Hubris and Chutzpah: How Li’l Abner Kayo’d Joe Palooka and Both Their Creators Came to Grief (Part 5)

Previously, the introduction, part two, part three, and part four of our story.


V. Cartoonists at War

BY THE END OF THE ’30s, Fisher’s strip was secure among the top five strips in the country. Then he did an unprecedented thing. He enlisted his hero and his strip in the cause of democracy on the eve of the Second World War. It was not only unprecedented: in many corners of the country, it was unpopular.

Isolationists, wary of European intrigues because of the unsatisfactory resolution of World War I, vociferously resisted any inclination President Franklin Delano Roosevelt might occasionally voice about support for Britain, which, by the summer of 1940, was one of the last European nations not under the tread of Adolf Hitler’s war machine. By way of preparing for emergencies, however, FDR had succeeded in launching universal military conscription late that summer. And Fisher helped FDR put over the idea of the draft by having Joe Palooka enlist. Joe went in as a private even though he was offered a commission. (Another heavyweight champ, Joe Louis, would soon do exactly the same.)

Fisher carefully researched Army camp life and depicted it with meticulous attention to detail. And Joe became the voice of patriotism — not strident and shrill or loud and bombastic but soft-spoken and sure, confident. T. Wayne Waters, writing in the December 2002 issue of American History magazine, reports that Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson gave Fisher a letter of introduction that allowed the cartoonist to tour Army training camps to gather information that would enhance the strip’s authenticity. Joe’s enlistment and his subsequent conduct helped convince young Americans to put on uniforms in the year before the U.S. was officially in the war. Roosevelt was grateful and said so, inviting the cartoonist to lunch at the White House. And so, as Martin Sheridan records in Comics and Their Creators, Ham Fisher had become a friend of presidents.

In the strip, Fisher courageously advocated more than ordinary patriotism. He was an outspoken proponent of racial tolerance, too, in an age when even the military services were segregated. Said Joe: “Anybuddy back home who’s spreadin’ intolerance against any person b’cuz of his race, creed or color is spreadin’ Nazi principles.” Oddly, as boxing champion while still a civilian, Joe has a black valet named Smokey, who is drawn as a liver-lipped racist caricature. Over the years, Smokey undergoes a transformation, losing some of the stereotypical shuffling subservient characteristics and becoming Joe’s sparring partner and companion when the two join the Foreign Legion. But visually, he was still a nasty caricature; he disappears from the strip in the early 1940s, and we never see him again.

Joe had many combat adventures throughout the war. Starting right after Pearl Harbor, Palooka captures a German submarine while en route to Europe, then foils the attempts of parachuting saboteurs, invades Europe with a unit of commandoes, blows up a German gasoline plant thereby enabling an observation plane to escape enemy artillery, steals a radio and sets up an underground radio station to guide Allied bombing missions, and participates in two exhibition boxing matches. All that during the first nine months of his enlistment. Our hero is captured and escapes but is reported missing in action; his friends and comrades are wounded but survive. Joe was wounded, too, parachuting into partisan Yugoslavia where he joined a guerrilla force (led by a beautiful patriot, who nurses Joe back to health; Joe, of course, resists the woman’s romantic blandishments because for him there is only one woman, Ann Howe).

During an adventure in North Africa, Joe is shown shooting an escaping Nazi prisoner in the back. It was a simple default option in depicting the action: the guy is running away, right? But many readers were upset seeing this morally questionable act committed by a champion of clean-cut American fair play, and they wrote newspapers expressing dismay. Joe never fouled an opponent in the ring; why now? Joe Palooka was so popular that the incident was reported in Time. The magazine even offered an explanation: “Joe, like any other U.S. soldier, is up against unsporting enemies, and he must learn to kill or be killed. Says Palooka’s creator, jovial cartoonist Ham Fisher: ‘No good soldier is going to be polite in real war. Why should Joe?’”

With similar dedication to authenticity, Fisher managed to conduct his comic-strip version of the battle of Tunisia concurrently with the real campaign. Both finished at about the same time. Knowing that supply was vital to British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s movement, Fisher timed the progress of his fictional battle by watching the movement of supplies to North Africa, information he obtained through an obliging British liaison officer. Fisher was so favored by the British because he had been a vocal interventionist during the dark days early in the European conflict when England most needed U.S. help.

Joe Palooka was among the few civilian productions published in Stars and Strips, and Palooka appeared also in training manuals, recruitment materials, guides to invaded countries, and hygiene and safety booklets. Back home, Knobby found work in a defense plant, and Ann became a Red Cross worker. Once, when the Army needed candidates for Officer Candidate School, Fisher considered sending Joe to OCS but decided against it after he got a letter from Major General A.D. Surles, War Department Public Relations Chief, who argued that a greater morale purpose would be served if Joe remained an enlisted man. When the War is over and Joe returns to the U.S., Fisher did a special comic book that shows his hero confronting the psychological problems of readjusting to civilian life.

The strip was a decided morale-booster among those in uniform. Fisher had given his creation a social purpose beyond entertainment, and he had also enhanced its already considerable popularity.

During the war, many comic-strip heroes went into military service to help build morale. But Li’l Abner didn’t. At least, not in the civilian press. Capp no doubt felt his loutish protagonist was too quintessentially hillbilly for his readers to believe that he could serve in the military. He was no Sergeant York. Besides, as Caniff pointed out in his postwar contribution to the book While You Were Gone, a collection of essays aimed at reacquainting vets with the home front, “the mail from the foxholes, I am told, added up to a spontaneous Gallup poll of the inducted ten million. In one voice, homesick American youth begged Capp to keep Dogpatch and the Yokum clan intact, beyond the reach of the draft board.”

It may have been Capp himself who most forcefully enunciated this sentiment. In a letter addressed to the reader in Li’l Abner for July 4, 1942, Capp explained why Li’l Abner would not be going into the Army:

Perhaps Li’l Abner and his friends, living through these terrible days in a peaceful, happy, free world will do their part by reminding us that this is what we are fighting for — to have that world again. ... a world where a fella is free to be as wise or foolish as he pleases — but mainly — a world where a fella is free! That world has disappeared — until we win this war. Perhaps this small section of our daily newspaper can do its part best by helping us to remember that a free world once did exist — and will again!

It was by far a more patriotic reason than Abner’s abject unmilitary stupidity. But Capp did a special Pfc. Li’l Abner strip for military training manuals and contributed pictures of his hero to other causes within the ranks. And that wasn’t all.

Capp may have been “smarting at the public attentions showered upon his hated onetime employer Ham Fisher” for volunteering Joe Palooka a couple years before, Jay Maeder speculates in Hogan’s Alley #12, so he “offered his professional services as a highly visible home front propagandist” for the Treasury Department’s war bond sales program. And for domestic consumption, starting in 1942, Capp produced an unsigned (but obviously in the stylistic manner of Li’l Abner) biweekly Sunday strip called Small Fry (later changed to Small Change). Intended to promote the sale of war bonds, the feature retailed the adventures of its bulb-nosed eponymous protagonist as he concocted schemes to raise the money to buy a bond in order to win the favors of his leggy girlfriend, Tallulah, a dark-haired, Bettie Page-bangs version of Daisy Mae (albeit in skimpy cutoffs rather than a tattered skirt).

Said Tallulah: “So what ef all th’ Yew-nited States armed services has rejected yo’, Small Fry. Yo’ kin still fight by buyin’ U.S. war bonds. They is $18.75 an’ up, an’ fo’ each one yo’ buys, Ah will bend yo’ nose back an’ give yo’ a big, juicy kiss.”

Who could resist?

Capp also performed a personal mission: He visited amputees in military hospitals. The theme of his conversations, Caniff reported later (in my biography, Meanwhile), was always the same: “What will the girls think? Al invariably underscored the answer: It will make you twice as interesting.”

Cartoonists generally did their bit. In the New York vicinity, cartoonists frequently banded together to entertain recuperating soldiers in military hospitals. After the war, the cartoonists decided to perpetuate the fellowship they had all enjoyed while doing chalk talks for the troops: They formed the National Cartoonists Society. (For that story, see my “Tales of the Founding of the National Cartoonists Society” in Cartoonist Profiles #109, or in the NCS Album for 2005.)

Among the key players in the formation of NCS was Rube Goldberg. At the time, he was the Grand Old Man of cartooning. He had stature, the kind that inspired reverence not jealousy. Although he hated the formalities and rituals of organizational enterprises, he was persuaded to espouse the cause, and he became the first president of the Society. Fisher was among the first to join the group. And his behavior among his peers was telling.

NCS met most often at the clubhouse of the Society of Illustrators on East 63rd Street. The meetings tended to be short: The purposes of the group were, at the time, chiefly social, and those purposes were achieved in the clubhouse bar after the official meetings were adjourned.

In the bar, Morris Weiss told me, Fisher kept himself nearly as busy as the bartender. All evening, he ran back and forth between the bar and the various tables at which cartoonists sat in groups, talking and laughing. Fisher took their orders and brought the drinks to the tables. Why would Fisher, one of the world’s most successful cartoonists, spend his evenings among his peers running drinks to them?

Fisher certainly regarded himself as a celebrity. His strip was one of the most widely circulated strips in the world. He referred to Joe Palooka as “the world’s greatest comic strip.” Despite all this — despite his undeniable success and fame — Ham Fisher was essentially an insecure individual. He bolstered his sense of worth by making himself necessary to the famous cartoonists in the room.

Weiss discovered Fisher’s insecurity very early. One evening at the clubhouse bar watching Fisher run drinks, Weiss decided to play a trick on him: “I stopped him and said, ‘Ham, when you have a minute, there’s something you should know about what an editor said about your comic strip.’ And he said, ‘What is it?’ And he dropped everything. And I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you later; right now, I’m talking to someone else.’ I did it just to annoy him and irk him. Well, every five minutes, he was at me again to tell him what the editor said. But it was nothing; I made up the story. Just for the hell of it. Because I had him tagged.”

The incident revealed how vulnerable Fisher was, Weiss told me. And thereafter, he no longer felt like playing pranks on the man. “We seemed to have a sort of rapport after that,” Weiss said. “I would see him at the Society’s monthly dinners, and he would tell me stories. And then he would come over and visit me at our apartment in New Jersey.” Although Weiss never regarded himself as a particular friend of Fisher’s, he realized later that he had become Fisher’s confidante.

Fisher’s actions speak volumes about how unsure of himself he was. He sought the company of famous people. He went to great lengths to associate himself with them. He courted celebrities by depicting them in the strip. He recognized consciously that he too was a famous person, but unconsciously, he wasn’t sure. He had to be convinced. To shore up his own opinion of himself, he needed the reassurance he could feel if he were in the company of the people he regarded as famous. If he associated with famous people, surely he too was famous. His vanity — not to mention the very vitality of his self-esteem — was fed by his proximity to the famous.

And Fisher was unquestionably vain. He tooted his own horn. He carried around lists of all the newspapers that subscribed to his strip and would proudly produce them at the slightest provocation. Few major figures in cartooning ever make an exhibition of themselves like Ham Fisher did — proclaiming his own greatness to his peers, who all knew, as no other assembly of persons could, just how great he was.

They didn’t need Fisher to tell them about Fisher. They knew and appreciated his achievement. But they were turned off by his loud and boorish displays of self-adulation. And they saw through his obsequious servitude in the bar of the Illustrators clubhouse: They knew he was courting the favor of those whom he regarded as great. The rest of the company — the cartoonists whom Fisher did not see as very famous — Fisher ignored. And those cartoonists resented it. Resenting it, they were receptive to tales that revealed Fisher as they saw him. The story of Fisher’s treatment of Rube Goldberg, for instance.

At one of the early meetings of the Society, Weiss said, Fisher buttonholed Goldberg, telling him how much he, Fisher, admired his work, how great Goldberg was, and so on. Later, Fisher confided to another cartoonist that it was “too bad” about Goldberg: The man was a has-been, he opined, over the hill. Goldberg heard about this. And it galled him. And it irked others who learned of it. The episode confirmed them in their low opinion of Fisher. Fisher, they could see, was a self-serving blow-hard, willing to advance himself at everyone else’s expense whenever the opportunity presented itself.

The situation was ripe for an incident to consolidate the feeling against Fisher. And vain, attention-starved, insecure, and envious Fisher precipitated the incident.

On the Sunday Joe Palooka page for Oct. 31, 1948, Ham Fisher scratched an itch. In the opening panel, he lettered his message for the world to see: “First hillbillies ever to appear in a comic strip were Big Leviticus and his family [in Joe Palooka]. Any resemblance to our original hillbillies is certainly NOT coincidental.”

This was not the first time Fisher had made his accusation in public, veiled though it was. When he was interviewed by Martin Sheridan for Comics and Their Creators (published in 1944), Fisher said that other comic strips had adopted the prizefighter theme since he introduced it, and “many comics are based on hillbillies since I first used Big Leviticus in my strip.” Fisher had proffered similar assertions in his strip over the years. And among his colleagues in NCS, Fisher made no secret of his conviction that Capp had stolen from him the idea of hillbilly characters while assisting on Palooka in 1933. But in the fall of 1948, Fisher’s innuendo had the cutting edge of an indictment.

What prompted the October 1948 assault? Probably envy. Simple, if not pure. Fisher had watched Capp’s climb to fame jealously. By the fifth year of Li’l Abner, Capp’s strip rivaled Joe Palooka in fame and popularity. And in the spring of 1948, Capp had won the Billy DeBeck Award, the NCS trophy for Best Cartoonist of the Year (now called the Reuben). It was only the second year of the award, and it carried great status. (Milton Caniff had won the first year.) Despite Joe Palooka’s high standing in many readership popularity polls, Fisher would never be so honored by his peers. And with his insecurity, Fisher undoubtedly knew it, felt it in his bones: he would never win the DeBeck Award. With that realization gnawing at him, it must have rankled that his former assistant should win it. In any event, Fisher’s claim was just another refrain in the same old chorus as far as his cohorts in the inky-fingered confederacy were concerned. What caused the outburst in the fall of 1948 is less significant than what Fisher’s action provoked. This time, Capp reacted.

Until then, Capp had behaved towards Fisher in the usual gentlemanly manner adopted by those of the profession. In public, he had only nice things to say about Fisher. In Sheridan’s book, for instance, Capp recounted the story of Fisher’s rescuing him from his poverty-stricken safari through the streets of New York. “I worked with Fisher for several months,” Capp said, “and owe most of my success to him for I learned many tricks of the trade while working alongside him.” Even then, Capp may not have believed what he said, but he knew that’s what ought to be said under the circumstances, so he played the game, sowing credit for another professional. Fisher, as we’ve noted, couldn’t play that game. And in the fall of 1948, Capp decided he would no longer play.

Capp announced that he was going to file a complaint with NCS. Maybe he hadn’t complained before because there had been no National Cartoonists Society to referee. Writing to the NCS Board of Governors and reported in Newsweek, Capp urged the group to call Fisher on the carpet for “reflecting discredit upon the Society. ... For a cartoonist to use his space to libel and slander another cartoonist is unethical, very bad for the profession.” But nothing came of Capp’s complaint.

Later, Capp decided to twit Fisher in public. Learning that Fisher would undergo plastic surgery to have his nose remodeled, Capp celebrated the event by introducing into his strip a horse named Ham’s Nose-bob. Still later, as their feud developed, Capp produced a Sunday sequence in which Li’l Abner draws a successful comic strip for a cheap scoundrel named Happy Vermin, who keeps Abner locked in a dimly lit closet while taking all the credit for the strip’s success himself, a success due entirely to Abner’s having discarded Vermin’s boring cast and replaced it with hillbilly characters.

Says Happy Vermin: “I’m proud of having created these hillbilly characters! They’ll make millions for me!! And if they do, I’ll get you a new light bulb!”

Retaliating to Capp’s frontal assaults, Fisher stepped up his campaign. He spread salacious gossip about Capp, and in whatever company he found himself, he proclaimed the Fisher gospel about who had invented the hillbilly comic strip. Visiting Weiss at his apartment, he often carried on a tirade. Said Weiss: “He went on about how Al Capp had stolen his characters, and how he was defaming him. And he raved about Capp’s being a sex maniac and the vulgar things he was putting into his comic strip, and he went on and on and on. I remember so many things about that. It consumed him completely. One time he said, ‘Great things are happening to me now. The detective that Al Capp had following me to get dirt on me, that detective is now working for me.’”

Next: “I Remember Monster”