As you may know, Popeye was first introduced in 1929 as a supporting character in Elzie Segar’s existing comic strip Thimble Theatre.
He proved to be so popular that he returned in later storylines, and soon had essentially taken over the strip. It’s interesting to see the sailor’s development over the course of the comic, with his negative traits gradually being downplayed. When he first shows up, he frequently beats up people for no particular reason at all, is often on the wrong side of the law, and has an obsession with shooting craps. These traits don’t disappear entirely in later stories, but we do see more of his good side, and in particular his fondness for children. Swee’pea’s mother sends the baby to Popeye because he knows the sailor will be able to protect the child. Speaking of which, Swee’pea’s real name is Scooner, a detail that has been largely disregarded over the years. One thing that’s remained basically consistent since the introduction of the character is his strength and general toughness. Not only can he knock out just about anybody with a single punch, but he survives being shot multiple times, and deadly poison merely gives him a stomachache. At first there’s no real indication as to what gives him his strength, and even when spinach is introduced as a way for Popeye to regain vitality, it’s rarely as central to the plots as it is in the cartoons. We do learn, however, how our hero came to have such healthy eating habits when he tells a boy he grew up behind a greengrocer’s shop. Other elements of the Popeye mythos also enter the picture quite casually. Wimpy starts out as a referee for Popeye’s boxing matches, and only later develops into the moocher we all know.
He plays a part in some of the longer adventure yarns, which is quite a feat for a guy whose main trait is eating hamburgers without paying for them. Well, that might be selling him a bit short. He’s a clever character who uses his intelligence to support his own laziness. He even has his own nemesis in the shoemaker George Geezil.
Segar’s Popeye strips have been reprinted in six oversize volumes, four of which I’ve read so far. Why only four? Because that’s what the library system had. I definitely intend to read the other two when I can. I understand the fifth volume introduces the Jeep and Poopdeck Pappy. Anyway, the daily black-and-white strips tend to be ongoing adventure stories while the color Sunday strips are often stand-alones, although there are some continuing stories in the Sunday comics as well. The plots are more involved than those of the animated shorts, and incorporate several different genres. Not surprisingly, there are quite a few seafaring adventures, but also mysteries, Westerns, and satire of politics and war. Some of my favorites are the tales set in Nazilia (which has nothing to do with Nazis), featuring the constantly worrying King Blozo.
Also included is the Sappo strip, also by Segar, which accompanied Thimble Theatre in the original Sunday pages. Initially focusing on the bickering
couple John and Myrtle Sappo, it really comes into its own when it brings in the eccentric inventor Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle.
Segar occasionally made connections between his two strips, notably when Popeye uses one of John Sappo’s inventions to help resolve a plot. Anyway, if you’re a fan of Popeye who only knows the cartoons, it’s definitely worth going back to the super-strong sailor’s roots.