“Bazooka” is the name of a bubble gum brand. However, the term “Bazooka” also refers to a rocket launcher weapon that has devastating effects. Discover why a confections company would choose such an explosive word to associate with their gum.
The Inception of Bazooka Joe Comics
Back in the late 1930s, when the Great Depression was just coming to an end and World War II was just getting started, four brothers (Abram, Ira, Joseph, and Philip Shorin) started selling tabs of gum for one penny apiece.
Their competition was “Dubble Bubble” made by Fleer Chewing Gum Company. 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 including “jokey comics” with each piece of gum. So they printed a small comic strip on wax paper and packaged it with the gum.
The 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. Hence, the colors used on the packaging for all of Topps’ gum are the USA patriotic combination of red, white, and blue.
Creating the comics was a way for them to deal with the horrors they had witnessed while fighting overseas such as surprise Bazooka attacks.
Also, during WWII, the first two atomic bombs (also known as atom bombs ) ever used were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
Consequently, the first comic series Gelman and Morse came out with was “Bazooka, the Atom Bubble Boy”, a small fearless blond boy who blew bubbles so big he could fly.
But the Atom Bubble Boy comics were short-lived. Concerned about the negative effects of radiation, parents didn’t want anything with the word “Atom” going inside their child’s mouth.
Three years later, they came up with the “Bazooka Joe” character and his gang of friends. Gelman and Morse created him in honor of Private Joseph Weinek.
Weinek was blinded in his right eye by a bazooka attack shortly before U.S. forces were overrun in the Battle of Mindanao which is why the main character Joe is wearing an eye patch.
Bazooka Gum Comics Success
Unlike “Bazooka, the Atom Bubble Boy”, “Bazooka Joe and his GANG” was a smashing success and sales of the gum increased nationwide, then worldwide.
After several years, Topps started including additional content on the gum wrapper. For instance, directly underneath the comic strip, you could read your fortune (similar to a fortune cookie, but with a comedic tone).
Also, some packs included a chance to win prizes (i.e. a bobblehead) if you mailed in the required number of comic wrappers. They also expanded on their flavors of gum.
So, in addition to the “original” flavor, they also offered Watermelon Whirl, Grape Rage, Flavor Blast, and sugar-free. Needless to say, all these additions to Bazooka Gum helped to increase their fan base.
Bazooka Joe’s Gang
The storyline for the comics centered around the wild antics of Joe and his gang. Members of the gang mainly 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.
Bazooka Joe’s Friend Mort
Mort was the one member of the gang who appeared consistently for over 50 years. He was the one who always wore the same red turtleneck.
Mort always wore the red turtleneck stretched up to his ears covering the lower half of his face. Why was Mort always hiding his face?
Well, in 2008 readers found out why. On Monday, October 27th, 2008, Mort’s face was finally revealed. It was the most captivating and controversial installment of the comic strip.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the lower half of Mort’s face was covered in intense scars from third-degree burns. Such a dark outlook in comic literature had never been seen before.
“Why?” was the question on everyone’s mind. The horror of Mort’s face was a shocking reminder of how tragic life can be. Something Gelman and Morse experienced firsthand during WWII.
And even though the two veterans had passed away, fellow artists at Topps, 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
In 2012, even though the comic strips amused readers for decades, sales of the brand were down. So Topps, in order to cut costs, stopped including the comic strips in their packaging.
However, since then, requests poured in from fans for Bazooka Joe and his gang to return. Hence, Bazooka Joe made his return this year with a new nostalgic “Throwback” pack.
Topps reached into their Bazooka Joe vault and rejuvenated 48 of their best comic strips from the 1970s and 80s to include in the retro pack.
Check out our cool vintage Bazooka Bubble Gum Tin for sale in our Collectibles Store.
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