« People that pick up hitchhikers I believe are basically good people that believe in other people and understand problems and don’t judge people. That’s always the kind of person I’m looking for. » — John Waters
Let’s take a nocturnal drive with George Evans (1920-2001) behind the wheel. Best known for his stellar contribution as a member of the elite EC Comics bullpen, Evans had earlier crafted some impressive comics for Fawcett (his own favourite period of his work) and Fiction House, and later, post-Code, for Gilberton, Dell and Gold Key, Warren and DC. He also worked extensively in newspaper strips, notably on Terry and the Pirates (under George Wunder) in the 1960s. He took over Secret Agent Corrigan from fellow EC alum Al Williamson, a nice long stint from 1980 to 1996, at which point the strip wrapped up and Evans (and Corrigan, presumably) retired.
While Evans’ chief forte was aerial warfare, this piece highlights his way with a mood, his quiet grace and flawless draftsmanship. This story is an excerpt from Gilberton’s The World Around Us series (36 issues, 1958-1961); this is no. 24 (August, 1960), The Illustrated Story of Ghosts, an oft-told tale (but never better) of the urban legend widely known as The Vanishing Hitchhiker (here entitled The Hitch-Hiker). Can’t you just feel that rain?
The renowned folklorist Jan Harold Brunvant wrote, in his epochal study, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (1981, W. W. Norton):
« A prime example of the adaptability of older legends is ‘The Vanishing Hitchhiker’ — the classic automobile legend. This returning ghost tale was known by the turn of the century both in the United States and abroad. It acquired the newer automobile motif by the period of the Great Depression, and thereafter spawned a number of subtypes with greatly varied and oddly interlocking details, some of which themselves stemmed from earlier folk legends. »
« A kid one time fell asleep chewing Bubble Yum, and he woke up with his mouth full of spider eggs. » — Some nameless rumour-monger
The other day, a neighbour was asking me whether it was a safe for his Golden Retriever puppy to eat the worms it was digging up (I was impressed), the guy presuming that said worms were quite filthy and rife with germs. I replied that no, it’s probably all the rooting through the trash and gobbling up whatever it finds that’s giving the pup gastric distress. Worms, in fact, are considered a delicacy in many a culture, including some European ones. Not that I’ve indulged: just like The Kinks’ Apeman, I’m a strict vegetarian.
This brought to mind those 1970s rumours of earthworms serving as filler in McDonald’s burgers (never mind that worms are a far costlier ingredient than is beef). Which led in turn to the equally-outlandish notion that the secret of Bubble Yum’s softness (introduced in 1975 by Life Savers, it was the first soft bubble gum ever concocted) lay in its containing spider eggs. Again, steady procurement would have proved quite a daunting challenge.
But the bubble was about to burst (or at least deflate somewhat), as reported by The New York Times (March 29, 1977):
The Great Spider Egg Mystery remains unsolved but it may yet have several happy endings. The mystery concerns Bubble Yum, a popular new bubble gum that has, in a year, overtaken such symbols of earlier childhoods as Dubble Bubble and Bazooka. A few weeks ago came toil and trouble: the unexplained spread of lurid rumors among children in the New York area that, gasp!, Bubble Yum contained spider eggs (or, according to haughtier youthful accounts, caused cancer). Stores which had up to then been unable to stock enough to meet demand suddenly saw sales plummet. Last week, the manufacturer, Life Savers, Inc., took out full‐page ads in 30 area newspapers to combat the rumors.
This is not the first time the bubble gum business has been beset by evil rumor. When Jimmy Carter was a boy, youngsters in Sumter County, Georgia, were scared off by reports that bubble gum was made with snake oil —until they were reassured by an ad in the Americus Times‐Recorder. Nor is bubble gum normally regarded as the stuff of moral lessons. Its history, since it was invented by Walter Diemer in 1928, is marked by such milestones as packaging it with baseball cards (1933) or making it squeakless (1953).
But there is something more significant, and appealing, in the open way in which Life Savers has chosen to deal with its problem. We hope the spider egg rumors are expunged as successfully now as the snake oil rumors were then. And there will be a happier ending still if the subject is properly understood to be not bubble gum but canard. No consumer is too young to learn the malign effects of rumor or to understand that there will always be someone, not always in youthful innocence, eager to raise the cry—whether about Communists in government, environment, energy or bubble gum—of “spider eggs.”
Susan M. Smith wrote, in her 1989 thesis, Consumer Rumors and Corporate Communications:
Whether the rumor is isolated or widespread, the company must select media that reach the rumor’s community of interest, and particularly, its influential leaders. The importance of this is shown by what happened after a rumor episode in New York City for the Life Saver’s Company. The company conducted an all-out attack to combat a rumor in 1977 that the company’s innovative, new soft chewing gum. Bubble Yum, contained spider eggs. It sought publicity, inserted full-page newspaper ads, and sent letters with a copy of the ad to the city’s PTA groups, school principals, and retail outlets.
The campaign successfully stopped the rumor, but Bubble Yum’s New York sales did not recover for many years. It turns out that even though the company had blanketed the city with its rumor denial, it never spoke directly to product users, the school-age children, to bolster confidence in the product. The selection of inappropriate media makes the refutation message miss the rumour’s public allowing the rumor to continue to spread or delaying recovery from the rumor.
But I suppose all this controversy merely seems quaint now, what with all today’s heavy weaponizing of misinformation. Besides, the bubblegum market has been rather moribund in the past few decades, since apparently Nobody Likes to Chew Gum Anymore.
For a bit of sugar high nostalgia, I’ll leave you with a pair of vintage Bubble Yum ads: 1976’s brand introduction, featuring The Flavor Fiend;
« We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information. » — Neil Stephenson
True story! It happened to a friend of a friend of a relative of an acquaintance of the hairdresser of the nephew of the uncle of the garage mechanic of the girdle maker of a cousin of a U.F.O. abductee ex-classmate of my brother’s. Or so he obliquely claimed under hypnotic regression.
Apparently, this tale gave rise (I know, I know) to a variant called The Cucumber in the Disco Pants.
And remember, always check with Snopes.com before propagating dubious claims.
Spider in the Hairdo! is a juicy excerpt from Dark Horse’s one-shot Urban Legends no. 1 (June, 1993). Adaptation by the self-proclaimed « World’s Best Artist », Mitch O’Connell. I can think of far less worthy candidates for the position.
And if, like me, you can’t get enough of such urban folklore, check out any of Jan Harold Brunvand’s score of splendidly compelling books on the subject. When it comes to urban myths, Dr. Brunvand is the authority.
As a bonus, here’s Arthur Adams‘ slightly subsequent take on the same myth, published in DC/Paradox Press’ inaugural entry in its ‘Big Book of…’ series, The Big Book of Urban Legends (1994).
By their very nature, the Big books (seventeen in all) tended to be pretty hit or miss, not, for once, because of the writing, but chiefly due to the evident paucity, in the current comics industry, of artists versatile enough to credibly depict low-key, quotidian, humorous or historical situations. Is it counterintuitive, or fitting, that artists on the cartoonier end of the scale (Rick Geary, Roger Langridge, Gahan Wilson, Hilary Barta, Ty Templeton, Danny Hellman, Sergio Aragonés…) tended to fare best in producing this type of « documentary » work? I haven’t quite made up my mind. All I know is that the superhero specialists and photo tracers just brought embarrassment upon themselves *and* the unfortunate reader.