Move along, Mandrake! Stand aside, Superman! Those other comic book experts have had it all wrong all along. That gravel-voiced, pipe-smoking Popeye the Sailorman is the first comic book superhero.
That's right, true believer! And since his debut—unlike, say, Captain America, the Phantom and nearly all other crime-fighting crusaders (with the exception of maybe Shazam)—Popeye's been the very epitome of the heroic comic book super-guy.
Now, before you start an online petition to have someone's comic book collection taken away, just hear me out. I've actually got a utility belt bursting with receipts to back up this senses shattering fantheory. But let's clarify one or two things first, shall we?
What's your definition of a superhero?
Believe it or not, this one's actually trickier than a crossword puzzle written by the Riddler. The definition of a superhero varies from comic book fan to comic book fan. Some define a superhero as someone who wears a disguise and fights crime. But that can be somewhat limiting: Marvel's Namor the Submariner (who wears nothin' but a speedo) doesn't fit that description, nor does Professor X, Luke Cage or Jessica Jones!
For others, a superhero is someone who fights evil but has the inhuman strength of Thor or the uncanny mental abilities of Jean Grey or gadgets galore like Batman. The dictionary, however, simply defines a superhero as a "benevolent fictional character with superhuman powers." And by that barebones description, Popeye qualifies. But if you aren't so easily persuaded, stick around. We've only just begun.
The Superhero Origin Story
Superman, who made his debut in the pages of DC's Action Comics #1 in 1938, is considered by most comic book historians to be the first superhero. But a convincing counter argument has been made to instead bestow the title to the King Features character Mandrake the Magician, a Tibetan-trained master illusionist who first appeared in comic strips in 1934.
Interestingly, though, in the never-ending battle for truth, justice and the rank of "first comic book superhero," Popeye's name has never been introduced into the conversation. But it can be reasonably argued that this one-eyed sailor was the first comic book superhero.
In 1929, nearly a decade before Superman was created, Popeye made his debut in the King Features comic strip Thimble Theater. Like today's super popular Batman villain Harley Quinn, Popeye was actually introduced as a disposable character in the story in which he first appeared. But his unique look and plucky personality made him a surprise hit with fans, and he was promptly developed into the comics and cartoon star that he still is to this very day.
Popular reprint collections featuring Popeye’s Thimble Theater strips were published in 1931 and 1932. These were like early 20th century precursors to today's graphic novels. In 1935, a year after Mandrake's debut and still three years before Superman's first Action Comics appearance, two more Thimble Theater collections were published, both of which actually featured the name of its one-eyed hero in the title. And the kiddies, of course, loved 'em.
Popeye's adventures were also published in traditional comic books, too! In fact, until sometime in the 1970s, Popeye comics, which had been published by Dell, King Comics, Gold Key Comics, Charlton Comics and others, outsold many of the standard superhero comics published by Marvel and DC. (Yep, he was that popular.)
But... how does any of that make Popeye the first comic book superhero?
Before baby Kal-El ever came to Earth in a mini-rocket ship to bathe in the sun's powerful UV rays, and before Billy Batson ever learned to say the magic word "Shazam," Popeye got superhuman strength by munchin’ on the vitamin-packed leaves of the spinach plant. If you think about it, his body's response to spinach kinda makes him the very first mutant, or the archetype for "Hulking out" at the very least. But that's not all, true believer!
For much of Superman's existence in comics, it was a running joke that he spent a fair chunk of his time in action saving the bacon of The Daily Planet's brave star reporter and love interest Lois Lane. But Popeye's girlfriend Olive Oyl was the original Lois Lane! Since 1929, she has required regular rescuing from the clutches of that serial stalker, kidnapper, masher and Popeye's ultimate arch-nemesis Bluto—quite possibly the first super-villain in comics!
Has it occured to you yet that Popeye also wears his very own costume, too? Yep, this guy was rocking the sailor uniform some six decades before anyone had ever heard of Sailor Moon, Sailor Mercury and the rest of their lil' crime fighting sailor gang.
It could even be said that Popeye is also the epitome of the comic book superhero because—unlike Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, and the rest of today's superheroes—his adventures have maintained the funny bone-ticking humor that put the "comic" in comic books.
1 a comedian, esp. a professional one : a stand-up comic.
2 (comics) comic strips.
Every superhero needs his theme music.
According to Kanye West and a classic 1980s comedy featuring the Wayans family, every superhero should have their very own theme music. So it's also worth mentioning that ol' Popeye here is also the OG when it comes to superhero theme music! So sing along if you're geeky, and you know it!
After that mic drop, there's really nothing left to say. But I'll leave you with one final thought: Do you remember that scene in Kill Bill when the lovable villain is talking to his pretty protégé about Superman? Right, he's sharing his theory on whether the Man of Steel's actual identity is Clark Kent or whether it’s really Superman.
Now, do you remember how much that theory messed with your head and likely changed how you see Superman to this day? Well, this is that moment, Super Friend. It's possible that it might take a while for some to admit that their comic book reality has just been shattered, but true fans of this classic character know: Popeye is the first comic book superhero. (Toot!)