Bluto is a sailor character created in 1932 by Elzie Crisler Segar as a one-time villain, named "Bluto the Terrible," in his Thimble Theatre comic strip. Despite his one-time appearance, Bluto would go on to become Popeye's best-known enemy since being featured in the Fleischer Studios cartoon adaptation, which also led him to become a recurring antagonist in later comics (however, the latter incarnation would mostly be identified as Brutus).
Since his animated debut, Bluto has become one of the most recognizable villains in cartoon history, seen as a prototypical personification of the hero's rival.
Creation and development in Thimble Theatre
Bluto was created by E. C. Segar and would make his debut in the September 12, 1932 Thimble Theatre storyline "The Eighth Sea", as a fearsome and cruel thug of a sailor. This would be his only appearance in the original Thimble Theatre, as the character was intended to originally be a one-time villain.
After his appearance in Thimble Theatre, Bluto would return as one of the main villains in the 1948 comic book series by E. C. Segar's assistant Bud Sagendorf, where he would once again serve as a foil to Popeye or in service to other villains like The Sea Hag. His comic book appearances would continue for decades until the title's end in 1984.
As Popeye's popularity greatly grew, he would be given his own animated adaptation by Fleischer Studios, however due to the short length of the theatrical cartoons of the time, the sagas of Thimble Theatre could not be replicated in full-length, so something more episodic was needed. It was at this point that Fleischer Studious decided to use the character of Bluto the Terrible as the main antagonist for their first Popeye cartoon Popeye the Sailor. With the success of the first theatrical short, more Popeye films would be made for years to come that would re-use the mostly recurring formula from the first cartoon, with the heroic Popeye having to fight off the fearsome Bluto while keeping his friends safe from him.
Fleischer's animated adaptation of Bluto would go on to become his most recognized incarnation which would make the character a permanent part of all future Popeye-related media, including the Thimble Theatre comic by E. C. Segar's assistant Bud Sagendorf, making Bluto a recurring villain even in the main Thimble Theatre continuity.
World War II
During the World War II-era animated shorts, Popeye and Bluto were made members of the U. S. Navy and their outfits were changed to white Navy suits, and they would continue to look like this in animation from the 1940s through to the end of the 1950s. During Fleischer Studios' final years, mostly involved Popeye's heroic attempts to help America fight the enemy, mostly the Japanese and Germans while only a few focused on his rivalry with Bluto (who was relatively unchanged and unheroic for a Navy Man). Bluto was also made noticeably more portly and given bigger eyes during this era.
Following the takeover of the Popeye animated franchise by Paramount Studios in 1942, Famous Studios made drastic changes which abandoned almost all traces of Thimble Theatre and focused largely on plots involving Popeye, Olive, Bluto in something resembling a love triangle, without many other characters appearing and with very few shorts deviating from that setup, which involved Olive falling for Bluto and Popeye beating him after eating spinach in an oft-repeated formula. Starting with The Anvil Chorus Girl (1944), Bluto's appearance and character were heavily re-designed and he was now depicted as a tall and muscular smooth-talking villain (voiced by Jackson Beck), despite originally being depicted as a dim brute with a gruff voice. In his book Stronger Than Spinach: The Secret Appeal of the Famous Studios Popeye Cartoons, Steve R. Bierly notes that Bluto's visibly increased size and strength made Popeye's accomplishment of defeating him all the more impressive and remarkable. Unlike in past cartoons, Bluto's new strongman-like look would make it easier for him to woo Olive (who was now depicted as more vain) and his character was depicted as being more downright evil and villainous, with several shorts having his behavior border on lustful, abusive and even murderous. Also of note was that most villains in Famous Studios' run were now either Bluto in disguise or under a different alter ego, a practice which even Fleischer did not use so commonly.
Leave of absence and Brutus
Despite his recurring appearances in animation beforehand, Bluto would strangely be absent in the 1960s Popeye television series and some future media, where he would instead be replaced by his brother/lookalike Brutus due to King Features incorrectly thinking that that he was not originally a Thimble Theatre character.
The All-New Popeye Hour
In 1978, Hanna-Barbera Productions, with King Features Syndicate, would produce a new Popeye television series, The All-New Popeye Hour. Unlike the previous show, this series had higher-quality animation and was more akin to Segar's work and Fleischer cartoons than other Popeye animations, with Popeye and Bluto more regularly seen as adventurous sailors once more. Bluto's design would be changed to more closely resemble his Thimble Theatre and Fleischer Studios design, the only difference being that he still had the broader upper body of his Famous Studios incarnation. Like in Fleischer Studios and the Sagendorf comics, Bluto served as a rival and enemy to Popeye or in service as a minion to another villain, like The Sea Hag. Popeye's Treasure Hunt put even more emphasis on adventure, and regularly featured Bluto as a rival sailor and treasure hunter trying to outwit Popeye and Olive in order to get the treasure they were seeking first.
Popeye's first movie
In 1980, a theatrical movie called Popeye was released, featuring an original story and serving as a more faithful adaptation to Segar's Thimble Theatre. In the film, Bluto served as the main antagonist and as Olive Oyl's boyfriend before she left him for Popeye.
Popeye and Son
In 1987, the latest animated series focusing on Popeye was produced, entitled Popeye and Son. The series was unique in the Popeye franchise for taking place later in Popeye's life, where he had finally married Olive Oyl, settled down and had a son of his own (a notable change considering the rarity of having well-known cartoon characters actually move on with their lives). Even Bluto himself settled down, became somewhat wealthy and married a woman named Lizzie with whom he had a son named Tank, but he still retained a rivalry with Popeye and deep-seated grudge due to his success in marrying Olive Oyl, but he still remained faithful to Lizzie. Bluto's design was also changed to mostly resemble Bud Sagendorf's rendition of the antagonist.
In 2004, a CGI-animated TV movie titled Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy was produced by Mainframe Entertainment for Lions Gate Entertainment and King Features Entertainment which featured Bluto as a frenemy of Popeye's and the first mate on his ship who was only pitted against Popeye by the spell of The Sea Hag, although they would still brawl regardless. An attempt at a full-fledged animated theatrical film was also made by Sony Pictures Animation for release in 2012, with test animation made by Genndy Tartakovsky, yet production on this film has apparently remained on an indefinite hiatus. While Bluto was not featured in the test animation, he did appear in some promotional art and material.
Bluto would re-appear in IDW Publishing's revival of the Popeye comics in 2012 as the villainous Captain Bluto the Terrible once more. He was featured in the first, ninth and eleventh issues, trying once more to not only antagonize Popeye but the rest of his friends.
Bluto has gone through several design changes since his debut, but his most common design, as originally depicted in his first appearance in Thimble Theatre, is that of a large, somewhat portly but muscular man with very large arms yet notably shorter legs whose most notable trait is his crooked but clean grin which can be seen from under his shaggy beard. His attire usually consists of a black shirt with yellow or brown pants accompanied by a sailor's cap similar to the one Popeye wears, but dark blue instead of white or light blue. He would also don on a Navy uniform during the World War II-era which would last until the end of the 1950s. Fleischer Studios stated that their incarnation of Bluto was based on the character named Red Flack (played by Tyrone Power Sr.) in the 1930 epic western film The Big Trail. When Bud Sagendorf began his Popeye comic in 1948, Bluto was re-designed to look more portly, goofy and less muscular, with bigger eyes and a more triangular frame. During the Famous Studios era, the character was made noticeably more muscular, however this design would never be used again after the Famous Studios run.
Regardless, his original design and Bud Sagendorf's depiction continue to be used more commonly in merchandise and depictions of the character.
The Bluto/Brutus issue
After the theatrical Popeye cartoon series went out of production in 1957, Bluto was replaced by Brutus as it was erroneously assumed that Paramount Pictures--distributors of the Fleischer Studios (later Famous Studios) cartoons--owned the rights to the name "Bluto". In fact, King Features had proprietary rights to the name all along, as Bluto had been initially created for E. C. Segar's Thimble Theatre. However, due to incomplete research, this fact was overlooked and the name "Brutus" was substituted in order to avoid potential copyright issues.
Brutus appeared in the 1960-1962 Popeye television cartoons, but Bluto would return in subsequent media. However, Brutus would be used by Nintendo for their arcade game based on the property. Prior to the change to Brutus, the bearded villain was known as "The Big Guy that Hates Popeye," "Mean Man," "Black Jack" and "Sonny Boy" in the comic strip and comic books. The name "Brutus" was first used on Popeye-related products in 1960 and in print in 1962. Although it may be argued that they are one and the same, Ocean Comics has published one of the Popeye Special comic books where Bluto and Brutus were twin brothers. Bobby London, who drew the "Popeye" daily strip for six years, wrote and illustrated "The Return of Bluto" story where the 1932 version of Bluto returns and discovers a number of fat, bearded bullies have taken his place, calling themselves "Brutus" (each one being a different version of Popeye's rival). On December 28, 2008 and April 5, 2009, the Popeye comic strip added Bluto in the capacity of twin brother of Brutus. While there are enough similarities that led to the reveal in the comics that Bluto and Brutus are in fact siblings, the latter is not as similar to his predecessor as it might appear, as Bluto was portrayed as a fellow sailor with strength to rival Popeye's, while Brutus was portrayed as a generic antagonist who was usually not as strong as Popeye.
Bluto is Popeye's nemesis and always has a plot to get the better of his rival or strike it rich. He is a selfish, greedy and violent brute who always tries to get his way in the world through force or scams. He is usually portrayed as having a devious attraction towards Olive Oyl, and usually attempts to make her his conquest. However, with the help of his trusty spinach, Popeye inevitably defeats him and rescues Olive from his clutches. Bluto and Popeye are usually depicted as equals in combat or Bluto typically utilizing his larger size to win a temporary advantage over Popeye, although he may result to trickery or devious planning to get the better of Popeye. He bullies, deceives, and ridicules Popeye and his friends, and is not above even abusing the defenseless.
In some rare instances within the cartoons, Popeye and Bluto are actually portrayed as friends or Navy buddies whose friendship only ends up broken due to their rivalry over Olive Oyl. The short "Fightin Pals" even portrayed them as "frenemies" of sorts who enjoy fighting and hating each other who deep down do see each other as friends. In more recent Popeye cartoons and media, such as the computer-animated movie produced by Mainframe Entertainment, Bluto and Popeye are portrayed as good friends with Bluto being somewhat afraid of Popeye, although in the film, Bluto getting mind-controlled by the Sea Hag puts a wedge between them once again.
Bluto was voiced by a number of actors, including William Pennell, Gus Wickie, Pinto Colvig, Tedd Pierce, Dave Barry and Jackson Beck. Beck also supplied the voice for Brutus in the early 1960s. In the 1980 live-action movie, he is portrayed by Paul L. Smith. In The All-New Popeye Hour and Popeye and Son, he is voiced by Allan Melvin, and in Popeye's Voyage by Garry Chalk.
Bluto's gallery can be viewed here