Elzie Crisler Segar was born December 8, 1894 and raised in Chester, Illinois near the Mississippi River.
His father was a handyman, so he grew up assisting his father in house painting and wall paper hanging.
He also loved music and loved playing drums, so to avoid working with his father, Segar became the projectionist and would provide musical accompaniment for vaudeville acts and films at the local Chester Opera House.
After high school, Segar decided he wanted to become a cartoonist and signed up for a correspondence course with W.L. Evans Cartooning of Cleveland, Ohio.
He would later admit that after work at the Opera House he “lit up the oil lamps about midnight and worked on the course until 3 a.m.”
Then Segar moved to Chicago, Illinois where he met Richard F. Outcault, the creator of The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown.
Outcault could see potential in Segar, and recommended him to the Chicago Herald.
Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Capers
On March 12, 1916, the Chicago Herald published 19 year old E.C. Segar’s first comic titled “Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Capers.”
He followed that success up with Barry the Boob in April of 1917.
Then in 1918, Segar moved over to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American where he created the comic strip titled “Looping the Loop.”
He also married Myrtle Johnson that year and the couple would go on to have two children.
In October of 1919, Segar covered the World Series, creating eight cartoons for the sports pages.
William Curley, the managing editor for the Evening American, thought Segar could succeed in New York, so Curley sent Segar to the King Features Syndicate.
Segar began by drawing his “Thimble Theatre” for the New York Journal.
The comedy-adventure comic strip made its debut on December 19, 1919, featuring Olive Oyl, her enterprising brother Castor Oyl, and Olive Oyl’s first boyfriend Horace Hamgravy (later shortened to simply “Ham Gravy.”
Olive’s parents, Cole and Nana Oyl, also made frequent appearances.
These characters starred in the strip until Segar decided that Castor Oyl needed a mariner to navigate his ship to Dice Island, the location of a casino owned by the crooked gambler Fadewell.
Then on January 17, 1929, Segar had his character Castor Oyl pick up an old salt down by the docks he named “Popeye.”
Popeye’s first line in Segar’s comic strip, upon being asked by Castor Oyl if he was a sailor, was “‘Ja think I’m a cowboy?”
Popeye was then hired by Castor Oyl and Ham Gravy to crew a ship for a voyage to Dice Island.
Castor intended to break the bank at the casino using the unbeatable good luck conferred by stroking the hairs on the head of Bernice the Whiffle Hen.
Weeks later, on the trip back, Popeye was shot many times by Jack Snork, a stooge of Fadewell’s, but survived by rubbing Bernice’s head.
After the adventure, Popeye left the strip, but due to reader reaction, he was quickly brought back in a larger role.
Even though Segar’s Thimble Theatre was in its tenth year when Popeye made his debut, the sailor quickly stole the show and became the main focus of the strip and Popeye became one of King Features’ most popular properties during the 1930s.
Eventually, even though Segar originally presented Olive as being less than impressed with Popeye, she eventually left Ham Gravy to become Popeye’s girlfriend and Ham Gravy left the strip as a regular.
Over the years, however, she has often displayed a fickle attitude towards the sailor. Castor Oyl continued to come up with get-rich-quick schemes and enlisted Popeye in his misadventures.
Eventually the character Castor Oyl settled down as a detective and later on bought a ranch out West.
With his new fame, he was asked how to say his name, his reply to The Literary Digest was “SEE-gar”.
He commonly signed his work simply Segar or E. Segar above a drawing of a cigar.
Then after a prolonged illness, E.C. Segar died October 13, 1938 of leukemia and liver disease at the age of 43.
Thimble Theatre was continued after Segar’s death by several writers and artists, most notably Segar’s assistant Bud Sagendorf. The strip continues to appear in first-run installments in its Sunday edition, written and drawn by Hy Eisman. The daily strips are reprints of old Sagendorf stories.
Today, Segar is widely regarded as one of the most influential and talented cartoonists of all time, among the first to combine humor with long-running adventures.
A revival of interest in Segar’s creations began with Woody Gelman’s Nostalgia Press. Robert Altman’s live-action film Popeye (1980) is adapted from E. C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre comic strip.
The screenplay by Jules Feiffer was based directly on Gelman’s Thimble Theatre Starring Popeye the Sailor, a hardcover reprint collection of 1936-37 Segar strips published in 1971 by Nostalgia Press.
In 2006, Fantagraphics published the first of a six-volume book set reprinting all Thimble Theatre daily and Sunday strips from 1928–38, beginning with the adventure that introduced Popeye.
In 1971, the National Cartoonists Society created the Elzie Segar Award in his honor. According to the Society’s website, the award was “presented to a person who has made a unique and outstanding contribution to the profession of cartooning.” With declining interest in comics, the award was discontinued in 1999.
In 2012, writer Roger Langridge and cartoonist Bruce Ozella teamed to revive the spirit of E.C. Segar in their four-issue limited series, Popeye, published by IDW.
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