Comic Book Legends Revealed #322
Welcome to the three hundredth and twenty-second in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. This week, it is an all-Popeye edition of CBLR! Was Donkey Kong really first meant to be a Popeye video game? Did Popeye’s spinach really derive from an 19th century decimal error? And what’s with Terry Austin and Popeye?
Click here for an archive of the previous three hundred and twenty-one.
Popeye the Sailor was the creation of E.C. Segar, who introduced the character into Segar’s Thimble Theatre comic strip in 1929 (the strip began ten years earlier). Popeye soon became the star of the strip and eventually the strip was re-named after the character. It remains that way to this day. Popeye appeared in a number of popular animated film serials and later an animated TV series (plus there was a live action film in the 1980s). He is a legendary part of American popular culture. Here are a few legends related to him…
COMIC LEGEND: A decimal error in the 1870s led to an erroneously believed fact in the 20th Century that inspired Popeye’s strength-inducing spinach.
One of the most infamous typos in pop culture history was the supposed typo that occurred in an old nutrition textbook stating that spinach contained an excessive amount of iron, but it was later discovered that the decimal was off and spinach had no particularly special iron content. From a 1972 article on the subject by Arnold E. Bender:
For a hundred years or more spinach has been (and clearly still is) renowned for its high iron content compared with that of other vegetables, but to the joy of those who dislike the stuff this is quite untrue. In 1870 Dr E. von Wolff published the analyses of a number of foods, including spinach which was shown to be exceptionally rich in iron. The figures were repeated in succeeding generations of textbooks – after all one does not always verify the findings of others – including the ‘Handbook of Food Sciences’ (Handbuch der Ernahrungslehre) by von Noorden and Saloman  1920.
In 1937 Professor Schupan eventually repeated the analyses of spinach and found that it contained no more iron than did any other leafy vegetable, only one-tenth of the amount previously reported. The fame of spinach appears to have been based on a misplaced decimal point.
As the story goes, then, Elzie Segar chose spinach to be the source of Popeye’s strength based on this erroneous fact.
However, in a wonderfully researched piece, Mike Sutton has discovered that this article by Bender, was the origin of the Popeye spinach myth, over thirty years after Popeye started using spinach! And Sutton details the fact that by the time Elzie Segar was creating Popeye, the mistakes of von Wolff had long been discredited in the United States.
In fact, there is no evidence linking Segar to the von Wolff erroneous studies. It was always a matter of “well, since the science was not discredited until 1937, then Segar must have been relying on that information when he made spinach be the source of Popeye’s strength.”
But, as Sutton so deftly proves in his essay, there was no such belief in the United States when Segar began work on Popeye and certainly not by the time he introduced spinach as the source of Popeye’s strength.
Furthermore, Sutton actually shows the 1932 strip where Popeye specifically states why he uses Spinach, it is because of the Vitamin A content.
That’s pretty darn conclusive (click here to open a pdf that has the paper where Sutton proves the Vitamin A part of the story).
What’s fascinating, and Sutton touches on it a lot, is the idea that since a myth was being “busted,” people who would normally bust myths themselves simply accepted the busted myth as true, even though it certainly does not appear to be so.
I don’t want to steal Sutton of his well-deserved thunder by just regurgitating his whole piece, so please feel free to read his article here. It is a long work, but it is extremely fascinating. Suffice it to say, though, that the Popeye myth appears to be just that, a myth.
Thanks to Mike Sutton for the amazing information!
COMIC LEGEND: Donkey Kong was originally a Popeye video game with Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto in place of Mario, Pauline and Donkey Kong.
ANYhoo, for years, there have been certain theories bandied about about the origins of the 1981 video game classic from Nintendo, Donkey Kong.
Specifically that legendary video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto originally designed the game (which was a re-purposing of the hardware of a failed Nintendo game called Retro Scope, which IS worth mentioning – thanks, SoggyHydrox!) to be a licensed Popeye game, but after Nintendo lost the license, new characters were created based on the Popeye characters.
The parallels are eerie between the classic triangle of Bluto, Olive Oyl and Popeye…
with the set-up of Donkey Kong, where the over-sized Donkey Kong (Bluto) kidnaps Pauline/Lady (Olive) and forces Jumpman/Mario (Popeye) to come save her…
Now, Nintendo has always conceded that the game DID have origins involving Popeye. Their story was that they pursued the Popeye license and failed to get it. At that point in time, they then asked Miyamoto to come up with brand-new characters that they could market for future games, and Miyamoto was inspired by the classic triangle set-up of the Popeye strip and he then invented the characters and plot of Donkey Kong.
That has always been the story – that Miyamoto was inspired by Popeye, but Donkey Kong was developed separately from their failed attempt at a Popeye license.
A coupe of years ago, though, Miyamoto explained that the Popeye game was much further along than many folks thought it was in the past:
I sketched out a few ideas for games using Popeye. At that point, Yokoi-san [Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo head engineer and the fellow in charge of the project – BC] was good enough to bring these ideas to the President’s attention and in the end one of the ideas received official approval. Yokoi-san thought that designers would become necessary members of development teams in order to make games in the future. And that’s how Donkey Kong came about.
And when asked to confirm, then, that the game was, in fact, a Popeye game, he continued:
That’s right. But while I can’t recall exactly why it was, we were unable to use Popeye in that title. It really felt like the ladder had been pulled out from under us, so to speak. It was a really lucky break! So next we began to flesh out the idea for a game based on the concept we had come up with.
So there you have it, straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth! Imagine how different things would have been if there was no Jumpman and, in turn, no Mario? Would the Popeye game have still been a hit? It was a very well-designed game, after all.
Interestingly enough, Nintendo DID end up releasing a Popeye game in 1982, and it was basically based on the (by then quite popular) Donkey Kong format.
Thanks to Shigeru Miyamoto for the great information! And thanks to Jeff Ryan for suggesting this one a few years back!
COMIC LEGEND: Terry Austin is a huge Popeye fan and as such, often hides Popeye in comics that he works on as a penciler or inker.
In honor of our Month of Comic Book Easter Eggs, let us take a look at one of the most famous easter eggs, Terry Austin’s usage of Popeye!
Terry Austin is one of the most popular comic book inkers around. He is also a major Popeye fan.
Here are a few Popeye-related sketches that he featured in his recent sketchbook (that you really ought to pick up – lots of great stuff in it).
So, as a fan of Popeye, he has worked the character into a number of comic books over the years as “easter eggs.”
Here are a few…
Uncanny X-Men #125…
Marvel Premiere #50…
New Mutants Special Edition #1 (this time penciler Art Adams obviously went along with it)….
Detective Comics #475 (suggested by commenter Joe Mama)…
Can you think of any other instances of Austin sneaking Popeye into a comic book? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to the piece!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
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See you all next week!