Thimble Theatre (10/12/1933), by Elzie Segar
Thimble Theatre (10 December 1933)

Elzie Crisler Segar was one of the classic American cartoonists of the 1920s and 1930s, best known for creating the world famous sailor 'Popeye'. Born and raised in Chester, Illinois, he held several odd jobs before turning to cartooning. He worked as a house painter and muscian during vaudeville acts before becoming a film projectionist in a movie house. Inspired by seeing the humorous movies of Charlie Chaplin, he created comic strips copying the same situations. These had no success, until Segar met Richard Felton Outcault, creator of 'The Yellow Kid', who encouraged him to carry on and introduced him at the Chicago Herald.

Charlie Chaplin's Comedy Capers (1917), by Elzie Segar
Charlie Chaplin's Comic Capers (1916)

Segar, who had no formal art training, was hired by the Herald as the artist of the daily 'Charlie Chaplin's Comic Capers' strip, which he drew from 28 February until 15 July 1916. His run on the Sunday strip lasted longer, from 12 March 1916 till 16 September 1917. By then, Segar had created his own character 'Barry the Boob', whose adventures ran in the Herald from 23 September 1923 until 28 April 1918. He then moved over to the Hearst papers, where his first creation was 'Looping the Loop' for the Chicago Evening American between June 1918 and 1919.

Popeye by E.C. Segar
Early appearance of Popeye in the Thimble Theatre strip (18 January 1929)

In late 1919, Elzie Segar began his longtime association with King Features Syndicate in New York. The first strip of his masterpiece 'The Thimble Theater' was published in The New York Journal on 19 December 1919. The series featured the rail-thin Olive Oyl, her brother Castor, their friend Ham Gravy and several other colorful characters.

It wasn't until ten years later that Popeye was introduced to the comic. The sailor, immediately becoming the star of the show and captured a large, world-wide audience. Other notable characters were the gluttonous Wimpy and the mysterious animal Eugene the Jeep, who lent his name to the US army vehicle during World War II. For the Sunday installments, Segar created the companion strip 'The Five-Fifteen' in 1920. It was renamed to 'Sappo' in 1926.

Sappo by E.C. Segar
'Sappo' (28 January 1934)

After the death of their creator from liver disease in 1938, Popeye and Olive continued on in both comic strips and animated cartoons (by Max Fleischer), but unfortunately lost most of their ingenious and provocative edge, which was uniquely characteristic of Segar's brilliant, inimitable style. Among the early authors that succeeded Segar were writer Tom Sims and the artists Doc Winner and Bela Zaboly. The true heir to Segar's legacy was Bud Sagendorf who drew 'Popeye' for a series of Dell comic books between 1948 and 1962, and who worked on the newspaper strips from 1959 until his death in 1994.

Thimble Theater by EC Segar
Thimble Theater (15 August 1936)

'Thimble Theater' is one of the longest running newspaper comics, and the Sunday feature is written and drawn by Hy Eisman since 1994. Segar's run on the 'Popeye' strip is collected in six large books by Fantagraphics since 2006. His work has remained an influence on a variety of American artists, including Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Jules Feiffer, Roger Langridge, Robert Crumb, Charles M. Schulz and Matt Groening, but also Europeans like Marc SleenWilly VandersteenDupa, Kamagurka, André Franquin and Steve Bell.

'Popeye' inspired two paintings by pop-art artists, namely Andy Warhol's 'Saturday: Popeye' (1961) and Roy Lichtenstein's 'Popeye' and 'Wimpy (Tweet)' (both from 1961), although the latter images were inspired by Bud Sagendorf's drawings. In the Dutch city Almere a street was named after Popeye, as part of the "Comics Heroes" district.

Popeye strip, by E.C.Segar

Series and books by Elzie Crisler Segar in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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