OLIVE OYL may have the gaze of a googly-eyed groupie, but let’s debunk the sudden rumors right now: She has not just jilted her longtime Sailor Man.
“She’s infatuated with the music and the song,” says designer and video producer Darren Romanelli, who is on the phone Thursday from California and explaining why Popeye’s noodle-limbed amour has just come to be spotted in the arms of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. “She goes with the band and just happens to gravitate toward Jeff.”
Romanelli should know: He’s the one who conceived of the very clever new cartoon for Wilco’s song “Dawned on Me” — the alt-rock band’s first video, he says, since 1999. The vintage-looking black-and-white cartoon — which pairs the jaunty love song with Popeye’s decades-long love-triangle — is also the first frame-by-frame, hand-drawn Popeye animation in a quarter-century.
The video teams Romanelli, dBpm Records and King Features, which syndicates the Popeye strip; the creative collaboration kicked off Sunday, when Wilco was featured in the print comic.
“It was a special project for me because I’m a fan of the band and I’m a fan of [Popeye],” says Romanelli, who has previously worked with such acts as Lupe Fiasco and has created clothing that features Looney Tunes images. “I grew up watching Popeye, and I’m a fan of animation as a whole.”
Romanelli hit upon the idea nearly a year ago, while working with King on another project. “I called up Wilco ... and said, ‘I have a far-out concept,’ “ the fashion designer and pop-culture entrepreneur tells Comic Riffs. “I got the guys on board and King Features was excited.”
Next for Romanelli was to immerse himself in Popeye cartoons, going back to the Fleischer shorts from the post-Depression era. “I am not exaggerating,” he says. “I watched 25 a night for weeks.”
Casting about for the concept, Romanelli thought it would be great for Wilco to have its own brand of spinach. “I was fixated on that,” he says. “From there, I liked the narrative of it being set on the deck at the pier.”
Then, Romanelli says, he and the band also discussed which tune to cartoon from the band’s Grammy-nominated album “The Whole Love.” “We had the guys send me [some] songs and we decided together,” he tells ‘Riffs, noting that he thought the whimsy of “Dawned on Me” works perfectly with Olive Oyl’s split affections between Popeye and Bluto — and, it turns out, Tweedy and the boys.
“I think the cool thing,” Romanelli enthuses, “is that everyone appreciates so much how this came out of left field.”
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Romanelli says he relishes how the video is a hybrid combination of classic and modern techniques — a seamless look for which the director credits art director Frank Caruso of King and the animators at Peach Blossom Media. And inspired by those old Fleischer Studios animations, Romanelli credits Caruso with the creative team’s motto: “Fleischerize Wilco!”
So was Romanelli’s brainchild at all born of the geographic ties between the Chicago-based Wilco and Elzie Crisler “E.C.” Segar — creator of the Thimble Theatre comic strip — who was born in the Illinois town of Chester?
“It’s funny how things work out organically after the fact,” Romanelli tells ‘Riffs. “King and Wilco saw that connection, but I didn’t. When you work on a passion project, amazing things start surfacing.”
The collaboration, the director says, simply boils down to this:
“It’s two American icons that came together just to have a blast.”