#89. A Conversation with Stephen DeStefano

"Can you imagine if you walked into a studio today and no one had ever heard of Popeye, and you said- I've got a great new character! He's 75 years old, has swollen wrists, he's a chain-smoker, he's bald, he has a butt for a chin, and he beats the crap out of everybody... even his girlfriend. But when he beats up his girlfriend it's only by accident. Will you buy it from me?"

-John Kricfalusi

That is probably my favorite quote about Popeye the Sailor because it really sums up a few of my favorite elements that has made the character survive since he first appeared in the Thimble Theatre on January 17, 1929. It's something rare- a brutally hilarious cartoon that has finally received the treatment it deserves with the Warner Home Video release of shorts ranging from 1933 to 1943. The DVDs were released some time ago, but that doesn't mean it can't be revisited- In fact, the following "popumentary" is with Stephen DeStefano, the artist who created all the box art for release. So sit back, relax, and crack open a can of spinach as we discuss the the original character to blow you down.

Jason Anders: First off, tell me how you got involved with creating the box art for the Warner Home Video release of Popeye the Sailor theatrical shorts, and also about the challenges and creative aspects of designing the artwork for other releases with this series.

Stephen DeStefano: I've been drawing Popeye for King Features licensing a little over twenty years now. My drawings of the character have graced everything from t-shirts and coffee mugs, to billboards in Times Square.

If I remember correctly, the majority of drawings used for the first two volumes of the Warner released DVDs were from older style guides I'd designed for King Features, meaning I think I only did one new drawing for Warner Home Video. The third volume featured all new art by me (from layouts by my friend and super-talented graphic designer Jeff Schulz), and that was quite a treat, because I got to draw Popeye in his Navy whites. Because of legal issues and questions of ownership, I almost never got to draw Popeye as he appeared in animated cartoons post 1940.

Or at least, almost never- I did draw all new art for Warner's DVD release of the 1970's Hanna Barbera cartoons, again from layouts by designer Jeff Schulz. That was a little odd, because while the character designs somewhat resembled the Popeye comic strip of the era, they also had a very distinct H&B feeling to them as well.

JA: Let's talk first about the Popeye comic strips and the character development- what are your thoughts about Segar as an artist, and how do you think the quality of the comics held up after his death in 1938? Also, what stands out most to you in Segar's work?

SD: Segar is one of my three favorite cartoonists of all time. He may have had limitations as a draftsman, but I hardly think that matters- He knew what to draw and how to draw it for the story he wanted to tell. And he told stories beautifully. Segar's drawings are instantly funny- Just to look at them, without reading a balloon, is nearly laugh-inducing. His storytelling is straightforward and always clear. His action scenes are some of the most intense, violent, and breathtaking in comics history. His characterization is flawless, and on occasion, I find his narratives as close to poetry as any creator has ever gotten in comics.
If I had to note only one thing that stands out about Segar's work, I'd say this: I find his Popeye strips to be the funniest comics I've ever read. I don't laugh out loud when reading comics. Never. Except when I read Segar's Popeye. Following in the wake of genius is never easy, but I do believe there were some good Popeye comics created after Segar's death. Bud Sagendorf was, in my opinion, an exceptionally worthy successor, and I think some of the comics he created for Dell are absolutely brilliant. I also enjoy some of Tom Sim and Bela Zaboly's (the men who were given the Popeye strip after Segar's death) strips as well.
JA: Do you think that the personalities and stories in Popeye would ever work in a cartoon today?

SD: I think they would, and in some sense, I think they still do. The personalities are timeless- It's the trappings, the costumes, and the settings that are perhaps dated. In the 1930's, a sailor's life was considered an adventurous life. Thin spinsters with their hair in tight buns were more prominent, and easily satirized. But the idea of the little fellow with the secret super strength, the guy that stands up to the bully but looks absurd doing it- I'm sure we could point to any number of today's cartoons and see those motifs.
JA: What are your favorite Fleischer Popeye shorts? Give me some commentary on your favorites on what made them stand out to you.

SD: One of my absolute favorites is the bullfighting cartoon, where Popeye insists he "ain't gonna fight no bull!", which I think is hilarious. I love Goonland, and the first Jeep cartoon. I really like the cartoon where Wimpy's an organ grinder. Easily, three of my favorite Fleischer Popeyes are the color two reelers. I think the Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves and Popeye the Sailor Meets Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp are near perfect as cartoons, as well as terrific examples of Popeye onscreen.

JA: What are your thoughts on the Famous Studios Popeye films, and give some specific examples of shorts from this period and why they worked or didn't work.

SD: I think Famous Studios created some very serviceable cartoons. They were handsomely produced, slick looking and well animated. I liked them as a kid, although they always paled next to a Fleischer cartoon. They simply weren't as funny. To some degree, I think the Famous producers can be cut some slack, as the Popeye gimmick that was set up by the Fleischer- the Olive/Popeye/Bluto love triangle, the reliance on spinach as the way to end every film- was bound to get tired, and in fact started to wear out for the Fleischers themselves. Famous Studios ran with the gimmick, but unfortunately ran it into the ground.

JA: Let's talk about the 1980 Robert Altman Popeye film- if you were a film critic sitting down to write a review for this picture, what would you say about it?

SD: It's funny, one of my very favorite film directors is Robert Altman, but Popeye is one film of his I really don't care for. Perhaps I should see it again, it's been a while since I've last viewed it. Some of the scenes that I can recall appear to have charm. I remember thinking Shelly Duvall was well cast as Olive, and quite good in the role, but I was never much of a Robin Williams fan, so that nearly sunk it for me right away. I just remember feeling very distracted as I watched it, and felt like the songs were embarrassing (despite being a fan of the composer, Harry Nillson). I recall one of the biggest things that pissed me off about the film is that Popeye spends nearly three-quarters of it in a white shirt. Sometimes I feel I ain't looking at the character unless he's wearing a black shirt!

JA: Did you have any Popeye toys growing up?

SD: Oh man! Several! The one I absolutely wish I still had was my Popeye water gun. For some reason, that remains a big deal in my mind. Maybe it's because my best friend got one first, and I was immediately promised I'd get one too, but it took several days for that promise to be fulfilled. The agony of waiting for my Popeye water gun!

JA: What are a few technical aspects of the art in the Fleischer shorts that surpass even today's animation?

SD: What I think is missing from today's cartoons, and what the Fleischer animators excelled at, is staging. Fleischer compositions were always beautiful and elegant. Characters had ample space around them so that they'd read instantly, and the backgrounds always complimented the characters (while creating tremendous amounts of depth, and being beautiful to look at). Action always comes across with real clarity to me in a Popeye cartoon. I know the modern sensibility for cartoon action is to show extreme angles, and have elements large and in your face, but that stuff is meaningless to me. Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but I much prefer the simplicity of the openness of the Fleischer canvas.

JA: How do you feel the re-issuing of the films by Warner Bros. was handled, and is there anything you would have done differently?

SD: No, I was quite pleased with how Warners handled the DVDs. I don't believe all of the Popeye cartoons have been released yet, and I thought that was the plan, so I only hope they go ahead and come out with a new set soon.

JA: Share your thoughts on the music of Popeye from the Fleischer period, and how their music compared to other studios such as Disney.

SD: My thoughts about the Fleischer music is that I like it! Not much more I have to say beyond that.

JA: Tell me about your upcoming graphic novel, and also, was there any influence from any of the work mentioned above?

SD: Popeye, Segar and the Fleischer Studio are a huge influence on all of my work. Partly because, having drawn the character for almost 25 years for King licensing, Popeye's look has permanently creeped into my personal style, and partly because I have such love and respect for the character.

My novel, Lucky In Love, which I co-created with writer George Chieffet, is set in the urban landscape of Hoboken, New Jersey, between the year 1942 to the present- So right off the bat the setting has that feeling for the city that the Fleischers portrayed so well in their cartoons. Our book is in black and white, although it will be printed in a dark brown and tan palette, and I strove while drawing it to attain that depth and atmosphere that were Fleischer hallmarks. It's a serious novel, telling the story of one man's relationship with the Hollywood dream. We follow the title character Lucky from his teenage years, to his time in the Pacific during WWII, and then his personal triumphs and tragedies in his post-war life. Despite the occasionally serious tone of our story, I drew it in a very traditional cartooning style, reminiscent of Popeye, but also other classic strips, like DeBeck's Barney Google, Chic Young's Blondie, and the work of Milt Gross. I've always liked the idea of combining a serious story with the look of a classic Sunday newspaper strip, and I felt like Lucky was my opportunity to do it.
I tried to remain extremely conscious as I was drawing layouts for the book, to stage things with absolute clarity and space, and again, this goes back to what I've learned from watching Fleischer cartoons. The book has lots of action in it (Lucky himself always seems to be running and jumping), which George attributes to my experience working in animated cartoons. Hopefully, any fan of Popeye or the Fleischer Studio will find themselves enjoying Lucky In Love!

Visit Stephen DeStefano's site here!
Also visit the Popeye Animators blog here!