Dec 3, 2012

Boxers and Boyfriends: Joe Palooka

Speaking of boxing, the most famous fictional boxer of all time was probably Joe Palooka in the long-running comic strip (1930-1984).   Tall and immensely strong but gentle and not terribly bright, Joe Palooka was the creation of Ham Fisher, who observed lots of young Polish immigrant boys hanging around boxing arenas, hoping that their muscles would bring them fame and fortune.










In his heyday, Joe was appearing on the radio, in movies (starring Joe Kirkwood, left), in big-little books, and in comic books.

You could buy Joe Palooka toys, gum, lunch boxes, board games, and a cut-out mask on Wheaties cereal.  A mountain near Ham Fisher's home town of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania was named after him.  The town of Oolitic, Indiana erected a statue in his honor.

Joe was originally gay-vague, "allergic to girls," though cheese heiress Ann Howe acted as Daisy Mae to his Li'l Abner, constantly trying to snare him. To 1930s audiences, muscles and heterosexual intrigues simply didn't mix.  Instead Joe was a "man's man," enjoyed buddy-bonds with his sparring partner, massively-muscular Humphrey Pennyworth.

The two adopted a mute orphan named Little Max, who became popular enough to get his own series of toys and comic book title.




By World War II, changing mores required heroes to express hetero-horniness, so Joe married Ann.  And Humphrey became short and round, a comic relief character.

Boxing was no longer a sure-fire audience draw, so Joe moved beyond the boxing ring to fight gangsters, spies, Nazis, and mad scientists.  Eventually he was traveling around the world as an all-purpose trouble-shooter. Sometimes he rescued men.











The comic strip lingered in a dwindling number of small-town newspapers until 1984.  By that time, everyone had forgotten about Joe Palooka.

Except for the college boys scouring the bins at the Comics Cave for beefcake covers.

And the elderly gay men who remembered glimpsing homoromantic potential in their childhood, when they opened the comics page to read about L'il Abner, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, and Joe Palooka.