JOE PALOOKAOriginal Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: McNaught Syndicate
First Appeared: 1930
Creator: Ham Fisher
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1920, while talking with a good-hearted but not-very-bright boxer, he was suddenly inspired to create a daily comic strip. Before long, he'd put together a storyline and sample strips about a good-hearted but not-very-bright boxer of his own — Joe Palooka — and was hawking it at all the syndicates. He continued to hawk it for nearly a decade.
Even when Fisher finally did sell it, he kind of did so through a back door. In 1929, he was working as a salesman for McNaught Syndicate (The Bungle Family, Napoleon & Uncle Elby), traveling from town to town and trying to interest editors in the recently-launched Dixie Dugan. As he did, he also made an effort to sell them his own strip. He managed to sign up almost two dozen papers, enough to convince Charles V. Adams, general manager of the syndicate, to give Palooka a try.
Joe Palooka was finally launched during April, 1930. It quickly became the most successful sports strip of all time.
Fisher neither wrote nor drew especially well, so he came to rely on talented assistants. In 1932, a young man named Alfred G. Caplin was ghosting the strip for him, and pitted Joe against an uncouth hillbilly boxer named Big Leviticus. When Caplin — who had by then changed his name to Al Capp — left to create a strip of his own, Li'l Abner, he used a very similar mountain setting. Thereafter, Fisher brought Leviticus back over and over, and always made sure to claim primacy as having been first to use the hillbilly setting in comics. That recurring dig was just one small aspect of a feud between Fisher and Capp that would last the rest of Fisher's life.
(In reality, if hillbillies hadn't appeared first in Fisher's strip, they would have in another, as that setting was popular in American entertainment during the 1930s. The same year Capp started Abner, Billy DeBeck introduced Snuffy Smith into his strip, Barney Google, and Snuffy wound up taking over the strip.)
The most prominent supporting character in Palooka was Joe's manager, Knobby Walsh, a small, wiry, middle-aged, excitable Irishman. Second would be the lovely Miss Ann Howe, Joe's fiancee, whom he finally married on June 24, 1949. Other regulars included 8-year-old Little Max, mute but cute, and Joe's eccentric friend, Humphrey Pennyworth.
In 1934, Joe made his motion picture debut. It wasn't a huge hit, but did well enough for a low-budget film, and inspired a number of sequels — which, in fact, continued to come out until well into the 1950s. Joe Kirkwood Jr. was the actor most identified with the title role.
Joe Palooka was published in comic book form from 1945-61. He was the first newspaper comics character licensed by Harvey Comics, which later did comic book versions of The Phantom, Blondie, Bringing Up Father and others. Harvey also published a couple of Joe's supporting characters in their own titles — Humphrey from 1948-52, and Little Max from 1949-61. And by the way, one of Harvey's own long-running characters, Little Dot, made some of her earliest appearances in the back pages of Humphrey's and Max's comics.
Back in newspapers, Fisher's longest-lasting assistant was Mo Leff (Peter Pat), whom he'd hired away from Al Capp in the mid-1930s. Leff was still doing the strip during December, 1955, when Fisher, leaving notes citing health problems, committed suicide. It was only then that Leff began signing the strip. Leff remained on Palooka until 1959, when Tony DiPreta (Tim Tyler's Luck) took his place. DiPreta was still doing the strip when it ended, a quarter-century later. The final Joe Palooka episode appeared in newspapers on November 24, 1984. DiPreta moved on, taking over Rex Morgan, M.D. shortly afterward.
Joe Palooka wasn't on very many people's lists of the world's greatest comic strips. But in its own class — comics about boxing stars — it easily kayoed Big Ben Bolt, Curly Kayoe and all other contenders.