They weren't the most promising couple in the world—not a guy and a girl anybody would think of fixing up. He was uncouth, tattooed, a food faddist given to unpredictable outbursts of violence. She was a flat-chested flirt with a dowdy sense of style and involved in a long-term relationship. But Cupid takes aim at the most unlikely targets, and 67 years after their first meeting, Popeye and Olive Oyl are still together. Of course there are issues yet to be resolved. Why does Olive keep stringing poor dumb Bluto along? Why won't Popeye, after nearly seven decades, make a decent woman of Olive, whose biological clock must sound like Big Ben? But let's not quibble; they've come a long way since that fatal first meeting.
In the late '20s, Olive was the star of Thimble Theater, E.C. Segar's daily comic strip, which ran in 600 newspapers. She had a brother named Castor Oyl and a boyfriend, Ham Gravy. Then, on Jan. 17, 1929, Segar introduced Popeye to the strip. Looking for an able seaman to take them on a voyage, Ham asked the passing muscle man, "Hey there, are you a sailor?" Popeye answered, "Ja think I was a cowboy?" After Popeye gruffly ordered Olive Oyl to the ship's galley, her response was, "Shut up, you bilge rat!"
After the voyage, Segar dropped the Popeye character, but readers demanded his return. He soon replaced hapless Ham in Olive's affections, and by the early '40s the strip had been renamed Popeye. "I don't know who else would love him," says Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Baily and Hi and Lois. "A one-eyed sailor with inverted arms, and she's the shape of a toothpick. I guess they were meant for each other." Hy Eisman, who has been drawing Popeye since 1994, has equally unflattering things to say about Olive. "She's perpetually 29 years old, 5'10" and weighs 96 pounds," he says. "She wears size 14-AAAAAA shoes so she can't fall over in a strong wind."
Like all couples, Popeye and Olive have had their ups and downs. But Popeye has cleaned up his act quite a bit. "In the early days," says Eisman, "there was a lot of physical abuse, because in those days you could do that in a comic strip." Cartoonist and historian Bill Janocha says Popeye "didn't want to take no guff from no dames." Now, though, "he never hits a woman, not even a bad old sea hag. Respect has a lot to do with their relationship." Even a spinach-eating bilge rat can evolve. All he needs is a good woman.
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