Though E.C. Segar’s Popeye the Sailor Man is not as popular as he once was, there was a time the squinty-eyed sailor was an American icon on par with Mickey Mouse and Superman. The Fleischer Studio cartoons, which featured Popeye and the hulking Bluto battling it out over the stick-figured Olive Oyl, created the on-going one-on-one conflict plots that would dominate theatrical cartoons from Tom and Jerry to Looney Tunes. But perhaps Popeye’s greatest contribution to pop culture is his can of spinach, a story trope that would change the shape of cartoons, comics, and video games, in America and across the world.
The first thing to understand is just how popular Popeye really was, starting from his debut in Thimble Theater in 1929. By 1938, polls showed Popeye, not Mickey Mouse, was the most popular animated character in Hollywood. The Popeye cartoons and comics invented or popularized the words “wimp,” “jeep,” “goon,” and “doofus.” Spinach growers credited Popeye with a 33% increase in sales, and erected a statue of Popeye in tribute in 1937.
And culturally, that can of spinach created a new trope: the ordinary man who becomes temporarily superhuman through an extraordinary device (the joke of Popeye is that the “extraordinary device” is a plain can of spinach). Unlike mythological super-people, who are dipped once into the river Styx and are invulnerable after that, spinach is needed for recurring transformations, reflecting the recurring nature of Popeye cartoons. And unlike Dr. Jekyll or the Wolf-Man, Popeye only uses his power for good (or for awesome). Popping open a can of spinach, and the accompanying fanfare theme, thus become a recognizable rallying moment, the turning point when Popeye starts fighting back—and winning.
Popeye’s spinach fueled super strength makes him a precursor to the Golden Age superheroes. There are direct parallels in the pill-popping Hourman and the lightning-powered Captain Marvel, other heroes who temporarily become super strong. And even though it isn’t a literal change, the rallying transformation from ordinary to extraordinary is present when Clark Kent declares “this is a job for Superman” and unbuttons his shirt. That’s not a coincidence either. Popeye’s Fleischer Studios also produced the definitive Superman cartoons of the early ‘40s. And through Superman, Popeye influenced the entire superhero genre. The can of spinach is the original Green Lantern’s oath or the Thing’s “It’s Clobberin’ Time!”—a visual and audible statement that shit has indeed gotten real.
But Popeye didn’t just have an influence on American pop culture. He was popular all over the world, especially in Japan. And you can see the influence of Popeye’s incredible, sometimes surreal reactions to eating spinach in the transformation sequences of anime like Sailor Moon or Beast King GoLion (a.k.a. Voltron). And then that technique was adapted back into American cartoons like He-Man and Thundercats. Sure, lengthy transformation sequences are a way of saving money by reusing footage, but they also serve the same purpose as the spinach can; both signal to the audience that something awesome is about to happen, and that the bad guys are in trouble now.
Popeye’s popularity in Japan had another huge influence. One of the first video games Shigeru Miyamoto ever designed for Nintendo was a Popeye game. Originally. Then the license fell through, so Miyamoto reskinned the game. Popeye became a mustachioed handyman. Olive Oyl became a blond in a poofy pink dress. And Bluto became a literal gorilla in a necktie. Obviously, that game became Donkey Kong, launching Miyamoto, Nintendo, and the new character Mario into international stardom.
And again we see the influence of the can of spinach in the hammer. When Mario grabs the hammer, like Popeye eating his spinach, there’s a visual and musical cue that it’s time for Mario to turn the tables and blast his way through the enemies. Along with Pac-Man’s power pellet, the hammer solidified the “power-up” as a staple of video games, and the original power up is the spinach can.
(Nintendo did release a Popeye video game in 1982. It... did not launch a still-going billion dollar franchise.)
The spinach can, one good idea, launched a character into the minds of the world, and it changed the way we tell other stories, in other genres and media, for almost a hundred years already. Even as a joke, the idea that eating right and standing tall can make someone more than human is incredibly appealing, and that idea appears in so much of the popular culture we consume. And it can be traced back, sometimes directly, to one giant forearm cracking open one can of spinach.