Most everyone is familiar with Bazooka Joe. The blonde kid with the baseball cap and eyepatch was found on comics wrapped around Bazooka gum, and the comics always had a silly punchline, mail-order product and/or fortune crammed onto the wrapper. "Bazooka Joe and his Gang" has been a pop culture icon for 60 years, and a special group of panelists gathered to celebrate the comic's legacy during New York Comic Con 2013.
Moderator and Editorial Director of Abrams ComicArts Charles Kochman was joined by Topps Company Vice President of Licensing Ira Friedman, the son of Bazooka Joe co-creator and artist, Talley Morse, and "Bazooka Joe" contributors R. Sikoryak and Kirk Taylor to discuss the 60th Anniversary collection of "Bazooka Joe and His Gang" from Abrams ComicArts.
"We're really excited because we're all big fans of Bazooka Joe," Kochman said, who proceeded to show a brief history of Bazooka Joe from the five original flavors of Topps gum -- including one flavor that didn't take off -- ginger -- all the way up to the 2013 relaunch.
"Bazooka Joe has been around for just about 60 years, and along the way, lots has changed in society and the world we live in and the graphics behind Bazooka," Friedman said, mentioning that design and moving forward was always a characteristic of the brand. "[The current design] is just one of a number of iterations that we'll see going through this point and many years to come." The current design is part of a continuing evolution, but what the book is a celebration of is the classic brand.
"The first eight comics open up the books, but also opened up in 1954 when 'Bazooka Joe' was launched. These comics were introducing these characters to a whole generation of kids," said Kochman.
Taylor, a contributor to "Bazooka Joe," discussed his collaboration with Jay Lynch and tracking down Tally Morse to help put together the book. The panel showed the first drawing of Bazooka Joe by Tally Morse's father, Wesley. "This very first drawing that Wesley did -- this ad campaign was at the age of what it would be to be a debonair man," said Kochman, who noted the reason the eyepatch ended up on Bazooka Joe was because the creators thought it would make him more suave. Prior to "Bazooka Joe," Wesley Morse also did Tijuana Bibles and pin-up-type art.
"Woody and the guys at Topps decided to wrap comic strips around Bazooka Joe and sell the gum with comic strips," said Kochman. "The idea of selling bubble gum with comics was introduced early on. They would license some of the characters -- some of them from Fawcett -- and these were early precursors to Bazooka Joe."
History-wise about Topps, Friedman noted that it started off as a gum company, though they were ultimately more associated with trading cards. "We got into the card business because we had the gum and thought there was an opportunity to sell gum," said Friedman. "Over the years, that flip-flopped. … To this day, the confectionary part of the business remains a big part. We're most known amongst younger people for Ring Pop and Baby Bottle Pop. Gold Rush was a gum we did in the '60s. Some of you may remember it. It was in a little cloth sack, there were little nuggets -- gold coated bubblegum nuggets. They were so incredibly successful that the government came in and said, 'There must be something going on here.' There was nothing going on, they were just incredibly popular."
Co-creator Woody Gelman passed on before Friedman joined Topps, and he was the company's first head of product development. "Going back to those days, the company was very much invested in product development," he said. "A company like Topps, a little family-owned business, was investing in talent in the '30s, '40s." The company gave Art Spiegleman one of his first jobs as a teenager.
"He was a very lovely man," said Morse. "He's the man that got in touch with my father to create Bazooka Joe. He helped us in a difficult time when my father took this job."
The very first "Bazooka Joe" comic had the tropes there from the very beginning -- the fortune on the bottom, the mail-order aspect -- and Sikoryak discussed the structure of the "Bazooka Joe" panel. "One of the things that I loved about the products is that they were trying to cram in all this information in a very small space," he said. "Not only is there a fortune, there's a gift you can order and also a comic. They're crammed together like a subway car."
Kochman compared the strip to a haiku: the perfection of not just selling candy to kids, but also comic strips. "People would collect them, but not necessarily read them," said Kochman. "People who grew up influenced by the fact that there were comics wrapped around gum." Some of the products included a hunting knife, an axe, a camera. "Lots of photographers became photographers because of that Bazooka Joe camera. The mail-order stuff you can actually send in 20 or 30 of these and a nickel at a time, and you could get a beanie or a telegraph set, a walkie talkie, microphones." Topps had a long history with sorts, so they also cross-promoted with pennants and team rings as prizes.
Collector Jeff Shepherd is the collector that editorial worked with, and he had a number of the items that were photographed for the 60th Anniversary book.
The panel moved on to some of the more unacceptable comics, including one that said a character was killed by an explosion and a strip where a character spells "come" "c-u-m."
Robert Crumb also worked for Topps, illustrating a story called "The Road to Success," a promotional piece that salesmen would leave with retailers to show them how Bazooka Joe gum could take them on "the road to success." The company also did Bazooka Joe Freeze Pops and he was featured on Twin-ee Frozen Pops. The company would also do bubble gum blowing contests. Internationally, Bazooka Joe has shown up in China, Israel, Nigeria -- all over the world, and Kochman said the response to the book on an international level has been strong.
At one point, the company decided to relaunch the comic with artist Howard Cruz, taking what Gelman and Morse had done and redefined it. "Like any brand, you have to update them a little bit for modern audiences," said Kochman. Another artist, Craig Yoe, was brought in to do another iteration later on, as well as missing panelist Jay Lynch (who could not attend due to an illness), who also wrote the after forward for the book.
Sikoryak discussed a special crossover with Image Comics, and Erik Larsen wanted Savage Dragon to meet Bazooka Joe. The front of a special trading card featured an image by Larsen, while the back featured a Bazooka Joe strip by Sikoryak.
During his time working for Topps, Sikoryak had a chance to introduce Mort's sister Mortina and "a lot of stupid, stupid gags." He also had the opportunity to do a piece for "The Onion," which featured what was actually under Mort's shirt. The parodies of "Bazooka Joe" also extended to Topps' own "Garbage Pail Kids" line of trading cards.
The process for putting together the comics included coloring via colored acetate -- and as a child, Tally Morse had to cut the acetate to fit his father's illustrations in order to earn his allowance.
The panel shifted to showing a few video clips -- one of John Lithgow from "3rd Rock from the Sun" in which he says, "Oh, Bazooka Joe! You're an imbicile!" The panel also showed a clip from "30 Rock" starring Stacy Keach making fun of how hard the gum can get. "It's like chewing a mountain that somebody shot a freeze way into," Keach says. Finally, the panel showed a partial clip of the Baseball World of Bubble Gum Blowing, which featured two baseball players competing to blow the biggest bubble.
Taylor said that even after the gum was discontinued, young people in Quebec created a parody called "Municipal Joe" to encourage people to vote, and tweeted it out about a week ago. The influence of Bazooka Joe spreads far and wide -- and the slideshow ended with a Wesley Morse drawing of a Dynamite Works factory blowing up.
"They kind of hit gold with this tiny, bizarre comic," said Sikoryak," and for some reason, that kept people's attention for six decades. This crazy eyepatched kid is immortal." Morse said his father, who died in 1963, would "be amazed" at how long his creation had lasted. Wesley Morse's art continued to be used well past his death for new gags in the "Bazooka Joe" comics. Tally Morse ended up purchasing much of his father's work when it went to auction in the '80s, and the early sketches in the book came from Morse's collection of his father's art that he had put away long ago.
"When I think about the baseball cards for me as a kid, I was a baseball freak," said Morse. "I had every set at the beginning, which was amazing." Unfortunately, he doesn't still have them. "Otherwise, I'd be drawing much nicer cars."
Wesley Morse was very famous during his time (Copacabana), and Taylor said Morse worked for the Zigfried Follies. Morse worked with Taylor's aunt and the two had an affair. "His comic strips appeared on the cover of the daily mirror." He was doing flapper strips along with Chick Young -- the creator of "Blondie" -- and in the '30s, Morse was a comics pioneer. "It's really the Topps connection. Woody Gelman surrounding himself with artists that were obsessed with Wesley Morse. [Art Spiegelman] was the one who identified Wesley's hand in the Tijuana Bibles." In early comics, Morse's contemporaries included Will Eisner, Basil Wolverton and more. "The thing he was most known for was -- he was the premiere nightclub artist in the 1930s," said Taylor. "He did all the work for the Latin Quarter and he was doing artwork for the menus, the logos, the matchbooks -- his artwork appeared on all the aspects of these clubs. He did that all the way until the end of his life in '63."
Abrams hopes to announce more Topps books shortly, including a coffee table book on the history of the Topps cards. "We have a couple of individual ones that we're working on, which are pretty famous brands and pretty famous characters," said Kochman.
As for the future of "Bazooka Joe," Friedman said the majority owner of Topps is currently Michael Eisner, the head of Disney. "He went on record saying that 'Bazooka Joe' was going to be Mickey Mouse," said Friedman. "The indication is that Bazooka Joe will star in a feature film. When I asked him about the status of the movie, he said, 'Two words: development hell.'" Bazooka Joe has been de-emphasized by Topps marketing to bring other entertainment aspects to the paper that wraps around the gum, including puzzles, games and codes that can unlock online content. "Bazooka is an evolutionary thing," said Friedman. "From where I sit at Topps, we have no plans to walk away from Bazooka Joe at all."