Sunday’s ‘Popeye’ Comic Book Artist’s New Plans Woke Changes

When Randy Milholland’s first-grade teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied, “I want to draw Popeye,” the comic book hero he loved from the newspaper and TV .

“Maybe you should choose a more accessible goal,” the teacher replied.

The 46-year-old San Antonio cartoonist had the last word (or “ah-guh-guh-heh-heh-heh” in Popeye parlance). He was recently tapped to direct the Sunday edition of the 93-year-old comic featuring the iconic sailor who is “strong until the end because I eat spinach”.

Milholland seems like the perfect person for the job. He’s a “Popeye” scholar who can talk in detail about the history of the strip – the many artists who have drawn the salty sailor since its 1929 debut as an adventure comic, how Popeye’s girlfriend , Olive Oyl, was once a badass who actually killed people and her eventual decline into a simple gag-a-day band.

He’s also been a successful webcomic creator for over two decades, so he knows what it takes to write and illustrate stories and characters that keep readers coming back for more.

Milholland’s plans, approved by his publishers, call for updating the strip to bring it into the 21st century in hopes of bringing new readers to the fold.

“My main goal is to make ‘Popeye’ a comic that people can enjoy, something they relate to,” he said. “I also want to come back to the family dynamics of these characters. Many do not have a traditional family, rather they have a found family.

It will be a big job. Once one of the nation’s most successful comic strips, appearing in as many as 600 newspapers a day, “Popeye” has fallen on hard times over the past few decades. Today, the Sunday New Comic Strip, which Milholland also writes, appears in only 20 newspapers worldwide. Only eight newspapers carry reruns of classic tapes on weekdays.

“Popeye” is also available on the Comics Kingdom site operated by King Features Syndicate, which owns the property (and is a division of Hearst, which owns Express-News).

“The tape became one where Popeye spanked Swee’Pea or Olive Oyl harassed Popeye,” Milholland said. “It became very safe because they wanted to protect the brand.”

Still, “Popeye” remains an important legacy for the company.

“After Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, this is our longest running comic,” said Tea Fougner, Editorial Director, Comics at King. “Popeye is known around the world, and his influence is still felt, in comic styles like manga, in his identity as someone who stands up for the little guy, even in the idea that humans have superpowers. .”

Part of Milholland’s plan for “Popeye” is to add much-needed diversity to the all-white, straight cast.

In years past, the non-white characters that appeared were portrayed as stereotypes, wide-eyed and black-faced, for example, or wearing sombreros.

Milholland’s new tapes didn’t start running until June 5, but he’s already making changes.

“I retconned Olive’s sister-in-law, Cylinda Oyl, as Afro-Latin,” he said, referring to the practice of altering a previously established narrative in a work of fiction. “I also want to bring in more characters who aren’t heterosexual. I don’t live in this purely straight white world, and I don’t think many others do either.

In recent years, whenever the strip used tropes like men dressing as women, it was played for laughs, Milholland said.

“But that hasn’t always been the case,” he added. “If you go by today’s definition, Popeye was gender fluid.”

During the early days of the strip, for example, Popeye once met an orphan girl who lamented that she had no mother.

“So Popeye dresses up as a woman and says, ‘I’m your mother now,'” Milholland said. ” And this is not a joke ; it’s Popeye being the nice character he originally was. Someone who would do anything for someone down on their luck, like an orphan.

“I like this version of Popeye.”

Milholland said he also wanted to explore the family dynamics in the strip, especially since it’s populated by adopted, abandoned, and single-parent characters.

In his first Father’s Day comic strip, Popeye’s dad, Poopdeck Pappy, recounts adopted “infink” Swee’Pea how, when Popeye was a boy, they went camping and were nearly killed by a runaway murderer. When Pappy asks why Swee’Pea doesn’t believe his story, Popeye replies, “You started your story pretending you were around when I was a kid.”

“There are a lot of people who read this and commented, ‘I had the same experience,'” he said.

This is the comic that King Features Syndicate chose to run as Randy Milholland's contribution to Popeye's year-long 90th birthday celebration that took place in 2019.

This is the comic that King Features Syndicate chose to run as Randy Milholland’s contribution to Popeye’s year-long 90th birthday celebration that took place in 2019.

King Features Syndicate

He also wants to avoid the simplistic Popeye-Olive Oyl-Brutus love triangle so many remember from Saturday morning cartoons. These stories usually revolved around Popeye swallowing a can of spinach and kicking Brutus into the ground.

“I want to get away from that,” he said. “I see these characters as people who are sometimes mean to each other but also care about each other.”

Milholland started drawing at an early age.

“I was constantly drawing,” he said. “I drew so much that my parents had to silently remove my old drawings from the wall to put new stuff.”

After dropping out of art school at the University of North Texas, he moved to Boston where, in 2001, he started the online comic “Something Positive” as a hobby. The dark humor strip follows a group of twenty-somethings as they navigate life and work.

“Something Positive” was so successful that in 2004 it became Milholland’s full-time job, supporting him through a shrewd mix of selling merchandise and publicity, accepting art commissions, attending conventions comic books and more recently joining Patreon, the crowdfunding subscription site for content creators. .

In 2019, he and his wife, Steph Noell, and their 4-year-old daughter, Velma, moved from Georgia to San Antonio when Noell took a job as a librarian at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Milholland said he loved being a freelance cartoonist “because I didn’t have to split my earnings with a union and I couldn’t get fired for pissing off readers”.

But it was also exhausting, he added, especially once the pandemic shut down many of those revenue streams, like conventions.

Then, as part of “Popeye’s” 90th anniversary in 2019, King Features invited young cartoonists to try drawing a Sunday cartoon to be included in a weekly bonus feature called “Popeye’s Cartoon Club.”

After a four-hour exchange with representatives from King, Milholland was assigned one of the Sunday spots. The comic he drew depicts an Oyl family reunion. Popeye mentions how all of Olive’s parents look different while hers all look the same – they squint, have lantern jaws, and smoke corncob pipes.

“Suddenly, I don’t mind that we never got married,” Olive said, a look of distress on her face. To which Popeye responds: “That’s just as well. This old world can’t handle so much beauty.

The comic, which appeared at the end of the celebratory run, was one of the most popular among online readers, who were clamoring for King to hand over the reins to Milholland. When 95-year-old Hy Eisman, who had been drawing Sunday comics since 1994, announced his retirement, that’s exactly what happened.

It was Milholland’s vast knowledge of the world of Popeye that sealed the deal.

Randy Milholland was recently tapped to direct the Sunday edition of the 93-year-old comic featuring the iconic, one-eyed, anvil-wielding, mumbling, malaprop-dropping Popeye, who claims he is

Randy Milholland was recently tapped to direct the Sunday edition of the 93-year-old comic featuring the iconic, one-eyed, anvil-wielding, mumbling, malaprop-dropping Popeye, who claims he is ” strong until the end because I eat spinach

Billy Calzada, San Antonio Express-News/Staff Photographer

“Randy knows more about these characters than I do,” Fougner said. “He has absolute knowledge of who Popeye is today and who he was in the 30s and 40s. We can’t wait to see how he guides them into the future.

While Milholland acknowledges the responsibility he bears, he insists he’s not worried – very much.

“I learned a long time ago that you can’t make everyone happy,” he said. “Some people are going to love what I do, some people are going to hate it. I have to do what I think is good for me and for the band.

In other words, “I am what I am”. | Twitter: @RichardMarini