Al Capp Games Ham Fisher Hare Tonic

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

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

Beforehand, the introduction to our story.


II. Ham and Joe

HAMMOND EDWARD FISHER BECAME A CARTOONIST towards all odds. All the chances that swayed destiny anyway. Born Sept. 24, 1900 (or 1901) in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the son of a Jewish scrapyard supplier, Fisher, to hear him inform it, surmounted probably the most formidable impediment any cartoonist might have confronted:

I used to be 5 years of age once I declared that I used to be going to do a comic book strip and no quantity of irritating circumstances ever deviated me from my course. My course was set, and although I encountered many greater than my share of storms, I used to be decided to discover a harbor in the future: a drafting board, a bottle of India ink, a goodly provide of Strathmore, loads of 290 pens and — a deadline.

[But] my father objected strenuously and I might spell strenuously “s-t-r-a-p”! He despised my ambition. He needed me to be a businessman, therefore his disgust at my aesthetic style. I wasn’t allowed to draw an image in the home. I hid within the attic behind packing containers and trunks to copy the pen strains of James Montgomery Flagg or research the composition of the good [Clare] Briggs or H.T. Webster.

Younger Ham was saved by his mom, as he concludes the foregoing description of his birthright in an autobiographical essay in Quantity four of a 1954 correspondence course, Illustrating and Cartooning, from Artwork Instruction, Inc. of Minneapolis, Minn.:

My mom was a really literate lady and our home was full of positive books, good work and the fantastic illustrations of Gustave Doré and Sir John Tenniel. These have been my Heaven.

Ham was targeted so solely on drawing that he “was thrown out of every class in school for paying no attention.” As soon as Fisher was safely launched on his Joe Palooka profession and the accompanying talking excursions, he enlisted a good friend, Anne Parenteau, to write a biography to be utilized by newspapers in selling his appearances.

Pogo creator Walt Kelly was introduced in to assist promote Fisher’s private appearances.

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

He graduated from highschool in a category by himself. Nobody else got here so shut to being left [behind] as he did, in order that they put him in a category by himself. … After commencement, Ham went to school for 2 weeks. They have been two marvelous weeks spent principally in cabarets. (Aug. 20, 1931)

Then he returned residence to drive a truck for his father till the household enterprise failed quickly thereafter. He labored as a salesman for a time and then embarked upon a army profession in the course of the First World Conflict, however, Parenteau famous, it was as short-lived as his school profession had been:

The struggle and Ham’s old flame affair each hit him at one swoop. He went to Camp Lee in Virginia and arrived on the similar time that the Armistice did. This was a horrible disappointment as a result of he had all the time needed to be a hero and felt that he had misplaced his nice alternative to “show” earlier than his woman love. However he obtained over the love affair and the frustration and on the age of 20 obtained his first newspaper job as cartoonist and roving reporter for the Wilkes-Barre Report.

In his personal 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 every day column (“Cousin Ham’s Corner”) with caricatures of native celebrities and drew a cartoon or two, sports activities or political. After a yr, he left the Document to be a part of the employees of the town’s different paper, the Occasions-Chief, as a result of, he defined, “they let me put my identify greater on the cartoon. That’s a reality. All we cartoonists are hams and my identify particularly matches me. However boy, it was nice. I used to be a personage in our metropolis. If I hadn’t been a cartoonist do you assume that judges, mayors, the governor — nicely, in truth everyone — would have sought me out? I had a place of affect and energy, however not an excessive amount of affluence. Quickly I used to be toast-mastering at banquets, getting good cash as an after dinner speaker with good little political plums thrown my approach.”

He confessed that he even drew political cartoons for each the Democratic and Republican events. After which, he stated, “came a mistake.” He joined a good friend in launching a brand new newspaper. It lasted solely a few yr, however its collapse (due to the consequences of a strike within the native business, coal mining) was undoubtedly a blessing in disguise for Fisher. A few years earlier than, in about 1920, he had been smitten with an concept for a comic book strip, and if the newspaper had succeeded, his cartoon may by no means have germinated, and the pugilistic world would have been poorer.

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

At some point, whereas passing across the public sq. in Wilkes-Barre, I noticed a chap whom I knew nicely. He was a boxer with very mild blond hair which continued in sticking straight up within the air — type of a crew haircut with out the haircut. His identify was Joe [Hardy], and I knew him as a really good man with a deadly proper hand; in different phrases, he was a hunk of TNT within the ring and as good a gentleman outdoors the squared circle as I’ve ever recognized.

As I approached him, he observed 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 offer you my phrase, a bolt of lightning caught me. Inside an infinitesimal a part of a second I knew I had what I had prayed for all my life: the thought for my cartoon, one thing out of the unusual, the saga of an actual American boy whose life gave him a chance for top journey and unusual expertise. No humdrum existence, his, and I knew what he can be — he can be all of the issues I wanted I might be, a fighter for the worthwhile issues democracy teaches, a clear dwelling champion of democracy. He can be unbeatable in bodily fight, the game of prize preventing to which destiny had directed him by way of Knobby Walsh, his first employer, and outdoors of the ring he can be a mild knight, courteous and type, with a deep conviction of democratic rules.

Even Fisher admitted within the subsequent sentence that not all of Joe Palooka got here to him in that “infinitesimal part of a second.” He was writing in 1953 with the good thing about 23 years of his strip’s progress and improvement behind him. His description of his “gentle knight” was of Joe Palooka in 1953, not in the intervening time of inspiration within the early 1920s. At that second, Fisher was envisioning a great if considerably silly youth whom he referred to as Joe Dumbelletski when he wrote and drew the inaugural three weeks of the strip that day, again on the workplaces of the Occasions-Chief. However Fisher’s mind baby didn’t see print till 1930, and by then Joe had a brand new final identify: “palooka,” a time period typically used to describe a less-than-distinguished athlete, particularly a prizefighter. In Joe’s case, it might be an ironic identify selection. The story of the launching of Joe Palooka is one other of cartooning’s legends.

Fisher went to New York within the early 1920s to promote his strip however no syndicate was . For the remainder of the last decade, Fisher stored making an attempt, going again and forth from Wilkes-Barre (the place he’d rejoined the Occasions-Chief after the demise of his newspaper enterprise) to New York. In 1927, he stayed in New York working within the promoting division of the New York Day by day Information. All of the whereas, he stored peddling Palooka.

Lastly, he bumped into Charles McAdam, common supervisor of McNaught Syndicate, who promised to give Palooka a attempt the subsequent yr. Fisher insisted on going out himself to promote his strip to newspaper editors. To show his means as a salesman, he undertook to promote considered one of McNaught’s losers, Dixie Dugan, a strip a few would-be showgirl. It had been provided round earlier than, however solely two papers had purchased it. Paying his personal bills, Fisher went on the street and bought the strip to 39 papers in 40 days.

Joe wins the title in 1930.

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

Boy, I used to be in strong. I hadn’t value the syndicate a dime of expense. My commissions bumped into big figures, and I used to be flattered everywhere in the lot. Charley and I turned nice buddies (he’s nonetheless my greatest pal), and he bragged that he had the most effective salesman within the nation. I hadn’t advised him that each editor and writer I had seen had been given a promise by me that I’d convey again the best function they’d ever seen, and I’d give them first crack at it.

Once I informed Charley I used to be now going to take Palooka out, he advised me I used to be loopy. Why do this, once I had an excellent future already assured as syndicate salesman. McAdam went away on an extended journey to the tropics, and I began out with Palooka. Simply as I began, the market crash rocked the nation. Enterprise went to the canine. Syndicates have been swamped with cancellations. Editors referred to as me an fool for daring to attempt to promote a brand new function. However regardless of the truth that this was probably the most horrible of all monetary panics, I bought Palooka to twenty-four main papers in as many cities in eighteen days.

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

In The Adventurous Decade, Ron Goulart reveals one thing of the key of Fisher’s success as a salesman. He quotes from the autobiography of Emile Gauvreau, editor of the New York Graphic earlier than turning into 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.”

In accordance to Weiss, Fisher was a hit as a salesman as a result of his conduct was so outrageously ingratiating that a buyer would purchase his product simply to get him out of the workplace. Weiss on how Fisher “got to” Charles McAdam:

Lank Leonard advised me this. He was with the George Matthew Adams Syndicate when he was a sports activities cartoonist, and Ham Fisher went to the George Matthew Adams Syndicate and he noticed Frank Marky. Frank Marky was a prime syndicate salesman. He had been one of many prime salesman for the Chicago Tribune Syndicate; and now he was the highest salesman for the George Matthew Adams Syndicate. And Ham went and noticed Marky and tried to promote him the Joe Palooka strip. And Fisher was throughout him, telling him how nice he was and so on. Marky by no means noticed any human dynamo to equal Ham Fisher making an attempt to promote him Joe Palooka.

So Marky stated, “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 stated, “Not the great Charles V. McAdam?”

“Yes, and he’ll see you.”

And Ham left.

Marky referred to as up McAdam and stated, “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 noticed McAdam, and he was throughout him — on the desk, over his shoulder. And eventually, McAdam stated: “Now I want you to sit in that chair and stop jumping up and down. Look,” he stated, “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 few guys got here in and stated, “What was that tornado that just blew in?”

And McAdam stated, “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 right into a Wilkes-Barre haberdashery run by Knobby Walsh, in search of work.

Joe’s first look April 21, 1930.

Knobby hires him, however one afternoon when Knobby’s off enjoying playing cards together with his cronies, Joe permits a bunch of native toughs to loot the shop, believing they’ve cost accounts. Knobby is ruined, however he quickly finds a method for Joe to assist him recoup. Because it occurs, the present heavyweight champion comes to city, and his supervisor places out the phrase that he’s on the lookout for somebody to struggle in an exhibition contest for $200. Knobby talks Joe into doing it. Joe, who is aware of nothing about boxing, takes a drubbing for the primary 4 rounds, however then, when Knobby tells him that his opponent was the chief of the looters, Joe is enraged. He expenses out on the different fighter, yelling, “You un-honist crook!” He flooring him with a single blow and finds himself the heavyweight champion.

In a righteous fury, Joe defeats heavyweight champion Jack McSwatt. Dec. 28, 1930 strip.

Boxing was a well-liked sport within the 1930s and 1940s, and Joe Palooka was widespread in consequence. Fisher quickly discovered himself one thing of a star. Earlier than lengthy, he was hobnobbing with stellar figures in sports activities and in different arenas of public life. As Robert H. Doyle notes in “A Champ for All Time” in Sports activities Illustrated (April 19, 1965), Fisher typically drew these personages into the strip in cameo appearances ringside throughout considered 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; film stars like Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, and Claudette Colbert. Sometimes, a daily character within the strip can be modeled on somebody in actual life … [such as] rotund Humphrey Pennyworth, for whom Toots Shor is meant to have served as inspiration.”

Among the many well-known individuals Fisher cultivated was probably the most celebrated and flamboyant illustrators of the age, James Montgomery Flagg. A neighbor in the identical condo constructing, the cartoonist was Flagg’s frequent customer and companion. Why a person of Flagg’s sophistication and expertise would tolerate — nay, even take pleasure in — the corporate of a person of Fisher’s comparatively restricted social and inventive talents is one thing of a puzzle. Maybe, as Weiss recommended to me, Flagg loved having a herald, somebody to precede him into eating places and announce his coming to maître d’s and managers.

Capitalizing on the general public’s curiosity in boxing, Fisher imbued his tales with real looking touches. He spent as a lot power within the strip build up to an enormous battle as real-life promoters did for real-life contests. And Joe’s coaching camp reeked of authenticity. However all of the realism created an issue. Fisher’s cartooning potential was of the big-foot comedic faculty. His talent was on a par with lots of his contemporaries — Sidney Smith, as an example, Harold Grey; even a number of the early work of Chester Gould. However that sort of primitive realism couldn’t create the aura that presumably Fisher was now looking for. So Fisher did what many cartoonists did then (and nonetheless do): he employed an artist extra gifted than himself to do the drawing. The primary of those (and the one with the longest tenure on the strip) was one other Wilkes-Barre refugee, Phil Boyle.

As a result of a lot of the run of the strip was ghosted by others, rumors persist within the cartooning group (notably, as Goulart reviews, amongst older cartoonists) that Fisher by no means drew the strip: Even the pattern strips that launched the function, in accordance to this custom, have been drawn by a ghost (a high-school scholar, so the story goes). I think not, however it’s true — with out cavil or query — that a lot of the years of Joe Palooka have been drawn by others.

Moe Leff was one of many ghosts. Within the introduction to the Clark’s Basic Comedian Strips Joe Palooka quantity, A Ticket to Palookaville, Ron Goulart says that Fisher employed Leff away from Al Capp within the mid-’30s, speculating that this maneuver gave Capp “yet another reason to loathe Fisher.”

Leff was the principal graphic drive 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, rather more extensively 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.”

In accordance to the Fisher legend, Fisher all the time drew the faces of Joe and Knobby; Leff left clean ovals on the illustration board, and Fisher deftly crammed them in. Contemplating that the faces of Joe and Knobby have been rendered very merely in contrast to the visages of different characters within the strip, this rivalry might be true.

One other of Fisher’s assistants, for a short while in 1933, was, in fact, Al Capp.

Subsequent: Al and Abner