Joe Palooka was an American comic strip about a heavyweight boxing champion, created by cartoonist Ham Fisher in 1921. The strip debuted in 1930 and was carried at its peak by 900 newspapers.
The strip was adapted to a short-lived 15-minute CBS radio series, 12 feature-length films (chiefly from Monogram Pictures), nine Vitaphone film shorts, a 1954 syndicated television series (The Joe Palooka Story), comic books and merchandise, including a 1940s board game, a 1947 New Haven Clock & Watch Company wristwatch, a 1948 metal lunchbox featuring depictions of Joe, Humphrey and Little Max, and a 1946 Wheaties cereal box cut-out mask. In 1980, a mountain in Pennsylvania was named for the character.
In his home town of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Fisher devised the character in 1921 after he met a boxer, Pete Latzo, outside a poolroom. As Fisher explained in an article in Collier’s:
“ Here, made to order, was the comic strip character I had been looking for—a big, good-natured prize fighter who didn’t like to fight; a defender of little guys; a gentle knight. I ran back to the office, drew a set of strips and rushed to the newspaper syndicates. ”
However, many rejections followed before Fisher’s strip was finally syndicated by the McNaught Syndicate after Fisher, while employed as a McNaught salesman, sold it to over 20 newspapers. It debuted April 19, 1930, and by 1948, it was ranked as one of the five most popular newspaper comic strips.
Fisher originally changed the appearance of Palooka to fit each reigning real-life champ — until the coming of African-American Joe Louis in the 1930s, at which time the image of the cowlicked blond Palooka remained unchanged. Though his adventures were mostly low-key, he was pumped up by a supporting cast led by girlfriend Ann Howe, boxing manager Knobby Walsh, his mute orphan sidekick Little Max, Smokey, his black valet and later sparring partner and lovable giant Humphrey Pennyworth, a smiling blacksmith who wielded a 100-pound (45 kg) maul. Like Ozark Ike McBatt in baseball, Joe Palooka was intended to exemplify the sports hero in an age when uprightness of character was supposed to matter most. The character was part of an effort among top newspaper cartoonists to sell WWII-era Series E bonds to the public as a wartime financing initiative.
The strip garnered much publicity when cheese heiress Ann Howe and Joe were married on June 24, 1949. The engraved invitations for the event, sent to a select list of celebrities, read: “Mr. Ham Fisher requests the honour of your presence at the marriage of Ann Howe to Mr. Joe Palooka on the afternoon of June 24th in your favorite newspaper.” Fisher received formal acceptances from Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, General Omar Bradley and Attorney General Tom C. Clark. At the time, the strip was carried in 665 American newspapers and 125 foreign papers.
After Fisher committed suicide in 1955, his assistant Moe Leff drew the strip for four years. Lank Leonard recommended Tony DiPreta, who stepped in to illustrate Morris Weiss’ scripts. DiPreta stayed with the strip for 25 years until it ended its run November 24, 1984, when it had dropped to only 182 newspapers. DiPreta then moved on to draw Rex Morgan, M.D..