It’s taken me many years to come to the realization that Popeye is a really strange hero figure. A tattooed, one-eyed tobacco-addicted sailor who routinely gets into bar fights over women? Who came up with that winning formula?
Back when I was a small child– and I’m talking ages three and four, real old-school Jorge, and before I had even heard of Batman– Popeye was the unlikely object of my wide-eyed idolatry. I can’t say I know where the obsession stemmed from, but he was my hero and I idolized him. I literally wanted to be him, so much so that spinach became a fixture in my diet (surely the entire point behind the character, to boost ailing sales of spinach to the younger demographic). Nevermind the fact that I completely hated the taste of it– I would eat some spinach and then try to beat up anybody who would cross my path. I would walk around the block calling myself Popeye. I kept one eye firmly closed at all times and would do a pretty good impression of the Popeye laugh. It got to such a point that my friends from school, and their mothers, knew me as Popeye. This was a real kick for me because I was immediately associated with my hero; not so much for my mom, who had to chase me down the street as I attempted to lift a moving car over my head after eating spinach like I had seen Popeye do.
At the height of my fixation, some committee of soccer moms at the local social club were organizing the yearly “comparsa” (think of it as a community show made up of several sketches of varying quality where kids dress up and do skits and chorogreaphed dances) and were putting a little dance together with all these different cartoon characters. And when it came time to pick a Popeye, it was a no brainer; “that weirdo Farah kid!”. Never since has destiny laid its cards out for me so clearly.
As fate would have it, Popeye became the lead character after the acting chops of our Aladdin were called into question. Of course, being a ham and a half, I was all over it; went to rehearsals every day for several weeks with a huge smile on my face. Got fitted for the costumes. Worked incessantly on my Popeye face. Ate lots of spinach.
The night of the show finally came and any lingering nerves were completely overtaken by the intense feeling of duty; a strange desire to do Popeye proud. So I did it– went out, did my little dance, had my little moment in the spotlight. I was on cue. I beat up the bad guys. The audience ate it because I was so ridiculously into it. And at the end, I was so thrilled by the cheer from that faceless mass before me that, when it was time to leave the stage so the next act could come up, I wouldn’t leave. I actually had to be dragged off by one of the stagehands, which of course generated big laughs in that theater (and also marked a trait that would stay with me to this day: the complete inability to not overstay my welcome).
I finally budged, though, and joined my group backstage momentarily. But I wasn’t done. I had tasted the applause and I wanted more, so I went back for seconds (another trait that has stayed with me over the years). Out comes the next act, some lame Smurfs-themed thing, and I waited in the corner behind the curtain for an opening… and then ran back into the stage, still decked out as Popeye, and I start beating on the kid dressed as Gargamel. The entire crowd exploded into rapturous applause (well, I’m assuming the parents of the kid dressed as Gargamel didn’t) when they saw Popeye suddenly pop back into the scene. I posed. I danced. I showed everybody my (padded) muscles. I was the man of the hour… until I was once again dragged offstage and severely scolded. But it didn’t matter. I did what I had to do. Popeye had saved the day.
Nobody could take that away from me.