almost four, and the keeper tried his patience once too often. He was a prize baby in many shows and always took great pride in his Bertillon measurements.(*1)
Unfortunately, Popeye was born an orphan. Today he often says: “Blow me down, I never had no Ma or Pa. That’s why I’m a orphink.” One of the hard-hitting mariner’s chief charms is his ability to reason things out.
The accompanying unretouched picture shows the gifted infant, Popeye himself, at the age of two weeks. Earlier pictures do not do him justice, because in all of them, particularly the one taken many years before and captioned, “Spinach,” the photographer’s head-clamp is plainly visible and also his brother Joe, who has often been mistaken for Popeye.
Notice the article Popeye has clamped in his manly teeth. At first glance it appears to be a bottle, but in reality it is a hickory pipe which has suffered a stoppage in the stem. Popeye has refused to be daunted by the molar which has shaken loose and clogged his “briar.” He is endeavoring to blow it on through into the bowl, with a result which is plainly evident.
The attractive piece of furniture at the right is a loving cup presented to Popeye by other inmates in token of his long-distance yelling prowess.
The Story Of Popeye’s Boyhood
Poor little Popeye was an orphan due to the fact that both of his parents were dead and also to the sad circumstances that he had neither a pa nor ma. His clothing consisted mainly of old flour sacks, cigar coupons(*2) and old blades from a straight razor. Then Whaler Joe picked up the luckless lad on the docks and bought him a new pipe and a fascinating straw skimmer with handsome radio antennae by which marooned dandruff could send SOS calls.
Popeye at the age of 6 began to fulfill his earlier promise. None of the bullies around the docks needed to lose their first teeth with the aid of a door knob. Popeye relieved them of useless bicuspids with his famous left-right to the jaw. He was a great factor for good in discouraging crap-shooting among the rough dock children. He did this by invariably making eighteen straight passes when he got the dice.
But times grew hard and Whaler Joe didn’t catch many whales that year. Popeye had to sell his dice to the junk man for the lead in them.
One day little Popeye came home through the snow with old Whaler Joe’s evening slug of white mule, guarding the precious burden against the elements with his frost-bitten, fifty-pound boyish biceps. Then he fared forth again a-whaling with a bent pin and a spool of thread.
The whales noticed the tot’s meager fishing equipment when he really should have come prepared with a net, and thrashed about impudently, giving, in a word, the horselaugh to Popeye. Like a flash the quick tempered youngster called to the deep-sea upstarts: “Blow me down, you-!”
There was immediately quiet like a pall around Popeye’s frail bobbing craft. The largest of the whales, deeply offended, climbed into the boat and gave Popeye a jet of water straight on the chin. The boy grinned, feeling his strength for the first time, and delivered a fast one-two to the place where the Whale’s chin might have been. The big beast staggered and fell limply to the bottom of the boat. Popeye brought a nice string of whales that night.
By the time our hero was 12 he startled everybody by proving himself a full grown man. He had to shave after every meal and this was for the purpose of removing whiskers, not Mulligan. His muscles were so hard that he used them regularly as a grindstone for pocket stilettos and picked up a lot of change this way renting them out to friends.
It was about this time that he went to sea. He was shanghaied with knockout drops in his soda pop. When he came to he administered knockout drops to the chins of everybody on the boat, including the captain. So the barkentine Josie Lee drifted out to sea. Popeye was on another craft of the same name. After a few days he discovered he liked the life and spend his time practicing a sailor’s walk to use later in his comic strip, “Thimble Theatre”.
It was on this first voyage that “Popeye” got his nickname “Popeye”. Before that, everyone referred to him simply as “Popeye”. Now they called him “Popeye”, after he lost a blinker and he has never been known by any other name.
Ask any old sailorman what happened back in 1910. Alright-that’s his story. The real events had nothing to do with the woman called “Marseilles Minnie”. She is not concerned in this story at all, because as everyone knows, Olive Oyl is Popeye’s girl. He met her much later. But anyway, Popeye lost one peeper.
He had just finished shooting a few craps with his trusty trap-gun. The first, second, third, fourth and fifth mates, were stretched out on the deck and Popeye was making pass after pass- at the money in the middle of the floor. Up stepped the bloodthirsty cook of the Josie Lee, known to his intimates as “The Ape.”
“Blow me down”, said Popeye, “I’ll lay you down among the swee’ peas.” Popeye cast about him hastily for a handy sweet pea bed. To his horror, there was not one on the boat. He could not go back on his promise and lay “The Ape” anywhere else-say for instance, in the handsome sunflower patch amidships- so all he could do was stand still and take his punishment.
That was how he lost one optic and had his name changed from “Popeye” to “Popeye.”
How Popeye Behaved When He Sailed Seven Seas
Careful students of Popeye’s history should study the accompanying picture. Here you see the famous sailorman in one of his gentler moods. Notice that he has caressed the big bully with his LEFT hand, which he is able to control because his left optic is intact. If he had hit with his right, under the missing peeper, the recipient of the blow might have disintegrated into thin air.
As a matter of fact, Popeye doesn’t know his own strength to this day. He has sought introductions on many occasions, but has always met with a chaste rebuff. In the old days, when Popeye made his nightly rounds, winding the anchor watch of the “Josie lee”, always careful to stay in front of the mast so he could say afterwards, “Blow me down!”- in those days it was a brave mariner who would incur Popeye’s wrath.
One of the famous salt’s chief characteristics was his gallantry. He never hit a woman without some justification. Whenever the talk in the glory hole of the “Josie Lee” turned to the fair sex, Popeye would take off his hat and one sock, turn his eyes reverently to the sky and say with real emotion, “Blow me down!” So all the sailors knew Popeye was a gentleman.
There was the time when an albatross alighted on deck to refuel and “The Ape”, bloodthirsty cook of the “Josie Lee,” seized the poor bird and was about to make off with him. “Off” was a kind of gruel, a dish that was a favorite aamong the crew. “The Ape” could make “Off” with almost anything. He frequently boasted that before taking to the sea he was so talented he could make “Off” very nicely with a bag of old silverware!
Popeye, noticing from the tiny slippers which the albatross wore that the bird was a girl, or “Albatress,” unwound a quick right to “The Ape’s” jaw and rescued the hapless creature.
“Blow me down!” said Popeye, bowing deeply before the little lady, “maybe you is somebody’s sister, tha’s a fack! Nobody but a criminal would do a hurt to anybody’s sister!”
Popeye full of years but going strong; Grants first interview to Reporters
No life story of Popeye could be complete without a few words from the sagacious salt himself. The interview was brief and snappy. Twice Popeye gave every appearance of winding up his deadly right to terminate the soiree more abruptly than the questioner liked. One of these occasions was when Popeye was asked:
“Are you and Miss Oyl betrothed?”
Popeye scratched his chin and readjusted his pipe Then color, like a miniature prairie fire began to march across the noted mariner’s chin. Stubble wilted before the crimson flood and Popeye’s valid blinker began to flash warningly.
“Blow me down! Does a swab have to be frothed up over his friancay?”
The interviewer moved rapidly away, making soothing noises in his throat, but it was several minutes before Popeye could be placated and the questioning continued.
“What do you think about the world’s economic crisis, Mr. Popeye?”
“They’s too many different countries, an’ tha’s a fack! I never thinks about the creases in other ports on account of it’s hard enough to straighten out things in home waters. Blow me down! People looks for trouble in fur places without hoisting anchor.”
“Do you believe in vivisection?” (*3)
“Tha’s another thing- every swab these days does a lot of talking about sex. They’s men in the world and they’s womens and tha’s why! Blow me down!”
“Where do you prefer to hit an opponent, Mr. Popeye?”
“I just lets fly an’ any place from socks to dandruff is O. K. with me. Then I gives him my exter special punch, which lays him among the swee’ peas.”
“Would you rather be a detective or a pugilist, Mr. Popeye?”
“I gotta be both. A defective is no good unless he can swing his mitts on account of knowing how to be a pugilist.”
“Does Olive Oyl approve of your disposition to fisticuffs?”
The crimson tide to flow once more, Popeye began to bring his right trip-hammer into action and the interviewer knew that his time was up.
And tha’s that!
It’s too bad this series was made in 1931, before the creation of most of the most famous cast members. Wimpy was just starting to develop, but it was long before Bluto, Swee’ Pea, The Sea Hag, Poopdeck Pappy, the Jeep, or the animated cartoons began. The syndicate never seemed to offer any similar series later, and for years, the last picture, of the interview was used as a stock promotion piece.
1- The Bertillon system was a method of identification of criminals developed by Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon in the days before finger prints were used. The prisoner’s height, skull and forefinger would be measured and recorded for later identification.
2- Men smoked a lot more cigars then and cigar store chains would give “Coupons” with each box. They were nearly worthless, having to save huge amounts for any hope of some free smokes, so they are often referenced derisively.
3- Vivasection is a somewhat outdated term used to describe medical and scientific surgical experimentation on animals. Even a century ago a controversial topic.
Now, let’s move on to reader comments:
To Mark Kausler, MR. WHOOPEE-
The cartoonist that did the Krazy Kat one shot in 1963 could very well have been Al Kouzel (1923-1990),though it’s hard to imagine he had the time, considering he was directing some of the TV KK cartoons that the book was styled after were being produced at the same time. He was mainly an animator, working on Terrytoons after CBS took over, all the way through numerous syndicated series such as Strawberry Short Cake, GLO Friends, and Dino Riders.
Bob Naylor was indeed doing Ghost work for Herriman. He started working with him back in the late 20’s specifically to work on the panel “ Embarrassing Moments”, drawing in a very good impersonation of the Herriman style. Perhaps in GH’s last days, his style was getting visibly more scratchy, and if the first week of 1944 looks a bit slicker, it may just be that Naylor or another ghost inked it.
Naylor was a utility man for others as well, notably with Walter Hoban on “Rainbow Duffy”. I’ll do something on him sometime.
To John W. Kennedy-
The Krazy Kat strip did end just after George Herriman’s death, playing itself out until the finished strips were exhausted. He died on 25 April 1944, and left dailies that ran until Saturday,3 June and Sundays until 25 June. After that, we never tried a strip revival.
Adieu until next week, I’ve got to get back to the celebration here in my secret lair. Cheerio.
The Archive Guy