It is November 1940 and boxer Joe Palooka is in Cuba. A local promoter offers him a lucrative opportunity in Havana. ‘Sorry-but I got other plans,’ the fighter says.
Knobby Walsh, his manager, is astonished. ‘Are ya nuts?’ he demands. ‘We kin have a wonderful time here for a month an’ then git a load of jack!’
‘I got other plans,’ Palooka repeats. ‘I’m gonna enlist in the army.’
‘But kid,’ Knobby protests, ‘if they want ya they’ll draft ya. Ya got plenty of time fer that. You registered!’
‘I know,’ Palooka says stubbornly, ‘but I’m goin’ anyway.’ Knobby looks crestfallen. ‘I-I would too if they’d take me,’ he stammers.
And so it was that Joe Palooka, the heavyweight champion in one of the country’s most popular comic strips, began blazing a trail for the many thousands of Americans who would soon don uniforms and fight on World War II battlefields. Other comic strip heroes would enlist and fight in the war, but Joe Palooka did it first.
Palooka, the lovable, laudable, squeaky-clean comic strip boxer created by Hammond ‘Ham’ Fisher, made his newspaper debut on April 19, 1930, a little less than six months after the stock market crash of 1929. In that first series, readers saw Joe become heavyweight boxing champion by knocking out the dastardly Jack McSwatt with a powerful right and a spirited ‘WHOOPEEEEE!’
The Palooka comic strip scored big with the American public, even as he underwent a stunning personal transformation, changing from ugly, dark-haired, bug-eyed, and quite stupid to handsome, blond, clear-eyed, and merely inarticulate. By the late 1930s, the strip appeared in more than 500 newspapers and had an estimated 50 million followers.
Even as Palooka enjoyed great popularity in the United States, much of the world was teetering on the brink of war. Japan attacked China in 1937, the next step in a decade of aggressive moves Japan had made in Asia. In Europe, Adolf Hitler became more belligerent, ‘annexing’ Austria and the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in 1938, then seizing the rest of the Czech homeland. In September 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland, and World War II began.
Many Americans still had clear and unpleasant memories of World War I, and the country remained vigorously isolationist, with public opinion opposed to the nation’s entering another foreign war. Like it or not, though, the conflict was going to involve the United States, and the country needed to prepare for it. Joe Palooka, all-American bastion of honesty, humility, courage, and devotion to duty, came along at just the right time to do his nation proud.
Ham Fisher came up with the idea for Joe Palooka in 1921 when he encountered a big, burly, and inarticulate boxer outside a poolroom in the struggling young illustrator’s hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. As Fisher told it years later in the pages of Collier’s magazine, ‘Here, made to order, was the comicstrip character I had been looking for-a big, good-natured prize fighter who didn’t like to fight; a defender of little guys; a gentle knight-I ran back to the office, drew a set of strips and rushed to the newspaper syndicates.’
Editors and newspaper syndicators resisted the charms of the amiable but dim-witted pugilist that Fisher first considered naming Joe Dumbelletski or Joe the Dumbbell. For the next decade Fisher fine-tuned his strip and shopped it around, and he eventually settled on the name Palooka for his boxer. The word is of uncertain origin. In 1945’s The American Language: Supplement 1, H.L. Mencken credited baseball player and writer Jack Conway with coining it to mean a ‘thirdrater.’ The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word’s origin to 1925 and a book by H.C. Witwer called Roughly Speaking. In any case, the word was certainly used verbally before it ever saw print. Once Fisher finally sold his Palooka strip it took off quickly. Within 25 days he placed it in 30 big-city newspapers. Readers found Joe’s ‘common man’ persona appealing. He was unpretentious and had a strong work ethic. He possessed integrity along with smalltown simplicity and morals. And he fought off scores of crooked, mean, cursing (#!$#!) contenders with names like Ruffy Balonki, Red Rodney, and the aforementioned Jack McSwatt.
The Palooka strip included various curious but lovable supporting characters. There was Knobby Walsh, the boxer’s cynical, not-quite-trustworthy, yet somehow endearing manager and bestfriend. Fisher modeled him on a Wilkes-Barre cigar store owner. There was Smokey, the valet, at first a racist caricature rendered as a shuffling, subservient blackface. Like his buddy, Smokey underwent a transformation as he slowly lost some of his stereotypical characteristics and became a trusted sparring partner and friend to the champ throughout the 1930s. He remained one of the few black characters in comics until he suddenly disappeared from the strip in the early 1940s. Joe also had a love interest in the beautiful, ever faithful, ever chaste Ann Howe, the sophisticated daughter of a cheese tycoon. She loved Joe for his admirable integrity and despite his obvious lack of education and their different backgrounds.
Never much of a cartoonist himself, Fisher eventually began to farm out the strip to a number of assistants. The story goes, though, that Fisher insisted that only he draw the faces on Joe and Knobby, so the assistants would always leave blank features on those two characters. One of Fisher’s illustrators was Al Capp, who would go on to create L’il Abner. Capp and Fisher later carried on an ugly feud that sometimes spilled over into their respective strips.
Boxing was a very popular sport in the 1930s, and so the fight sequences in the Palooka strip were often delightfully long, drawn-out affairs with lots of THUD! POW! and SOCK! Fisher typically described the action in print as if it were vocalized by a ringside radio announcer. ‘There’s the bell . . . sixth round coming up . . . Palooka rushes in close . . . Rodney tries to keep him away … but Palooka sends a short right to the body … and a left to the head . . . aaaaand Rodney’s down. The referee is sending Palooka to a neutral corner … Rodney didn’t take a count . . . he’s getting up . . . Palooka is waved back in . . . he’s shooting both hands like pistons . . . there goes a right to the chin … that must be it ……
Joe left boxing behind for one of the most popular of the Palooka storylines from the 1930s, when Joe and Smokey enlisted in the French Foreign Legion after falling out with Knobby and losing the championship. The story shifted to a desert outpost in North Africa where Joe and Smokey endured the harsh and rigorous conditions of military service in the gritty unit and unforgiving climate. Fisher played out the Foreign Legion saga over six months in 1938, putting Joe in one dangerous adventure after another while finding ways to throw in a fistfight or two along the way. Toward the end of the storyline, Fisher had Joe falsely accused of desertion and sentenced to be shot. At this dramatic juncture, the cartoonist decided it was time to bring his hero home but discovered an interesting dilemma. In the strip Joe had enlisted in the Foreign Legion for five years, and Fisher felt it would harm the wholesome boxer’s image if he reneged on his commitment.
To get out of this bind, Fisher contacted White House secretaries Stephen Early and Marvin McIntyre to see if President Franklin D. Roosevelt would agree to ‘appear’ in the strip and extricate Joe and Smokey from their predicament. The White House agreed, and FDR showed up in the Palooka strip on two consecutive days in June 1938 to obtain Joe’s release from the Foreign Legion and a full pardon from the French president for the desertion charges.
By this time Joe Palooka was featured in newspapers in more than 20 countries. Even as Great Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Britons remained obsessed with Joe’s adventures. When a wartime shortage of newsprint forced Britain’s newspapers to scale back their editions, the editors at the London Star cancelled the newspaper’s contract for the Palooka strip. Response from British fans was so vociferous that the paper sent a cable to the comic’s syndication company. ‘War or no war, space or no space, London demands Joe Palooka,’ it read. ‘Please ship by Clipper immediately.’
Yet not even Joe Palooka could protect London from German bombs. Following the German assault that quickly overwhelmed Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in the spring and early summer of 1940, Hitler turned his attention to Great Britain as the Luftwaffe tried to bomb the island nation into submission.
With war clouds spreading, in September 1940 the U.S. Congress, at Roosevelt’s urging, enacted the Selective Training and Service Act, the first peacetime draft in American history. Two months later, Fisher’s all-American hero decided to enlist. He made his choice between the army and the navy, Joe admitted, by flipping a coin. Joe Palooka became the first comic strip character to sign up, a move that may have helped persuade some young Americans to do likewise.
Fisher immediately began communicating patriotic messages in the Palooka strip, and the U.S. Army responded with encouragement. Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson furnished Fisher with a letter that allowed the cartoonist to tour army training camps and gather information for his strip. Soon, Palooka was reporting to Fort Dix for basic training, and he eventually helped instruct new recruits. As he told an army buddy, ‘The world’s gotta be rid of fascists ev’rewhere! !’
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Fisher wasted no time getting his hero into action. One strip published soon after the United States entered World War II saw Joe heading overseas on a troopship. During a boxing exhibition en route, Joe’s sparring partner fell overboard. The good-hearted boxer plunged into the ocean to rescue him but instead found himself facing a surfacing U-boat. Joe climbed aboard, subdued the German vessel’s officers as they clambered one by one from the conning tower, and captured the submarine-all while still clad in his boxing trunks.
It was February 1942 before Joe actually reached a battlefield, and Fisher took the opportunity to deliver a typically patriotic message. In this strip, Palooka was in a ramshackle house with another soldier, both attempting to shoot German snipers. As the action quiets and the two soldiers converse, Joe exclaims, ‘I like how labor an’ employers is workin’ t’gether now -we gotta depend on them as much as they gotta depend on us.’
Fisher kept Joe in the thick of the action. Later in 1942 Palooka became trapped behind enemy lines in France following a commando raid. He managed to make it to England where he helped out British Intelligence on an important mission. At other times Joe fought with the Allies in North Africa, was wounded after parachuting into partisan Yugoslavia and joining forces with a patriot guerrilla army there, and finally reached the Dutch East Indies toward the end of his service. During his North African adventure Joe shot an escaping Nazi soldier in the back. This questionable act from the clean cut bastion of American fair play upset a number of readers who wrote to newspapers expressing their dismay. But perhaps Joe had merely taken to heart what his pal Jerry Leemy had told him sometime earlier: ‘Aren’t we fightin’ the dirtiest scum th’ world ever seen fer gosh sakes??’
Millions of people on the home front followed Joe’s adventures, but U.S. service personnel read them too in publications such as Yank and Stars and Stripes. An article by S.J. Monchak in the September 19, 1942, edition of Editor & Publisher noted the contribution that the nation’s syndicated cartoonists made to maintaining the morale of civilians and soldiers alike. Monchak singled out Fisher’s strip, saying the material in it was so authentic ‘that Palooka soon became known throughout the ranks as the soldier’s best friend.’
The armed services also used Pfc. Palooka’s likeness in training manuals, recruitment materials, guides to invaded countries, and in hygiene instruction. When the army wanted to use the patriotic pugilist to explain the workings of the Officer Candidate School (OCS) in the strip, they offered Fisher an officer’s commission for Joe. Fisher turned the offer down, not wanting to ruin Palooka’s ‘common man’ appeal. Fisher did devote some Sunday pages to the OCS, but Joe never rose above the rank of private first class.
And of course Fisher encouraged civilians to pull together in a united effort in the fight against German and Japanese aggression. Joe made numerous pronouncements about the importance of activity on the home front and took a stand against racism. ‘Anybuddy back home who’s spreadin’ intolerance against any person bucuz of his race, creed or color is spreadin’ Nazi principals,’ Palooka said. Fisher also had Knobby find work in a defense plant while Ann became a Red Cross worker.
Joe Palooka remained popular after the war. The army used him in an educational comic book designed to assist soldiers in readjusting to civilian life. He also began appearing in his own comic book for the general public. A series of two-reel short films featured Joe Kirkwood as the good-natured boxer from 1946 until 1951, while a short-lived TV series ran in 1954. Ham Fisher, depressed and in ill health, committed suicide in 1955, but a number of artists continued the strip until 1984. In those postwar years Joe left boxing behind, married Ann, and raised a family in Connecticut. There he lived out his comic strip life as he had conducted himself in the military-with unfailing humility, decency, honesty, and devotion to duty.
This article was written by T. Wayne Waters and originally published in American History Magazine in December 2002.