Popeye = Everyman
The Theology of Popeye - Part 1

Steve Mannion, Cartoonist

As a kid arriving home from church on a Sunday morning one of the first things I did was to grab hold of the “funny papers” and read faithfully every funny. “Popeye The Sailor” was one of those comics.

Although I probably didn’t realize it at the time, there were those funny strip characters that drew me in more so than some of the others. Popeye was one of them. Perhaps it was because in my imagination I could see my self as Popeye always winning out over Bluto. To be honest, canned spinach was not then (nor now) high on my list of good tasting food. Yet, I faithfully ate lots of canned spinach without complaint. After all, when the going got rough, it was to canned spinach that Popeye turned for renewed strength. And what young boy does not want to win over the heroine?

While Popeye was my hero, I have to admit I liked Wimpy. I think simply because I too liked hamburgers.

A while back I by chance happened to come across Steve Mannion’s* variant drawing of Popeye characters. In one he depicted Popeye and Bluto in rough combat for the hand of Olive Oyl. Not sure why, but for some reason the cartoon made me think, is there some deeper storyline to Popeye than the constant battle between Popeye and Bluto? I wondered if Popeye might say something our own personal Spiritual quests?

As I tend toward Structuralism when I look for storylines I started off by asking myself, who, or what, do the characters in Popeye represent in the terms of a larger life? You may see them differently, but here’s how I see them:

• Popeye is you and I, The Everyman, and as Everyman, the Hero.

• Bluto is both the Anti-hero within the Anti-hero without. The Anti-hero opposes the Everyman.

• Olive Oyl is the Heroine, the goal to be attained. Popeye (Everyman/Hero) and Bluto (anti-hero) both desire the Heroine.

• Wimpy is the alter-ego of Everyman. Wimpy is self-satisfied after eating enough hamburgers, but yet a wimp.

• Spinach is the strength-giving substance that must be used when our own strength fails. Interestingly, the spinach is always canned, never fresh. Could it be that Popeye never ultimately wins over Olive Oyl because the spinach is not fresh?

• Then there is Swee’Pea who was delivered as a baby to Popeye’s door in a box: Who is Swee’Pea? Why was he delivered to Popeye’s door? Who are the baby’s parents?

As each character has a role to play in the comic strip, each character has a role to play in “larger life.” Each represents a role playing out in each of our daily lives, roles that we will explore.

To begin our exploration we must begin with Popeye and his mantra, the most overtly theological gem in the comic strip, “I yam what I yam,” a phrase reminiscent of the numinous naming self in Exodus 3:14, “I am who I am.”

[To be continued – Next: What does Popeye mean when he says, “I am what I am.”]

* Popeye Classics Steve Mannion Variant Issue_30; Steve Mannion Comics.

© Frank A. Mills 2018