He Is What He Is
E.C. Segar, the man behind Popeye the Sailor, received an appropriately raucous birthday message from Google Tuesday. Its home page features the husky hero smacking around Google’s logo and about to swallow a quick serving of his favorite meal, canned spinach.
Today marks what would be the American cartoonist’s 115th birthday.
Elzie Crisler Segar was born and raised in Chester, Illinois, a small town near the Mississippi River. The son of a handyman, his earliest work experiences included assisting his father in house painting and paper hanging. Skilled at playing drums, he also provided musical accompaniment to films and vaudeville acts in the local theater, where he was eventually given the job of film projectionist. At age 18, he decided to become a cartoonist. He took a correspondence course in cartooning from W.L. Evans of Cleveland, Ohio. He said that after work he “lit up the oil lamps about midnight and worked on the course until 3am.”
Segar moved to Chicago where he met Richard F. Outcault, creator of The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown. Outcault encouraged him and introduced him at the Chicago Herald. On March 12, 1916, the Herald published Segar’s first comic, Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, which ran for a little over a year. In 1918, he moved on to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American where he created Looping the Loop. Segar married Myrtle Johnson that year; they had two children.
Segar eventually created the Thimble Theatre cartoon strip in 1919. After nearly 10 years of Olive Oyl and others gracing its panels, the series introduced a new character – a balding sailor with an eye patch, anchor tattoos, preposterous forearms, and a curious vocabulary.
Popeye soon outgrew the Thimble Theatre, earning his own cartoon strip, animated series, and live-action movie starring Robin Williams.
After prolonged illness, Segar died in 1938 of liver disease at the age of 43. Segar’s longtime assistant, Bud Sagendorf, took over the strip and continued it for two years.
In 1971, the National Cartoonists Society created the Elzie Segar Award in his honor. According to the Society’s web site, the award “was presented to a person who has made a unique and outstanding contribution to the profession of cartooning.”
So Happy Birthday, Elzie. We’ll all be celebrating your life over a can of spinach tonight.