Segar was born on 8 December 1894, and raised in Chester, Illinois, a small town near the Mississippi River. The son of a handyman, his earliest work experiences included assisting his father in house painting and paper hanging. Skilled at playing drums, he also provided musical accompaniment to films and vaudeville acts in the local theater, where he was eventually given the job of film projectionist at the Chester Opera House, where he also did live performances. At age 18, he decided to become a cartoonist. He took a correspondence course in cartooning from W.L. Evans of Cleveland, Ohio. He said that after work he “lit up the oil lamps about midnight and worked on the course until 3 a.m.”
Segar moved to Chicago where he met Richard F. Outcault, the creator of The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown. Outcault encouraged him and introduced him at the Chicago Herald. On March 12, 1916, the Herald published Segar’s first comic, Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, which ran for a little over a year. In 1917, Barry the Boob was created. In 1918, he moved on to William Randolph Hearst‘s Chicago Evening American where he created Looping the Loop. Segar married Myrtle Johnson that year; they had two children. In October 1919, Segar covered that year’s World Series, creating eight cartoons for the sports pages.
Evening American Managing editor William Curley thought Segar could succeed in New York, so he sent him to King Features Syndicate, where Segar worked for many years. He began by drawing Thimble Theatre for the New York Journal. The strip made its debut on December 19, 1919, featuring the characters Olive Oyl, Castor Oyl and Horace Hamgravy, whose name was quickly shortened in the strip to simply “Ham Gravy“. They were the strip’s leads for about a decade. On January 17, 1929, when Castor Oyl needed a mariner to navigate his ship to Dice Island, Castor picked up an old salt down by the docks named Popeye. Popeye’s first line in the strip, upon being asked if he was a sailor, was “‘Ja think I’m a cowboy?” The character stole the show and became the permanent star. Some of the other notable characters Segar created include J. Wellington Wimpy and Eugene the Jeep.
Segar also created The Five-Fifteen for King Features in 1920; it was retitled Sappo in 1926. Sappo ran as a topper to the Thimble TheatreSunday pages.
After prolonged illness, Segar died of leukemia and liver disease at the age of 43. Segar is widely regarded as one of the most influential and talented cartoonists of all time, among the first to combine humor with long-running adventures. A revival of interest in Segar’s creations began with Woody Gelman’s Nostalgia Press. Robert Altman’s live-action film Popeye (1980) is adapted from E. C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre comic strip. The screenplay by Jules Feiffer was based directly on Gelman’s Thimble Theatre Starring Popeye the Sailor, a hardcover reprint collection of 1936-37 Segar strips published in 1971 by Nostalgia Press. In 2006, Fantagraphics published the first of a six-volume book set reprinting allThimble Theatre daily and Sunday strips from 1928–38, beginning with the adventure that introduced Popeye.
In 1971, the National Cartoonists Society created the Elzie Segar Award in his honor. According to the Society’s website, the award was “presented to a person who has made a unique and outstanding contribution to the profession of cartooning.” The NCS board of directors chose the first winners, while King Features selected recipients in later years. Honorees have included Charles Schulz, Bil Keane, Al Capp, Bill Gallo and Mort Walker. The award was discontinued in 1999.
In 2012, writer Roger Langridge and cartoonist Bruce Ozella teamed to revive the spirit of Segar in their four-issue limited series, Popeye, published by IDW. Asked how to say his name, he told The Literary Digest it was “SEE-gar”. He commonly signed his work simply Segar or E. Segar above a drawing of a cigar.
In 1977, Segar’s hometown of Chester, Illinois honored its native son with a park named in his honor. The park is home to a six-foot-tall bronze statue of Popeye, and since 1980 has been the site of the annual Popeye Picnic, a weekend-long event that celebrates the character with a parade, film festival and other activities. In 2006, Chester launched the ambitious “Popeye & Friends Character Trail,” which links a series of statues of Segar’s characters located throughout town. Each stands on a base inscribed with the names of donors who contributed to its cost and is unveiled and dedicated during the Popeye Picnic. The 2006 debut sculpture of hamburger-loving Wimpy stands in Gazebo Park. A statue of Olive Oyl, Swee’Pea and the Jeep, located downtown near the Randolph County Courthouse, followed in 2007. In 2008, a Bluto statue was dedicated at the corner of Swanwick and W. Holmes Streets, in front of Buena Vista Bank. The 2009 statue of Castor Oyl and Bernice the Whiffle Hen stands in front of Chester Memorial Hospital. An additional 11 statues will be unveiled at the rate of one per year until 2020 if not longer, when a bust of Segar at his birthplace will mark the cartoonist’s 125th birthday.
- December, 08, 1894
- Chester, Illinois
- October, 13, 1938
- Santa Monica, California
- Woodlawn Cemetery
- Santa Monica, California