Popeye first appeared in the comics in January 1929, as a supporting player in Elzie Segar's Thimble Theater, a high-spirited strip that was already home to Olive Oyl, her brother Castor Oyl, and Olive's hapless love interest, Ham Gravy. Initially, Castor and Ham recruit Popeye for a journey to Dice Island, where they intend to use the magical properties of Bernice the Whiffle Hen to break the bank of an offshore casino. (Segar would spin this kind of shaggy dog tale into weeks' worth of strips.) Segar based Popeye on a wizened tough guy from his hometown of Chester, Ill., and initially thought of him as only a temporary addition to the cast. But reader demand brought Popeye back after a month's absence. From 1929 until Segar's death in 1938, Popeye became the focus of Thimble Theater, usurping Ham as Olive's love interest and leading a cast that would slowly expand to include such familiar characters as Wimpy, Bluto, and Swee'Pea.
Despite his mangled English, rough appearance, and violent tendencies, Popeye caught on like no Thimble Theater character before him. Having clearly been on life's losing end, he gave the strip an everyman with wider appeal than the blandly agreeable Ham Gravy. Popeye's expression, especially in the early strips, is locked in a perpetual scowl. When moved to exclaim his first catchphrase—"Blow me down!"—his one eye widens in surprise. Yet he remains confident that any situation can be resolved with the careful application of his brawn. The world may have left him looking worse for wear, but it hasn't beaten him.