Justifying my strange and abiding over-fascination with the mostly forgotten but once incredibly popular comic strip Joe Palooka is problematic at best. I mean, it’s not like I can argue it was a staggering work of genius that helps to elevate the 9th art. It wasn’t even the work of a single person but rather drawn by a host of ghosts who were paid peanuts while the creator of record, Hammond ‘Ham’ Fisher, was off somewhere playing celebrity millionaire (though, or at least so the legend says, he always insisted on drawing the faces of the main characters). Joe Palooka was a champion both in and outside the ring while all reports indicate Fisher was both a terrible man and a horrible hypocrite.
For the uninitiated Joe Palooka was a boxer, a Candide like innocent adrift in Depression era America who had pronounced Ferdinand the Bull like tendencies. The congenial dope didn’t want to fight anyone but he did it because it was the Depression, his family needed the money and he had no other marketable skills. To make the fighting go down little easier for him (and to ante up the drama) Joe inevitably fought genuinely bad guys who had names like Ruffy Balonky, Red Rodney and Jack McSwatt; a collection of thugs, creeps and jerks, proficient at dirty tricks in the ring and prone to sneering at everything decent. Prolonged exposure to the saintly prizefighter almost always had a profound effect on his opponents; invariably if one of them returned to the strip they were changed men. Either they had seen the light and now exhibited a new respect for the ‘sweet science’ or, worse case now at least gave Joe the worshipful respect he deserved.
If a sports strip doesn’t sound all that appealing to you Joe Palooka was actually more of an adventure strip with comic elements where a lot of the action took place outside of the ring. Naturally there was a romance angle with Joe’s perpetual fiancée the extremely dull but beautiful socialite with the awful pun name Ann Howe (they finally married on June 24,1949). Once he became world champion he navigated high society and Hollywood and hobnobbed with such real-life celebrities as Clark Gable, Bing Crosby and Claudette Colbert. But the most famous celebrity ‘get’ came during one of Joe’s most memorable and longest adventures. Fisher was unaware that once Joe had enlisted in the French Foreign Legion he couldn’t get out until he finished his five year hitch. So the cartoonist contacted White House secretaries Stephen Early and Marvin McIntyre to see if President Franklin Delano Roosevelt couldn’t petition the French to release the character. The strip was so popular FDR agreed to have his likeness appear in two days of the strips where he interceded on Palooka’s behalf with the President of France to obtain his release.
In the beginning like Popeye Joe was a pretty rough character, ugly and stupid who in spite of having been brought up on a midwest farm inexplicably spoke in a ‘dese and dose’ dialect. And like Popeye he proved to be such a hero to kids as the 30′s progressed most of his rough edges were sanded off until he became a proper role model. Through rigorous self improvement his grammar got better, but to show his continued solidarity with the common man Fisher had him speak in a clipped, highly irregular patois not all that dissimilar from Sarah Pallin’s style of speech.
Fisher might not have been able to live up to the ideals he espoused at least he espoused them; he was way ahead of the curve when it came to racial and religious tolerance. Though Joe was always appropriately humble and self-effacing he became prone to giving soliloquies on social issues that would give Little Orphan Annie a run for her money. He regularly said things like ‘Anybuddy back home who’s spreadin’ intolerance against any person bucuz of his race, creed or color is spreadin’ Nazi principals.’
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Smokey, Joe’s combination valet/sparring partner, a toxic racist stereotype of the first order.
It would have been bad enough if he had just been a background character but some of the Sundays were devoted to Smokey and his lodge (which bore a striking resemblance to the Mystic Knights of the Sea from Amos & Andy) where his ‘adventures” involved shooting dice and cowering in terror from a rival who threatened to cut him with a razor. He appeared less and less as the 40′s progressed and when he did show up he tended to look more and more like an actual human being. And to be fair Joe walked the walk when it came to racial tolerance; he always treated Smokey like a friend instead of a servant (which is more that can be said for that bastard Terry Lee from Terry & The Pirates*).
Joe’s principal friend was his manager Knobby Walsh, an arrogant know-it-all whose misfortunes, especially when it came to women were (some have suggested) were based on Fisher’s own romantic difficulties. Intentionally or otherwise, he also seemed like a dead ringer for movie character actor James Gleason. He was the comic relief and regularly found himself either on the receiving end of most of the strip’s slapstick comedy or ended up the victim of his own hubris. Like Ham Fisher, Knobby was an all too human figure unable to live up to the ideal that was Joe Palooka, But unlike Fisher Knobby seemed to know it, ultimately making him a figure of pathos.
Among the strips other supporting players were a pair of marginal players who proved to so popular they eventually received their own comic books, Little Max, an adorable 8-year old mute (at least he never spoke) orphan…
…and Humphrey Pennyworth (no relation to Alfred), one of the great comic strip fat guys, a red-headed, super strong, simpled minded eating machine.
Joe joined the Army in 1940 and being too old to enlist Knobby spent the war years working in a defense plant. The strip introduced an auxiliary comic relief, Joe’s army pal Jerry Leemy, a skirt chasing, arrogant idiot who spoke in a fractured Brooklynese dialect (made popular by the then new and wafer thin singer Frank Sinatra) and was prone to saying things like ’Aren’t we fightin’ the dirtiest scum th’ world ever seen fer gosh sakes??’
In September 1940 at Roosevelt’s urging Congress enacted the Selective Training and Service Act, America’s first peacetime draft and Fisher had Joe sign up for the Army, years before other comic strips characters joined the military. So popular was Joe that the Armed Forces used Joe’s likeness in training manuals, recruitment materials, guides to invaded countries and Joe Palooka Fights His Way Back, a comic book to help soldiers readjust to civilian life. It wasn’t reprints from the comic strip but an entirely original story created by Fisher (and company) that manages to contain most of the memorable elements of the strip which told an alternative version of Private Joe Palooka’s return to civilian life.
*For the record I find very little in Terry & the Pirates to be in any way overtly racist (though I would be startled as hell if Milton Caniff had ever met a Chinese person in the 1930′s and 40′s while he was working on it). On the other hand Terry somehow managed to live in China for six years as a kid without ever picking up a single word of Chinese (which seems a tad lazy if you ask me). Once near the end of Milton Caniff’s run on the strip he was reunited with old friends Big Stoop and Connie, guys who had saved his lily-white ass on a regular basis. And he referred to them as “guys who used to work for me”. Bastard.