Robot 6

‘Bazooka Joe’ and the dangers of nostalgia

Bazooka Joe and His Gang

Bazooka Joe and His Gang

Comics critics like myself like to talk about living in the “golden age of reprints,” and indeed, it is exciting (and somewhat astonishing) to see classic stories and strips that often were only glimpsed in anthologies or discussed in glowing terms in historical chronicles (Skippy, King Aroo) finally be made available. Works long regarded by fans as stellar – Little Lulu, Captain Easy – now have the ability to reach an audience beyond the handful of collectors that had the time and resources, or simply the obsessive-compulsive capabilities, to track down the musty old newspapers and crumbling funny books.

And yet. And yet the success of these collection projects has often encouraged publishers to seek out work that might not be worthy of such lavish format and attention. Do we really, for instance, need a complete run of Hagar the Horrible  or Wizard of Id in hardcover? Do these humorous but rather mediocre and ephemeral strips really deserve that sort of focus?

More to the point, does Bazooka Joe?

Bazooka Joe, of course, is the eye patch-wearing lad who helped sell gobs of bubblegum over the decades for the Topps Company, mainly via the poorly printed comic wrapped around each piece of the gum. Abrams has released a small but thick hardcover-ode to the candy pitchman, Bazooka Joe and His Gang, due in stores this week. It’s a well-designed, impressive-looking tribute to Topps’ most famous (or at least longest-lasting) character, but I question whether, apart from longevity, Joe is worth the effort.

The original Bazooka Joe strips were the handiwork of one Wesley Morse, who did a lot of “good girl” art in the 1920s and ‘30s for swanky gentlemen’s clubs like Copacabana. He even produced a number of Tijuana Bibles before tackling the eye-patch kid (he’s currently the only known artist to have worked on these X-rated pamphlets).

Morse was a facile artist with a loose, elegant line, so it’s no wonder he was chosen to draw the Joe strips. For one thing, his simple lines are easy to reproduce on the thick wax paper that surrounded the gum. Beyond that, though, Morse’s drawings have charm. The strips reproduced in this book show a grace and energy that hold the eye to the page, despite the garish Ben-Day dot coloring.

Too bad the jokes themselves are so awful. I was not the least bit surprised to read that many of the punch lines used for Joe strips were stolen from the back of Boys Life magazine. I’d lay good odds that many of these gags were hoary when they first appeared, and they entertain even less now. In his contributing essay, cartoonist R. Sikoryak (Masterpiece Comics) attempts to make a case that the jokes are so lame that they achieve a kind of sublime appeal (much, one supposes, like Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy) but I’m not buying it. The Joe strips don’t attain anything close to the sort of zen transcendence that Nancy does.

It doesn’t help that the panels are so tiny and cramped. That’s partly due to the fact that the wrappers themselves were so small and partly due to Topps’ need/desire to include fortune cookie-like prognostications and info about cheap tchotchkes you could send away for. Regardless of the reason, however, the result is a comic with middling appeal at best. Morse’s talents don’t ennoble the corny gags. Instead the opposite happens, with the tired jokes dragging down Morse’s art. It says something, I think, that Morse’s sexually explicit comics are more charming, engaging and funnier than anything Bazooka Joe has to offer.

A number of notable cartoonists had a hand in shepherding Bazooka Joe over the ages, including Art Spiegelman, Jay Lynch, Sikoryak and Howard Cruse, who helped redesign Joe in the 1980s. In their respective essays, Lynch and Sikoryak try to make a case for Joe as some sort of quintessential American comic but it’s hard to believe they regard Joe with as much affection as they do their more personal projects. Cruise is a capable and talented cartoonist, and I’m sure he places a certain amount of pride in his work for Topps, but it’s a footnote compared to Stuck Rubber Baby, Wendel or Barefootz.

So if – despite Morse’s talents –Bazooka Joe fails to pass as anything but what they were intended to be, i.e., average-at-best comic strips designed for the express purpose of helping to sell teeth-rotting sweets, then why the lavish tribute? If the core work in question isn’t that hot, why go to the effort of making the book?

Well, there is the historical angle. Joe’s sheer ubiquity over the decades allows one to make the claim he is part of our culture legacy, and a book like this provides a window into 20th-century Americana.

But let’s be honest: Nostalgia is the driving factor here, a wish by Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to recapture a small bit of their childhood via the minor totems they acquired or consumed on their way to adulthood. It’s a supposition underscored by the fact that at least half of the book is devoted to Bazooka packaging, advertising and other assorted geegaws.

Well, so what? It’s not like the publication of this book is preventing Abrams or any other publisher from putting out, say, a Complete Bungle Family collection. That’s not how it works. Am I just being a snob and a churl for sniffing my nose at something so clearly designed to allow older adults to reminisce a bit about their younger, presumably brighter, years?

Yes, probably. But nostalgia can be a blinding force, rendering a reader incapable of assessing a work of art’s aesthetic worth, be it high or low. And so much of comics criticism has been driven by nostalgia, by a desire to recapture that special enthusiasm that welled up upon first encountering The Adventures of Captain Whatever that genuine insight and critical thought has often been dismissed as being too “negative.”

So it’s gotten to the point where when I see a book like Bazooka Joe, my eye starts to involuntarily twitch. As genuinely innocuous as it is, Bazooka Joe in a way represents the sort of moony, shallow, celebratory attitude that has plagued comics culture for decades and contemporary pop culture in general. (Anyone looking forward to that Monopoly movie?) To put it another way, when everything from our past is lauded as great and significant, then the truly great and significant gets lost in the shuffle.

The pack of trading cards is a nice touch though, I will say that.

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Comments

15 Comments

In high school my friend and I bought a huge box of Bazooka Joe, I think from Sam’s Club or something. Every day in French class we would each open one piece and read the comic. We referred to it as the “Bazooka Joe Of The Day” and we looked forward to it.

If there’s a problem with reprinting a bunch of Bazooka Joe strips, the risk falls on the publisher, not the uninterested reader. My assumption is that the publisher has done some kind of marketing check on this to see if it would be a viable product. Somebody, somewhere, wants to buy this, regardless of whether you subjectiely feel it’s a lousy product.

A number of years ago, I saw a huge hardcover copy of Fantastic Four #1 as a coffee table book. Rather than just straight reprint the comic, it had one page per panel, and each panel was blown up. I thought, look, Kirby’s creativity is great, but blowing his art up to thrice its normal size is going to make an eyesore. I thought it was a lousy product, but my wallet didn’t suffer because I didn’t buy it. Somebody else may have. Where’s the harm?

Chaim Mattis Keller

May 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm

You think they’re bad in the original, just try reading them in Hebrew. I’m a kosher-observant Jew, and the only kosher Bazooka gum is packaged for the Israeli market. The translated conversation makes most strips unrecognizable as jokes.

I loved Bazooka Joe as a kid and the comics (and fortunes!) were a big part of the reason why. You can laugh at how bad they are now, but growing up we hardly cared. They were fun and a nice bonus. I don’t understand any negetive reaction to a collected edition of these strips. If you don’t like them, don’t buy it., but they are harming no one.

There’s a market for anything, but nostalgia especially.

I used to like them, and that’s the obvious appeal of this book, nostalgia. I wish publishers would focus their attention on past works that are more deserving of attention yes, but I don’t necessarily think a Bazooka Joe book is hurting anything or anyone . . . but yeah, I think we should write to the publishers and maybe give them ideas for what we’d like to see reprinted. It doesn’t hurt either.

I predicted in 2009 that this very book would happen, and lo it did come to pass. Looking forward to The Essential Star Comics: Alf.

But presumably the book is meant as a coffee-table kitsch book like the non-comic bits of those awful Chip Kidd books (Captain Marvel, Batman, Plastic Man — any others?) — to be flipped through and not actually read. Which is not to say I disagree with your griping…

Chris Mautner

May 13, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Thanks for the comments folks. Like I said in my essay, I’m fully cognizant of the fact that I’m being something of a wet blanket/sourpuss here. Certainly if you have fond memories of Mr. Joe you’ll enjoy this book. It’s well put-together. This book, fairly or un, got me thinking about these issues, hence the essay.

I will totally buy that Essential ALF book.

They’re just trying to cash in on the current popularity of eyepatches brought about by Nick Fury in The Avengers movie.

When I read the headline, my first thought was “A 12 page hardcover?”
It always seemed like we were just reading the same ones over and over, and in the 80s they looked dated like they were made in the 50s, so it never occurred to me that they actually had different eras.
Here’s hoping the Golden Age Bazooka Joe was better. Not that I plan on buying it.

As a marketer who had the opportunity of working on behalf of a number of Topps sports and non-sports products in the mid-90’s, my nostalgia for Bazooka Joe and his gang is, admittedly, greater than most. That said, I feel that this new volume deserves to at least be considered as a relevant and worthwhile addition to Abrams’ dandy series of little hardcover tributes to the art and history of other Topps’ initiatives like Wacky Packages and Mars Attacks. I, for one, am looking forward to adding it to my own collection of books that inspire friends and associates to say “I can’t believe they published a book about that.”

Brad Rapstars

May 14, 2013 at 12:56 am

It’s very dangerous to try and pretend that you can determine what will or will not be relevant far preservation.

There are more than a few things today that snobbish academics hold as the highest towers of artistic achievement that were pop-entertainment (or completely ignored) in their day, only to suddenly gain new life decades or centuries later.

It certainly leads one to question the taste of the publisher, which is ominous: the publisher is Abrams who are famous for their capital-A Art books. But since the head of the comics arm of Abrams considers the writers to be the primary source of creativity in comics, and NOT the artists—perhaps it is not surprising. I can’t wait to read the dissertations.

I must be the only guy here that hated Bazooka Joe as a kid. The gum was awful and the comics were awful, and I poured over every Sunday comic I could, even the political toons when I was old enough to understand a few. But when I saw that Bazooka Joe was gonna get a hardcover collection, I just laughed and thought “Who in their right mind would buy that?”

I just want to know when the Pud collection from Dubble Bubble will be appearing! Will make an excellent companion volume to this small masterpiece! I love the ephemera and the Wesley Morse profile. It’s not cover to cover strips, just a sampling from throughout it’s history. I like the book!

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