You might have seen this comparison circulating on Facebook. With a distinctive chin, a pliable face, and a pipe in his mouth, the man on the right greatly resembles America's beloved spinach-munching Popeye. But surprisingly, he wasn't the inspiration for the comic character, and the real one may not be someone you should look up to…
The man who looks exactly like Popeye was a real-life hero who served for 21 years in the British Royal Navy. However, according to the Imperial War Museum, he had nothing to do with the character. If not, then who was the inspiration for Popeye? Or was the character simply dreamt up?
Another popular theory claims that Popeye was inspired by a one-eyed man named Frank "Rocky" Fiegel. To figure out the truth about Popeye's origin, we have to look into the author Elzie Crisler Segar's creative process. How did he come up with the beloved character?
It goes way back to 1919 when Segar started drawing Thimble Theater. But it wasn't until 10 years later that Popeye made his debut in the comic strip. So by the time the British sailor's photo was taken in 1940, Popeye had been pretty well-known, which makes it less likely that the seaman inspired Segar in the first place. But who knows?
Popeye first appeared as a minor character in Thimble Theater, but he quickly gained a following. Before long, Segar changed the strip's title to Thimble Theater Starring Popeye. So, what made Popeye such a popular comic figure?
Popeye began his career as a mariner and then as a Coast Guardsman. In 1941, he finally enlisted in the Navy. With the crackerjack suit on, Popeye gained even more popularity for his patriotism. Besides, many of us also remember him as a weirdly strong man with a penchant for spinach...
Surprisingly, Popeye wasn't always a fan of spinach. He initially gained his strength by rubbing the head of Bernice the Whiffle Hen! It wasn't till 1932 that Popeye started munching on cans of spinach and became incredibly stronger. As a result, children watching the cartoon doubled their veggie intake and spinach sales went up by a third during the Depression years!
"Eat more spinach, and you'll be tough" became the theme of the Popeye cartoon released by Paramount Pictures in 1933. Popeye still remained a scrappy little sailor, protecting Olive from the villainous Bluto with his monstrous strength. At this point, we can't help but wonder: what made Popeye such a vivid character?
Since Popeye is so distinctive, it would make a lot of sense if there was a real-life inspiration. Though Segar never talked about it, local citizens in Chester believe that many characters are based on real people in their hometown.
To begin with, storekeeper Dora Paskel and Olive Oyl both have incredibly long legs and wear their clothes down to their shoes. More importantly, Dora gets Olive's signature hairstyle down, as she was always tying her hair in a tight bun. The resemblance can't be a coincidence, right?
J. William Schuchert may be another inspiration for the strip. Schuchert and Wimpy share not only a voracious appetite for hamburgers, but also a rotund body shape. Fun fact: Schuchert was young Segar's boss at a local theater!
Since Segar did look to the townspeople for inspiration, it is likely that Popeye was also based on a real person in Chester. Though there's no official answer, many local folks are convinced that Frank "Rocky" Fiegel was the inspiration. So, what did the two Popeyes have in common?
Fiegel moved from Poland to America with his mother at a very young age. Just like the brave seaman, he didn't flinch from a single fight. And believe it or not, Fiegel also had inordinate strength like Popeye!
Just like Popeye, Fiegel had what the local newspaper called "amazing feats of strength". In Fred Grandinetti’s book Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History, local Lee Huffstutler recalled that Fiegel was "always a winner" whenever he got into a brawl.
Not only was Fiegel as brave and strong as Popeye, he certainly also looked the part. He and the cartoon character both had prominent chins, squinty eyes, screwed-up faces, and with an ever-present pipe in their mouths. However, the real-life inspiration wasn't a sailor like Popeye, or someone we should admire...
Turns out Popeye's inspiration wasn't as inspirational as we imagine. He never had a steady job, only working as a bartender or occasional laborer. To create a positive character, Segar left out Fiegel's love for liquor, kept his boldness, and turned him into a sailor that we all adore.
It wasn't till Segar passed away that Fiegel's photo was displayed in the St. Louis Post. No one really knew if Fiegel saw the newspaper. "I don't know that he ever knew he was Popeye," Schuchert told The New York Times in 2004, "He'd sit on a stoop outside his house, which was really dilapidated."
Fiegel passed away peacefully at 79, but he wasn't forgotten. In 1996, the Official Popeye Fan Club set a headstone in memory of this flawed, raw, but bold and compassionate human being.
Chester certainly hasn't forgotten about Popeye and his lovely friends, either. The town has built statues throughout the city to honor the beloved characters.
Looking back on Segar's creative process, we are amazed at how everyday folks can be inspirations for such a legendary artwork. After all, life is the eternal source of art!
Popeye has garnered millions of followers on Facebook and Youtube. Minus the pipe, the 92-year-old hero is being reintroduced to a new generation and is still going strong!