Bazooka Joe Secrets
“Bazooka” is the name of bubble gum and the name of a highly explosive rocket launcher. Why did a confection company choose such an explosive word for their gum?
Inception of the Comic Strip
In the late 30s, the Great Depression was ending, World War II was starting, and brothers Abram, Ira, Joseph, and Philip Shorin started selling tabs of gum for 1¢ apiece.
Their competition was Fleer “Dubble Bubble” Chewing Gum. In an effort to “top” their competitor, the Shorin brothers called their company “Topps” Chewing Gum.
Also as part of the plan to beat Fleer, Topps came up with the idea of printing small “jokey comics” on wax paper that they packaged with each tab of gum.
Inception of Bazooka Joe
Initially, the comics were bought from third parties. But by 1953 they had hired their own artists, Woody Gelman and Wesley Morse, to create the comic strips.
Gelman and Morse were both World War II veterans. Not surprisingly, they covered the Topps’ gum packaging in America’s patriotic red, white, and blue colors.
While fighting overseas, Gelman and Morse witnessed surprise Bazooka attacks with devastating outcomes. Also during WWII, the first two Atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
Consequently, the first comic series Gelman and Morse came out with was about “Bazooka, the Atom Bubble Boy”, a small fearless blond boy who blew bubbles so big he could fly.
The Atom Bubble Boy comics were short-lived because parents, concerned about the negative effects of radiation, didn’t want anything called “Atom” going inside their child’s mouth.
Three years later, in honor of Private Joseph Weinek who was blinded in his right eye by a bazooka attack, Gelman and Morse created a new character named Bazooka Joe that had an eye patch.
Unlike Atom the Bubble Boy, Bazooka Joe (and his gang of friends) was a smashing success with sales of the gum quickly increasing worldwide.
Throughout the years, Topps added more content on the gum wrapper (i.e. a comedic fortune or the chance to win prizes) and expanded on the gum flavors.
In addition to the “original” flavor, they offered Watermelon Whirl, Grape Rage, Flavor Blast, and sugar-free. Needless to say, the added flavors further increased their fan base.
Joe’s Gang of Friends
The storyline for the comic strips centered around the wild antics of Joe and his friends which usually included:
- Pesty, Joe’s younger brother who always wears a 1950s sombrero
- Hungry Herman, Joe’s chubby pal
- Jane, Joe’s girlfriend
- Toughie, the streetwise guy who always wore a sailor hat
- Metaldude, the blond guy into heavy metal
- Walkie Talkie, the neighborhood simpleton
- Mort, Joe’s gangly wisecracking friend
But just like the changing content and added flavors, throughout the years the members of Joe’s gang also changed. Various friends came and went, except for Mort.
Joe’s Friend Mort
Mort was the one member of the gang who appeared consistently for over 50 years and he always wore the same red turtleneck stretched up to his ears.
Why did Mort always wear that same red turtleneck covering the lower half of his face? Well, on Monday, October 27th, 2008, Mort’s face was finally revealed.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the lower half of Mort’s face was covered in intense scars from third-degree burns. It was the most captivating and controversial installment of the comic strip.
Such a dark outlook in comic literature was unheard of. Mort’s face was a shocking reminder of how tragic life can be. Something Gelman and Morse experienced firsthand during WWII.
Even though the veterans had passed away, fellow Topps artists felt it was time for fans to face the reality that life’s not all fun and games, it can be painful too.
Topps staff artist, Martin Shore, reportedly said that “Bazooka Joe has always been about mankind’s search for meaning in a world marked by pain”.
Bazooka Joe’s Fall and Rise
Although the comic strips amused readers for decades, in 2012 sales of the brand were down. So Topps, in order to cut costs, stopped including comic strips in their packaging.
Requests poured in from fans around the world asking for the return of Bazooka Joe and his gang.
In response, Topps reached into their vault and revived 48 of the best comic strips from the 70s and 80s and included them in a 2021 nostalgic “throwback” pack.
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