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.