Popeye Fails to Show Much Strength
At All In the U.S. Market

Symbol of American Might Rakes in Spinach Abroad, Flexing Muscles in Japan

Popeye Falls Off His Pedestal

"Well, blow me down."

CHESTER, Ill. - Popeye has fallen off his pedestal.

A 6-foot bronze statue of the muscle flexing mariner stood here proudly for nearly two decades, a tribute to native son Elzie Segar, the creator of the Popeye character. Then last April, somebody toppled the 900-pound Popeye, bending his bronze pipe.

Is this any way to treat an American hero?

Poor Popeye. While other classic cartoons are going strong, Popeye has missed the boat. Next month, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and other Looney Tunes characters return to the big screen in "Space Jam." Jonny Quest is having a comeback on lunch boxes, A brand new Bullwinkle balloon will float head-and-antlers above this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But don't look for Popeye there—or just about anywhere else. The 67-year-old comic strip, once in hundreds of U.S. newspapers, now appears in just seven (55, if you count the foreign press). The last time a new Popeye cartoon series made Saturday-morning television was 1987; it lasted 13 episodes. These days, even the Popeyes Chicken & Biscuit chain has erased the Popeye cartoon from signs and packaging in its U.S. restaurants.

Popeye dolls and notebooks are scarce indeed, except in places like Japan, which generates the most royalties for the Sailor Man, the erstwhile symbol of American might and right. "It's hard to find Popeye-anything anymore," laments Popeye fan Mark Wilson, a 32-year-old process server in Anaheim, Calif.

"I yam disgustipated.”

The last attempt at a Popeye revival was in 1980, when Walt Disney Co. and Paramount Pictures Corp. made a bad bet on a musical starring comedian Robin Williams. The flick flopped. Retailers got stuck with a lot of unsold Popeye T-shirts and other tie-ins to the movie.

So young people today aren't likely to know much of anything about the clout Popeye once proudly wielded. Penned by Mr. Segar, a Chester, Ill. artist who learned to draw by correspondence course, Popeye first appeared on Jan. 17, 1929. He was a bit player in the Thimble Theatre, a strip featuring Castor Oyl and his twiggy sister, Olive.

But with a big heart and a can of spinach, Popeye soon outmusceled all other figures. By the late 1930s, Popeye owned the funny pages, appearing in 628 newspapers. For a down-and-out public, Popeye was blocky, direct, a moral anchor whose perspective on right and wrong, like the strip itself, was black and white.

The widespread cartoon ushered whole new words – “”jeep” and “goon” –into the English language. Farmers credited Popeye with single-handedly raising spinach consumption 33% in the 1930s. Polls found Popeye, a heroic underdog with a long fuse, more popular nationally than Mickey Mouse.

From the famed Max Fleischer studios, animators who pioneered the bouncing ball sing-along Popeye shorts began flickering in theaters, Enlisted in World War II, the punch-first-ask-questions-later Popeye appeared in skits with now politically incorrect titles like “Scrap the Japs.” The Fleischer cartoons became rerun regulars on TV in the '50s and '60s, exposing to new generations the muttering Popeye and cast, including hamburger-mooching J. Wellington Wimpy.

After that, Popeye didn't age well. The stage for the Fleischer cartoons with the sinister Brutus ever-angling for Popeye's “goil” Olive Oyl, was a gritty urban collage of waterfronts, alleys and speak-easies. It was a landscape lost on a growing suburban population more at home with backyards and strip malls, cartoon historians say.

Then as parents worried about children soaking up violence from TV, Popeye became a marked man. The Popeye baggage is considerable. Even as late as 1991, according to one study, Popeye cartoons were still considered some of the most violent, worse even than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Popeyes Chicken, which is owned by America's Favorite Chicken Co., won't discuss why it has virtually eliminated all traces of Popeye from its 900 U.S. restaurants. In overseas locations, it sometimes politically correctifies Popeye removing his corncob pipe and his tattoos.

"Popeye is like the Mike Tyson of cartoon characters–a brute," says Karal Ann Marling a University of Minnesota art history professor who studies cartoons and culture.

“I yam what I yam.”

0n top of all that, Popeye turned out to be a puzzling anachronism, hard to make hip. Artists went back to the drawing board to modernize him for the 1987 cartoon show, but something about Popeye as a health-club owner just didn't work. The latest stabs: In the Sunday comic strip, Popeye uses a cordless phone, and on a new T-Shirt, he dances the Macarena. On cable television, the Cartoon Network runs Popeye cartoons, some of them colorized, at late-night, insomniac hours.

Concedes Cathleen Titus, world-wide licensing chief for King Features Syndicate, Popeye's parent company, "There's only so much you can do with a guy in a sailor suit."

Some fans blame King Features, a division of Hearst Corp., for not following the lead of Disney or Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. division. Those companies are opening retail stores and theme parks and otherwise aggressively marketing their characters on screen and off. Between 1991 and 1995, Disney's revenue tripled for licensed goods alone, to $2.2 billion.

Meanwhile Warner's Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and Tasmanian Devil jumped in national popularity, with Bugs now ranking No. 1 among cartoon characters (Popeye is No. 92), according to Marketing Evaluations Inc., a Manhasset, N.Y., firm, which studies fame.

King Features' other characters—Betty Boop, Beetle Bailey, Blondie—all are making even less licensing money than Popeye does. Perhaps it's surprising that Popeye still earns "in the millions," according to the company.

Artistic Greetings Inc. recently canceled its mail-order Popeye bank checks. "They failed miserably," says James Warner, check-division product manager. "Popeye didn't have a lot of extra media pushing him along." Says Mike Brooks, a founder of the Official Popeye Fan Club: "King sloughs off Popeye."

King Features disagrees. "We may be cautious to a degree, but we have a philosophy with classic characters not to overexpose them," says Claudia Smith, assistant director of advertising. "While Pac Mans and Strawberry Shortcakes may come and go, Popeye will be around for a very long time to come."

Sure, but where? Most Popeye merchandise royalties these days come from overseas. Popeye endorses eyeglass frames in Italy, spinach-soup mix in Brazil, and toilet paper in Australia (something about strong tissues). In Japan, hot items include Olive Oyl calculators, Popeye skateboards and three youth magazines titled Popeye, Olive and Brutus (the Brutus character is also known as Bluto in some of the cartoons).

But some Popeyed optimists predict a full-blown U.S. comeback. Universal Studios plans to devote part of a new Orlando theme park to Popeye in 1999. And the fan club has been drawing new members since May, when Popeye hit the Internet. Just as Popeye always ended up beating Brutus, says the fan club's Mr. Brooks, "all of Popeye's foes eventually will get defeated."

"I'm strong to the finich' 'Cause I eats me spinach. I'm Popeye the Sailor Man.”

-By Michael J. McCarthy
Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal