If you’ve opened up the Sunday comics section within the last 20 years then you’ve seen Hy Eisman’s slightly gentler, more reflective Popeye comic, staying up to date after all this time with commentary on everything from solar panels to vegan food. After a long career in the cartoon biz, the man behind the third generation of Popeye had his first gallery show at age 88 last weekend at Van der Plas Gallery on the Lower East Side.
It all proved to be a bit overwhelming for Eisman, who collapsed from exhaustion at the end of the evening and had to be rushed to the hospital, but we were reassured by gallery owner Adriaan Van der Plas that he was released the following day and is doing fine. With another gallery show in the works and the upcoming release of a documentary about his life, nothing is going to put a damper on Eisman’s moment in the spotlight. And, oh yeah, you can still catch his amazing original Popeye comic strips, which he both conceptually develops and draws, hanging at the gallery until October 31.
“He has a great sense of humor. He’s never lost that,” Van der Plas said at his gallery Tuesday morning. In the back room of the gallery he has stacks of comics that Eisman let him sort through when curating the show; the large drawings are penned onto stiff paper, and if you look closely you can see where the cartoonist made small changes, and here and there you can spot the original blue pencil lines next to the ink. Of course, Van der Plas explained, that’s all cleaned up when color is added for the final printed version.
“I think the most significant change he made to Popeye was that he took the violence out,” Van der Plas said. Which at first doesn’t make much sense, coming from a man holding a cartoon of Popeye giving Bluto a trademark walloping, but if you compare Eisman’s drawings with the Popeye of yore, you’ll see he’s right; he might still throw punches, but Popeye’s mellowed down a bit. The more compassionate Popeye even officially adopted his tiny ward Swee’Pea, who arrived on Popeye’s doorstep June 28, 1933. It was made official in 2004 in both the comic strip storyline and an official ceremony hosted by the National Council for Adoption. (It’s an issue that’s perhaps of more close to home for Eisman due to his experience living in an orphanage for five years after the death of his mother.) “It’s not even that adoption is a cause of his, it’s just the kind of person he is,” Van der Plas said. “He’s never had a gallery show in his life. Can you imagine – someone of his stature?”
Eisman was born in Paterson, N.J., where he created a comic for his high school newspaper. He gained acceptance into the National Cartoonists Society in New York City in 1955, where he met many of his cartoonist heroes. His career took off when he took over the Little Iodine cartoon in 1967, which he left in 1986 to chronicle the adventures of The Katzenjammer Kids, the world’s oldest continuing comic strip. He added Popeye to his repertoire in 1994; the cartoon was originally created by E.C. Segar, who invented Olive Oyl, Swee’Pea, Wimpy and Bluto for his comic strip Thimble Theatre in 1919. Oddly enough, Popeye didn’t make an appearance until 1929.
Future exhibits at the Van der Plas Gallery will feature The Katzenjammer Kids and will likely take place in the spring, the gallery owner said. Look for the documentary Hy Eisman: A Life in Comic, by filmmaker/multimedia artist Vincent Zambrano and co-director/artist Marco Cutrone, to be released in the near future.
Hy Eisman’s Popeye, the Van der Plas Gallery, 156 Orchard Street. Open Wednesday – Sunday, 12:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. and Monday and Tuesday by appointment.