Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Boxiana Vol. 1 preview: Pugilistic comic books come full circle

Ham Fisher's Joe Palooka; DC's Superman vs Muhammad Ali; Trevor Von Eeden's The Original Johnson and Joe Antonacci's modern-day re-imagining of Palooka as an MMA fighter

Over the next few weeks, this blog will be featuring a series of exclusive previews of content from Boxiana: Volume 1, which will hopefully whet your appetite and persuade you to buy the full volume, which will be available as a paperback book (RRP £9.99) or ebook (RRP TBC).

Today I'm presenting an extract from the second chapter of Boxiana Volume 1, written by myself, which charts the history of boxing-themed comic strips and comic books. The article begins by looking at Regency era boxing illustrations before moving on to examine in detail such iconic works as Ham Fisher's Joe Palooka, DC comics' legendary Superman vs Muhammad Ali special, Trevor Von Eeden's modern graphic novel masterpiece The Original Johnson and Joe Antonacci's modern-day re-imagining of Joe Palooka as an MMA fighter.

This article is a perfect illustration of one of the reasons why I have started Boxiana. Boxing comic books are, I'll admit, a niche and somewhat esoteric subject area - and the sort of subject that the likes of Boxing News, Boxing Monthly and The Ring magazine are unlikely to feature!

But that, for me, sums up precisely what I'm aiming for with Boxiana - I want to make sure there is space in Boxiana for subjects connected with boxing that other publications might steer clear of or overlook. That doesn't mean that ALL our articles will be esoteric, but I want to make sure that Boxiana is always willing to consider any form or style of writing related to boxing in any way. There are an infinite number of weird and wonderful topics and personalities associated with the sport and its history - many of which often go unnoticed and commented upon; Boxiana, in its own small way, is therefore hoping to shed some light on some of these corners of the sport.

As I publish further previews from the anthology in the coming weeks and days, hopefully you'll conclude that Boxiana: Volume 1 will be worth purchasing. If not, then at the very least I hope you enjoy the free sneak peeks and other blog posts!

Anyway, that's enough of the hard sell, here's the latest preview - which consists of the first 1,000 words of what is a mammoth 7,o00 word feature. Enjoy!

Boxiana: Volume 1 preview

Round 2

Luke G. Williams
charts the history of boxing themed comic books, and uncovers incredible tales of war-time heroism, forgery, suicide, alien invasion and, finally, artistic triumph …

With its inherent dramatic content and potential for metaphor and symbolism, pugilism has long been a staple subject for the ‘traditional’ art forms - from the realist paintings of George Bellows, to cinematic masterpieces such as The Set-Up and Raging Bull and the writing of a wide variety of famed wordsmiths, such as Egan, Shaw, Thackeray, Mailer et al. While the representation of pugilism in such ‘serious’ art forms has been much analysed and discussed, boxing-related comic strips, comic books and (to give them their nom du jour) ‘graphic novels’, have received comparatively little critical attention. This article will attempt to redress this imbalance by analysing the fascinating journey of boxing-related comics from the basic strip cartoons of the 1930s and ‘40s which, despite their apparent simplicity, were able to produce a genuine socio-cultural phenomenon in the form of Joe Palooka, to the appearance in the 21st century of Trevor Von Eeden’s The Original Johnson, a groundbreaking graphic novelisation of the life of Jack Johnson, which represents what this writer believes to be an artistic accomplishment of rare integrity and importance.

The antecedents of the modern boxing comic can be found during the Georgian and Regency heyday of bare-knuckle ‘boxiana’, when the mighty heroes of the ring were regularly rendered by the foremost popular caricaturists of the day, such as Thomas Rowlandson and Robert and George Cruikshank. Most figures from public and political life in this period were rendered unflatteringly, for the purpose of searing critique or satirical comment; for example, James Gillray’s infamous portrait of the Prince of Wales entitled A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion, which offered scathing comment on the heir to the throne’s gluttony and penchant for drinking, gambling and licentiousness. In contrast, the bare-knuckle boxers featured in prints of this period were usually rendered in a flattering and heroic light. Witness, for example, the air of nobility and glorification that George Cruikshank lends to his prints of the Cribb-Molineaux contests, such as The Close of the Battle Triumphant.

Although caricaturists were the first to exploit the public’s hunger for popular, captioned artworks, it was a series of innovatory writers and artists in the 19th and early 20th centuries who developed the techniques that would later evolve into comic books and graphic novels. Instead of single pieces of artwork and a pithy caption, narrative sequences of artwork were now developed in which the captions sought to maintain a coherent narrative of their own, rather than merely act as a pithy commentary on politics or current affairs. Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer was one of the foremost pioneers of this art; his Histoire de M. Vieux Bois was collected and published in 1837 in Europe, before being translated and republished as The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck in the United States in 1842. Another important innovator in the early days of comic books was Richard F. Outcault, whose strip The Yellow Kid, first appeared in the influential New York World newspaper in 1895. Outcault is generally accepted as having incorporated the word balloon (which had previously been utilised in speech scrolls and political cartoons) into newspaper comic strips. During the ‘newspaper war’ between William Randolph Heart and Joseph Pulitzer, comic strips became a key tactic in the battle to increase circulation figures, with Outcault lured from Pulitzer’s New York World to boost Hearst’s rival New York Journal-American in October 1896.

* * *

By the roaring 1920s, comic-strips in American newspapers were an established institution and, given the wide popularity of boxing as a spectator attraction and staple of the sports pages, it was inevitable that a boxing-themed comic strip would appear sooner or later. The pioneer in this respect was Hammond Edward ‘Ham’ Fisher’s Joe Palooka. Ignoring his father’s “complete contempt for my aesthetic ambitions”, Pennsylvania-born Fisher had harboured a long-standing dream to be a cartoonist from an early age. A poor student (“if there had been anything further back than the last of the class I’d have been it”), Fisher was largely self-taught, using the pages of any book he could “borrow or burgle”. 

Fisher first coined the idea for the Joe Palooka strip in the early 1920s. Hanging around a pool-hall in his hometown of Wilkes-Barre, he met a boxer (later identified as future World Welterweight Champion Pete Latzo, although some dispute this) who served as his inspiration, as he explained in an article in Collier’s Weekly in 1946:

“‘Hiya, Ham?” said he. “How about I an’ you havin’ a game of golluf?” This had the effect on me of a large, economy-size A-bomb. 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. They turned me down colder than a pug on the canvas.”

Initially, Fisher considered naming his hero ‘Joe the Dumbbell’ or ‘Joe Dumbelletski’, but he eventually settled on Joe Palooka, the word Palooka being a common colloquial term for an inexperienced or incompetent boxer. Fisher tried in vain to sell the comic-strip concept of Joe Palooka for eight years. It wasn’t until he got a job for the influential McNaught Syndicate selling content across the country that he managed to persuade 30 newspaper editors to buy into his sales patter; the putative Palooka strip, he assured them, would be “the most colossal, terrific and stupendous feature of all time”. This enthusiastic hyperbole had the desired effect and Joe Palooka duly made his comic-strip debut on 19 April 1930. The simple introductory narrative established 16-year-old Joe’s honest, blue-collar demeanour, as well as a colourful supporting cast, incorporating his Pop (a coal miner), Mom, brother Steve, sister Rosie and manager Knobby Walsh. Peppered with idiomatic dialogue (“Youse un-honist crook! … Git up an’ I’ll give youse more!”), Fisher’s storylines were simplistic but engaging, as good-natured and good-hearted Palooka ascended in the space of just one bout (an exhibition at that!) against reigning champ Jack McSwatt to the status of World Heavyweight Champion before vowing to “only fight against crooks an’ bullies”.

As the real World Heavyweight Championship was passed, with little distinction, between Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, Primo Carnera, Max Baer and James Braddock, Palooka caught the imagination of Depression-era America. Here was the heavyweight champion many Americans wished they had, rather than the one they actually had ...


Boxiana: Volume 1 will be available through Troubador PublishingAmazon in the UKAmazon in the USA and all good traditional and online booksellers.

Further exclusive previews of Volume 1 content, as well as further information about Boxiana's contributors will feature on the Boxiana blog in the coming weeks.

Boxiana: Volume 1 is an anthology of never before published boxing writing and takes an in-depth look at the sport’s past, present and future. Original, startling and thought-provoking, Boxiana examines pugilistic themes, characters and issues ranging from the personal to the universal, combining exclusive interview material with meticulous research. The book’s fresh approach will both intrigue and delight all serious followers of boxing.

Featured in Volume 1: comic book legend Trevor Von Eeden analyses the significance of Jack Johnson; Mario Mungia tries his hand at amateur boxing; Ben Williams uncovers his grandfather’s bareknuckle boxing career; Matthew Ogborn considers the issues boxers face on retirement; James Hernandez catches up with Jon Thaxton; rising light heavyweight Chris Hobbs recounts his life in the military and the ring; Rowland Stone recalls a heady night in 1992; Corey Quincy attempts to solve the Wladimir Klitschko conundrum and Luke G. Williams examines the meteoric rise of Deontay Wilder and the under-rated career of Chris Byrd. 

No other boxing anthology can match Boxiana’s eclectic range of subject matter, or its in-depth examination of issues and characters from boxing’s past, present and future.

Luke G. Williams

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