(First published in Arcadia Magazine – August 11, 2015)
Entertainment Review: We’re here with Bazooka Joe, known to generations as the legendary leader of the comic strip that bore his name. Joe, thanks for the chance to talk. By the way, you’re in great shape, if we do say so.
Bazooka Joe: Thanks. Healthy living. All the gluten I can stand, couple cold ones each day. A little Pilates now and then, truth be told.
ER: Bubble gum?
BJ: Of course! Never start a day without it.
ER: That’s it?
BJ: Having my face lightly coated with wax every day since 1953 hasn’t hurt, either! [laughs].
ER: Big changes for you, and the crew. How’s that going?
BJ: Moving on. Without getting into a lot of the specifics, which you know I can’t do at this point, suffice to say that our disengagement from Topps is behind us, and we’re looking forward to new things, exciting things.
ER: And your crew? Still together?
BJ: Forever and always. Just got back from a team-building retreat in Patagonia. Me, Pesty, Mort, Herm, Jane, Toughie and Walkie Talkie. Couple of our walk-ons from over the years came along, too. A few Superheroes, some others. We’re all still tight.
ER: A rich cast. A rich legacy, too.
BJ: Sure. But we’re just blips on the bubblegum timeline. People just don’t realize how rich a history this whole ‘gum and comics’ thing has behind it.
ER: I’m not sure we do. Help us understand.
BJ: Bubblegum enjoys a noble heritage, back to an Egypt of 4,000 years ago. And publishing flourished right alongside. Well, no, it actually came from the gum. See, the first hard, little blocks of acacia goo bore hieroglyphs which told where it was made, and
by whom. In time, these stories were expanded to include marriage announcements, births and deaths, start and close dates for the harvest. No one is quite sure when, but political slogans appeared, and it wasn’t much of a leap to humor and satire.
BJ: [pulls on his readers and unfolds an old parchment; reads aloud]
“And so Pharoah chose from the kingdom’s zoo those to guide his
barge to the Land of Punt.’
‘And who was chosen?’ bid Mortimus.
‘Red Sea Monkeys, of course’, sayeth Oracle.”
BJ, continues: A comic strip was born! But it was on the gum. It’s kind of hard to read when you’re chewing the piece at the same time: one had to remember the story carved into the gum and retell it from memory. Now while that gave a huge boost to storytelling, and language skills, it wasn’t magic for gum sales. Then along came Gutenberg, and the printing press changed all that. Sales exploded. And with it, gum publishing.
ER: Gum publishing?
BJ: We like ‘Gumblishing’. Ha! No, really! It’s what we used to call, back in the day, the whole scene, man. What I do. Or have done, for 59 years, until my…’retirement’. I like to think of myself more along the lines of a Hearst, Franklin, Sulzberger, Gannett, Murdoch, a Hefner. The giants who did more than fob imprints onto the public consciousness. Forces that moved social mountains.
ER: Surely you don’t consider a bubble-gum wrapper…
BJ: What? Legit? Real journalism? Dig: our circulation was north of one-point-five billion a year! Captive audience, too. Everyone at least looked at the strip, for what amounted to hundreds of millions of impressions per month! Those are Facebook numbers! Me and the gang took it from a throwaway wrapper, and, building on cartooning’s heritage as a unique catalyst for social change, moved mountains of our own.
ER: Distracted pre-teens…
BJ: Contraire! A billion-five contemplations of my missives each year precisely at the onset of a sugar-high, for tens of millions of baby boomers. Who’ve aged gracefully, toting the deepest wallets around, I might add. It was revolution: a coupling of message delivery with a metabolic jolt which gave a whole new meaning to the concept of ‘ad impression’. Delivered to young adults, in the hormonal throes of those sweet, formative years, giving us a pretty unique place deep inside the memory of what is now the ‘senior’ mind. Name where, we were there. Yankees over Dodgers in ’56. Woodstock. Viet Nam. The Moon.
BJ: [stubs out his cigarette, continues] And the revenue streams from those ads on our wrappers! The folks who started out at their kitchen table filling orders for Sea Monkeys…became the largest supplier of marine life to public seaquariums worldwide. The retired Marine sergeant who imported penknives for us started an international defense contractor now traded on the New York exchange…
ER: Uniquely positioned…
BJ: We were! Had it all to ourselves. No one followed our model. They all had the opportunity, and the wrappers! Tootsie Rolls, Dum-Dums, Necco! Man, Mary Jane! That chick! She had a 35-year head start on me, and a following! Nothing from her, or any of the others. Cracker Jack had their chachka, we were all fine with that. But the candy bars! Ruth, Clark, 3 Muskateers! Think of what those wrappers could have presented. Not a written word from any of them.
ER: But ‘gum publishing’ is no longer in Topps’ cards, so to speak?
BJ: Ha! Look, they’re great folks, letting us use the old studios, lending us an illustrator, using a placeholder ‘Placebo Joe’ for the concept. You know, copyright stuff. But not to worry. They’re ‘rebranding’, and we just don’t fit in. Well, we’re ‘rebranding’, too, is all. It’s been a bad couple of years for some really great legacy hardcopy, like Newsweek, the Intelligencer, Rocky Mountain News. Just glad Topps has a policy. I mean, Archie just took a bullet! My man! We were the Bad Boys of Comic Con back in the day. I guess we’re all looking for our spot in this new economy. Like who isn’t?[Pause; Joe blows bubble]
BJ, continues: I’m strictly analog, man. Started out as pen and ink drawn by a guy who, get this, used to do soft-core back in the day. Don’t translate into digital. I’m too…funky. And they wanna hook the new ‘insert’ I call it, into the website, make it interactive, yadda, yadda. Dumping the red, white and blue for ‘hot’ colors. But they still can’t give it up completely. There’s still gonna be some kind of strip, but here’s the deal. When it was sold by the piece, like it was for the last 59 years, every piece was the story. Now it’s gonna be a 10-pack. A ten pack! What’s that, a Lacrosse team? How can I be the intimate message wrapped lovingly around their next sugar high when I’ve got 10 heads to address?
ER: So what’s next for Joe, and the Gang?
BJ: We’re test marketing a new strip, still playing with the characters. And we’re reworking the whole merchandise thing. More upscale stuff. Working with Amazon on same-day, even letting out some space just for them.
ER: Branded strips?
BJ: Not lost on our group! You know, I’ve got at last count maybe four, five drinks named after me. Been talking to Bacardi about packaging a strip with drinks, right there, barside. You know, kinda like a ‘Bazooka Advisor’, with, shall we say, ‘socialization’ lines. Plus entertainment and health tips, stuff like that. We’ve been testing a waterproof version, which would wrap Martini olives. Seriously.
ER: Anything else on the horizon?
BJ: I know I shouldn’t say, but we’re in talks with a Chinese fortune cookie company for a new concept in inserts…
ER: Let me guess.
BJ: Okay, okay….’Lucky Family Joe’.
(Graphics by the author)