Hey Kids! Comics!: Ham Fisher vs. Al Capp

Comic book epics have always been based on the clash of titans...but what is far more epic is when cartoonists clash!

From the moment that Superman first drop-kicked Lex Luthor, comic fans throughout the world have been given a special geeky pastime all their own.  This pastime is, of course, the ever popular “this character vs. that character” debate.  For decades comic fans from all over the world, in everything from sandboxes to beer halls have had passionate debates over the greatest comic battles of all time.  Batman vs. Spiderman!  The X-Men vs. The Doom Patrol!  Sub Mariner vs. the Human Torch!  Alfred vs. Jarvis!  Archie vs. Swing with Scooter!  Millie the Model vs. Patsy Walker vs. Katy Keene (now that one I would buy)!

The fued between "Joe Palooka's" Ham Fisher and "Lil' Abner's" Al Capp could be the dirtiest fued in the history of comics

When asked about the greatest comic battle of all time, I never look at these sort of titanic face-offs.  No.  There is one grudge match that was more destructive than the Hulk vs. the Thing, pettier than Betty vs. Veronica, and dirtier than B.O. Plenty vs. Pig Pen.  Forget Civil War and Infinite Crisis.  If you want to see a conflict filled with ego, bitterness, sexual deviance and death, you need not look further than the real life grudge match between two legendary cartoonists of the early days of comics: “Joe Palooka’s” Ham Fisher and “Lil Abner’s” Al Capp.  Come with us as we look at the hostility, underhanded deeds and tragedy in something I’d like to call:

CLASH OF THE CARTOONISTS

HAM FISHER VS. AL CAPP:

SEX, DEATH AND LAMPOONING 

Ham Fisher first sold "Joe Palooka" to newspapers in 1927 and became one of history's first millionaire cartoonists

Although during their time Ham Fisher and Al Capp were titans in their fields, decades have sadly eroded their popularity and the public’s familiarity with these two talented and ambitious men.  Thus, in order for us to look at their tale, we should probably start at the very beginning to familiarize ourselves with the players.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1900, Ham Fisher had already been a soldier, a small-town newspaper editor and a politician by the time he created Joe Palooka in 1920.  Interested in cartooning since he was a child, Fisher had been inspired by a kind, simple minded boxer he had met at a local watering hole in his home town of Wilkes-Barre.  Although at the time boxing had been attacked constantly in newspaper editorials, Fisher developed a kindly, simple boxer with straight morals and a value for fair play. Add a likeable supporting cast of characters, such as Joe’s manager Knobby Walsh and his girlfriend Anne Howe, an endless brigade of colourful competitors against who Joe could defend his heavyweight champion title, and Fisher knew that he had a hit on his hands.  The only problem Fisher had was convincing a newspaper to purchase the strip.  Sending it around to different papers proved to be futile.  No papers were the least bit interested in tales of a kindly boxing champ; however, Ham Fisher was a strong willed individual with a never say fail attitude.

One of the most popular comic strips of the early 20th Century, "Joe Palooka" made a successful transition to comic books, was one of the first comic characters to enter WWII and was the subject of the first full length sound film based on a comic character

In 1927, Ham Fisher relocated to New York City to try his hand at the newspaper business there.  Hired by the advertising department at the New York Daily, Fisher began his New York career selling features to other newspapers across the country.  His main interest, of course, was comics.  With samples under his arm, Fisher traveled across America to major newspapers in attempts to sell comic strips.  His ambitious nature was proven when, in 1928, Fisher set a syndicate record when the long running comic strip “Show Girl” appeared in thirty papers within forty days.  As a result, Fisher’s bosses wanted to make him sales manager, but Fisher still had ambitions for Joe Palooka.  Eight years after the strip was created, as a result of his new found reputation in the newspaper industry, Fisher managed to get Joe Palooka into twenty newspapers within three weeks, including the national New York Mirror.  Joe Palooka became an instant hit with readers and soon the strip was even surpassing the comic page in other various forms of media. In fact, Joe Palooka was the first comic ever to be transferred to the silver screen.  In 1934 Joe Palooka was featured as one of the early sound pictures starring Stuart Erwin as Joe and legendary entertainer Jimmy Durante as Knobby.  Soon Ham Fisher became one of the first millionaire cartoonists as a result of various licenses.  This was when Fisher made his first big mistake.  Just as many men who fall into good fortune, the fame and the money went to his head and Fisher soon lost sight of the ambitious businessman he once was and began to believe that nothing could touch him.  This was when fate turned its ugly head and began to push Fisher off of his high pillar.

Al Capp began working under Ham Fisher in 1933 for $25 a month and cast off bristol board. Meanwhile, "Joe Palooka" was making Fisher millions

As legend has it, one day Ham Fisher was being driven through New York when he noticed a young man with a stack of blue paper under his arm.  Having his chauffer stop the car, he bet his driver five dollars that the young man had cartoons under his arm that he was trying to hock.  The tip off to Fisher was that the blue paper was the type that was used when strips were rejected Getting out and approaching the youngster, Fisher proved to be right.  The young cartoonist was none other then Al Capp.  Capp, who was born in Connecticut, had been cartooning since he was a child due to his father’s interest in the medium.  He had already worked for the Associated Press since 1927 on a single panel comic called “Col. Gilfeather,” but had bigger dreams and wanted to hit the big city.   Passing “Col. Gilfeather” off to future comic legend Milton Caniff, Capp moved to Greenwich Village to try to make it in the big city.   Fisher was impressed with Capp’s drawings and offered him a job as an assistant on Joe Palooka, promising Capp fame and fortune in the immediate future.  Capp couldn’t believe his good fortune to be working for the famed cartoonist and with that the greatest rivalry in comic history was born.

Hillbilly boxer Big Levectius, seated to the right of Joe Palooka, was created by Capp while Fisher was on a European vacation, and spawned the inspiration for Lil' Abner

Capp was set up in a small dark room and ordered to draw Joe Palooka, with the exception of the characters’ faces, which were to be left blank so that Fisher could fill them in later.  Meanwhile, Fisher would busy himself plotting and writing the stories.  In return, Capp was paid in cast away Bristol board and one hundred dollars a month, although the strip was making Fisher millions of dollars.  Now free of drawing duties, Ham Fisher had the time to live the extravagant New York nightlife that he longed for, and to take extended vacations around the world.  As a result, Fisher began to write less and less and turned to simply plotting the strip while Capp labored away under poor conditions with both the writing and art chores for the strip.  During these years, Capp honed the skills of his craft: creating colourful characters, skilled artistry and whimsical storytelling.  The downfall was that, as his skills grew more refined, Joe Palooka became more popular and made more money for Fisher.

"Lil' Abner" made it's debut in 1934, quickly becoming one of the most beloved and important comic strips ever

It was during one of Fisher’s extended vacations, cavorting around Europe, that inspiration hit Al Capp.  As Fisher’s involvement in the creativity of Joe Palooka waned, Capp and his wife went to see a stage show featuring musical hillbillies.  Sparking memories of his own travels through the Appalachians during his youth, Capp threw away Fisher’s plots and created a hillbilly character named Big Levectius and his scrappy Mammy and small little Pappy.  As the strip unfolded, Capp knew he was on to something and, on the side, began to work on samples for a brand new daily comic strip which would become one of the greatest and most legendary comic strips of all time – “Lil’ Abner.”  When Fisher returned from his six week trek, Capp surprised him by promptly quitting and leaving Fisher without an assistant.  After a number of years of barely working, Fisher was suddenly in the driver’s seat again and, to say the least, he didn’t like it.  His anger only grew when, in 1934, Capp sold the “Lil’ Abner” strip and both the comic’s and Capp’s popularity began to overshadow Joe Palooka and Ham Fisher.  Lil’ Abner, his Mammy and Pappy, Daisy Mae and the rest of the characters of Dogpatch USA became an overnight sensation.  In Fisher’s mind, he was Bette Davis and Al Capp was Anne Baxter in a real-life version of “All About Eve.”  Fisher felt betrayed, humiliated and viciously angry.

Al Capp self portrait with Lil' Abner: A whimsical and friendly man, Al Capp was naturally more likeable then Ham Fisher

Fisher quickly began to charge around New York with wild accusations that he had come up with the idea of the hillbilly characters and that Capp had stolen them from him.  For years Fisher would bring Levecitus and his clan back year after year in an attempt to agitate Capp, with a banner referring to them as “the original hillbilly characters,” despite the fact that there had been hillbilly characters in other comics prior to Big Levecitus.  Fisher even began to make preparations to bring Al Capp to court on charges of the theft of his ideas and characters.  Fisher’s lawyers urged him not to take the lawsuit to court, feeling that the jury would quickly side with Capp over the ownership of Lil’ Abner.

You see, Capp and Fisher’s natures were as different as night and day.  Fisher was vain, brash and aggressive, with dark and sharp features; Capp was approachable, down to earth and whimsical.  It was just so much easier to like Al Capp than it was to like Ham Fisher.  Even in cartooning circles, Al Capp became immensely popular while Fisher’s reputation deteriorated.  But Al Capp was not without his aggressions.  In his soul he still held onto the bitterness and resentment for the way his former mentor had used him, and just like a man with a sore tooth he didn’t know how not to poke at Ham Fisher.

Ham Fisher self portrait with Joe Palooka, which seems to illustrate his treatment of his staff

The first blow came in the form of an article that Capp wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, about his early days as a cartoonist, called “I Remember Monster”.  He wrote, “It was my privilege, as a boy, to be associated with a certain treasure-trove of lousiness, who, in the normal course of a day, managed to be, in dazzling succession, every conceivable kind of heel. It was an advantage few young cartoonists have enjoyed — or survived.”   Although Capp was tactful enough not to mention Fisher by name, the majority of the newspaper and cartooning community knew who Capp was referring to.  This further erosion of his reputation obviously made Fisher even angrier, but the lampooning by Capp would only become pettier.  When Ham Fisher got a nose job, Capp featured a losing race horse named Ham’s Nose Job in a July 1950 strip.  A complaint by Fisher to this petty attack prompted the newspaper syndicate to request a peace treaty between the two cartoonists.  Capp, realizing he may have gone too far, agreed.  Fisher, on the other hand, had one final dirty deed up his sleeve.

Was "Lil' Abner" too sexy for the 1950's cold war society? Fisher tried to pin deviance on Al Capp in a blotched court case which lead to his eventual downfall in the cartoonist community

Now the mid 1950′s, America was caught up in the brink of the communist scare and was looking at popular entertainment as forms of corrupting America’s youth.  Comic books, girlie magazines, movies and other forms of popular entertainment were coming under strict observation by various government departments.  Deciding to use this dark moment in comic history to his advantage, Fisher enlarged some of Capp’s Sadie Hawkins panels and drew pornographic images in the backgrounds.  Submitting the doctored strips with the sexual indecencies circled in red to both the syndicate as well as the courts, Fisher attempted to get Lil’ Abner permanently taken out of newspapers and destroy Capp’s reputation by having him branded as a pervert.  However, when Capp quickly and easily revealed the original drawings of the panels, thus proving Fisher had created the pornographic versions himself, the case was quickly dropped.  Fisher’s scheme had backfired on him.  Capp was deemed a victim of Fisher’s deceit and Fisher was viewed as a foul and dirty scoundrel.  As punishment for his ruse, Ham Fisher faced a final humiliation when he was the first cartoonist to be thrown out of the National Cartoonist Society — a Society that Fisher helped form as an originating member.

On December 27th, 1955 Ham Fisher commited suicide in his art studio

Broken, humiliated and revealed to be the horrible individual he had become due to fame and greed, Fisher became paranoid and depressed.  As Lil’ Abner’s success grew to Broadway productions, theme parks, Time and Life Magazine cover spots and even an unofficial national holiday, Fisher could take no more. The feud between him and his former protégé had finally brought him to his final nerve.  On December 27th, 1955 Fisher committed suicide in his New York art studio.  Thus ended the feud between two of the greatest talents ever in the comic field.

So what lessons can we learn from the story of these two men?  From Ham Fisher we can learn many.  First, with the tip of a hat to Stan Lee, is that with great power comes a great responsibility.  No matter what your status is, you still have a responsibility to the people who work for you.  You need to nurture the people that look up to you, not exploit them.  You never know when the people under you may become your equal, or even surpass you.  Also, don’t be deceitful and don’t be an ass.  It’s never worth it.  You will be discovered and it will only hurt you more in the end.  From Al Capp we can learn that when you have people in your past who have done you wrong, the best thing to do is to just leave them alone.  You don’t need to like them.  You don’t need to let go of your grudge.  To agitate them constantly will only make things worse, and in the end it can only create disaster.

And that, dear friends and readers, is the story of the greatest comic battle of all time.  It may not be making its way to a theatre near you this summer, or become the subject of a twelve issue maxi-series, but remember, you don’t need an Anti-Monitor to spark off a comic battle of tremendous magnitudes.  All you need are two bitter and angry cartoonists.  That’s all you’ll ever need.

 

  1. blankend’s avatar

    Al Capp looks better here than I have ever seen him in print. He was not a very nice guy, himself, but I guess next to Ham Fisher, who I am just learning about, he might be considered a boy scout.

    Ham’s exploitation of Capp and his staff was horrible, but Capp’s continuous poking back at Ham was also unnecessary, even if it was deserved.

    As I referred to previously, this is probably the only subject where Capp comes out looking like the “good guy”.

  2. Joe Benintende’s avatar

    Al Capp took very good care of his assistants, referring to them by name in print, paying them very well and even giving them bonuses from the strips profits. And, regardless of whats been said about him not doing any artwork on the daily strip, that is having his assistants doing it all, it’s pretty easy to tell that besides the main characters faces and hands, that he did a lot of various peoples faces, etc. He is by far one of the best cartoonists ever. He did get pretty cranky as he got older. He was a great influence on my drawing and inking style.

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