Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ham Fisher (1900-1955)

Hammond Edward Fisher, salesman and self-taught cartoonist created prizefighter Joe Palooka during the Depression. At time of his death in 1955 Palooka was appearing in 800 newspapers in the United States and Canada.

Fisher, born 24 Sept 1900, or 1901, left school at 16 and became a truck driver and brush peddler, before landing a job as reporter and advertising salesman for his hometown newspaper the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Record. Fisher claimed he had first come up with the idea of Joe Palooka in 1921, originally calling him Joe the Dumbbell.

Fisher was employed by Captain Patterson’s New York Daily News, but the job did not help him sell Joe Palooka, the Captain turned it down, probably because Fisher was not a very accomplished artist. However, the story goes, in 1929 Charles V. McAdam, of the McNaught Syndicate, allowed Fisher, at no salary, to sell Palooka to editors along with Dixie Dugan. He proved successful enough that Palooka was finally accepted for syndication. That was Fisher’s usual story to reporters, probably best taken with a grain of salt.

Emile Gauvreau, in his book My Last Million Readers (1942), wrote that he bought his last comic strip

“one New Year’s eve, when Ham Fisher, known in New York circles as “the pride of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.,” an enthusiastic cartoonist who sought to introduce his wares to the metropolis, befuddled me with a rare bottle of Burgundy during a hilarious celebration. When I woke up the next day I found I was the sponsor of “Joe Palooka,” an exemplary character who never drank or smoked and was good to his mother. Strangely enough “Palooka” became one of the most successful ventures in the comic field and soon had Fisher living in affluence and riding an Arabian horse in central Park.”

Fisher left an estate of $2,500,000 behind at the time of his death in 1955.

“When I started Palooka in 1930 the big comics were Bringing up Father, Barney Google, Orphan Annie and Our Boarding House. It was pow, wham, zowie. Jokes.”

Fisher was very patriotic and before the war Palooka joined the French Foreign Legion. During World War II Joe Palooka was fighting the Nazi’s in comic strips and comic books. In the fifties Joe Palooka was the star of Harvey Comics bloodthirsty Korean War line. Real celebrities made their appearance in the comic strip; Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Harry Truman, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1933, according to Fisher, cartoonist Al Capp “begged me for a job…I took pity on him and gave him a job lettering and inking-in.” When Fisher was about to take a week’s holiday Capp demanded a raise of fifty dollars “and sneered that I wouldn’t be able to go away if he refused to work. I blew up. I fired him and took the work with me.” Thus began a feud that tried the patience of friends of both cartoonists.

Al Capp rejected Fisher’s version of the feud.

“Fisher’s wrong when he says I was hired to ‘letter’ for him. I was an artist -- good enough the year before to do a syndicated cartoon for the associated Press called Mr. Gilfeather. Fisher would have been a highly impractical man to restrict a competent artist and writer to simple lettering.

Fisher cannot draw at all, except for a few simple chalk-talk tricks, so when he says ‘he took the drawings with him’ it is a pathetic claim. I never told him Joe Palooka was my favorite strip. It’s the kind of strip I deplore, a glorification of punches and brutishness.

I was making $19 a week, later $22, while working for Fisher. For the period I was employed by Fisher I drew in their entirety all his Sunday pages, created all the characters therein and wrote every line…I had time on my hands and whipped up Li’l Abner and sold the cartoon to United Features syndicate.”

When Capp left Fisher hired three assistants, Moe Leff (stolen from former assistant Al Capp), Phil Boyle, and a lettering man, all of whom worked for him for over twenty years. Moe Leff helped with the continuity scripts and all three collaborated on the drawing. Fisher concentrated most on advertising the strip and himself, briefly branching into radio and movies.

Regardless of ‘who done what’ Capp must have learned quite a bit from his supposedly tight-fisted boss; Leff drew most of the strip while only Fisher drew the faces, a situation that Capp continued with his own assistants. Fisher said of Moe Leff that “he could do a great strip of his own. I have to pay him a king’s ransom to keep him.”

Ham Fisher, after first phoning his mother one last time, committed suicide by overdose in Moe Leff’s studio, 27 Dec 1955. According to his suicide note he was distressed by failing eyesight and diabetes.

In 1950 Joe Palooka appeared in 30 Canadian newspapers, three in Montreal alone, and was second in popularity to only Blondie and Li’l Abner. Palooka raked in millions from comic books, candy, and ‘seven dozen’ Palooka movies. Indian Lookout in Wilkes-Barre was renamed Mt. Joe Palooka, and a 30 foot tall limestone Palooka statue (in a Superman type cape) was raised on a hill overlooking Route 37 in Indiana in September 1948. Joe Palooka was continued by Moe Leff, then Tony DiPreta, until its demise in 1984.

*Most Quotations from “Joe Palooka, Richest Pug in the World,” by James Edgar, Maclean’s Magazine, Canada, 1 August 1950.

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