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Palooka revived New Jersey native gives the comic hero new life

Published March 01. 2012 05:01PM

Pennsylvania has long been known for its fighting underdog image, a fact that the British learned only too well at Valley Forge while we were fighting for our independence as a new nation.

In modern times, two fictional fighters comic strip star Joe Palooka from Wilkes-Barre and screen legend Rocky Balboa from Philadelphia brought that same spirit during many of our lifetimes.

Both bigger-than-life boxers have their own monuments.

Sylvester Stallone's Rocky was immortalized in bronze in 1980 and his statue with arms stretched skyward in victory has a place at the bottom of the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A granite monument to Joe Palooka and his creator, Ham Fisher, was dedicated in 1976, the same year that the original Rocky movie made its debut. The monument, which replaced a bronze plaque that was stolen, sits along Route 309, on the stretch of Luzerne County road between Wilkes-Barre and Mountain Top.

The inscription reads: "Dedicated to Joe Palooka Champion of Democracy Created in Wilkes-Barre by Ham Fisher"

Fisher had been looking for a character who was a good-natured prize fighter a gentle giant. After meeting boxer Pete Latzo outside a poolroom, he got the idea for his blond cowlicked boxer in 1921. The Joe Palooka comic strip made its debut in 1930, as the nation was in the throes of The Depression.

The comic helped brighten American spirits through that desperate decade and throughout World War 2. By 1948, it was ranked as one of the five most popular comic strips and at its peak, ran in 900 newspapers. The run of the big-hearted boxer ended in 1984.

Yesterday, we learned that a New Jersey native, boxing announcer Joe Antonacci, has acquired the trademark rights to "Joe Palooka" in order to revive the character. This time around, Palooka has adapted to the modern sports culture, and returns as a mixed martial arts fighter.

Aided by a comics writer and artist, Antonacci has already produced two Palooka strips online, and the hard-copy version is expected to be available within months.

What's great about the resurrection of Joe Palooka is that Antonacci plans to keep his character "family-friendly." He said Palooka will still be the guy with a heart of gold and readers won't be exposed to violence, sex or cursing.

"If it's popular and God blesses us with a good reception, we're going to keep doing this," Antonacci said in a recent interview.

That's refreshing to hear during these times, when so much sleaziness and gutterball humor are being fed to us as family entertainment.

In the heyday of the original comic strip, the word "palooka" became synonymous for someone being an inept fighter or a kind of loser. Hopefully, Antonacci's new comic won't be a palooka but, by incorporating much of Ham Fisher's original character, show us how a gentle giant who's out for the little guy can be a winner.

Our society needs more wholesome entertainment. We hope this updated version of Joe Palooka strikes a Rocky-like victory pose for all the comic/entertainment world to see.

By Jim Zbick

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