Chapter 21: Spinach & Bricks
What do you do when you have to make a living diminishing true works of art? E.C. Segar’s Popeye, and George Herrimans’ Krazy Kat, have been mauled by others, so I don’t need to apologize for my efforts at damage control. Here’s what we did with them.
Elzie Segar's Popeye and George Herriman's Krazy Kat were my two favorite comic strips - from childhood on. Segar was a master storyteller, whose phrases and coined words are with us today: The Jeep, the Goon, The Wimp... The popularization of hamburgers and spinach - the fantastic cast of characters of the "Thimble Theater:" J. Wellington Wimpy, Alice the Goon, The Sea Hag, Eugene the Jeep, Castor Oyl, Nana Oyl, Olive Oyl, Sweepea, Poopdeck Pappy... and the most endearing fighter in all history, Popeye the sailor man. But today most people know little of the lore of all these characters. All they know is the drastically simplified sex triangle of Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto as portrayed in the animated cartoon versions from Max Fleisher, and the derivatives thereof. (Bluto appeared only once in all the years of the Segar strip.)
Then there was Krazy Kat, a poetic fantasy set in Kokonino Kounty, with its bizarre backgrounds of unlikely stone and cactus formations. There was the indeterminate sexual status of its hero/heroine, who lived in Arizona, yet spoke a weird variation of a New York Yiddish accent. There was the struggle of The Law (Offisa Pupp), against the miscreant brick heaver, Ignatz Mouse. The more often Ignatz zinged a brick at Krazy's noggin, the more he/she loved him. And it all played out in bizarre color and wildly varying brilliant layouts, (in the Sunday funnies version), with juicy inkline, and and juicier dialog, for years and years on the comics pages of hundreds of Hearst newspapers, via his King Features Syndicate. Its fans were mainly the cognicenti. It was minimally followed by the general public, but kept on simply because William Randolph Hearst, who had few other redeeming features, loved it. This work of cartoon art too had been diminished by numerous failed attempts to capture it in animation.
So here were my two most beloved comic strip creations being offered to me to animate, nicely overlapping the loss of T&J.
But of course, once again it wasn't all that nice...
The offer came from King Features Television just as Joe Vogel's departure from MGM left us without a continuation of our Tom & Jerry contract. Al Brodax, TV producer for King Features Television, brought Popeye and Krazy Kat to me. I made the biggest pitch I could to him to let me take Popeye and Krazy Kat back to their Segar and Herriman roots. But I had only superficial success. It was argued that by that time, the early 1960s, most people knew Popeye from the movie cartoons, and not from the E.C.Segar comic strip Popeye of the 1930s. And because of the number of episodes needed, we would have to divide the animation to between Prague, Zagreb, and Rome. The stories were all organized by Brodax in New York. I could control only the layouts and the soundtracks, for all of the films. I had to ricochet from city to city in the effort to control visual unity.
The series was basically the same old love triangle, garnished with spinach: Popeye/Olive Oyl/Bluto - renamed-Brutus, (apparently to avoid conflict with a well-known cartoon dog), But Brodax did follow my wish, and included some of the other Segar characters in some episodes.
With Krazy Kat, we did at least get to come up with an unambiguous gender. At that time, any hint of a homosexual relationship between Krazy, (who was always referred to as "he" in the original comic strip), and Ignatz mouse, an obvious male, was a loud no-no. Even in the old strip Krazy always wore a ribbon around his/her neck - whatever that meant - but it did give us the final reasoning. So we declared Krazy a girl cat, and that was that!