When I was a kid I used to save Bazooka Joe comics and mail them off for prizes. I think I got a mini-camera once (although I don’t remember it taking pictures) and a tiny knapsack that was a lot smaller than I thought it would be from the picture on the comic.
I just learned today that another piece of my childhood will be disappearing next month. Bazooka Bubble Gum will be replacing Bazooka Joe with brain teasers.
Here is a taste of an article from The New Republic:
But weep not for Bazooka Joe, that fondly remembered, tow-headed, eye-patched, ball-capped, ordnance-named mascot. He and his pal Mort—the one whose turtleneck is so tall, it’s technically a turtlechin—aren’t going away, exactly. They’ll still get featured occasionally in the inserts that swaddle Topps, Inc.’s hard pink nuggets of corn syrup. And they’ll pop up at BazookaJoe.com, welcoming kids who’ve gone online for the games and videos that have been marketed to them.
As far as the afterlife of once-beloved product mascots goes, this is some pallid, shades-in-Hades nonsense. No more will Joe and Mort trade punny zingers that bear all the blistering, in-your-face cultural currency of a Bennett Cerf joke book. Instead, they’ve been consigned to linger in the non-corporeal corporate limbo known as a product’s “online presence.” Like Mr. Peanut, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy and other semi-retired spokesthings, Bazooka Joe and His Gang will now exist primarily as ghosts in the machine.
Topps made its first, abortive attempt to create a cartoon spokesmoppet in 1949. “Bazooka, the Atom-Bubble Boy!” was a plucky blond tyke who blew bubbles so big he could fly, thus enabling daring adventures. But it didn’t take long for Bazooka’s atom-bubble to burst, perhaps because kids weren’t willing to spend a nickel per package of six pieces of gum when other companies offered single pieces for a penny. (It’s also possible that, as parents became aware of the horrific effects of nuclear radiation, the thought of an “atom-bubble” getting anywhere near their child’s mouth began to pall.)
In 1954, Topps tried again with “Bazooka Joe and his Gang,” selling individual pieces for one cent. To compensate for the wee size of the comics, Joe and his cronies were assigned easily distinguished sartorial styles—Mort’s turtleneck, for instance, and Joe’s eye-patch. Topps insists the latter was a fashion choice rather than the result of playground rough-housing gone horrifically awry. Jeff Shepherd, a collector and bubble-gum historian whose book Bazooka Joe and His Gang comes out in April, says the patch was meant to parody the hugely successful ad campaign featuring the Hathaway Shirt Man. This original gang was rounded out by the overweight Hungry Herman; Janet (later Jane), Joe’s sweetheart; and Toughie (real name: George Washington Abraham Lincoln Jones), a Dead-End Kid type who wore his white sailor hat at a rakish tilt.
The characters were created by cartoonists Woody Gelman and Wesley Morse. Morse, according to Art Spiegelman’s Those Dirty Little Books, had years before authored several of the better-known pornographic comics that came to be called “Tijuana bibles.” He drew two to three series per year (with each series containing 40 to 50 different gags) every year until his death in 1963, and for decades after that, Topps continually recycled Morse’s original gags, although the art was frequently touched up and simplified further. For awhile, kids were encouraged to collect and redeem the comics for various prizes—pens, keychains, charm bracelets, flashlights, cameras, and the like—but today’s devotees collect them for the sake of collecting, and speak an argot thick with serial numbers (“The release of Bazooka Joe Series 2-61,” intones one website, “marked the end of an era.”).