Sunday, September 02, 2012

Number 1220: Not your average palooka

My American Heritage Dictionary defines “palooka” as an “incompetent or easily defeated person, esp. a prize fighter,” but they can't be describing Joe Palooka, who was heavyweight champ. In the funny papers, anyway. Joe Palooka was one of the most widely read and widely recognized comic strips in the world. By 1948, when the issue of Joe Palooka Comics I'm showing today was published, it was among the top five comic strips. The strip was created by Ham Fisher in 1921. Fisher was assisted by Al Capp for a time in the 1930s, which led to a feud when Capp left and created the successful comic strip, Li'l Abner, the idea for which Fisher claimed was stolen from his strip.

Joe Palooka's peregrinations were of public interest; his time in the French Foreign Legion was a pre-war continuity, followed in over 900 newspapers. Joe was finally free from his five-year enlistment with the help of FDR. Yep, President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself showed up in a couple of panels asking for Joe to be released from his commitment. That presidential sequence is missing from this reprint, which is the tail end of the Foreign Legion story. It's alluded to, but not shown, and probably because by 1948 FDR had been dead for three years.

Regrettably, some of the thoughtless racism of the era is right up front. Joe's pal, Smokey, while treated as an equal by Joe, is an ugly caricature. My apologies to all who may be offended.

I believe the art is by longtime Fisher assistant, Mo Leff, who ghosted for Fisher, and did not sign the strip until 1955, after Fisher's suicide.

From Harvey Comics’ Joe Palooka #22, 1948:


darkmark said...

I remember how, in one Batman story from the Forties, there was a panel showing a dining car on a train. The white characters were drawn normally. The black waiters were drawn with huge circular eyes, "liver lips", and big smiles. It was such a culture shock it reminded me of how far we've progressed...and I'm glad we have!

Pappy said...

Darkmark, I'm old enough to remember a restaurant, the Coon Chicken Inn, which originated in my home town. My dad took us to dinner there several times. The doorway was a huge grinning black face with a a porter's cap and winking eye, not unlike Smoky in the Joe Palooka comic strip. That awful image from the Coon Chicken Inn lives on. I saw it in the movie version of Dan Clowes' Ghost World, and there are a lot of reproductions of the face on new restaurant ware for collectors. There's an article about it here.

I was a little kid who knew nothing about race, and Dad was a racist who thought nothing was wrong with those caricatures. I think back now and agree with you, we've progressed.

Fortunately those old-time images have become part of our past and should be thought of as historical artifacts and not editorial judgments.

Open racism is part of the past that includes comics, and I always apologize before putting those images with their capacity to offend out to the public.