From humble beginnings on the banks of the Mississippi in 1894 until his untimely death in 1938, Elzie Crisler Segar seemed destined to see green. Whether it be Popeye's food of choice or the $400,000 a year income as reported in the December 12, 1936 edition of Literary Digest or the color of his thumb when it came to his gardening, green was definitely Segar's color.
Segar wrote the following sound bite autobiography for the September 1936 issue of Better Homes and Gardens.
FACTS YOU MAY NOT KNOW
ABOUT POPEYE'S CREATOR
"Born Chester, Illinois, 1894. At age 18 decided to become a cartoonist. Took a correspondence course in cartooning from W.L. Evans, of Cleveland, Ohio. It costs me $100. Worked at house-painting and paper-hanging in the daytime, ran a moving picture projector and played trap drums for dances in the evening. Lit up the oil lamps about midnight and worked on the course until 3 a.m.
At age 20, R.F. Outcault, creator of the Buster Brown comic, got me a job on the old Chicago Herald, which went broke two years later. (It wasn't all my fault.) Arthur Brisbane came to my rescue and put me to work on the Chicago Evening American.
Two years later the managing editor, William Curley, thought I could make a go of it in New York, so he sent me to King Features Syndicate. I've been with them ever since. Began drawing Thimble Theatre the day I arrived in the big town. The characters were: Olive Oyl, Castor Oyl, and Ham Gravy. They were the leads for about ten years. Then one day about six years ago, Castor Oyl needed a sailor to navigate his ship to Dice Island. The result was Castor picked up a funny-looking old salt down by the docks, and his name was Popeye. Popeye immediately stole the show.
I have two children: Marie 13, and Tom, 9. They're swell kids and they eat their spinach and other garden products. Got a swell wife too; her name is Myrtle, won't mention her age.
Yers truly, Segar"
And for a lot of collectors like myself, we're green with envy over the amazing creative powers of this remarkable comic strip master.
- B. Shults, Still a Green Kid, Edmond Oklahoma, 3/17/78
E.C. SEGAR BIO-PIC GALLERY
Pictured above is a lesson booklet from the W.L. Evans School of Cartooning and Caricaturing located in Room 822 of the Leader Building in Cleveland OH. Segar started the course when he was 18 years old and took about a year and a half to complete the 20 lessons. He finished in 1914 or early 1915 at an actual cost of $1 per lesson, not the dollar figure reported in Better Homes & Gardens above. W. L. Evans' interest seemed to be primarily in editorial cartooning, and he applied this craft for the Cleveland Leader around the turn of the century. But also note how his comic drawing style above from a typical lesson must have influenced Segar's early work on Charlie Chaplin's Comic Capers and Looping the Loop. It does appear that Segar was Evans' first star pupil to succeed outside of editorial and ad cartooning. Evans featured Segar in a full page recruiting ad for his correspondence school in the famous Cartoons Magazine circa 1917. In the ad, E.C. is quoted saying: "I'm getting along fine, and it's all your fault." But Segar was not Evans only success story. Dick Tracy's own Chester Gould was also a student some years later, as was Lank Leonard who launched the Mickey Finn strip in 1936, among other artists. For more on Evans CLICK HERE.
Upon finishing the Evans course, Segar said he headed promptly to Chicago. But there are gaps in time between when he reported he finished the course and he got the attention of the Yellow Kid's father Richard F. Outcault who helped him land a job at the Chicago Herald writing and drawing the Charlie Chaplin Comic Capers strip. Nevertheless in March 1916 at age 21, Segar inherited the strip from Stuart Carothers. Little is known about Carothers. It's possible he left the Herald like his co-worker Frank Willard (later of Moon Mullins fame) to join the fight in World War I. One thing is certain, his art and writing was more polished than Segar's at this point in their respective careers. However, there's no evidence that Carothers did any other comic strip work after Comic Capers. Perhaps the grueling deadlines of turning out a daily and Sunday page was more pressure than Carothers cared to endure. See the photo and gag above that Carothers penned for a 1915 Chicago newspaper illustrator's banquet program that indicates -- jokingly but perhaps truthfully -- that the work stressed him to the point of losing sleep. Early on Segar did his best to mimic Carothers' work on the strip. In addition, he was in good company at the Herald. Barney Google's eventual creator Billy DeBeck had also joined the newspaper's art staff about the same time.
While working on the Charlie Chaplin Comic Capers strip, Segar decided to pick up a little extra spending money by following in the footsteps of his mentor W.L. Evans. He advertised in his publisher's paper The Chicago Herald that he would provide professional cartoonist's criticism for aspiring artists. Segar offered to criticize four student cartoons for a mere dollar. He used his work address at the Herald Record Building at 163 West Washington Street for this business enterprise. The building was located in the Loop community area of Chicago. On a daily basis in 1916 and 1917, Segar could look up and see the statue of a herald which adorned the building (pictured at the right circa 1911 from the Chicago Daily News archives held by the Illinois Historical Society and the U.S. Library of Congress). Whether or not Segar was able to drum up much business from his cartoonist criticism enterprise will never be known. For more on the early works of Segar CLICK HERE.
Elzie's Family Life
Born in Randolph County IL in 1894, Elzie Crisler Segar was the youngest of five boys and three girls. Elzie is pictured at age four below left. His father Amzi was a house painter and decorator who Segar worked for as a teenager. He also worked as a Chester movie projectionist for five years and sported an MPO (Motion Picture Operator) tattoo on his arm the rest of his life. Amzi died in 1935 in Santa Monica.
Sometime in the years Segar worked in Chicago, he met his bride-to-be Myrtle Annie Johnson. Myrtle was born in Chicago in June 1895 to Marie (Larson) and Gilbert Johnson. Above center, Elzie and Myrtle pose in the garden at their spacious two-acre ranch around the San Fernando Valley of California. Their home was nicknamed the Segar Box. E.C. said he wasn't much of a farmer, but Mrs. Segar could plant a feather duster and make it grow into a palm tree. The couple had two children, Marie (named after Myrtle's mother) and Tom (likely named after Segar's grandfather Thomas). In The Five Fifteen daily strip of the 20s and the Thimble Theatre topper in the 30s, Segar named Sappo's beloved wife Myrtle. Presumably, Elzie and Myrtle did not have the same tumultuous relationship as did these comic characters in the funny papers.
Life Before Popeye Living in New York, Segar labored intensely throughout the 1920s establishing the Thimble Theatre comic strip, first as a daily starting in 1919, then as a Sunday page in 1925. He got better and better at his artistry throughout the decade, particularly his storytelling. The personalities of Castor and his sister Olive, their parents Nana and Cole, Castor's sometimes wife Cylinda Oyl, and Olive's beau Ham Gravy flourished in this span. And the adventures of these characters became longer, more involved and, yes, a lot funnier as the 20s progressed. Pictured at the left is an early (circa mid-20s) King Features Syndicate publicity shot of a young, eager and energetic E.C. Segar with pen in hand, surrounded by the then-stars of the six-panel miniature theatre which played out daily on a newsprint stage. Away from Work
Segar reportedly enjoyed playing billiards. Likely attracted to the green table top! He claimed if Popeye ever went back on him, he would turn his home into a pool parlor. Born near the banks of the Mississippi, it's natural that Segar loved fishing. So when his cartooning struck paydirt, he moved his family to California and bought a house near the famous Santa Monica pier. A National Sportsman magazine article in June 1935 revealed that the artist enjoyed using monstrous, hideous lures for bait. Above right: Popeye's creator stands beside a wall poster of the sailor at his Santa Monica home.
At Work "Popeye is much more than a goofy character to me," Segar confided to Martin Sheridan, author of Comics and their Creators published four years after Segar's death. "He represents all of my emotions, and he is an outlet for them. I'd like to cut loose and knock the heck out of a lot of people, but my good judgment and size hold me back. Instead I use my imagination and let the sailor do the scrapping."
"Popeye's life has been a sad one and I claim that pathos is the best background for humor. Tragedy and comedy are so closely related that it is only a step from one to the other."
What comedy and laughs Segar bought to millions of Americans in the otherwise sad times of the Depression. What tragedy that this man died so young at the very peak of his creativity.
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