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

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

The story of Al Capp and Ham Fisher, two cartooning geniuses, their rise to superstar and their livid interactions with one another, is the stuff of epic journey fiction, however right here, it’s reality.

On the peak of their careers, within the 1950s, they have been superstars: Capp reached 90 million readers and earned $500,000 a yr ($four million in at the moment’s dollars); Fisher, 100 million readers and $550,000 (over $four.5 million in right now’s dollars).

Their creations have been in films and on stage.

Shamed by his colleagues on the peak of his profession, Fisher died by his personal hand; Capp died in obscurity, disgraced by sensational information of his sexual scandals.

Al Capp and Ham Fisher with their respective star characters.

 

HE WASN’T LIMPING; HE WAS LURCHING. He swung his left leg out sideways, virtually dragging it ahead for every step, and his stride had a practiced rhythm, a rolling gait punctuated by a profound dip each time he transferred his weight to his left leg, the picket one. However it wasn’t the lurch that attracted the eye of the person within the limousine a lot because it was the sheaf of paper in a blue wrapper that the tottering stroller had tucked underneath his arm. The person within the limousine was a cartoonist, and he thought he acknowledged the blue wrapping paper: it was, he believed, the paper his syndicate used to wrap rejected paintings in when returning it to hapless supplicants.

“Pull up alongside that fellow,” the person stated to his chauffeur. And he turned to the lady seated subsequent to him, and stated, “I bet that guy is a cartoonist.”

The topic of this wager, the younger man rolling alongside the sidewalk on Eighth Avenue close to Columbus Circle, was a considerably shabby specimen, who, regardless of the coolness of the spring day, was hatless and almost coatless. However he didn’t want a hat. He had a shaggy mop of thick, black hair. He had been in New York just a few weeks, and the six dollars he’d arrived with had lengthy since evaporated. If it hadn’t been for the kindness of his landlady, whose boundless religion in her tenant’s inventive talent prompted her to stake him to his assault on the citadels of the mass media, he would have been again in his native Boston. She let him keep in her attic with out paying and even gave him slightly cash every single day for meals.

He observed the limousine slowing down because it pulled alongside him, and he watched because the rear window rolled down, and he noticed the person within the again, seated subsequent to a well-dressed lady. The person checked out him and stated:

“I’ve bet my sister that you’re a cartoonist. Are you?”

He was. Or, quite, that’s what Alfred G. Caplin aspired to be that spring of 1933. And he had even bought a number of cartoons from time to time, each in New York and in Boston. The yr earlier than, he had been in New York drawing a syndicated cartoon function a few pompous younger blowhard, however his coronary heart hadn’t been in it, so he gave it up and returned to Boston and his new spouse. And now, six months later, he was again within the Massive Apple for an additional attempt at fame and fortune. It wasn’t a great time to be wanting. The nation was firmly within the grip of what would later be referred to as “the Great Depression.” Nationwide, 14 million have been out of labor. In New York, 82 breadlines crammed one million jobless bellies, however 29 New Yorkers would die of hunger that yr. So when the person within the limousine provided him $10 to do some drawing for him, Caplin took him up on it.

And that’s how Al Capp, as he would later signal himself, met Ham Fisher, who, within the spring of 1933, was the famed creator of Joe Palooka, a comic book strip a few considerably simpleminded prize fighter who had, accidentally, turn into the heavyweight champion of the world. It was a fateful encounter, as fraught with impending occasion as something within the cliffhanging comedian strips of the day’s newspapers. Capp earned his 10 bucks by ending a Sunday Palooka, and he carried out nicely sufficient that Fisher employed him as his assistant at $22.50 every week. Or thereabouts. Capp did the Sunday strips, and inside a number of months, he was writing in addition to drawing them. However earlier than the yr was out, he would go away Fisher to dedicate his energies to creating his personal cartoon, and in the summertime of 1934, he too turned a syndicated cartoonist with the debut of Li’l Abner. He would turn into as well-known and fêted as Fisher.

Two giants of their subject, and but once they got here collectively, every was introduced low, undone, by the identical lie. After which every would destroy himself. And of their self-destruction, they might share a star-crossed destiny as certainly as if joined on the hip that day they met on Eighth Avenue close to Columbus Circle.

 

I. Fisher vs Capp

HAM FISHER IS THE MOST CELEBRATED CARTOONIST ever to have been drummed out of the Nationwide Cartoonists Society. He will not be the one cartoonist to be so defrocked. However his is unquestionably probably the most well-known case within the annals of the Society. His exit was noisy. For a quick whereas. After which, all fell silent.

Fisher was lifeless. He dedicated suicide inside a yr of the shame of his banishment. His identify hasn’t been talked about a lot since. And the silence is simply one of many unusual parts on this ignoble episode.

It was the infamous feud between Fisher and Capp that precipitated occasions leading to Fisher’s ouster from the ranks of the Society. The story of the feud is juicy with the kind of morbid sensation that enlivens grocery store tabloids: vicarious intercourse, scandalous accusation, denials and tried cover-ups, excessive dudgeon and low humor, and shame and demise. However there’s excessive drama within the story, too, within the impulse to self-destruction. And there are additionally contradictory elements within the conventional rehearsal of the story, puzzles by no means fairly solved. So it appeared to me a narrative value exhumation, a type of legends that begs for cautious inspection.

I didn’t all the time maintain this conviction. However a number of years in the past, someday within the 1990s, I met cartoonist Morris Weiss, and over dinner with Weiss and his spouse Blanche at a bit of place close to his residence in Florida, he began speaking concerning the numerous locations the trail of his profession had crossed the trail of Ham Fisher’s. Weiss speaks with an admirable precision, clipping his phrases right into a lilting syntax as he goes. No, he stated in reply to my query, he didn’t consider himself as a specific pal of Fisher’s. Fisher was not a pleasant man, he stated. Not the type of man you’d be the pal of. However Fisher hadn’t been handled pretty, Weiss stated.

My curiosity piqued, I made a decision to look into the sordid story of the feud between Fisher and Capp. And once I did, I discovered within the contradictions truths that, it appeared to me, had lengthy been ignored.

Morris Weiss’ reference to Fisher, an admittedly tangential one, started early and ran late. Weiss spent most of his cartooning profession with one or the opposite of two newspaper comedian strips, Mickey Finn and Joe Palooka. Joe Palooka was Ham Fisher’s creation, however Weiss didn’t work on the strip with Fisher. By the point Weiss arrived on the strip, Fisher had been lifeless for years.

Artist Morris Weis’ reference to Fisher started early and ran late. (Photograph by Poch Bros. photographer Ilse Hoffman.)

On the age of 19, Weiss entered the career by lettering Ed Wheelan’s Minute Films. After comparable stints with Pedro Llanuza on Joe Jinks and with Harold Knerr on The Katzenjammer Youngsters, Weiss started aiding Lank Leonard in 1936 simply because the latter launched Mickey Finn, a strip a few kindly younger workaday policeman and his Irish household. Following service within the Military in World Warfare II, Weiss resumed his profession by doing comedian books for Stan Lee at Well timed. Then in 1960, Weiss rejoined Leonard, ultimately taking up Mickey Finn in 1968 and persevering with the strip till it ceased in 1977. For about the identical interval, he additionally wrote Joe Palooka, which was then being drawn by Tony DiPreta, who would draw the strip till it ended Nov. four, 1984.

Whereas nonetheless a youngster attending the Excessive Faculty of Commerce in New York Metropolis, Weiss visited many cartoonists of their studios, in search of recommendation about how to enter the career. Amongst these he visited was Ham Fisher. It was about 1932 or 1933, very early within the run of Joe Palooka, and Fisher had an condominium within the Parc Vendome, a complicated house constructing in Manhattan.

“Ham had moved into the Parc Vendome to live in the same building with James Montgomery Flagg,” Weiss advised me. “Ham was very much conscious of celebrities; he wanted to meet the celebrities and mingle with them. So, he befriended Flagg and moved into the same apartment house as he lived in. Ham was very nice when I saw him back then. He gave me a drawing. And then I didn’t see him until many years later.”

The subsequent time Weiss encountered Fisher was in 1944, when Weiss was within the Military and house in New York on furlough. “I dropped in at the McNaught Syndicate [which distributed Mickey Finn as well as Joe Palooka] for some reason or other, and Ham was there, and we left together and shared a cab to where he was going. I recall he was telling the cabbie stories of the things he was doing for the soldiers through the comic strip and with chalk talks in hospitals and things like that. And when the cabbie heard everything Ham had to say — apparently the cabbie was already a veteran, and he started to tell Ham stories about his Army life, and at that point, Ham lost interest.”

Clearly, Weiss implied, Fisher was too wrapped up in himself to pay attention to anybody else’s life story. Presently in his profession, Fisher was a nationwide movie star of “Roman self-esteem,” as Time put it (Nov. 6, 1950), and round New York Metropolis, he was a well known denizen of trendy nightlife. “He lived like a lord,” writes Jay Maeder in “Fisher’s End,” revealed in Hogan’s Alley #eight (Fall 2000), “and he always had the best seats at the races and the prizefights and the musicals, and he played golf with Bing Crosby and boasted about it.”

Fisher was extensively recognized and favored within the sporting world. He watched each notable prize struggle from the press field, and the followers have been reportedly as keen to see him as they have been to see the battle. He was welcome in each coaching camp and struggle fitness center. He was a member of the Boxing Writers Affiliation, and he spent a lot of his time outdoors his studio at coaching camps, “picking up ring color and even sparring with the fighters,” reported Newsweek (Dec. 12, 1939).

Joe Palooka was with out query probably the most widespread comedian strips of the interval. Depicting the adventures of a good-hearted if considerably simple-minded prize fighter (ostensibly, the world’s heavyweight champion), the strip persistently positioned among the many prime 5 comedian strips in readership surveys within the ’40s and early ’50s. In accordance to a 1950 report in Time, Fisher’s strip was proper up there with Blondie, Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy and Li’l Abner.

Fisher’s forged of characters for Joe Palooka.

Fisher advised action-oriented journey tales, filled with unique incident in addition to a wholesome dose of humor. And he was professional at prolonging the agonies he inflicted upon his characters, creating suspense-filled storylines the equal of any contrived by his cohorts within the cliffhanger recreation. His forged included Joe’s long-suffering and voluble supervisor, Knobby Walsh, who loves Joe however has an eye fixed all the time on gate receipts, too. Reportedly a mix of the personalities of a number of outstanding battle personalities, notably Jack Bulger (as soon as handler of Mickey Walker) and Doc Kearns (Jack Dempsey’s supervisor) and Tom Quigley (a Wilkes-Barre boxing promoter), Knobby is usually supposed to be Fisher’s alter ego within the strip, a supposition Fisher himself fostered. The opposite principal character is Joe’s fiancé, the beauteous blonde Ann Howe, whom the champ lastly marries on June 24, 1949, after an 18-year engagement. (It was within the air. Dick Tracy married Tess Trueheart on Christmas Eve, 1949; and Li’l Abner married Daisy Mae on March 29, 1952.) To this group, Fisher added redheaded Jerry Leemy, Joe’s excitable wartime Military buddy, and, later, the massively comedian heavyweight, Humphrey Pennyworth, a 300-pound village blacksmith with a coronary heart of gold who might be the one individual we’re sure might defeat Palooka within the ring, and, later nonetheless, the homeless waif Max, a diminutive monument to unadulterated (which is to say cloying) sweetness, all the time attired in cast-off footwear too giant for him and sporting an out-sized hat. The inspiration for Max, in accordance to William C. Kashatus in Pennsylvania Heritage (Spring 2000), was Max Bartikowsky, a child who lived in Fisher’s previous Wilkes-Barre neighborhood who would typically gown up in his mom’s floppy hats and his father’s massive footwear and go operating up and down the road. Stated Bartikowsky: “I guess that left an impression with Fisher.”

As for Joe himself, it isn’t fairly correct to say he’s simple-minded. However how else do you describe such an uncomplicated character?

To start with, he’s massive and robust. He’s, in any case, knowledgeable boxer. His shoulders are broader than anybody else’s within the strip. Besides these of his opponents within the ring. He’s additionally completely, doggedly, healthful. He’s considerate, compassionate and utterly loyal. And humble, relentlessly humble. He embodies clear dwelling, clear speaking and clear considering, not to point out honesty, braveness, tolerance and devotion to obligation, nation, mom and apple pie. You see what I imply by “uncomplicated?”

Even his face is uncomplicated: It’s absolutely plain, completely open and unassuming. Manly lantern jaw, tiny nose, gigantic shock of forelock, wide-open eyes. It’s the sort of face you expect on a man incapable of dissembling. Or of compromise. Or of anything mean, small, or even remotely unkind. With Joe Palooka, what you see is what you get. Simply stated, he is an ideal. An American ideal of manhood. Or of knighthood, for that is what he is: a kindly, gracious knight, righter of wrongs, defender of truth, beauty, justice and the American way.

While the artwork in Palooka is distinctive and well done, it isn’t of the caliber of Alex Raymond or Hal Foster or Milton Caniff in Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant or Terry and the Pirates. It’s the stories rather than the artwork that grip and hold the reader of Fisher’s strip. There are, for example, plenty of boxing matches, and Fisher made engrossing stories out of them. Fisher’s sequences in the boxing ring are enthralling to witness. They are skillfully and realistically choreographed, every move carefully plotted. And every move that is depicted is given significance in the story, too; no wasted motions here. Every picture is accompanied by a “voice-over” narrative — the voice of a radio announcer describing to his viewers what he sees. In these golden days of yesteryear earlier than tv, we “watched” such athletic contests as boxing matches by way of the eyes of a radio announcer. So Fisher’s system enhanced the phantasm of actuality within the strip.

Radio announcer narrates Palooka match blow by blow. From the Feb. 22 and Feb. 23, 1938 Joe Palooka strips.

Fisher’s homely locutions, the cruel contractions that infest his hero’s utterances, recommend a soft-spoken method of handle. And that, in flip, displays Joe’s important humility, his “just folks” origins, his redeeming lack of sophistication, his wholly unpretentious character. There’s nothing “elegunt” (as Fisher would have him say) about his speech. He says issues like: “Kin ya ’magine?” “Honist.” “I been insalted.” “I wish I could go somewheres and jist be fergot.” And when he’s excited, “Tch, tch” — his most fervent expletive. And, all the time a mannequin of excellent manners, “Than-kyou.”

All through his run on the strip, Fisher mirrored the beliefs of his viewers. Joe Palooka was, above all else, a sentimental strip. However it was unabashed, conventional American sentiment, born and bred within the customized and aspiration of the American spirit. Its uncooked sentimentality might undermine our curiosity nowadays; however through the years of World Conflict II — and for a interval each earlier than and after — the strip was in good step with the occasions. Coulton Waugh, whose venerable 1947 work The Comics efficiently formed comics criticism for many years, says this about Fisher’s strip:

The good high quality that lifts the strip to the very prime is just the guts in it, the human love. All individuals … know that it’s love that makes males rank above the brutes, however it’s exceedingly troublesome to write about or converse of this valuable enterprise with out assuming the righteous angle, the smallest trace of which sends the general public scampering. … On this respect, Ham Fisher resembles Milton Caniff: Neither spoils his work with preachiness.

Issues simply occur within the lifetime of Joe Palooka; he doesn’t exit of his method to be good, it’s simply in him. He reacts with greatness as a result of he can’t assist it. … Easy individuals [took] as a super the large, sleek man with thunder in his fist and with humility in his coronary heart. … He was certainly one of them.

Yr after yr, Fisher advised a riveting story. And his tales gave his readers one thing to admire, to emulate. And so why don’t we hear extra about Ham Fisher and Joe Palooka in nowadays of revived curiosity within the cultural artifacts of newspaper comedian strips of their Golden Age?

True, the strip’s typically cloying mawkishness makes it rather less than congenial studying these days. However there’s extra to it than that. There’s additionally Ham Fisher himself. And to perceive the close to disappearance of Joe Palooka from the pantheon of comic-strip greats, we’ve to know one thing extra about Ham Fisher.

Subsequent: Ham and Joe