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BELATEDLY, BAZOOKA JOE comics are being recognized as bona fide American art. In case you’ve forgotten, or your father was a dentist, let me explain that Bazooka is a type of bubblegum that cost a penny in the 1950s and ’60s; each wad of gum was wrapped in a tiny comic strip, neatly folded in half. [The cartoon was created by Woody Gelman, who was recently the subject of Jewdayo —Ed.] Recently I read the book Bazooka Joe and His Gang, published by The Topps Company, Inc. in 2013, which reproduces classic Bazooka Joe comics from the collection of Jeff Shepherd, who describes himself as a “collector and historian of all things bubble gum.”
Yes, I admit I’m a little nostalgic for the Bazooka Joe art of my youth (though I actually preferred Double Bubble Bubble Gum, with its own separate but equal comic characters: Pud, Muscles, Brainy, etc.). As I recall, I once sent away for a Bazooka prize — a miniature spy camera — which never came.
The text of this book is in tiny print — odd for an audience of aging baby boomers — so I didn’t read every word, but I certainly studied each comic strip. What struck me was the change in the fortunes that appeared below the cartoons. Let’s compare the very first one in this collection with the last:
Orderliness is not your usual method of doing things. If you become orderly, you will be a success.
This isn’t your fortune, you got someone else’s gum.
We can learn something about the progress — or is the word “decline”? — of American culture from these small prophecies.
BAZOOKA BUBBLEGUM was launched in 1947; tiny cartoons were first included in 1953. At that time, the Horatio Alger myth was still powerful. (Alger wrote over a hundred novels, mostly about innocent boys who achieved enormous success through hard work and lucky twists of fate.) Here is another early inspirational fortune:
Do not ever be content to follow others. You are born to lead, and you must do so without fear of what may happen.
Though this inspirational message is undated, the offer for “#132 Free Air Combat Goggles” alongside it expired June 30, 1955, when I was almost 2 years old. In fact, the first thirty Bazooka Joe comics in the book all feature prizes with the same expiration date. Other fortunes are:
You will have a gift for making money all through your life. Use it well, and you will always be happy.
Your success lies in the field of politics. If you follow this, you may rise to very great heights as a statesman.
There’s a curious juxtaposition between the noble future being offered the bubblegum-purchaser, the “free” gift, and the little joke. For example, in one strip, Pesty, a kid who always wears a yellow cowboy hat, is crying. “What’s wrong, Pesty?” asks Bazooka Joe. “It’s that new kid! He’s making fun of me! He says I’m old-fashioned!” Pesty replies, wiping back tears. “Why should he say that? Where is he?” demands Bazooka Joe. “Right there!” Pesty replies, pointing to a boy dressed as an astronaut. The fortune: “In the future, you will do a great deal of traveling, and most of it will be at someone else’s expense.” The “free” gift: “Free 22 Kt. Gold Plated Ring with Your Initial.”
Here are some more circa-1955 predictions:
You are fortunate in having a very artistic nature, and some day you will be famous because of this gift.
Because of your fine mental power, your future lies in the study of law. You will become famous as an attorney.
Your great success will come to you when you step upon the stage and face a large cheering audience.
You are the type who will always look for new adventures. You may find your fame as an explorer of new territories.
Some day your name will be in the headlines of all the newspapers. Don’t let this turn your head.
You will have great physical power, and you will become famous because of your feats of great strength.
You are destined to have great riches and honor, mainly because of the fine power of your thinking.
These prophecies grow ever more grandiose. Clearly there is an obsession with fame, as if success, money, friends, were not enough. Does this say something about the frustrations of the (nameless) writer of these prophecies? Or about her — or his — hopes for the youth of 1955? Some of these fortunes stop just short of: “You have the ability to walk through walls.” Perhaps the most extravagant is:
The power to sway millions by your speeches will come to you in your later life. Don’t misuse this gift.
Did the writer imagine he was preventing some future Hitler from arising? Or did she (or he) honestly hope to inspire the youth of America to greatness? For that matter, was there one writer or many writers? The text of Bazooka Joe and his Gang, which in some ways is quite scholarly, avoids all these questions — focusing instead on the artists drawing Bazooka Joe. Come to think of it, the “juvenile delinquency” crisis was in the news in 1955. Perhaps the Bazooka prophet was singlehandedly stemming the tide of adolescent chaos in postwar America.
Or was the writer cynical — even derisive? Did the Bazooka prophet assume that gullible children would believe anything written under a free cartoon? This one might be ironic:
Be careful of friends who are false. You are very easily led into the wrong actions because of bad advice from others.
Is the unspoken message: “Never believe a bubblegum fortune”?
WHAT ARE THE ETHICS of prediction? Did thousands of children save these fortunes, expecting vertiginous success, then look back at them bitterly thirty years later as they were waiting tables at a diner in Sioux Falls, South Dakota?
I must say, I don’t recall any of these fortunes, though I bought plenty of Bazooka bubblegum. Children don’t think much about the future. But I wonder which ones I got. Did any come true? This one most closely resembles my life:
You have within you the ability to be a great artist, but your first job will be to learn to relax and be happy.
(In other words, “You will become a hippie.”)
But let us return to the theme of this essay: the historical development of Bazooka fortunes. What happened after 1955? Just a few comic strips from 1961 are shown. The only two fortunes are:
You will shortly have a trip by air and will return safe.
You become discouraged if success does not come easily. Try again.
In the six years between 1955 and 1961, a certain humility has crept into the Bazooka prognosticator. Vast success seems less accessible to the Mad Men-era kids than to their predecessors.
But time marched on. The comic strips in Bazooka bubblegum were completely restructured in 1983. The new cartoons had notably fewer words, in keeping with the creeping illiteracy of the American public. The fortunes, too, were shorter, and were printed in capital letters. Here are some:
Better be alone than in bad company.
You will never run out of money.
What you think will happen, will.
You’ll soon get good news on the phone.
Expect unexpected visitors.
What you wish for will be yours.
Do I detect a New Age influence? In 1990 Topps brought in Jay Lynch, an underground cartoonist best known for his absurdist strip “Nard n’ Pat,” to draw fifty new comics. The title “Bazooka Joe and his Gang” was changed to “Bazooka Joe & Company,” the humor became more sophisticated, and the fortunes grew sarcastic. For example, one was printed upside down. It says:
You’ve got to change the way you look at things.
Here are some more:
Don’t fish for compliments. People might think you’re shellfish.
If you don’t have anything good to say about someone, you’re not thinking hard enough.
Craig Yoe and the Yoe! Studio designed seventy-five new comics in 1996. These fortunes are even more snide:
Soon you’ll have bubblegum on your face.
Be true to your teeth or they will be false to you.
You will find true love, or a missing sock.
These are the last in the book. They track the descent from unbridled optimism to cruel humor — in only forty-one years! Childhood was once a protected time; boys and girls could dream of greatness. Now kids must be “cool” and cynical, just like their parents. Comedy has covered everything, like bacteria — even the once-sacred precinct of the Oracle.
In 2013, Bazooka comics were discontinued.
Sparrow plays ocarina in the non-Euclidean pop band Foamola. Follow him on Twitter (@Sparrow14). How to Survive the Coming Collapse of Civilization (And Other Helpful Hints) is available from The Operating System.