Thimble Theatre and the pre-Popeye comics of E.C. Segar

Early comics and illustratinos from one of the true giants of American comics, 1916-1930

More than a decade before he created the world’s most famous cartoon sailor, Elzie Crisler Segar began his comics career in the movies. He drew cartoons for silent movie theater slides, the Charlie Chaplin comic strip, and a daily strip about Chicago’s movies and entertainment. Then, in 1919, he penned his own “small screen” creation for the newspapers, Thimble Theatre, where Popeye was to be born. This volume features examples of all of E.C. Segar’s early comics and illustrations, and over 100 pre-Popeye Thimble Theatre Sunday pages, including the complete run of the famed Western desert saga, a series that rivals his later work in superb art, storytelling and humor. These comics, most of which have never been reprinted before, are now here for the whole popeyed world to see.

From Loops, Gooks, and Desert Madness: the pre-Popeye life of E.C. Segar an Introduction by Paul C. Tumey

Elzie Crisler Segar was born December 8, 1894, on a farm located on the outskirts of Chester, Illinois, a small town with a population of about 850.

Segar began to draw when he was ten years old, copying George McManus’s Panhandle Pete. Starting at age 12, in 1906, he worked for fifty cents a day at the town’s center of entertainment and culture, the Chester Opera House. Segar’s duties included putting up posters and drawing showbills to display at the front of the theater. In time, he worked his way into becoming an official projectionist, cranking the films by hand. So great was his pride at this accomplishment, he had “M.P.O.” tattooed on his arm, for “Motion Picture Operator.” Jessie Lee Huffstutler, a young school teacher who played piano accompaniment to silent films—Segar sometimes joined her on a trap drum set—at the Chester Opera House, recalled Segar drew cartoons on slides shown on the screen during reel changes “For one such slide he used a local young man knocking on the door, calling on his girlfriend. Of course, everyone knew who the young man was because he made the face to look just like him.” Huffstutler remembered the young Segar as a “shy, very quiet and frail. His eyes were large but very soft and I could see kindness in them.”

Segar’s employer at the theater was Bill Schuchert, a sleepy-eyed, portly man with a mustache and a well-known love for hamburgers. He just might have been a partial inspiration for Thimble Theatre’s Wimpy. According to Huffstutler, Segar modeled other characters on some of Chester’s more colorful inhabitants. Dora Paskel, the wife of the general store owner, could have served as the inspiration for Olive Oyl. Most significantly, a possible inspiration for Popeye was a pugnacious, pipe-smoking Polish man named Rocky Feigle, who worked part-time at a saloon in Chester.

Reportedly, the young Segar sent cartoons to a local paper with a note: “Please publish my cartoons on account of I have an uncle working in your press room.” He also sent cartoons to Life Magazine. Segar received only rejections, but he persisted. To gain the skills he needed to make it as a newspaper cartoonist, Segar enrolled in the W.L. Evans Correspondence Course in Cartooning (as did Chester Gould in 1917). For 18 eighteen months, he toiled on the lessons late at night after projecting the last show at the Opera House.

In early 1916, having completed the Evans course, Segar packed his pencils and pens and moved about 350 miles north, to Chicago. His 32-year-old half-brother, Norris, lived there, working as a clerk at the Congress Hotel. According to at least one account, it was Norris who connected Segar with Richard F. Outcault (Buster Brown), at the time one of the most famous cartoonists in America, likely in Chicago to manage his merchandising and advertising interests. Segar credited Outcault with getting him a job at the Chicago Herald.

From Segar “Rocks”: Thimble Theatre Tours Coconino County, by Jeet Heer

In the Thimble Theatre Sunday page for April 8th, 1928, Castor Oyl, brother of Olive and future business partner of Popeye, haggardly sweats it out in an unnamed desert. With a tip of his hat to the master, cartoonist E.C. Segar lets the audience figure out exactly where Castor is. "@!!** desert," Castor complains. "Nothing but bones, cacti, sand, and 'Herriman rocks.'" With that wink to the creator of Krazy Kat, Segar let us know that Castor wasn’t in any old desert: he was in Coconino County or its near environment.

For comic strip fans, Coconino County is the home of Herriman’s animal menagerie, most famously Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse. Herriman’s genius owed much to the actual Coconino as well as to Monument Valley: the surrealism of Krazy Kat, with its ever-shifting backgrounds, its weird rock formations, its flights into Navaho patois and mythology, was a product of Herriman’s deep love for the great American desert.

It is a measure of how far Segar had come that by 1928 he was able to reinvent a landscape already used by so many formidable cartoonists. Segar’s own mastery was hard-won. He had perhaps the longest apprentice period of any major cartoonist. His early work displayed only a minimal competence. As the late critic Donald Phelps noted in his 2001 book, Reading the Funnies, “From the mid-1910s until the beginning of the ’20s, the drawing remains hesitant and gawkish; timidly arranging and directing the doodle-ruled forms of the characters, who seem always on the threshold of reverting to the linked jellybeans, or semi-collapsed balloons, of the their basic shape.”

Indeed, even when he achieved his mature style in the late 1920s, Segar continued to be amazed at the fundamental cartoonist trick that a few squiggles can be transformed into a recognizable form. The magical mutability of cartoons was a recurring subject that bewildered John Sappo, the title character of the top strip Sappo, as he pondered the craft of Segar’s alter ego, the genial cartoonist Mr. Squeem. “That’s the trouble with you wisecrackin’ cartoonists,” Sappo laments. “You say one thing and mean another.”

Segar was willing to push his characters to the edge of absurdity and beyond. Perhaps empowered by the conviction that cartoons were, at the end of the day, nothing but lines on paper, Segar would create situations where his characters do and say just about anything.

From How the West was ’Tooned, by Michael Tisserand

When, in 1928, E.C. Segar sent Castor Oyl into the great American desert, he was placing him on a trail that had seen more than its share of plops and spins and zip-pows.

Movie director John Ford usually gets credit for introducing the desert to audiences in films such as Stagecoach and The Searchers. Cartoonists, however, were there first. Moreover, comics offered early views of the West that were richer and more complex than most anything in early films. And, with a few possible exceptions, such as Buster Keaton’s Go West and Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West, they were funnier.

But the story of comics and the West really begins with James “Jimmy” Swinnerton. Born in California in 1875, Swinnerton was the first cartoonist to develop a deep, personal and abiding relationship with the West. Swinnerton was as enraptured by the face of the desert as one is by the face of a beloved, and he devoted his twin careers of cartooning and painting to exploring its lights and shadows, its mysteries and its humor. In doing so, Swinnerton reached far beyond the simple adventure tales that dominated other Westerns of his day. A sharp satirist, he would lampoon the mythologies of the West at the same time that he celebrated Native American cultures and art traditions. His devotion would influence many others, including Rudolph Dirks, George Herriman and Segar, and point the way to other Western tales to emerge in comics generations later.

In nearly three months’ worth of Little Jimmy Sunday episodes, Swinnerton chronicled, with both humor and marvel, his own observations of Navajo (or Diné) culture. In them, he offered a remarkably nuanced view of Native Americans—especially for nine panels in a newspaper comics supplement in 1913. That same year, Swinnerton’s friend George Herriman started adding Indian characters into his daily comic, The Dingbat Family. Generally, these were little more than stock caricatures of hook-nosed men wrapped in Navajo blankets. Yet within a few years Herriman’s masterpiece Krazy Kat would show how much Herriman, like Swinnerton, had immersed himself in the Southwest. The self-effacing Herriman rarely spoke too seriously about Krazy Kat, but he made an exception when asked about his desert landscapes. “That’s the country I love and that’s the way I see it,” he told journalist Mary Landenberger. “I don’t think Krazy’s readers care anything about that part of the strip. But it’s very important to me and I like it nearly as well as the characters themselves.”

Segar never acquired Swinnerton’s or Herriman’s personal knowledge of the Southwest and its secrets. Yet the region would serve as the perfect backdrop for Segar’s singular talent for creating little satires of masculinity. “I know the great open spaces—I know the ways of this ‘he-man’s land,’” boasts Castor Oyl right before falling on his face in one misadventure after another. Segar’s desert is a place of nose-tweaking vultures and hunts for “mirage water”; if fool’s gold did not exist already, it’s likely Segar would have invented it.

Segar and The Little Tramp

Charlie Chaplin’s Comic Capers was originated by Stewart W. Carothers in March of 1915. E.C. Segar took over the daily strip for six months in 1916 and penned the Sunday page from March 1916 to September 1917, when the strip ended. Compared to his later work, Segar’s stories were simplistic and the artwork rough and derivative, but his work on a seven-day strip with recurring characters gave him the foundation for his Thimble Theatre success. A series of popular paperback books reprinted the daily strips within a few years of their first publication. The first book featured the earliest Segar daily comics.