The saga of sports comics depicts a classic struggle of competition: How does the underdog prevail? For most of a generation straddling World War II, sports comics themselves were decided underdogs to action comics, funny comics, and super hero comics.
The most successful sports comics centered on baseball and boxing. Basketball, football and hockey made fleeting appearances (with an occasional swimmer, tennis or track star thrown in), but tales of the diamond and the ring predominated. If a publisher desired to tap in to sports enthusiasm when launching a comic title, it was natural to tap the public's hunger for baseball or boxing.
Leading the sports charge was Ham Fisher's inimitable Joe Palooka, which started as a comic strip on April 1, 1930. The following year, he won the fictional heavyweight championship of the world. Touted as "America's comic hero," Palooka was a natural for Eastern Colors' Famous Funnies, a compilation of color Sunday newspaper comic strips, which commenced in 1934.
Boxing was at its peak, and the Palooka strip captured the excitement and uncertainty of the sport. But Palooka was not only a boxing champ; he fought everything, ghosts to Nazis. The character was the son every parent which they had: upright, principled, with high moral values and a calling to overcome evil.
True to his word, his values and his girl, Ann Howe, Joe was also compassionate and self-sacrificing. A humanitarian award in his honor was bestowed annually on a great American whose performance mirrored the high ideals that Palooka espoused.
Palooka was so popular he popped up everywhere. He christened Feature Funnies (Harry A. Chesler, publisher) as its cover boy, a role he frequently filled. In June 1939, when the publisher changed and the title of the series became Feature Comics, Palooka again graced the cover (issue 21). He made curtain calls on the covers of issues 24 and 27. Palooka also starred in twelve issues of Columbia Comics Group's Big Shot Comics, beginning with issue 1 (May 1940).
Columbia Comics launched a separate Palooka title in 1942. It only ran four issues. During this time, Joe was enlisted in the war effort against Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.
All this was preliminary. As the most popular sports comic strip in history, was Palooka primed for a breakout performance. With a strip that appeared in more than 600 newspapers, Palooka boasted 50 million fans daily.
Harvey Publications became involved in 1945, producing a giveaway publication for the Red Cross and an enormous adventure strip compilation. In November, Harvey debuted the popular hero under his own title. Issue #1 tells how Joe became world champion. The title ran through 118 issues, plus four special issues, before ceasing publication in March of 1961.
From the outset, the comic was a tremendous success. Each issue sold more than 1 million copies. Along the way, the comic's title changed frequently, known alternately as Joe Palooka, Joe Palooka Monthly, Joe Palooka Comics Monthly, Joe Palooka Adventures and Joe Palooka Champ of Comics.
Palooka was indeed the knockout champion of comics, but he wasn't invincible. The issues followed Palooka's career with cliffhanger developments that propelled the reader from one issue to the next.
Eventually the strip extended to more than 1,000 newspapers worldwide, with an audience of 100 million daily. In his day, Palooka's creator, Ham Fisher, was probably the most prosperous and well-known comic artist in the field.
Assembling a run of the Palooka titles, especially all the crossover appearances, would be a challenge. Collectors should be especially vigilant for additional Palooka strips in other titles.