Archive for Thursday, March 17, 2011

Smith: Comic strip memories

March 17, 2011

When I was young, I always anticipated the arrival of the daily newspapers. If you remember, the Kansas City Times was the morning newspaper and the Kansas City Star was the evening publication.

What did I read first?

When I was a pre-teen it wasn’t the front page or the sports news. No, what I looked forward to was the comic strips. I followed the adventures of “Dick Tracy,” “Terry and the Pirates,” “Steve Canyon,” “Prince Valiant” and many others. I know that between the comic strips and the sports pages, I became an avid reader.

Comic strips started in the early days of the 20th century and soon became a major attraction for readers. The comics were important in the growth of the media business. The growth of radio, TV and other entertainment sources has changed all that.

I started thinking about my favorite comic strips and I guess I would have to list my two all-time favorites as “Joe Palooka” and “Smilin’ Jack.” Both have been out of print for decades now and probably their story lines seem a bit trite today. Yet, I thrilled to their adventures, as did millions of others a few decades ago. In many ways, the strips are good examples of life in simpler times.

For those who are too young to know, Joe Palooka was the clean living, always brave and honest world heavyweight boxing champion. The comic strip was drawn by Ham Fisher. It centered around the adventures of Palooka, his manager Knobby Walsh, a mute child named Little Max, Palooka’s girlfriend, Ann Howe, who was a cheese heiress and later became his wife, and a blacksmith named Humphrey Pennyworth.

The character was patterned after Pete Latzo, a boxer from Ham Fisher’s hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He was a good-looking man who, while being a boxer, didn’t like to fight unless he was paid to do so. Fisher described the cartoon character Palooka as “a defender of little guys; a gentle knight.”

He always trained hard in the story line and never lost a boxing match. The strip started on April 19, 1930, and continued until Nov. 24, 1984. At its peak, more than 900 papers printed the strip. In addition, there were movies, radio programs, etc., and at one time it was one of the five most popular comic strips. Like all loyal cartoon characters of the era, Palooka served in World War II and when he joined the Navy, there was a spike in enlistments.

Real life tragedy struck the comic strip in 1955 when Fisher committed suicide. The strip continued for another quarter of a century with different authors and illustrators.

“Smilin Jack” made its debut on Oct. 1, 1933, and continued until April 1, 1973. It was created by Zack Mosley, who was an aviation enthusiast. Originally, the strip was known as “On The Wing” and the hero was originally named Mack Martin. The name was changed by the end of the year.

The comic strip continued for four decades and Jack fought a variety of interesting villains over the years.

While not a villain, the strip contained my favorite comic sidekick character, Fatstuff, who was always popping buttons off his shirt. The button was always caught by a chicken. The character has haunted me. Now, whenever a shirt is a bit tight, Jean cautions me on becoming like Fatstuff, minus the chicken.

The strip featured many beautiful young women who were all in love with Jack. He was kept busy saving them from criminals like The Claw, Head and many other male and female villains.

Yes, I miss the continued story comic strips, however, I do enjoy an occasional chuckle from modern-day comics. I guess I’ll never grow up.

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