THE WASHINGTON POST — Popeye may be famous for the confident “I am what I am” creed, but that doesn’t mean the Sailor Man is saying no to a proper makeover.
The comic book hero swallowed spinach and armed with a bottle turned 93 in January. Now it will have a new look.
King Features Syndicate is handing over the helm of its weekly Sunday Popeye comic strip to Randy Milholland, a 46-year-old Texas cartoonist and true student of character who launched his career as a webcomic creator two decades ago. King said his new Popeye will roll out to dozens of newspapers and is also available through his Comics Kingdom site.
Popeye as a pop comics icon was at his peak in the mid-century, when he was read daily in hundreds of newspapers. Today, Milholland knows he has a mission: to put his inventive mark on comics while respecting why Popeye lives on both as a character and as an idea. The squinting sailor, ever the underdog, still musters his moxie can-do and flexes his belief in helping others with timeless relatability.
“What we’re really responding to is that the character has such a good heart,” said Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. “How Popeye does it is up to date, but his motives are always pure and he always seeks out those who need help. There’s something appealing about that.
Milholland inherits the Popeye tape from the esteemed Hy Eisman, who has written and performed it since 1994. Eisman has spent seven decades as a writer and artist, including more than half a century with King, where he also worked on The Katzenjammer Kids.
“I had read Popeye since I was young, and it was still one of my favorite strips,” Eisman, 95, said by email. “It meant a lot to me to create Popeye stories myself.”
Eisman added, “I’m glad the tape is continuing.” Now, as Milholland takes over from his “legendary” predecessor, he said, he will “try not to break the toys”.
The young cartoonist first caught the attention of Popeye readers in 2019. To celebrate the character’s 90th birthday, King Features Syndicate invited top artists to sketch their take on the swaggering sailor and his colorful village. This bonus feature was called Popeye’s Cartoon Club – a title from the early days of comics, when Popeye creator Elzie ‘EC’ Segar shared fan art in his strip.
Milholland seized the opportunity so much that he was asked to offer more tapes in 2020. Online readers began posting comments such as: “You heard people King Features, give this man the key Popeye tapes.”
The cartoonist is drawn to the fact that Popeye – despite the loyal ‘strong to the end’ strength he derives from eating spinach – is always ‘striking’, taking on tall 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 inception.
One aspect of Segar’s race that Milholland cherishes is that Popeye would say: I will protect any child I meet. Oh, are you out of luck? I will be there to help you. “Coming out of the Depression,” Milholland said, “it was really a lot.”
A decade after Segar created his Thimble Theater comic strip, Popeye made his supporting role debut in that strip in 1929 – four years before his first appearance in animated form, in Fleischer Studios’ popular Popeye the Sailor.
In Popeye’s first comic book, the characters Ham Gravy (Olive’s former fiancé) and Castor Oyl (her brother) – in search of a legendary enchanted creature that could improve their fortunes – must recruit someone who can sail them to an island. The question comes: “Are you a sailor?” – prompting Popeye’s clever first response: “I think I’m a cowboy?”
“Popeye is so much more than a goofy comic book character to me,” Segar reportedly said in the book Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation. “He represents all my emotions and he is an outlet for them. To me, Popeye is a really serious person and when a serious person does something funny, it’s really funny.
Segar guided Thimble Theater until his death in 1938, and his former assistant Bud Sagendorf ran the Popeye comic strip for decades, beginning in 1959.
Generations of writers and artists have brought their creative flair to Popeye, whether he becomes more or less pugnacious, embraces domestic life, or goes on long adventures. Milholland’s animated style has the visual pop of children’s animation.
“We love Randy’s bold lines, quirky character designs, and bright colors,” said King Features comics editorial director Tea Fougner. The cartoonist also arrives armed with an enthusiastic knowledge of Popeye’s history.
“It brings back characters that haven’t been seen in (almost) a century, like Olive’s sister-in-law, Cylinda Oyl,” Fougner said. “He also sets out to remind readers that in addition to the badass and underdog defender they know and love, Popeye is also sentimental and kind – the type of guy we all want on our side.”
Milholland, speaking via Zoom from the San Antonio area, laughs considering why King chose him, “Probably because I’m an obsessive!” I really like the characters.”
He and the Syndicate leadership discussed at length which direction to steer potential 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 undying love. “And Popeye is a fine 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 start his own online comic, Something Positive – a “scary and angry” feature film focusing on life 20 years after college. . His gift for character development helped create a devoted fan base – whose donations allowed him to quit his day job in Boston and start creating comics full-time.
Now he and his librarian wife, Steph Noell, live with their four-year-old Velma 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 of nowadays leans more on spinach than hamburgers, that staple of lazy food (intriguing character, Wimpy). He also watched Robert Altman’s 1980 film Popeye, starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall.
Today, he thinks characters like Olive Oyl, shaped long ago by Segar and writer Tom Sims, can speak to modern audiences. He notes that their Olive was candid and in your face.
“She was never the damsel in distress in the comics.” He said his stance was, “I’m here and I’ll either fight alongside Popeye or stand before him.”
All of these characters have flaws — and Popeye’s dad, Poopdeck Pappy, “is a flaw in itself,” Milholland notes with a smile — but Popeye and Olive are ones to “find their moral centers” when needed.
Milholland enjoys playing with the faces and shapes of characters, including the antagonistic witch the Sea Hag and the magical animal Eugene the Jeep. He loves designing the ballet of punches flowing across the page. Yet for all of Popeye’s enduring dynamic, Milholland returns to valuing the family heart that beats at the center of the strip.
“They can bicker and fight with fists,” he said, “but they still care about each other.”