Bazooka Joe turns 60

"Bazooka Joe and His Gang," by The Topps Company et al (Abrams, $19.95)
“Bazooka Joe and His Gang,” by The Topps Company et al (Abrams, $19.95)

Chew on this: Bazooka Joe is 60 years old.

Wesley Morse first drew the affable kid in 1953. As everyone the world over knows, Joe and his gang were the subjects of a tiny comic strip wrapped around pieces of Bazooka: The Atom Bubble Gum.

To celebrate this diamond anniversary, Abrams has just published a compact anthology of 200 “classic” Bazooka Joe comics, called “Bazooka Joe and His Gang.”

The book also includes several high-calorie essays about every possible aspect of the creators, marketers and manufactures of this famous pink gum from the Topps Company. The most charming piece is by Talley Morse, Wesley’s son and the inspiration behind many of Joe’s crazy antics. Talley tells us that his father drew illustrations for dozens of restaurant menus and ads that ran in popular magazines of the day such as Life and Collier’s. He also drew pin-ups and pornographic comics in the years before Topps drew him to the sweet side.

The book is full of curious details about the gum and the times. Did you know, for instance, that Joe’s eye-patch was a spoof on a Hathaway shirt ad? Or that many of the original jokes where lifted “from that old joke page in Boys’ Life“? Bhob Stewart, a comics editor and writer who once worked as a translator for Bazooka cartoons, claims that Joe taught “kids around the world how to wear their baseball caps sideways.”

As a child, I found Joe’s jokes a little baffling, even as I collected the tiny squares to mail in for impossibly cool merchandise, like the “Three Section Powerful Telescope,” which promised that I could “get a close-up view of distant planets, buildings, etc.” We kids lived in a sugary fit of gullibility back then.

“Bazooka Joe has become the personification of the lowest form of humor,” writes Jay Lynch, who worked for Topps for almost 50 years. “And this is why he’s one of the most widely known comics characters on the planet. Sure, the gags were cornball. But that’s their appeal. And, as Gene Weingarten waggishly postulates, I actually do think every gag writer who ever worked on Bazooka Joe realized that the strip is a conscious effort at stale humor.”

Alas, last fall, Topps announced that the little comics about Joe and his crew would be replaced by brainteasers. But it’s safe to say that this genuine Bazooka Fortune had already come true for Joe: “You are destined to have great riches and honor, mainly because of the fine power of your thinking.”

And I’m not just blowing bubbles.

@RonCharles

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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