Chew on This: Howard Cruse’s Bazooka Joe

« So to this my life has come: there’s meaning in a piece of gum » — Parthenon Huxley, Bazooka Joe

We recently lost another fine cartoonist in Howard Cruse (May 2, 1944 – Nov. 26, 2019), and while he’s most frequently celebrated for his pioneering work in Queer comix and his graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, I’m much fonder of his comparatively ‘lightweight’ humorous work. In other words, I’ll take the wacky short stories over the Ponderous Magnum Opus, thank you.

And things don’t get any lighter than Bazooka Joe, now do they?

In 1983, Howard Cruse was engaged by Topps to redesign Bazooka Joe and illustrate a new set of strips, the series’ first true update since co-creator* Wesley Morse‘s passing in 1963. Topps, figuring on more-or-less total turnover of its kiddie audience, had been rotating batches of strips every seven years, drawing on the vast hoard of unpublished strips left by Morse, and now and then hiring freelancers to pad out the lot.

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An unpublished Howard Cruse instructional comic, mid-1980s. Cruse recalled: « I always liked  this strip because it’s practically the only time I was invited to draw the character at a size large enough to allow some stylistic personality. » I added the colouring, just because.
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Howard Cruse Bazooka Joe model sheet, prepared for 1983 revamp.
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Cruse’s model sheet for the rest of the 1983-vintage cast.
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Chameleonic cartoonist R. Sikoryak, who contributed gags to the second Cruise series, posits that « One of the pleasures of the traditional comic strip is the conciseness of words and pictures, and the Bazooka format takes this compression about as far as humanly possible. As with haiku, there is a great power in the constraints that must be respected in obeying a format. »
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Samples of the 1983-84 vintage.
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Jay Lynch explains: « Despite the brand managers and marketing companies responsible for the various revamps of Bazooka Joe over the years, and their valiant attempts to make the characters and the gags more ‘hip‘, I’ve always thought that the primary appeal of these tiny comics was their overall lameness. Back when I wrote Bazooka Joe, I’d usually start by going through turn-of-the-century joke books and rewriting the ancient quips to turn the 1908 ragtime aficionados into 1990’s heavy-metal enthusiasts… »
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Some thoughtful suggestions from Cruse for the 1988 crop.
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From my personal collection, original artwork supposedly from the 1983-84 batch… but something doesn’t add up. Incidentally, actual size is 3 x 3 5/8 inches.
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The accompanying certificate of authenticity raises more questions than it answers. To wit, as Mr. Cruse elucidates: « When I was asked… to reconceive Bazooka Joe as a teenager and provide him with a new ‘gang‘, the only holdover from the earlier tykes… was Mort, the weird sidekick who wore a turtleneck pulled up to his eyes. Len [Brown] and Art Spiegelman… thought the ultra-lengthy turtleneck was a bit – in fact, was literally – over the top, though. So for my first series of strips the sweater’s collar was brought down below Mort’s chin… Apparently this change disturbed some nameless traditionalists at Topps, so when I was hired to draw a second batch of strips in 1988, the turtleneck was restored to its original position… » In that case, if my original is from the ’83-’84 series, why is Mort’s turtleneck in its traditional, and proper place?
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Another certificate, this one appearing on the back of Bazooka Jerk (Garbage Pail Kids Giant Series Stickers no. 1, from 1986). Illustrated by Howard Cruse.

Then, in 1990, when the time came for another series, Topps opted to subcontract the work to a marketing company that dismissed Cruise’s work as « too goofy », according to Jay Lynch. Then Lynch, Pete Poplaski and Grass Green took up the gauntlet, which is a fascinating tale in itself… but one for another day.

If such lowly cartoon ephemera hold even the slightest sway over you, you’ll likely be very interested in Topps’ Bazooka Joe and His Gang (2013, Abrams ComicArts, edited by Charles Kochman), which proved an invaluable resource in cobbling together this post.

« Bazooka Joe has become the personification of the lowest form of humor. And this is why he’s one of the most widely known comics characters on the planet. Sure, the jokes were cornball. But that’s their appeal. » — Jay Lynch

-RG

*with Topps executive (and Golden Age comic book artist) Woody Gelman.