Hubris and Chutzpah: How Li’l Abner Kayo’d Joe Palooka and Both Their Creators Came to Grief (Part 2)

Previously, the introduction to our story.


II. Ham and Joe

HAMMOND EDWARD FISHER BECAME A CARTOONIST against all odds. All the odds that swayed fate anyway. Born Sept. 24, 1900 (or 1901) in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the son of a Jewish scrapyard dealer, Fisher, to hear him tell it, surmounted the most formidable obstacle any cartoonist could have faced:

I was 5 years of age when I declared that I was going to do a comic strip and no amount of frustrating circumstances ever deviated me from my course. My course was set, and though I encountered many more than my share of storms, I was determined to find a harbor one day: a drawing board, a bottle of India ink, a goodly supply of Strathmore, plenty of 290 pens and — a deadline.

[But] my father objected strenuously and I could spell strenuously “s-t-r-a-p”! He despised my ambition. He wanted me to be a businessman, hence his disgust at my aesthetic taste. I wasn’t allowed to draw a picture in the house. I hid in the attic behind boxes and trunks to copy the pen lines of James Montgomery Flagg or study the composition of the great [Clare] Briggs or H.T. Webster.

Young Ham was saved by his mother, as he concludes the foregoing description of his birthright in an autobiographical essay in Number 4 of a 1954 correspondence course, Illustrating and Cartooning, from Art Instruction, Inc. of Minneapolis, Minn.:

My mother was a very literate woman and our house was filled with fine books, good paintings and the wonderful illustrations of Gustave Doré and Sir John Tenniel. These were my Heaven.

Ham was focused so exclusively on drawing that he “was thrown out of every class in school for paying no attention.” Once Fisher was safely launched on his Joe Palooka career and the accompanying speaking tours, he enlisted a friend, Anne Parenteau, to write a biography to be used by newspapers in promoting his appearances.

Quoted by the Bridgeport (Conn.) Post, she continues his life story to publicize Fisher’s talk there in August 1931:

He graduated from high school in a class by himself. No one else came so close to being left [behind] as he did, so they put him in a class by himself. ... After graduation, Ham went to college for two weeks. They were two marvelous weeks spent principally in cabarets. (Aug. 20, 1931)

Then he returned home to drive a truck for his father until the family business failed soon thereafter. He worked as a salesman for a time and then embarked upon a military career during the First World War, but, Parenteau noted, it was as short-lived as his college career had been:

The war and Ham’s first love affair both hit him at one swoop. He went to Camp Lee in Virginia and arrived at the same time that the Armistice did. This was a terrible disappointment because he had always wanted to be a hero and felt that he had lost his great opportunity to “show” before his lady love. But he got over the love affair and the disappointment and at the age of 20 got his first newspaper job as cartoonist and roving reporter for the Wilkes-Barre Record.

In his own account of his life, Fisher was profuse in thanking “a good and gracious God for letting me be on my way at last.” He produced a daily column (“Cousin Ham’s Corner”) with caricatures of local celebrities and drew a cartoon or two, sports or political. After a year, he left the Record to join the staff of the city’s other paper, the Times-Leader, because, he explained, “they let me put my name bigger on the cartoon. That’s a fact. All we cartoonists are hams and my name especially fits me. But boy, it was great. I was a personage in our city. If I hadn’t been a cartoonist do you think that judges, mayors, the governor — well, in fact everybody — would have sought me out? I had a position of influence and power, but not too much affluence. Soon I was toast-mastering at banquets, getting good money as an after dinner speaker with nice little political plums thrown my way."

He confessed that he even drew political cartoons for both the Democratic and Republican parties. And then, he said, “came a mistake.” He joined a friend in launching a new newspaper. It lasted only about a year, but its collapse (due to the effects of a strike in the local industry, coal mining) was undoubtedly a blessing in disguise for Fisher. A couple of years before, in about 1920, he had been smitten with an idea for a comic strip, and if the newspaper had succeeded, his comic strip might never have germinated, and the pugilistic world would have been poorer.

In his autobiographical essay, Fisher recounts the moment of inspiration:

One day, while passing around the public square in Wilkes-Barre, I saw a chap whom I knew well. He was a boxer with very light blond hair which persisted in sticking straight up in the air — sort of a crew haircut without the haircut. His name was Joe [Hardy], and I knew him as a very nice guy with a lethal right hand; in other words, he was a hunk of TNT in the ring and as nice a gentleman outside the squared circle as I have ever known.

As I approached him, he noticed me and greeted me with “Hi, Ham! Hey, why don’ I an’ youse have a game of golluf at the new Muneesippal Golluf Stadium?”

I give you my word, a bolt of lightning stuck me. Within an infinitesimal part of a second I knew I had what I had prayed for all my life: the idea for my comic strip, something out of the ordinary, the saga of a real American boy whose life gave him an opportunity for high adventure and uncommon experience. No humdrum existence, his, and I knew what he would be — he would be all the things I wished I could be, a fighter for the worthwhile things democracy teaches, a clean living champion of democracy. He would be unbeatable in physical combat, the sport of prize fighting to which fate had directed him through Knobby Walsh, his first employer, and outside of the ring he would be a gentle knight, courteous and kind, with a deep conviction of democratic principles.

Even Fisher admitted in the next sentence that not all of Joe Palooka came to him in that “infinitesimal part of a second.” He was writing in 1953 with the benefit of 23 years of his strip’s growth and development behind him. His description of his “gentle knight” was of Joe Palooka in 1953, not at the moment of inspiration in the early 1920s. At that moment, Fisher was envisioning a good if somewhat stupid youth whom he called Joe Dumbelletski when he wrote and drew the inaugural three weeks of the strip that day, back at the offices of the Times-Leader. But Fisher’s brain child didn’t see print until 1930, and by then Joe had a new last name: “palooka,” a term often used to describe a less-than-distinguished athlete, especially a prizefighter. In Joe’s case, it would be an ironic name choice. The story of the launching of Joe Palooka is another of cartooning’s legends.

Fisher went to New York in the early 1920s to sell his strip but no syndicate was interested. For the rest of the decade, Fisher kept trying, going back and forth from Wilkes-Barre (where he’d rejoined the Times-Leader after the demise of his newspaper venture) to New York. In 1927, he stayed in New York working in the advertising department of the New York Daily News. All the while, he kept peddling Palooka.

Finally, he ran into Charles McAdam, general manager of McNaught Syndicate, who promised to give Palooka a try the next year. Fisher insisted on going out himself to sell his strip to newspaper editors. To prove his ability as a salesman, he undertook to sell one of McNaught’s losers, Dixie Dugan, a strip about a would-be showgirl. It had been offered around before, but only two papers had bought it. Paying his own expenses, Fisher went on the road and sold the strip to 39 papers in 40 days.

“It was the biggest sales record in syndicate history,” Fisher claimed later in his autobiographical essay, continuing:

Boy, I was in solid. I hadn’t cost the syndicate a dime of expense. My commissions ran into huge figures, and I was flattered all over the lot. Charley and I became great pals (he’s still my best friend), and he bragged that he had the best salesman in the country. I hadn’t told him that every editor and publisher I had seen had been given a promise by me that I’d bring back the greatest feature they’d ever seen, and I’d give them first crack at it.

When I told Charley I was now going to take Palooka out, he told me I was crazy. Why do that, when I had a great future already assured as syndicate salesman. McAdam went away on a long trip to the tropics, and I started out with Palooka. Just as I started, the market crash rocked the country. Business went to the dogs. Syndicates were swamped with cancellations. Editors called me an idiot for daring to try to sell a new feature. But in spite of the fact that this was the most terrible of all financial panics, I sold Palooka to twenty-four leading papers in as many cities in eighteen days.

Or maybe it was just 20 papers in three weeks. Or 18 in 22 days. The numbers, as is their wont in legends, change from one telling to the next. In any case, Fisher’s strip was at last nationally syndicated. It was 1930; Joe Palooka had been gestating for nearly 10 years.

In The Adventurous Decade, Ron Goulart reveals something of the secret of Fisher’s success as a salesman. He quotes from the autobiography of Emile Gauvreau, editor of the New York Graphic before becoming editor of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Mirror: “I bought my last comic strip one New Year’s Eve when Ham Fisher ... befuddled me with a rare bottle of bourbon during a hilarious celebration. When I woke the next day, I found I was sponsor of Joe Palooka, an exemplary character who never drank or smoked and was good to his mother.”

According to Morris Weiss, Fisher was a success as a salesman because his behavior was so outrageously ingratiating that a customer would buy his product just to get him out of the office. Weiss on how Fisher “got to” Charles McAdam:

Lank Leonard told me this. He was with the George Matthew Adams Syndicate when he was a sports cartoonist, and Ham Fisher went to the George Matthew Adams Syndicate and he saw Frank Marky. Frank Marky was a top syndicate salesman. He had been one of the top salesman for the Chicago Tribune Syndicate; and now he was the top salesman for the George Matthew Adams Syndicate. And Ham went and saw Marky and tried to sell him the Joe Palooka strip. And Fisher was all over him, telling him how great he was and so on. Marky never saw any human dynamo to equal Ham Fisher trying to sell him Joe Palooka.

So Marky said, “I tell you what I want you to do: I want you to go over the McNaught syndicate and see Charlie McAdam, and I’ll call McAdam and tell him to see you.”

And Ham said, “Not the great Charles V. McAdam?”

“Yes, and he’ll see you.”

And Ham left.

Marky called up McAdam and said, “I want you to see this character who’s coming in with a comic strip, Ham Fisher. The comic strip is nothing but you’ve never in your life seen a character like this; I want you to see him.”

Ham went in and saw McAdam, and he was all over him — on the desk, over his shoulder. And finally, McAdam said: “Now I want you to sit in that chair and stop jumping up and down. Look,” he said, “this comic strip, this fighter, stinks. Nothing there. But I want you to go out and sell some features for me. I’m giving you expense money. But don’t use my expense money to sell this piece of garbage of yours.”

And when Ham left, a couple of guys came in and said, “What was that tornado that just blew in?”

And McAdam said, “Listen, they’re going to buy his features just to get the guy the hell out of the office.”

Joe first appeared on April 21, 1930: he walks into a Wilkes-Barre haberdashery run by Knobby Walsh, looking for work.

Knobby hires him, but one afternoon when Knobby’s off playing cards with his cronies, Joe permits a bunch of local toughs to loot the store, believing they have charge accounts. Knobby is ruined, but he soon finds a way for Joe to help him recoup. As it happens, the current heavyweight champion comes to town, and his manager puts out the word that he’s looking for someone to fight in an exhibition contest for $200. Knobby talks Joe into doing it. Joe, who knows nothing about boxing, takes a drubbing for the first four rounds, but then, when Knobby tells him that his opponent was the leader of the looters, Joe is enraged. He charges out at the other fighter, yelling, “You un-honist crook!” He floors him with a single blow and finds himself the heavyweight champion.

Boxing was a popular sport in the 1930s and 1940s, and Joe Palooka was popular in consequence. Fisher soon found himself something of a celebrity. Before long, he was hobnobbing with stellar figures in sports and in other arenas of public life. As Robert H. Doyle notes in “A Champ for All Time” in Sports Illustrated (April 19, 1965), Fisher often drew these personages into the strip in cameo appearances ringside during one of Joe’s fights — boxers Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney; politicos “Big Jim” Farley and New York’s one-time “midnight mayor” of the jazz age, Jimmy Walker; Walker’s idiosyncratically stalwart successor, Fiorello LaGuardia; movie stars like Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, and Claudette Colbert. Occasionally, a regular character in the strip would be modeled on someone in real life ... [such as] rotund Humphrey Pennyworth, for whom Toots Shor is supposed to have served as inspiration.”

Among the famous people Fisher cultivated was one of the most celebrated and flamboyant illustrators of the age, James Montgomery Flagg. A neighbor in the same apartment building, the cartoonist was Flagg’s frequent visitor and companion. Why a man of Flagg’s sophistication and talent would tolerate — nay, even enjoy — the company of a man of Fisher’s comparatively limited social and artistic abilities is something of a puzzle. Perhaps, as Weiss suggested to me, Flagg enjoyed having a herald, someone to precede him into restaurants and announce his coming to maître d’s and managers.

Capitalizing on the public’s interest in boxing, Fisher imbued his stories with realistic touches. He spent as much energy in the strip building up to a big fight as real-life promoters did for real-life contests. And Joe’s training camp reeked of authenticity. But all the realism created a problem. Fisher’s cartooning ability was of the big-foot comedic school. His skill was on a par with many of his contemporaries — Sidney Smith, for instance, Harold Gray; even some of the early work of Chester Gould. But that kind of primitive realism couldn’t create the aura that presumably Fisher was now seeking. So Fisher did what many cartoonists did then (and still do): he hired an artist more talented than himself to do the drawing. The first of these (and the one with the longest tenure on the strip) was another Wilkes-Barre refugee, Phil Boyle.

Because so much of the run of the strip was ghosted by others, rumors persist in the cartooning community (particularly, as Goulart reports, among older cartoonists) that Fisher never drew the strip: Even the sample strips that launched the feature, according to this tradition, were drawn by a ghost (a high-school student, so the story goes). I suspect not, but it is true — without cavil or question — that most of the years of Joe Palooka were drawn by others.

Moe Leff was one of the ghosts. In the introduction to the Clark’s Classic Comic Strips Joe Palooka volume, A Ticket to Palookaville, Ron Goulart says that Fisher hired Leff away from Al Capp in the mid-’30s, speculating that this maneuver gave Capp “yet another reason to loathe Fisher.”

Leff was the principal graphic force in Joe Palooka for about 20 years. And Fisher was effusive in acknowledging his debt to Leff and Boyle. “It would be impossible to do the job without the magnificent assistance of the two great guys who help me, Phil Boyle and Moe Leff,” he wrote in his 1954 autobiographical essay. “Both of them are the very tops as artists, and Leff, especially, is a bundle of TNT who is capable of doing as great a strip as any man in the business. I’m a lucky guy to have found these two whizzes. We work as a team on every phase of the many facets of what today is a vast enterprise.” He added in an earlier, much more widely circulated article for Collier’s (Oct. 16, 1948), “And I’m ashamed to say, they usually sit in the background while I take the bows.”

According to the Fisher legend, Fisher always drew the faces of Joe and Knobby; Leff left blank ovals on the illustration board, and Fisher deftly filled them in. Considering that the faces of Joe and Knobby were rendered very simply compared to the visages of other characters in the strip, this contention is probably true.

Another of Fisher’s assistants, for a short time in 1933, was, of course, Al Capp.

Next: Al and Abner