In recent years the heavyweight champions of the world have been, from an overall point of view, unsatisfactory. Floyd Patterson is a splendid chap outside the ring, but inside it he has difficulty lasting a full round with Sonny Liston. Liston, in turn, has been a tiger in the ring, but a tiger out of it, too. The current champ, Cassius Muhammad Ali Clay, is a loudmouth, no matter how skilled a pugilist. Fortunately for boxing buffs, especially those who live in dream worlds, there is one heavyweight champion whose reign is unsullied and unbesmirched by questionable antics. That champion is Joe Palooka of the comic strips.
Joe Palooka is the most popular sporting hero in the history of the funnies. When he appeared on Coast Guard recruiting posters, enlistments were said to have doubled. The city of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., his home town, named a mountain after him, and the state of Indiana erected a 30-foot limestone statue of Joe on Highway 37 between Indianapolis and Bedford. In the eyes of citizens everywhere Joe Palooka is the American dream come true. He is strong but modest, manly but virtuous, tolerant but principled. He would never think of wrestling cops, much less of drinking. He never mouths off. There is some swearing in the strip—usually expressed by $!$%#—but the worst expletive Joe himself ever utters is a mild "tch tch," and his cry of triumph is almost always a subdued "tee hee."
Joe Palooka is only 29 years old, but he has been champion for the last 35 years. He was 16 when he won the title in 1930 by knocking out the villainous Jack McSwatt yet, for a champ who has aged as little as he has, he has changed in a number of subtle ways. His black hair has, without benefit of dye, become blond. His eyes have shrunk from big round circles to two black dots. When he started his career he was just a dumb Polish boy—"Polack" was the word in that unreconstructed period—from the hard-coal country, and his mother tongue was broken English punctuated only by "gulp, gulp." Now Joe lives in Old Greenwich, Conn. and speaks almost as crisply as Gene Tunney. He is married to Ann Howe, "lovely socialite," who was his fiancée for 18 years. Nothing is more demonstrative of Palooka's rise in status than his marriage. To David Manning White and Robert H. Abel, a couple of highbrow commentators on mass culture who edited The Funnies, An American Idiom, Palooka's marriage to the daughter of a cheese tycoon is a "dramatic" example of "social mobility."
As a matter of fact, Joe has risen so high in social status that he has not fought in more than 10 years. The McNaught Syndicate, which edits and distributes the strip, fears that boxing is in such disrepute that Palooka's image would suffer if he stepped into the ring again. As a result of this thinking, Joe now passes the time antiquing with Ann in nearby Norwalk, and Knobby Walsh is reduced to managing a folk singer.
Joe Palooka is the brainchild of the late Hammond Edward (Ham) Fisher, a controversial sort who was as complex as Joe was simple. "Fisher's trouble was that he hated people," says Al Capp, who worked as an assistant to Fisher before branching out on his own with Li'l Abner. "His day was ruined if he saw somebody eating." Fisher was a pudgy little man who was obsessed by Joe Palooka. He lived and died for Joe, whom he treated as a real human being. He commonly used the pronouns "we" and "us" when speaking about Joe, and Harold Conrad, the fight publicity man, says Fisher used to get so carried away "that you'd expect Joe to walk in from the next room."
Like Palooka, Fisher came from Wilkes-Barre. He was born in 1900, and as far back as he could remember he was always drawing, much to the disgust of his father, a businessman. After finishing high school, Fisher put in a two-week stint at college, knocked around at odd jobs and then, at 20, hooked on with a local newspaper as a reporter, cartoonist and part-time advertising salesman. Wilkes-Barre was then a thriving fight town, and one day in 1921, while hanging around a pool hall, Fisher ran into an acquaintance, a big, burly Polish boxer named Joe. "Hiya, Ham!" Joe said. "Why don't I and youse go up to the munysippal goluff course and have a game of goluff?" At once a light bulb marked "idea" lit up in Fisher's brain, and he hurried back to the paper, where he dashed off a comic panel about a boxer named Joe Dumbelletski, envisioned as "a dumb, good-natured fighter, a tender-hearted guy that doesn't want to hurt anybody." Fisher looked upon Dumbelletski as "the perfect strip character." but almost 10 years passed before Fisher could persuade any paper to buy Joe. During the course of trying to peddle the strip, Fisher changed Joe's last name to Palooka, a term he picked up from Leo P. Flynn, who managed Jack Dempsey. As Flynn defined the word, a palooka meant a set-up fighter, a pushover, and since the initial episodes had Joe acting as such for McSwatt, the new name seemed appropriate. Fisher later said that to his horror he discovered that palooka was a corruption of a Greek slang word meaning bull thrower. (In The American Language: Supplement I, H. L. Mencken says Jack Conway, a baseball player who became a writer for Variety, originated the word as slang for a third-rater. Conway is also credited with introducing baloney, high-hat, pushover, payoff, belly laugh and scram.)
In the late 1920s Fisher moved to New York and went to work as a salesman for the McNaught Syndicate. In a whirlwind 39-day trip, Fisher sold Striebel and McEvoy's Dixie Dugan to 41 papers. Awed, Charles McAdam, president of the syndicate, succumbed to the Fisher sales line himself and gave Fisher permission to sell Palooka. He could have saved himself the trouble. Fisher had already told editors that on his next swing he would be back with the most terrific comic strip ever. With the editors practically panting to see it, the brash Fisher had no difficulty selling Palooka to 30 papers in just three and a half weeks.
The first appearance of Joe Palooka occurred on April 19, 1930, and Fisher was so proud of the beginning story line that he redrew it in 1943 as Joe reminisced to Army buddies on how he won the title. The first sequence opened with Joe as a strong, dumb kid, trying to help out his family, which consists of Mom ("She's nice an' fat an' kin she cook. Golly!"), Pop, a spindly coal miner, little brother Steve, who later becomes world middleweight champ, and kid sister Rosie. Joe answers a newspaper ad for a boy at a haberdashery run by Knobby Walsh, who was modeled on Knob Levison, a Wilkes-Barre cigar store proprietor. "An' is the celery rilly a whole three dollars—honist?—Oh boy!" asks Joe. "Uh—that's a typographical error," says Knobby. "It shoulda read $2.00—Ya'll git a raise—uh next year."
Joe gets the job, and one afternoon when Knobby goes off to play pinochle Joe innocently allows a gang of thieves to loot the store because he thinks they have charge accounts. Knobby is ruined, and he fires Joe, who, sob, slinks home. While Knobby is drowning his sorrows in a saloon, he overhears Jack Mulfie, manager of Jack McSwatt, the champion, telling the bartender that he is looking for a pushover opponent for a five-round exhibition in Wilkes-Barre. For $200 Knobby gets Joe, who knows nothing about the money, or, for that matter, boxing, but who is eager to help out dear Mr. Walsh. Joe shows up for the light wearing polka-dotted swimming trunks, and for the first four rounds he takes a dreadful drubbing from McSwatt, who laughs as he counts the punches he bounces off Joe's chin. But Joe won't give up despite Knobby's guilt-stricken pleas to quit. Just as the bell rings for the start of the fifth, Knobby gets an idea: he tells Joe that McSwatt is the head of the gang that looted his haberdashery. "W-WHAT?" exclaims Joe. "WHY DINT YOUSE TELL ME!!!" He rushes at McSwatt shouting, "YOUSE UN-HONIST CROOK!" He belts McSwatt to the canvas with a mighty right and, as the referee tolls the knockout, Joe yells, "GIT UP AN' I'LL GIVE YOUSE MORE—" Inasmuch as a five-round exhibition was then considered an official fight in Pennsylvania, Joe is declared the champ, and he is carried on the shoulders of the cheering crowd to his dressing room, blushing furiously and mumbling, "Tch tch." He tells Knobby that since he hates fighting he will defend the title "only against crooks an' bullies."
Joe is true to his pledge. He takes on a series of villainous contenders, usually symbolized—as western badmen are by black hats—by gigantic unshaven jaws, slant eyes and agitated beads of sweat popping off their foreheads. They invariably curse, &!$%!, but no matter what they do Joe always triumphs. With Joe, right is might, and since he is the essence of goodness he never loses. Oddly enough, he never has fought a Negro. Occasionally Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson or some other Negro fighter would ask Fisher about this, and his standard reply was, "But how would you feel when Joe beat him?"
Fisher considered himself an ultraliberal in politics, and the strip had one of the few Negro characters in the funnies, Smokey, the valet. In the early days Smokey was a black-faced, pancake-toting bundle of "yowsuhs" and laughs, but throughout the 1930s he began to lose some of his Uncle Tom characteristics and reached the point where he was not only valet and cook but "sparring partner and revered companion" as well. Smokey also began to grow lighter and lighter in color, until one day, in the early 1940s, he suddenly disappeared altogether from the strip and has not been seen since. At the time of his disappearance Smokey, so Al Capp says, was sounding like John Gielgud.
Besides boxing, romance was one of the main themes of the strip. Shortly after winning the title, Joe meets the socially prominent Ann Howe, who happens to visit his training camp on a lark. She is immediately struck by his modest and simple manner, and she invites him to her home. Mr. Howe is the head of the U.S. cheese industry, and Mrs. Howe is a complete snob. Like Ann's friends, she disapproves of Palooka, but Ann stands up for him: "He's just the most lovable innocent baby ever lived! Can you show me one MAN in our set who's as clean or fine? Ooh how I love him! I want to love him to death! I want to snuggle him—mother him—I—I—." Knobby tries to break up the romance—"You gotta cut her out! It ain't good for yer racket.... Ya know she's too high sassiety fer youse, and ya'd only make it tough fer her!"—but Joe, gulp, gulp, gulp, is in love. Joe and Ann commence their rocky, 18-year-long engagement, which is sporadically threatened by plane crashes, title fights, wars and amnesia. In a 1933 strip Joe tells Ann why they cannot marry at once. "I certny wunt have youse marry me until I kin give youse ever'thing in the world," he says, overlooking the fact that as champ he must certainly be in the big money. Ann replies, "I wish you didn't feel you have to have money for me, precious. I'd gladly live in poverty with you. It would be paradise."
By the mid-1930s the strip had become fantastically successful. It was appearing in more than 600 newspapers and had more than 50 million readers. When, after one fight, Joe announced that he had trained solely on cheese, the sales of cheese shot up so spectacularly that the National Cheese Institute gratefully crowned Fisher "Cheese King of 1937." Fisher himself was well on the way to making $250,000 a year just from the strip alone, and he added to this with royalties from radio, movies, comic books and a slew of enterprises using the Palooka image. He hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and he drew them into his strip. Joe boxed with Dempsey and Tunney, and the strip was peopled with such celebrities as Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Fiorello LaGuardia, Jimmy Walker, Claudette Colbert and Jim Farley. Occasionally a regular character would be modeled on someone in real life, such as Ruffy Balonki, the crude, hairy challenger, obviously patterned after Tony Galento, or the later challenger, rotund Humphrey Pennyworth, for whom Toots Shor is supposed to have served as inspiration. All in all, Palooka was so prosperous that Fisher was able to hire assistants to do most of the work for him. After receiving the story line, they would draw and color the strip, except for blank ovals indicating Palooka's face. When an installment was ready for McNaught, Fisher would arrive at the studio groaning mightily, roll up his sleeves and draw the faces. No assistant was allowed "to touch Joe's face. It was the holy of holies. "It was like some sacred relic," Capp recalls. "Nothing profane could go into that place."
For all his success, Fisher remained a tight man with a dollar. In a bitter memoir entitled "I Remember Monster," which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Capp wrote of Fisher, without naming him, "It was my privilege, as a boy, to be associated with a certain treasure-trove of lousiness, who, in the normal course of each day of his life, managed to be, in dazzling succession, every conceivable kind of a heel.... From my study of this one li'l man, I have been able to create an entire gallery of horrors. For instance, when I must create a character who is the ultimate in cheapness, I don't, like less fortunate cartoonists, have to rack my brain wondering what real bottom-of-the-barrel cheapness is like. I saw the classic of 'em all. Better than that, I was the victim of it."
Capp modeled Soft-Hearted John, a paragon of penuriousness, on Fisher. In turn, Fisher accused Capp of having stolen the idea of Li'l Abner from Big Leviticus, a repugnant hillbilly character who fought Palooka in the early '30s. Capp retorted by lampooning Fisher as Happy Vermin, a cheap cartoonist who kept Li'l Abner locked in a dimly lit closet churning out a comic strip about hillbillies for which Vermin grabbed all the credit. "I'm proud of having created these characters!!" Vermin exults to Li'l Abner. "They'll make millions for me!! And if they do—I'll get you a new light bulb!!"
Fisher's feuds aside, Palooka plodded onward and upward in public esteem. Perhaps his best-remembered adventure of the 1930s was his enlistment in the Foreign Legion. It seems that after a particularly grueling fight Joe is accused of carrying his opponent the distance so gamblers can make a betting coup. At about the same time Joe has a minor tiff with Knobby and, out of desperation, he and Smokey join the Legion. But to Fisher's loudly announced public anguish, it appears that anyone who then joined the Legion could never get out, and to resolve the situation Fisher got permission from the White House to have President Franklin Delano Roosevelt intercede. F.D.R. was shown in the strip two days running, telling Knobby that he had persuaded the President of France to discharge Joe. After that Fisher was a somewhat familiar figure in Washington, and he took to referring to the President as "Frank" in conversations back in New York.
The greatest change in Joe occurred when he enlisted in the Army in 1940. His language started to improve. He began saying "shouldn't" instead of "shunt," because Fisher wanted him to serve as a model soldier. Despite his newly acquired polish, Joe himself realized he couldn't become commissioned—"I don't diserve t'be an' don't know enuff t'be"—and he served as a private for six years. Fisher later claimed that the expression "GI Joe" originated with Palooka.
The outbreak of the war gave Fisher the chance to preach in the strip, and he became a moralist second only to Walter Winchell. The crooks and bullies of the prize ring became the fascist rats of Nazi Germany, "THE WORLD'S GOTTA BE RID OF FASCISTS EV'RYWHERE!!" Joe explains to Jerry Leemy, his Army buddy from Greenpernt, while both are on duty with the French underground. Villainous Germans seem to surround Joe. While giving a boxing exhibition with Biff Williams aboard a troopship, Joe is washed overboard. A German sub surfaces, but Joe clambers aboard, kayoes the captain with a left hook and captures the vessel. Aboard another troopship, a German spy inadvertently bunks with Joe. Joe clobbers the fellow, who has the rather odd habit of opening a porthole in the blacked-out ship and signaling with lighted kitchen matches. There was a bit of a furor when Joe shot a German soldier in the back during the North African campaign, but Joe didn't pay any mind. While serving with Yugoslav Partisans he helps ambush a German patrol. "Nize shooding, Choe," says Big Mike, a Partisan, but Joe answers, "Only got two, tch tch!"
Back on the home front, an escaped German prisoner of war with a gigantic unshaven jaw is captured by Knobby and a friend. When he boasts that the Nazis are going to murder everyone in the U.S.—"Ya! Like Rotterdam und Varsaw—Ha ha"—Knobby holds a gun while the friend beats the German up. He belts the German with a left hook to the jaw ("Fer the women an' kids you rats killed in London—"), a right smash to the nose ("Fer th' French an' th' Dutch an' th' Cath'lics an' th' Poles an' th' Protestants an' Czechs an' Jews—") and a savage wallop to the belly ("An' that was fer the soldier that fed ya an' ya killed at th' prison camp—"). The Nazi sags to the ground mumbling, "Kamerad Kamerad," while in the background a curvy blonde in a bathing suit, armed with a club, says, "Please—Please let me smash him."
From time to time, Joe returns from overseas to lend a hand on the home front. He and Knobby attend a party given by a black-market profiteer. The guests are only interested in a good time, and when Joe starts telling them about the war instead of his title fight with Red Rodney, one says, "Oh, don't be gloomy," while another pouts, "Give him a drink." But Joe tells them all off: "I've just come back from where the fightin's goin' on—there's kids dyin' out there an' I can't wait t'get back alongside of 'em."
Joe took so many cracks at the Nazis that Fisher liked to boast he was No. 1 on Hermann Goring's liquidation list for the U.S. While G√∂ring was under arrest awaiting the N√ºrnberg Trials, an American correspondent asked him about Joe Palooka and Ham Fisher. G√∂ring said he had never heard of either. When Fisher learned of this he was heartbroken.
The war over, Joe returned to the ring. He had a tough fight with Humphrey Pennyworth, the blacksmith from West Wokkington Falls, Ohio, and only managed to win when Pennyworth, knocked to the canvas, was unable to rise because his behind was stuck fast in the crushed ring floor.
By the late 1940s, public pressure was mounting for Joe's marriage to Ann. The wedding finally took place at the Palooka homestead in Wilkes-Barre on June 24, 1949, and in keeping with the notion that Joe was a living, breathing human being Fisher mailed out engraved invitations. Among those who accepted were Chief Justice Fred Vinson, Attorney General Tom Clark and General Omar Bradley. "I want to make the Joe Palooka marriage the realest and loveliest kind of marriage," Fisher said. "They're going to be the ideally happy and adjusted couple."
Unfortunately for Fisher, he himself was not happy in the years that followed. He suffered from diabetes and complained of failing eyesight. He would rage endlessly about Capp. In February 1955 the board of governors of the National Cartoonists Society suspended Fisher for "conduct unbecoming a member." The society charged that he had used altered drawings of Li'l Abner to prove Capp's work was pornographic. A few days after Christmas that same year Fisher ended his life with an overdose of pills.
Moe Leff, an assistant, carried on the strip before leaving in 1959. The McNaught Syndicate engaged another artist, Tony DiPreta, who had worked as an assistant on Mickey Finn with Lank Leonard. Nowadays DiPreta draws the strip from scripts submitted to the syndicate by several free-lance writers. Any number of the old characters are still hanging around. Some have aged, some haven't. Little Max, the mute shoeshine boy, is still about 9. On the other hand, Joe's little sister, Rosie, has grown up. Humphrey Pennyworth still lives in West Wokkington Falls, and every once in a while he makes a trip to New York on his tricycle. Jerry Leemy, who made a fortune with Pennyworth setting up a chain of Humphreyburger restaurants across the country, has retired from business and passes the time playing the horses. It is a sign of the times that Leemy never mentions the Dodgers anymore.
Joe and Knobby own a restaurant in Manhattan, but Joe's life is centered, at least in the Sunday strips, on his home life in Old Greenwich with Ann and their two children, Joannie, who has been 8 for the last several years, and Buddy, who seems to have stopped growing at 4. Joe is still heavyweight champ, but he hasn't put on the gloves in years. He leads a nice suburban life, but it is a dull one to many readers. Instead of boxing, he goes skiing with Knobby or bluefishing with Leemy. Sometimes he takes the kids sledding. Joe still looks as fit as he did in the past—if anything, his shoulders have broadened—but he lacks the zip. Gone are the plots of the prize ring. The villains of yesteryear are no more. Life seems drab for Joe and even for Ann. The strip is stale. Happily, there is some talk that Joe may soon return to the ring. His old fans certainly hope so. With the likes of Liston and Clay around, Joe owes it to them. If he doesn't fight, it's a $!%)# shame.