BIG BEN BOLTMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1950
Creators: Elliot Caplin (writer) and John Cullen Murphy (artist)
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Ham Fisher's Joe Palooka is, without a doubt, the all-time champ of boxing comics — in fact, very likely of sports-oriented comics in general, tho a good case can be made that Tank McNamara has since
taken away its title. But there are other strong contenders. Big Ben Bolt, a heavyweight on the comics page for 28 years, is a little less famous and a little less long-lasting, but very fondly recalled by those who like their action more realistic and their characters more rounded.
Bolt had the advantage of being written by Elliot Caplin, who may have been less famous than his brother, Li'l Abner's Al Capp, but who had a stellar career of his own in comics. Caplin also wrote soap opera (Adam Ames, The Heart of Juliet Jones), detective stories (Peter Scratch for the traditional kind and Encyclopedia Brown for kids), and took over the writing of Abbie & Slats and Long Sam when his brother, their co-creator, left them. He even, following the death of creator Harold Gray, wrote Little Orphan Annie for a time.
Another strong asset was artist John Cullen Murphy, who had already distinguished himself as a sports cartoonist and in magazine illustration. Big Ben Bolt brought him more fame than ever, but since then he's become equally well known as the successor of creator Hal Foster on Prince Valiant.
King Features Syndicate launched Ben's daily strip on Feb. 20, 1950, and the Sunday version on May 25, 1952. The character's name was probably taken from Thomas Dunn English's poem, Ben Bolt, which has remained popular since it first appeared, in 1843. This wasn't the first cartoon to appropriate that name — there was also a single-panel feature titled Ben Bolt, by cartoonist Fanny Young Cory (Other People's Children, Little Miss Muffet), which started in 1916, as a parody of English's Ben Bolt. It didn't last long, and was quite forgotten by the time Caplin and Murphy came along.
Ben himself ran against stereotype. Instead of a big, dumb hitting machine, he was an articulate college graduate who had chosen a boxing career because he enjoyed and was good at it (winning the world heavyweight championship early on), not because other fields weren't open to him. In fact, when, in 1955, an injury took him out of the ring, he went into journalism. For decades, his adventures revolved around writing about, rather than practicing, his chosen sport.
Caplin remained with the strip for its entire run and Murphy only a little less; but Murphy employed several big-name assistants over the years, at least briefly. Al Williamson (Flash Gordon), Alex Kotzky (Apartment 3-G), Neal Adams (Deadman), John Celardo (Tarzan), Stan Drake (Blondie) and many others all had a minor hand in it at one time or another. In the 1970s, as Murphy concentrated more on Prince Valiant (which he'd taken over in 1971), Gray Morrow (who, among many other things, was associated with an unusual, tho short-lived, revival of The Black Hood in the 1980s) took on an ever-increasing share of the workload. Morrow finally began signing the strip on August 1, 1977.
But his signature didn't stay on it for long. Public interest in boxing had waned sharply. Also, story comics were very much out of fashion in newspapers, and this one had just about run its course. Big Ben Bolt ended during the first half of 1978.