Topps #20: Duryea
This is an excerpt from my history of Topps and Bazooka forthcoming in Abrams' Bazooka Joe
book, due in April.
Since Topps has sold a billion-and-a-half pieces of Bazooka Bubble Gum annually and the Bazooka Joe strip is read internationally, surely Bazooka Joe must be one of the most familiar comics characters of the 20th Century. The strip has even had an impact on style and fashion, teaching kids around the world how to wear their baseball caps sideways and pull their turtleneck sweaters up to their noses.
The main offices of Topps were located in Brooklyn, but they moved to Manhattan in 1994. Until 1996, the gum was made at a plant in Duryea, Pennsylvania, where various conveyor belts, coated gum polishers, and suspended tubes filled a gymnasium-sized room. I watched that machinery in motion as Bazooka Gum was manufactured and then joined with the Bazooka Joe strips. At the starting point, loaves of gum were inserted into a Rube Goldberg-like hopper, where they were then mashed into a rope shape that traveled out of the hopper on a conveyor belt. Products of various sizes were then sliced out of the gum rope as it moved along.
At the far end, a machine spit out small pieces of gum at an incredible rate. Phtt! There goes the gum. Whht! A strip of comics is sliced off. Fffftt! The wrapper is whipped on. And all happened faster than you could open the package—gum, Bazooka Joe comics, wrapper—all spinning and whizzing at a blinding speed. One could not stand in front of this grandiose gum gadget without visualizing ten million mouths desperately gnawing and chewing in a futile effort to keep pace with the Topps machinery.
If you ever wondered why the edges were chopped off some Bazooka Joe strips, the description above should give you the answer. The machine was clipping off those strips—fht, fht, fht—so fast that a dozen could flip out even as the operator reached to adjust the positioning of the Bazooka Joe roll.
Bazooka Joe is seen internationally because the comics are printed in many languages, including Spanish, French, German, and Hebrew. According to Robert Hendrickson’s The Great American Chewing Gum Book (Chilton. 1976), Bazooka Joe was trademarked in thirty countries and Topps products were sold in fifty-five countries with licensed manufacturers in ten of those countries. In Nigeria, a black Bazooka Joe tells jokes Nigerian-style. But the Japanese never got stuck on the gum, as noted by Paul Gravett in “The Mystery of Bazooka Joe” (Escape no. 1, 1983): “One country, however, where you won’t find Joe is Japan, not even in Tokyo, due to their restrictions on the sale of gums that stick . . . Bubble gum had the one social failing of being sticky.”
Bazooka Joe has a product identification that spans the globe and leaps generations. But for the most part, Bazooka Joe and his pals remain confined to their little world of simple gags, tiny rectangles, and even tinier talking heads. True, there was the Bazooka Super Fun Pad, a 1983 activity book published by Waldman and Playmore. The Super Fun Pad presents the characters at a much larger size in follow-the-dot pages, color-by-number pictures, games, magic tricks and mazes.
Labels: bazooka, memoir, topps