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A one way ticket to Palookaville – Joe Palooka #18

October 11, 2011

I was going to do this post a couple of weeks ago, but I had just completed the “Thing getting his stony snot pounded out of him by the Champion” entry. I thought it best to spread the boxing out a bit. You’re welcome.

There are characters that were before my time. Then there are characters that were before my father’s time. Joe is partially the latter, though this particular comic came out after my old man’s birth (but before, unless he was a Doogie Howser-like prodigy, he learned to read). I confess to knowing little or nothing about Joe Palooka. When I read/hear his name I think of Bazooka Joe and incredibly hard, impossible to chew gum. I hear Palooka and I think of Brando in On the Waterfront. So, if nothing else, I now have a face to put with the name (though it’s not the first time his face has appeared here). And what a guileless, toothless face it is.

In case you’re equally ignorant, Joe Palooka was an upstanding newspaper strip boxer of old who most of the time dealt with sport-related hijinks, and occasionally, as every comic book character did in the early 1940s, battled Nazis and Japs. Think of him as sort of a good-natured American Ivan Drago, one surrounded by a predictable cast of pals, fiances and scamps. And the cover puffery seen above wasn’t idle boasting. He was enormously popular, with a broad, loyal readership. He was no Zippy the Pinhead, but…

Also, if there’s one thing that clearly puts this comic back in antiquity, it’s that Joe is a non-bum white heavyweight not named Klitschko. Nowadays you’d have more luck finding a dodo.

This issue, crafted by creator Ham Fisher, centers around Palooka and his Alfred Pennyworthish trainer, Knobby Walsh, heading out to Hollywood to work on a movie. Go West, young man, go West. But before they fly the final leg Joe has to take a bath in a horribly undersized oaken tub and Knobby has to polish his bald head:

There might be some homoeroticism in there, and I don’t think you have to scrape away too much to find it. It looks like Knobby’s staring right at Joe’s cock. Knobby’s ogling the knob, if you will. “Hey, Knobby, come scrub my back.”

Once they’re out in that den of iniquity known as Tinseltown, both are swept up in the overwhelming magic of movie-making. The nebbish Knobby even has himself a woman, the lead actress in Joe’s movie, that is, until Joe discovers her making out with the male lead:

Scandalous! Poor Joe. Poor Knobby. And what a quandary. How does JP give that deceitful tart and her sleazy man what for without breaking poor Knobby’s heart? How does he set about untying this difficult romantic knot? How does he STOP THE GIANT RUNAWAY MOON FROM CRASHING INTO THE EARTH?

There’s no solution to that last problem, but there is one for the romantic chicanery — boxing, of course!:

I’d never heard of “London Prize Ring” rules before. A nice way of saying “stomp a mud-hole in him and walk it dry,” I guess. A chance for a good drubbing.

The story gets continued into the next issue (and this issue was itself a continuance from the previous entry). And that’s related to one of things that impressed me about this book. There’s a depth to the story that’s a bit lacking in most of the Golden Age material that I’ve perused. The thick reamy comics of those days are usually filled with multiple stories featuring the central character and a number of smaller shorts with others. While this one has several quickies, the central feature takes up most of the mag and gives you the impression that you’re reading A REAL STORY. ONE THAT AT LEAST HAD A MODICUM OF THOUGHT AND EFFORT PUT INTO ITS CREATION. I can’t say that this book is a page-turner, or one that would take someone who couldn’t care less about Joe Palooka and magically morph them into a rabid fan. But you can see the effort, which is perhaps a result of the character’s serialized newspaper origins. A thank you to Fisher for that.

The Joe Palooka strip came to an end in the 1980s and poor Joe has been forgotten by young(ish) slobs like me. But he had his day, one that included radio serials, television, and a James Bondian number of feature films. If he’s up in fictional boxer heaven (with the likes of Apollo Creed, Jake LaMotta et al.), here’s hoping he isn’t too punch-drunk.

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