BUD SAGENDORF'S first encounter with Popeye, the spinach- loving sailorman, was to paint his portrait on the back of suede leather jackets (for which he was paid 25 cents a time). He went on to draw not only Popeye, but Olive Oyl, his ungracious girlfriend, Caster Oyl, her grumpy brother, J. Wellington Wimpy, Alice the Goon and others for a cartoon strip (first syndicated world-wide in the 1920s and still published today) which he took over from Popeye's creator, the cartoonist Elzie Segar, and ran for some 40 years.
And although Segar's original image of Popeye still has its admirers, it is Sagendorf's version that is best-known to the public, decorating as it does the many spin-offs the sailorman has spawned.
Forrest Sagendorf was born in 1915 in Wenatchee, Washington State, but young 'Bud' and his family soon moved to Santa Monica, California. He first met Segar when, as a high school boy, he had a chance encounter with him at a local art store. They met again while pursuing their favourite hobby, fishing off the pier. Segar invited the tiro cartoonist to visit his home-cum-studio and offered to teach him the tricks of the cartooning trade.
Sagendorf's first break came when Segar wanted to take a three- week vacation, and employed the teenage Sagendorf full time to help him stockpile cartoons. Segar was so impressed with the results that he made Sagendorf his first and only regular assistant. 'I was in at the birth of Swee'pea, Popeye's 'adoptid boy-kid', Eugene the Jeep (the creature that gave its name to the Second World War all-purpose vehicle), and Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye's shaggy papa,' Sagendorf once said, adding: 'Segar was like a father to me, a fine boss and a kind teacher.'
Segar's premature death in 1938 might have catapulted Sagendorf into his position had King Features, who owned the copyright to the cartoon, not considered him too young to take over; despite the fact that Sagendorf had been drawing a regular Sunday page 'activity panel' - Popeye puzzles, cut- outs and games. Instead, the veteran cartoonist 'Doc' Winner was given the job and King Features found room for Sagendorf in their 'bull-pen', the studio for staff artists in New York. Here he was given practical experience on various artists' strip cartoons, but he always yearned to return to the spinach-loving seadog.
Sagendorf's opportunity came at last when Dell Publishing decided to replace their comic book reprints of newspaper strips with all-new adventures of the classic heroes. The ground had been tested with Chic Young's Blondie, The Katzenjammer Kids, and other King-owned series, and it worked well with Popeye. The first issue drawn by Sagendorf (who for the first time was allowed to sign his name) was published in 1946 and proved to be the first in a line of well over a hundred such books. Other publishers took over the title, including a short-lived series by King Features themselves, and there were three different publishers' series in Britain.
The comic books, originally all Sagendorf's work, led at last to his lifelong dream. From 1959 he was given the daily strip to draw, and then the Sunday colour page. Sagendorf had stepped fully into Segar's shoes at last.
To help fill the 48 pages of each comic, Sagendorf had created new characters. These included Popeye's Granny, a little old toughie who was also mother to Poopdeck Pappy, and Dufus, a lumpen dope. But in the main he returned to his late tutor's wonderful cast, bringing back the Goons, the awful Sea Hag, and the hirsute villain Bluto, who had made his dirty debut back in 1933, and had been immortalised as Popeye's permanent opponent in the Max Fleischer animated cartoon films from the Thirties. Later, reportedly under pressure from Walt Disney, King Features agreed to change his name to Brutus, Bluto's being too similar to Pluto. Sagendorf added a twist of his own by turning Bluto / Brutus into the Sea Hag's offspring and rechristening him, with some sarcasm, Sonny Boy.
For a while Sagendorf's Popeye was forced to wear the Navy-style white cap as seen in the cartoon films, but finally he won the right to revert to the merchant sailor's peaked cap as initiated by Segar.
Suffering from failing eyesight, Sagendorf was forced to retire from the daily strip in 1986, but was able to continue the Sunday series by simplifying his drawing style. Gone was the old Gothic atmosphere of Segar's years and the comedy was now carried on in close-up.
In 1979 he wrote and drew a cartoon biography of the strong- armed seadog, Popeye, the First Fifty Years, an enjoyable if somewhat one-sided overview of half a century of splat and spinach, and a memorial to one of the super-heroes of the cartoon strip.
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