New Popeye videos, to begin in 2019, show what 90 years of spinach can do for a guy, writes George Gene Gustines.
Popeye the Sailor, the weathered and quick-with-his-fists cartoon character, is getting a reboot for a series of animated shorts that premiered Sunday on YouTube. The shorts and a new series of comic strips, which will begin in 2019, were created to celebrate the character’s 90th birthday next year.
In the animated series, Popeye is being recast as a more youthful, environmentally resourceful fellow, who lives in a washed-ashore houseboat, collects rainwater and grows his own spinach. Are skinny jeans and kale salads far behind?
“He’s younger, but you can’t tell how old he is,” said C.J. Kettler, president of King Features, which syndicates the “Popeye” strip. “He’s not an old guy, he’s not a young guy; he’s somewhere in between.”
She added, “He’s still tough and fit and resilient and a champion of the underdog.”
The animated series will also make other updates. A clean-shaven Bluto, for example, is interested in stealing Popeye’s spinach more than he is the heart of Olive Oyl, who has cast aside the role of damsel in distress. More independent woman now, she helps vanquish Bluto in the first episode.
The 25 two-minute shorts are aimed at a young audience, having been produced by WildBrain, whose programming network includes the children’s program “Yo Gabba Gabba!” The episodes have sound effects but no dialogue, a nod to YouTube’s global reach.
The shorts will be “as funny here as they will be in Bangladesh,” said Neeraj Khemlani, president of Hearst Entertainment and Syndication, which owns King Features.
Popeye, who was created by E.C. Segar and made his first appearance as part of the King Features strip “Thimble Theatre” on Jan. 17, 1929, is the latest newspaper comic strip character to undergo a spit and polish. The schoolgirl Nancy, who was created in 1933, began referring to Snapchat in April. And the cave man Alley Oop, whose prehistoric adventures began in 1932 and whose strip ended in September, will return in January with an emphasis on humor, including an exploration of his early middle school years.
“People know and love characters like Nancy, Alley Oop and Popeye,” Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, wrote in an email. “Their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents know these characters.”
He added: “Unlike a long-form story, a comic strip has about three or four panels to grab a reader’s attention. If that reader already knows the characters and the premise of the strip, the strip’s going to have that much more impact when you compare it to a new strip with new characters that you’ve never seen before.”
King Features is trying something different with the new comic strips, which will be presented online as “Popeye’s Cartoon Club.” They will be drawn by a different artist each week. The target audience also skews a little older. The series harks back to a Sunday feature from 1934 in which Segar gave step-by-step instructions for drawing Popeye and printed artwork from fans.
The artists are comic book and comic strip creators including Alex Hallatt, Erica Henderson and Tom Neely. In one installment, Roger Langridge reveals the secret of Olive Oyl’s youthful glow after Popeye discovers her 1919 birth certificate. In another, Lar deSouza has the “Queer Eye” —like Internet Fancy Guys visit Popeye for a makeover — and they decide he is already on trend.
Jeffrey Brown offers a more classic take on Popeye’s relationship when Olive Oyl catches him gazing wistfully at a photograph of her. She assumes he’s remembering good times, but the final panel reveals the truth. Popeye thinks, “I wonder if Olive Oyl would bring me some more spinnich.”