THE WASHINGTON POST – Popeye may be famous for the confident credo “I yam what I yam”, but that doesn’t mean the Sailor Man says no to a good makeover.
The spinach-gulping and bottle-armed comics hero turned 93 in January. Now, he’ll get a fresh look.
King Features Syndicate is turning over the helm of its weekly Sunday Popeye comic to Randy Milholland, a 46-year-old Texas cartoonist and a true student of the character who launched his career as a webcomic creator two decades ago. King said its new Popeye will roll out to dozens of newspapers and is also available via its Comics Kingdom site.
Popeye as pop-comic icon was at his peak at mid-century, when he was read daily in hundreds of newspapers. Today, Milholland knows he has a mission: Put his inventive mark on the comic while respecting why Popeye endures as both a character and an idea. The squinting sailor, ever the underdog, still musters his can-do moxie and flexes his belief in helping others with a timeless relatability.
“What we really respond to is that the character has such a good heart,” said curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco Andrew Farago. “How Popeye goes about it, that’s up for update, but his motives are always pure and he’s always looking out for those in need of help. There’s something appealing about that.”
Milholland inherits the Popeye strip from the esteemed Hy Eisman, who wrote and rendered it since 1994. Eisman has spent seven decades as a writer and artist, including more than a half-century at King, where he also once worked on The Katzenjammer Kids.
“I had read Popeye since I was young, and it was always one of my favourite strips,” Eisman, 95, said by e-mail. “It meant a lot to me to be creating Popeye stories myself.”
Added Eisman, “I’m glad the strip is continuing.” Now, as Milholland takes over from his “legendary” predecessor, he said, he will “try not to break the toys”.
The younger cartoonist first caught the eye of Popeye readers in 2019. To celebrate the character’s 90th birthday, King Features Syndicate invited top artists to draw their takes on the swaggering sailor and his colorful village. This bonus feature was called Popeye’s Cartoon Club – a title from the comic’s early days, when Popeye’s creator, Elzie ‘EC’ Segar, would share fan art in his strip.
Milholland embraced the opportunity so much that he was asked to offer more strips in 2020. Online readers began posting such comments as: “You heard the people King Features, give this man the key to the Popeye strips.”
The cartoonist is attracted to the fact that Popeye – despite the trusty “strong to the finich” strength he derives from eating spinach – is forever “punching up”, taking on large and menacing foes such as Bluto. Popeye is fallible but has long lived by his own moral code – a consistent trait that dates back to Segar’s creation.
One aspect of Segar’s run that Milholland cherishes is that Popeye would say: I will protect any child I meet. Oh, you’re down on your luck? I will be here to help you. “Coming out of the Depression,” Milholland said, “that really was a lot”.
A decade after Segar created his Thimble Theater comic, Popeye made his supporting-role debut in that strip in 1929 – four years before he first appeared in animated form, in the Fleischer Studios’ popular Popeye the Sailor.
In Popeye’s first strip, the characters Ham Gravy (Olive’s onetime fiance) and Castor Oyl (her brother) – in search of a legendary enchanted creature that might improve their fortunes – need to recruit someone who can sail them to an island. The question comes: “Are you a sailor?” – prompting Popeye’s first smart-aleck response: “Ja think I’m a cowboy?”
“Popeye is much more than a goofy comic character to me,” Segar is quoted as saying in the book Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation. “He represents all of my emotions and he is an outlet for them. To me Popeye is really a serious person and when a serious person does something funny – it’s really funny.”
Segar guided Thimble Theater till his death in 1938, and his former assistant Bud Sagendorf steered the Popeye comic for decades, beginning in 1959.
Generations of writers and artists have brought their creative flourishes to Popeye, whether he was becoming more or less pugnacious, embracing domestic life or setting off on extended adventures. Milholland’s own lively style has the visual pop of children’s animation.
“We love Randy’s bold lines, quirky character designs and bright colours,” said Editorial Director of Comics at King Features Tea Fougner. The cartoonist also arrives forearmed with an enthusiastic knowledge of Popeye’s history.
“He’s bringing back characters who haven’t been seen in (nearly) a century, like Olive’s sister-in-law, Cylinda Oyl,” Fougner said. “He’s also focussed on reminding readers that in addition to the tough guy and defender of underdogs they know and love, Popeye is also sentimental and kind – the type of guy we all want on our side.”
Milholland, speaking by Zoom from the San Antonio area, laughs when considering why King chose him, “Probably because I’m an obsessive! I do love the characters a lot.”
He and syndicate leadership talked at length about where to steer possible Popeye plots – should they bring back more monsters? – as well as at what ages to place these characters today.
“Olive Oyl is a millennial at this point,” he said of the sailor’s forever love interest. “And Popeye is a tail-end Gen-X’er.”
Milholland, who grew up in North Texas and attended art school there, was working in data entry two decades ago when he decided to launch his own online comic, Something Positive – an “angsty, angry” feature focussing on 20-something life after college. His gift with character development helped build a devoted fan base – donations from whom allowed him to quit his day job in Boston and begin creating comics full time.
Now, he and his librarian spouse, Steph Noell, live with their four-year-old Velma back in Texas.
It’s the very state where Milholland – who was born in the Fort Worth area – grew up watching Popeye cartoons on TV and later reading vintage Popeye strips (and where his own diet these days leans more to spinach than burgers, that staple of the layabout food-scheming character, Wimpy). He also watched Robert Altman’s 1980 film Popeye, starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall.
Today, he thinks characters like Olive Oyl, as shaped long ago by Segar and writer Tom Sims, can speak to modern audiences. He notes that their Olive was outspoken and in your face.
“She was never the damsel in distress in the comics.” He said her stance was: “I’m here and I will fight either at Popeye’s side or I will get in front of him.”
All these characters have flaws – and Popeye’s father, Poopdeck Pappy, “is a flaw on his own”, Milholland notes with a grin – but Popeye and Olive are the types to “find their moral centres” when needed.
Milholland likes to play with character faces and shapes, including the antagonistic witch the Sea Hag and the magical pet Eugene the Jeep. He enjoys designing the ballet of fisticuffs that flows across the page. Yet for all the enduring dynamics of Popeye, Milholland comes back to valuing the familial heart that beats at the centre of the strip.
“They may bicker and fistfight,” he said, “but they still care about each other.”