Popeye the sailorman, that pipe-smoking, spinach-chewing fighter of bullies, is undergoing an image change at the ripe old age of 60.

Popeye has captivated generations of children with his gruff sailor's charm since first coming on the cartoon scene in 1929, and millions around the world have followed his feud with black-bearded Brutus over the willowy beauty Olive Oyl.Popeye experts say that over the years he has evolved, becoming less violent and more caring. And the tattooed hero, celebrating his 60th birthday this year, could shed still more of his masculine image as his corporate guardians try to strengthen his appeal to today's audience.

King Features Syndicate Inc., the New York-based entertainment firm owning the rights to the character, says that even Popeye, with his famous catch phrase "I yam what I yam," must change with the times.

Cathy Titus, director of international licensing at King Features, said the company was concerned about aspects of his character that could be considered brutal or sexist - such as the frequent fist fights and his rather proprietorial attitude to women.

"There are things we do want to change," she told Reuters. "We see him becoming a more `liberated' man." Titus gave no clue to future story lines but said Popeye would continue to evolve in his attitudes toward women.

When the sailor first started out in show business he was no fan of women. "Like a true sailor he thought having women on his boat was bad luck," said Titus.

Olive meanwhile was portrayed as a dotty flirt, liable to stray into danger, and so fickle she could fall prey to another man's attentions whenever Popeye turned his back.

But in one current version of the cartoon, which runs as an animated television series in the United States, Olive has become a modern woman.

In "Popeye & Son. A New Generation," Popeye has given up sailing and smoking and Olive runs an aerobics business. In the show the retired sailor is more of a family man and less of a fist-swinger.

But in the mainstream cartoon, Popeye has not lost his fiery spark. "He represents the little man. He may not always be right but he fights for what he believes in," said long-time Popeye cartoonist Bud Sagendorf, summing up the sailor's appeal.

Sagendorf defends his cartoon charge against criticism of sexist attitudes. "I don't think he is chauvinistic," he said.

To celebrate Popeye's 60th birthday, King Features is bringing out a special Popeye watch retailing at $18,000 and is arranging a series of festivities. He recently had a party at New York toy shop FAO Schwarz, and in April is to be feted by the Boy Scouts of America at their official scout show here.

Meanwhile back in the cartoon, Popeye continues his long-term courtship of Olive, who for all her flaws is one of the most appealing female characters in the story's history.

Others include the Sea Hag, an old witch, Alice the Goon, a hairy monster, and various unidentified mermaids.

But to be fair, the menfolk are something of a miserable bunch too, either lumbering pugilists like Jabbo or ineffectual types like Professor Holkus Polkus.

Olive, by comparison, is more complex.

"Olive can get herself out of trouble, but she enjoys letting Popeye do it," said Sagendorf, who has been drawing Popeye since 1945 and was an assistant to the character's originator, Elzie Crisler Segar.

Sagendorf said Olive may start doing more of her own fighting, but for him, she will always be a sweetheart. "Aside from my wife, I think Olive is the most beautiful woman in the world."

Olive first appeared in the newspaper cartoon strip "Thimble Theatre," a drama featuring the Oyl family. Segar introduced Popeye to sail the characters' boat.

The men did not want Olive on board and she became a stowaway in order to get in on the fun. She was later put to work washing dishes in the galley.

Soon Popeye was established in the lead role with his own supporting cast - including his hamburger-devouring friend Wimpy and arch-enemy Brutus, also called Bluto in some versions of the cartoon.

"Their fight is a classic confrontation of good against evil," Titus said. Popeye, transformed into a strongman by a can of spinach, becomes Olive's protector and the thwarter of Brutus's evil schemes.

Sagendorf says that from 1931 to 1936 the spinach industry credited Popeye with increasing U.S. consumption of their product by 33 percent.

From then on, Popeye was destined to become a champion of industry as well as of the downtrodden. His famous face has been used to sell everything from fried chicken to cars and computer games.

In one of his more glamorous assignments this year, Popeye got to welcome Britain's Princess Diana when she visited a toy exhibition in New York. On that occasion, Olive stuck right by her sailor's side.