'Bazooka Joe' and the dangers of nostalgia

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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