Written by Dr. Barney Cosneck
Drawn by Paul W. Stoddard
Published by JK Comic Book Digest (James Keller)
Judo Joe is a character that I first heard about in the Public Domain Heroes Facebook group that I’m a member of. I did a little research on this character and found out that he was created by man named Dr. Barney Cosneck, a Russian immigrant to America who became a Judo expert and instructor back in the 1940’s. He’d studied other martial arts, including boxing (he even cowrote a hand-to-hand combat manual for the U.S. Coast Guard with boxing champion Jack Dempsey during World War II), but apparently it was Judo that really impressed him the most, and he was looking to promote that style in America, particularly among the youth. To that end he created this comic-book character in 1953, and wrote the stories, along with his partner Paul W. Stoddard who provided the art, using his own imprint “Jay-Jay Corportation” as publisher. Unfortunately despite a decent effort, the series only lasted three issues, all of which have been collected together in this digest.
Judo Joe is Joe Smith, a 17 year old White American boy who was born and raised in Japan where his parents had moved to so that his father, a doctor, could perform miissionary medical work. A Judo instructor who’s life Joe’s father saved began training Joe at a very young age and the boy turned out to be a prodigy who mastered the art and began competing against and beating adult Judo fighters in matches throughout Japan. When he was 17 his father decided that it was time for Joe to learn about America and sent him there where Joe enrolled as a sophmore at Mid-City High School. At the school Joe quickly ran afoul of a bully named Spike who picks a fight with him, but after Joe easily defeats Spike in front of the whole school Spike immediately changes his ways and becomes Joe’s best friend. The fight also impresses a girl named Judy, who becomes Joe’s girlfriend. Joe teaches the two of them Judo too until they also become experts, and the three begin to train other students. Joe’s skills gain so much attention that he often finds himself recruited by the local police chief to help the police solve various crimes in the city (and Joe is also seen teaching Judo to policemen).
So that’s the basic status quo of the series. Joe, occasionally with the help of Spike or Judy (or both) using his awesome Judo skills (he’s often shown to be able to easily handle multiple opponents at once) to fight criminals.
Like most comics of the era, each issue had multiple short stories rather than telling one long story. In those three issues a total of ten stories, ranging in length from four to sixteen pages, were published and all ten are in this digest. Paul W. Stoddard’s artwork is reminisent of the style of classic Archie Comics, and that fits Cosneck’s writing perfectly as Judo Joe is a character that I feel could have easily fit in with the Archie characters. Most of the stories are rather simple and whimsicle, such as one where Joe acts as a decoy to catch a local purse-snatcher. So he dresses up like a woman and walks around with a purse and when the thief tries to snatch it from him Joe subdues him with a few Judo throws, and then when the police arrive to arrest the thief Joe quickly runs off, hoping to make it home before any of his friends see him in a dress.
Dr. Cosneck’s goal of using this comic to promote Judo to kids is evident in the stories where Joe faces bad teenagers. One story has him catching a group of car theives, another has him catching a group of “hot rodders” (kids doing illegal car racing), another has him facing a local gang who tried to ambush him at a school dance (after Judy beat up their leader who was harassing her). Each time the plot was basically the same, Joe confronts the bad kids, they try to fight him and he beats them all, afterward the kids announce that they’ve seen the error of their ways and want to learn Judo now because practicing Judo looks like a lot more fun than commiting crimes.
One of the stories features Judy as the star, credited as Judo Judy, where late one night a burgler breaks into her home, but Judy subdues him with her Judo skills (while still in her pajamas) and when the cops arrive to arrest the burgler they express their astonishment that a teenage girl could defend herself against a grown man, to which Judy looks at “us” and declares “that Judo is real cool!”
Some of the stories do having Joe facing more dangerous adult criminals, including a gang of drug dealers (or “dope peddlers” as they’re referred to), a group of kidnappers (Joe stands in for a rich man who they were plotting to kidnap and hold for ransom), and even a doctor who injects his victims with poison to force them to commit crimes for him. The ethics of the police constantly putting a teenage boy’s life in danger is never addressed.
Each issue also contains short two-page illustrations of various Judo moves, each of which is included in this digest, although I probably wouldn’t rely on them if you really want to learn the art. Better to find yourself a real dojo and sign up for lessons.
And I am going to admit that there are some, shall we say, problematic tropes in this series. In the first story which details Joe’s origin, his father is pretty much literally portrayed as a “White Savior“, as the local Japanese citizens are shown and described as “worshippers of the White medicine man who had saved so many of their lives.” We also see that when World War II broke out, the Judo master whose life Joe’s father saved purposely hid Joe’s family to keep them safe for the duration of the war noting: “I would do much more than risk my unworthy life to save yours, oh great one”. And then there’s the fact that this Blonde blue-eyed White teenager is shown to be defeating adult Japanese Judo masters, with the crowd repeatedly in awe at how this “White man” is so much superior to them. Certainly, if I were updating this character today (which I have been thinking about doing, similar to the other public domain characters I’ve revamped for fun), I would change some of this.
Still overall this is a nice collection of fun stories that I think both comicbook fans and martial artists would enjoy. Being public domain there are resources to read these stories online for free, but I certainly found it worth paying to get this collected edition, which is available in both paperback and ebook.