PopeyeAfter watching this wonderful Popeye cartoon, I went to Wikipedia to do a little research on Popeye and comic books and comic strips in general. Apparently Popeye debuted in a 1929 cartoon, Thimble Theatre. (View a sample of the early Popeye strip.)

Comic books and e-book readers: surely a match made in heaven. Comic books are big and bulky (especially if you have a bunch of them); they’re also rare and expensive. As e-books, they could be full color, using touchscreens for easy navigation and portable enough to store on a single memory card. Given literacy trends, today’s students may be more inclined to download public domain comics than novels or poetry. Comics could very well be the “killer content” needed to bring younger generations to e-books.

(Question: how well-suited are current e-book formats for comic book content?).

But wait! What about copyright? Well, surely some comic books are out there in the public domain. According to Jamie Coville (who has prepared an excellent web guide to comic book history), in the Platinum Age (roughly 1897 to 1938), several notable comics strips had debuted, including Popeye/Thimble Theatre (1929), Little Orphan Annie (1926), Mickey Mouse (1931).

Without the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, works produced in 1931 would have already passed into the public domain, including many comics mentioned above. (1931 was also a banner year for cinema as well: Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Fritz Lang’s M, Madchen in Uniform, etc). Without the 20 year copyright extension, Project Gutenberg would probably already have started scanning and distributing Platinum Age comics. Thanks, Sonny!

One thing to keep in mind when trying to clear comics: the same principle that allows recent photographs of pre-1923 paintings to enter the public domain also should apply to comics (See my post on Paintings for the Public Domain.)

Who knows whether 21st century audiences would regard Platinum Age cartoons as hilarious stuff or dated drivel? Looks like we’ll have to wait until 2026 to find out.

More Popeye videos Popeye torrents. Also available as normal downloads at archive.org

Houston-based Robert Nagle (aka idiotprogrammer) writes fiction under several pseudonyms.


  1. “Given literacy trends, today’s students may be more inclined to download public domain comics than novels or poetry.”

    Here’s my take, Robert. While it makes commercial sense in the short term for for-profit publishers to woo students with comics, I’d hope that we public domain advocates would be aggressive in helping the young people appreciate PD text as well. That means integrating it well with schools–a goal of the TeleRead plan, as well as nonprofit efforts on which I’m now working. Even commercial publishers in the long term will suffer if interest in serious reading continues to decline.

    That said, comics are an authentic part of American culture, and it’s a shame that the Bono Act stole so much from today’s readers and viewers.


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