Bazooka is the name used to refer to a rocket launcher weapon that has devastating effects. Conversely, it is also the brand name of a bubble gum that has pleasurable effects. Why would a confections company choose such an explosive word to associate with their gum? The irony was intentional.
The Inception of Bazooka Gum
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 started selling tabs of gum for one penny apiece. The four bothers were Abram, Ira, Joseph, and Philip Shorin. Because their aim was to “top” their competitor, “Dubble Bubble” made by Fleer Chewing Gum Company, 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. Creating the comics was a way for them to deal with the horrors they had witnessed while fighting overseas, such as “bazooka” attacks. Also, keep in mind that the first two atomic bombs (also known as atom bombs ) ever used were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during WWII.
Consequently, the first comic series they came out with was “Bazooka, the Atom Bubble Boy”. He was a small fearless blond boy who blew bubbles so big he could fly. The comics centered around his big bubble flying adventures. But the Atom Bubble Boy comics were short-lived. Possibly because Parents were concerned about the negative effects of radiation and didn’t want anything associated with the word “Atom” going inside their child’s mouth.
Three years later, they came up with the concept of the “Bazooka Joe” character and his gang of friends. It’s not surprising that the main character, Joe, is wearing an eye-patch. Gelman and Morse created him in honor of Private Joseph Weinek. Weinek was blinded in his right eye by a surprise bazooka attack shortly before U.S. forces were overrun in the Battle of Mindanao.
Bazooka Gum Success
Unlike “Bazooka, the Atom Bubble Boy”, “Bazooka Joe and his GANG” was a smashing success. 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. The fortune sounded a lot like that of a fortune cookie, but with a comedic tone.
Also, some packs included a chance to win prizes (i.e. a Bazooka Joe 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. It’s also important to point out that the colors used on the packaging for all of Topps’ gum are the USA patriotic combination of red, white, and blue.
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; Joe’s chubby pal “Hungry Herman”; Joe’s girlfriend, Jane; streetwise “Toughie”, who always wears a sailor hat; blond heavy metal fan “Metaldude”; the neighborhood simpleton “Walkie Talkie”; and Joe’s gangly wisecracking friend, Mort. 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. And he always had 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 first hand 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 strip amused readers for decades, sales of the brand were down. So Topps, in order to cut costs, stopped including the comic strip in their packaging. However, since then, requests for Joe and his gang to return poured in from fans. 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 comics from the 1970s and 80s to include in the retro pack.
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