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 fianc�e 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?"