It was 20 years ago that I was fortunate enough to cross paths with two pop culture legends.
I’d actually known one of these legendary figures since I was a boy, riding my bike recklessly down to the corner store for a comic book, pop and some chewing gum. The gum of choice was Bazooka, a sugary square of latent tooth decay, swathed in a waxy wrapper. But I didn’t buy Bazooka for the taste of the gum – just as I didn’t buy baseball cards to get that stale, petrified pink stick that came along with all the photos, stats, and trivia. No, as my teeth worked their way through the first torturous chomps that would eventually soften that small rock-hard mass into something chewable, I was psyched to read the latest about a smart-aleck kid with an eye-patch: Bazooka Joe.
As far as I knew back then, Bazooka Joe And His Gang had always been and always would be. Iconic characters like Joe and Mort weren’t born and could never die. That’s how it is with great folk art. Did Woody Guthrie really write “This Land Is Your Land”, or was it always on the wind, just waiting to be given voice? Was some unknown drummer the first to hit a rim shot after a bad joke – or is that response simply wired into our DNA? Weren’t hamburgers and hot dogs available since the Garden of Eden? For millions of kids like me growing up in the early 1960’s, chewing Bazooka gum while reading Bazooka Joe comics was an essential cultural touchstone — albeit, one that made our jaws sore and our dentists rich.
It was inconceivable to me, as I sat in front of that corner store and chuckled at the antics of Joe and his pals printed on those little colored rectangles of waxed paper, that I would ever have anything to do personally with Bazooka Joe. Then, two decades later, I found myself in the orbit of a second cultural luminary: Jay Lynch.
I met Jay Lynch in the early 1980’s through our mutual friends, Ron and Sydney Crawford. (Someday, I will devote a lot of blog space to the amazing, artistic Crawfords.) At the time Jay was writing a comic strip called Phoebe & the Pigeon People with artist Gary Whitney. (I will soon be writing more about Gary, too.) Of course, like any fan of The Chicago Reader I knew Phoebe & the Pigeon People very well before I ever met Jay and Gary. In person, Jay was a relatively quiet guy. He was quick-witted and fun to be around, but you wouldn’t call him conversational. Jay gave up information about himself with more reluctance than a Gitmo detainee – so how was I to know he was an underground comics legend?
These links will give you a more complete picture of Jay Lynch:
Jay is a cultural superstar that has been operating on the minds of American youth (and older folk of youthful spirit) for decades. A contemporary of R. Crumb, Jay contributed to Bijou Funnies, one of the first underground comix, and his characters, Nard n’ Pat are icons in the world of subterranean funnies.
Besides his work with Gary Whitney on the long-running Phoebe & the Pigeon People strip, Jay contributed to Mad Magazine and worked for Topp’s on Bazooka Joe comics. He’s the guy all of us middle-aged kids have to thank for Topp’s “Wacky Packages” in the early 1970’s: those satiric cartoon stickers we stuck all over everything, with titles like “Plastered Peanuts,” “Ultra Blight Toothpaste,” “Messquire Magazine,” and “Mrs. Blubberworth’s Whale Fat Syrup.” And then there’s Jay’s work on classics like Garbage Pail Kids and Meanie Babies. The list goes on…
In the fall of 1989, Victoria and I were planning our wedding for June of the following year, and I already had one foot in Los Angeles, when Jay approached us with an offer I could scarcely believe: would we like to work with him on a new edition of Bazooka Joe comics? I was busy and the holiday season was upon us – but how could we pass up a chance to have our work immortalized on one of those little waxy rectangles? A cosmic opportunity like that must be seized upon with joy and thanksgiving. We told Jay that we’d give it a shot.
According to Jay, Bazooka Joe was in a transitional, post-MTV period. Joe was in need of a makeover. For one thing, the notion of Bazooka Joe and his gang was problematic. The word “gang” no longer called to mind harmless Huntz Hall and The Bowery Boys. Now, courtesy of rap video imagery and real-world drug wars between outlaws like the Crips and Bloods, “gang” had taken on a far more negative connotation. “Bazooka Joe and His Gang” were gone, replaced by Bazooka Joe & Company.
Now, Jay Lynch had dubbed himself Jayzey long before Jay-Z, so he knew that Topps had to embrace the MTV and Hip-Hop culture if it wanted to destroy the teeth of a new generation of kids, so Jay told us they were launching Bazooka Joe Raps. Run DMC meets Bazooka Joe.
Bazooka Joe himself would undergo a bit of a transformation: hipper, more handsome, and more of a jock. Joe’s hair and the bill of his ever-present baseball cap were both longer. And while his eye patch remained, Joe’s good eye was on the future.
Topps was also introducing some new characters. Mort was still there, his nose sticking out of his ultra-long turtleneck, but Bazooka Joe’s new girlfriend was a sexy shopaholic named Zena.
In another nod to advances in youth culture, Metaldude made his debut. A hairy, hard-rocking misfit, Metaldude was designed to appeal to guys who wouldn’t be caught dead hanging with a relatively square guy like Bazooka Joe.
Then, there was Ursula – something totally new for Bazooka Joe: a black woman. And a sexy, confident and athletic black woman at that! Hard-bodied Ursula was drawn in an eye-popping fashion that even a guy with one good eye like Joe would have to appreciate.
From November of ’89 through February ’90, Victoria and I submitted scripts for the various new Bazooka Joe series, including Bazooka Joe Fantasies and Bazooka Joe Mystic Master of Space & Time. As it turned out, we did our best work on Bazooka Joe Raps.
However, my favorite strips are the ones we wrote for Bazooka Joe & Company. I’d always loved those classic three and four panel jokes as a kid – and to get a chance to do it myself was an honor. Victoria, having chewed more than her share of Bazooka Joe as a youth, was also thrilled to be part of a great American cultural institution.
The comics that illustrate this article are ones that we were privileged to add to Bazooka Joe’s jaw-aching legacy. And we’ve got Jay Lynch to thank for allowing us to share a very small part of childhood cultural history.
28 responses to “Bazooka Joe, Jay Lynch & Me”
Ahh. The knife cuts much deeper than I thought!
Nice, nice nice stuff.
My Bazooka Joe introduction and subsequent enjoyment came courtesy of our local barber, Rube. No kidding. His name was really Rube. Anyway, every two weeks a haircut, with my dad, a basket full of comic books and a couple of complimentary pieces of Bazooka.
Rube was obviously working in collusion with your dentist.
Amazing stuff – I gave up on Bazooka Bubblegum shortly after middle school, so I missed the entire BZ Raps era. My loss, clearly.
On a cold day in Chicago (yes, 1° F this AM) we all feel like doin’ a Mort and pulling our extra-long turtlenecks up over our noses.
My one bubblegum talent is being able to blow two bubbles inside a larger bubble. This only works with Bazooka; you needed at least three of the pre-1972 sized pieces, and you had to have chewed all the delicious sugar out of those three (or more) pink rectangles.
Thanks for a lovely Sunday morning story.
Okay, Katie — this we’ve got to see. You must immediately send a photo of yourself blowing two bubbles inside a larger bubble. I don’t know what else you have planned for today — but it looks like you’ve got a lot of chewing to do.
It’s been a couple of years (ahem) since I did any bubble blowing, but if I can find the good stuff at Dominicks’ today, I’ll start chewing. Photos to follow should I still have the chops (which is the best pun I could come up with on short notice).
WHY DID YOU NEVER TELL ME YOU WROTE BAZOOKA BUBBLE GUM COMICS??????
Did you never wonder why your mother and I hung that large printer’s sheet of Bazooka Joe comics in the hall near the kitchen?
Well, if we’re using our critical reasoning skills here — obviously not, due to the stunned nature of my previous comment!
That particular series was an insane one. Topps hired a marketing company to administer it, and we had to submit something like 800 gags in order for them to choose 50. Every strip went before focus groups….and what did they get out of all that? Just another Bazooka Joe series like all the others. But your Bazooka Joe raps was something else. I wonder if maybe we wouldn’t have had Eminem and Fifty Cent had there not been Bazooka Joe Raps when those guys were ten years old.
That’s something to ponder, Jay. But I shudder to think we might have been responsible in any way for R. Kelly’s “Real Talk” or his “Trapped in the Closet” series.
No one remembers me working on this with you too, Jay? I worked my butt off on all of this, too for months! Including every series subtitle, such as Bazooka Joe Raps, Masters of Time & Space, put the sweater back over Mort’s face, did all the character re-designs, added Zena, MetalDude, Ursula, the original art submitted to the Focus groups. I was at your apartment nearly every day.
Paid by Topps & forgotten by all!
Julie Sczesny – The Bubblegum Queen, & only mom Bazooka Joe ever had.
Julie, You are mentioned in the afterword I wrote in the Bazooka Joe book, though. You drew the whole series, it is true. But at the last minute Topps decided not to use your drawings, which the marketing company had approved. So me and Pete Poplaski had to redraw the whole thing in the traditinal Howard Cruz Bazooka Joe style in a couple of weeks. But that’s the way things went with that series. We all got paid, though. And Topps got to report to their stockholders that they hired a fancy marketing company to revamp the comics. Later, Topps went private and sold the company to Michael Eisner. They dropped the Joe comics in the gum entirely, I hear. Instead they have some kind of digital computer game thing going on the little pieces of wax paper that come with the gum.
Oops… My comment was posted as “anonymous”. Actually it is me speaking in the previous comment.
Thanks for sharing this, great stuff indeed.
In fact, Jay was the one who hipped me to your post in an email.
The idea of Bazooka Joe as great folk art, I like that. And if it was on the wind, genetically wired, then Wesley Morse, Joe’s original artist, helped give it voice.
Now, apparently, we just need Eminem to weigh in on the whole thing!
I loved following up on the original Bazooka Joe artist, Wesley Morse. Fascinating stuff. Here’s the link for anyone else who wants to now more about him — at least until Jay’s book on Morse comes out.
Ah, yes, I was also one of the small army of Bazookafarians contributing gags to BJ&C. One of my many submissions was selected and, later on, the very first piece of Bazooka gum that I bought contained my gag! Cosmic, eh wot?
BTW, very nice blog entry.
paul, what is your last name please. writing a speech about you. thanks much
My last name is no great secret on this blog. It’s Barrosse. (Not a very common name.)
A speech? About me? What in the world for?
I just saw your blog post and I salute you! For most of the past 12 years I’ve been trying to catalog every Bazooka Joe comic ever made and gain i
I just discovered this blog post and I salute you! For the past 12 years I’ve been trying to catalog every Bazooka Joe gum comic ever made and gain
insight into the ‘behind the scenes’. I knew of the brilliant Jay Lynch and Wesley Morse. Discovering you and your wife as writers of some of the gags is a revelation to me. My hats off!
By the way … I finally completed the basic set of Joe comics from 1954 to present a couple years ago.
Thanks for the salute, Bob! Victoria and I were just bit players in the great Bazooka Joe story, but we sure had fun doing it.
I love re-reading through your blog and being reminded of just how freakin’ cool my parents are.
Both your parents were mentioned and glowingly credited in the afterword I wrote for this book. I gave the publisher their address back then. I hope they sent ’em copies. I think they sent me one when it came out… I dunno. http://www.amazon.com/Bazooka-Joe-Gang-Topps-Company/dp/1419706322/ref=sr_1_21?ie=UTF8&qid=1426619656&sr=8-21&keywords=bazooka
Just ordered a copy of the book, Jay! How are you, BTW?
I’m OK. I’ve been living in upstate NY for the past 15 years or so. Still cartoonin’. Not so much the bubblegum stuff these days, though. There seems to be a revival of the old underground comix type material going on lately, so mostly I’ve been doing that kind of thing . Gotta balance out my karma.
Durante a puberdade, os garotos dessa cultura eram ensinados por
seus pais a como praticar ‘jelq’ (sistema semelhante ao da
ordenha das vacas, para propiciar aumento de tamanho).
Você está insinuando que é assim que Bazooka Joe perdeu seu olho?
Après tout, que cela va se assurer que vous perdez assez de calories toute la journée, ce qui conduit à ces
merveilleuses effets secondaires”, tels que la perte de poids, performance accrue, forte santé
et beaucoup plus!
Il est important de savoir qu’il ne faut jamais sauter un repas
afin de réduire sa consommation de calories ; nombreux sont ceux qui commettent cette grave erreur en pensant pouvoir
perdre du poids ainsi, alors que cela les conduit à manger
deux fois plus au repas suivant sous l’effet de la faim.