Review by C.J. Bunce
Until only a few years ago every gas station across the country and every local supermarket had Bazooka bubble gum on the counter as a point-of-sale purchase item and at last look three cents was a pretty fair price for the flavor packed into that loud pink rectangle of gum. And until last year each of those pieces of gum was wrapped in a mini-comic wrapper featuring Bazooka Joe. As nostalgia goes, what single item compares to the smell and flavor of Bazooka gum—that same smell and flavor tied to baseball cards. Topps, the gum and trading card company, and Abrams Publishing have released a celebration of the gum and its mini-comic art with Bazooka Joe and His Gang 60th Anniversary.
On first look it’s the design that really hits this new collectible book out of the park—the book jacket has the appearance of a piece of Bazooka gum, complete with the see-through wax paper where you can almost peek at the comic on the back side. The edge of the paper is all bubble gum pink, creating a perfect package for this coffee table look back at 60 years of the small “throwaway” comics that everyone eyed before wadding ‘em up and throwing them into the trash. How many if these did you go through in your lifetime? Literally thousands of the mini-comics were created, most by artist Wesley Morse, including so many in inventory that new comics were being wrapped around gum decades after Morse created them, and decades after he passed away. This explains why kids in the 1970s were exposed to the 1950s style of artwork on the wrappers.
Each wrapper contained a three or four-panel story, usually a quick riddle, joke or wordplay, involving a handful of characters including the eye-patched kid Bazooka Joe, his talking dog Walkie Talkie, his girlfriend Janet, their friends Butch, Pesty, L’il Pats, Hungry Herman, and a policeman they called Sarge. It also contained a fortune and instructions on how to obtain free toys and gizmos by mail for saving wrappers, and you can see from the photos that some of these premiums were much better than what you’d find in Cracker Jacks, including a genuine pocket knife.
The book includes a run of the original comics drawn by Morse, 200 original wrapper images, photos of premiums, advertisements, sketches, and other ephemera harkening back to the 1950s world seen in TV shows like Dennis the Menace and Leave it to Beaver. The exceptional volume of photos is separated by informative and detailed essays about Morse, about the gum inside the wrapper, the marketing team that developed Bazooka Joe, the character’s place in culture and an account of one of the last artists to draw Bazooka Joe comics before the company ceased including the comic with its gum at the end of 2012.
The book delves into Bazooka Joe’s place in pop culture history and why he has become one of the most recognizable characters in the history of marketing and pop culture. We think his his Snake Plissken-like eyepatch says it all. And we learn secrets about the production of the comic, including the fact that many of the riddles were adapted from the reader submissions at the back of Boys’ Life magazine.
Of particular interest to fans of comic art is the account of Wesley Morse’s art career before taking on Bazooka Joe, including 1920s marketing posters used by major restaurants across the country, including Morse’s creation of the Copa girl in the Copacabana logo (not, we learn, based on an image of Carmen Miranda). As collectibles, because they were quickly discarded, the comic wrappers are by their very nature rare, and finding so many reprinted for the first time in one place will be a joy for fans across the three generations that encountered Bazooka gum.
Bazooka Joe and His Gang 60th Anniversary also includes four exclusive Bazooka Joe trading cards, wrapped and included inside the back of the book. Bazooka Joe and His Gang 60th Anniversary is available in local bookstores and online at Amazon.com.