Thursday at Comic-Con International in San Diego, IDW Publishing announced that it plans to release new comics featuring E.C. Segar’s Popeye beginning in 2012. The gruff but lovable sailor first appeared as a minor character in “Thimble Theatre” in early 1929 but soon took over the starring role, making the strip one of the most successful comics of the 1930s and leading to a series of cartoons from Max Fleischer’s studio, the first of which featured the still-famous “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” song.
No creative team has yet been announced for IDW’s new “Popeye” comics, but co-editors Ted Adams (IDW’s founder and president) and Craig Yoe (noted comics historian) plan a classic approach to the character. Comic Book Resources caught up with the Adams and Yoe to discuss the project.
CBR News: First, talking about Popeye historically, what did readers find so intriguing about him at the time that led to him taking over the “Thimble Theatre” strip?
Ted Adams: It’s hard for me to say. All I have is what I’ve read in Bill Blackbeard’s book [“The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics”], and what I’ve read in the Fantagraphics collections. I can’t say for certain what made him an iconic character. I think there’s just something about that character. If you look at Popeye in “Thimble Theatre,” which was mostly comprised of average people or regular joes, he just stood out as an unusual character. He was played against more average people, and he was this unusual guy.
Craig Yoe: He was comics’ first superhero, there’s that. At the same time, he’s comics’ first anti-hero — he’s a rough-and-tumble yet lovable rogue. I think all that together, and it was a cast of crazy characters. And he was the craziest, in a cool way.
What made IDW decide to pursue this license?
Adams: I’ve been a fan a Popeye fan since I was a kid. I first learned of “Popeye” in the “Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics” and started reading it there. Then I think it was 60th anniversary of Popeye in the ’80s, and there was book that came out then [“Popeye: The 60th Anniversary Collection”]. I read that book over and over, and then of course the movie came out. So when I was growing up, I was wildly interested in the character, and particularly in the Segar version of the character. Fantagraphics already had the rights to do the reprints of the comic strips, and they did a fantastic job of it, so clearly there was nothing to be done there. We did a reprint, with Craig, of some of the [Bud] Sagendorf comic books last year in a hardcover volume, and I just started thinking, what if we brought Popeye back to comics? It’s a character who has been out of print for quite some time, but if you look at the history of Popeye, he was in print for 40 or 50 years. It seemed like there was an opportunity to bring this iconic character back to comic books.
Is there a creative team in place?
Adams: There is not. Craig and I are going to meet at Comic-Con and start throwing around ideas for a creative team. Our intention is to go back to the Segar roots, not so much the later Sagendorf comics.
Right. Craig’s involvement would seem to suggest you’ll be doing something of a “classic” take on the character. What can you tell us about your approach to the monthly series?
Adams: It’s still in the pretty early stages. Craig and I are really just starting to talk about it, and I think at Comic-Con we’ll be able to more finalize what we plan to do.
Yoe: Over a bowl of spinach.
Adams: What we want to do is make comics that are in the vein of the original Segar strips, and create a book that it is fun for all ages. And by that, I don’t mean a book that is juvenile and will only be appealing to 6-year-olds, but literally a book that could be read by a 6-year-old or a 40-year-old, and that’s the approach we want to take. The intention will be to have each issue be a complete story. There may be themes that stretch beyond individual issues, but we want each issue to be a fun comic book with a beginning, middle, and end within that comic.
Yoe: We want it to be funny and satisfying, a combination of adventure and humor like Segar’s original tales.
Some of Segar’s strips were a bit grim, at least by today’s newspaper comics standards, though not in the same way as some modern comic books. Will the new “Popeye” series have that element to it or keep things more lighthearted?
Yoe: I disdain the dark comics of today, and the depressing comics of today, and I don’t think our book is going to be that. But on the other hand, Popeye has an edge and he doesn’t take any nonsense, and he’s a two-fisted kind of guy, so I think it’s going to be modern in that sense. When Segar did “Popeye,” his editors told him that they thought it was a little grim and [the strip] was finding great kid readership, kids were really admiring Popeye — they admonished Segar, “Don’t forget to make him lovable.” He did that. He found that sweet spot, that combination of a rapscallion who was loved by all. That’s what we’re going to be shooting for, and we’ve got a great role model both in Segar and Popeye! We’re going to try to do it to the max.
Speaking a bit more to Segar’s “Popeye,” then, what defines that strip to you, in terms of art, storytelling and the sailor himself?
Yoe: I’m amazed when I look at Segar’s artwork; it kind of has a punkish quality, in the best aspects of that. And then when he starts those fight scenes, it’s like Nude Descending a Staircase, Popeye-style; it goes kind of crazy. Segar was a master.
Adams: Absolutely. When I was a kid, back in the days when not everything was in print the way it is today, I would pore over that Smithsonian book. Even at a really young age, it was the Popeye strips that just caught my eye. I couldn’t get enough of those strips! It’s hard to say what makes good art good art, but there was something about those strips and his storytelling, that unique art style…it’s just one of a kind.
Yoe: Bill Blackbeard, I’m not quite sure which strip he liked best, [George Herriman’s] “Krazy Kat” or “Popeye,” but he was a huge Segar proponent and absolutely loved “Thimble Theatre” and was a real champion of it. I think he’d be real excited — rolling over in his grave with delight! — that we’re going to try to recapture that magic.
Given that Popeye has been out of print for a while but is so recognizable, do you have a sense yet of whether that first issue will be an introduction to Popeye, or will you be treating it as if everybody knows this guy?
Adams: There’s not going to be an origin story, it’s not going to be that sort of thing. And this isn’t going to be some modern version of Popeye, or a retelling or re-envisioning of his origin or anything. We’re not going to put him in the mall or something like that.
Yoe: He might say, “Well, what do you think I yam, a cowboy?” And then we’ll move on from there.
You mention it’s not a modern retelling, but it seems like much of Popeye’s story is tied to the past. Will this be a historical piece, or just not fixed to any particular time?
Adams: That’s one of the things Craig and I will work out, but my intention is not to do a modern take on Popeye. He’s not going to be walking around with an iPod. I don’t think we’ll necessarily say what time period it takes place in, but it will be of the period and not today’s world.
Yoe: I think when you look at the original “Popeye” artwork, the backgrounds and props are almost like timeless cartoon props. If there’s a sink or there’s a tree or there’s a house, it’s almost like it’s not of the period when Segar drew them, either. They’re just this wonderful Popeye-land. It’s great backdrop, great props, but they’re right from the cartoon prop department. As a result, they’re timeless. That’s what will make this fun.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about your plans for “Popeye”?
Adams: Our plan is just to have some fun, make some great comic books and do Segar proud. I think, ultimately, Craig and I both come to this as fans of the material first, and we want to do good books that are going to be fun and help bring this character to a new generation.
Yoe: Amen! Toot-toot!