A cartoon kind of kid

Two weeks ago I wrote about my introduction to The World’s Great Literature – the men’s magazines of the ’50s and ’60s.

They’re long-gone and I mourn their demise doubly, for not only have they ceased publication, but because they were printed on cheap newsprint, few copies remain. And the ones that do are prohibitively expensive. I suppose it’s just one more of life’s bitter ironies: You can’t find a copy of Argosy to save your hide, and if you do, it’ll cost four arms and three legs but James Joyce’s stuff is as omnipresent as air, and about as cheap.

However, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon for us men’s magazine mavens – anthologies.

True magazine published a few anthologies and they can be had for pennies. As soon as I found this out (thanks to internet bookstores) I sprang into action and ordered A Treasury of True, a hardback copy no less, for a paltry $2.05.

When it arrived I was blasted by deja vu: The Saranac Lake Free Library had once had a copy of this anthology. And since the library was my adolescent sanctuary, it was inevitable I’d find it and read it cover to cover, repeatedly.. So when I first thumbed through this copy, I immediately recalled all the articles – “The Kill of the Battleship Tirpitz,” “How Houdini Did It,” Prussian Lion of Africa,” and on and on.

But there was something about True I’d forgotten, something that affected me as much as the writing, namely its cartoons.

Of course I, like all my generation, had been weaned on cartoons and by cartoons, I’m referring to those in print, not the ones in the movies.

The early years

The first cartoon figure I recall, from when I was six or so, was the caveman Alley Oop. I think he was in the Sunday paper because I remember the strip being in color. Beyond that, I remember nothing of his antics; I only know he intrigued me -?so much so, I carried his picture in my wallet. This is noteworthy only because I had nothing else in my wallet.

After Alley Oop, my career as a cartoon reader really took off. By the time I was 8, cartoons were my main source of escape, probably my main source of entertainment, and perhaps my main source of education. There were the comics in the papers, but beyond them were the bubble gum funnies and comic books.

There were two bubble gum comic strips. One, Fleer Double Bubble’s, featured the adventures of Pud and his pals. Pud was a chubby little lad in a red and white striped sweater (horizontal stripes, no less), with a matching beanie. Beyond anything else, he was a shameless huckster, since whatever he did, he always touted Double Bubble as his source of success. If Pud were with us today, I’ve no doubt he’d be making late-night infomercials.

The other bubble gum comic was Bazooka Joe and his gang, whom I liked a lot more than Pud. For one thing, the wit was truly sophisticated. For example, take this exchange:

Bazooka Joe to the waiter: “Waiter, your finger’s in the soup.”

“It’s alright, sir,” says the waiter. “The soup’s not hot.”

Beyond the worldly humor, Bazooka Joe was a dashing figure, in that he had a black eye patch. Why he had an eye patch, Lord only knows, but it lent him a certain je ne sais quoi no kid I knew had.

And finally, Bazooka comics always had an offer for amazing merchandise. In the lower right-hand panel you’d find an ad for a telescope or glider or secret club ring, which could be yours for either a buttload of Bazooka comics or a few Bazooka comics and some cold hard cash. I was intrigued by the offerings (some further examples -?a walkie-talkie, gold-plated state medallion key rings, or even a genuine spy camera), but never could get any due to one sad immutable fact of life: The gum itself made me nauseated. I’ve no idea why, since I could devour boatloads of crappy candy and apparently thrived on it. But alas, one piece of Bazooka and I was green around the gills.

Then there was my comic book addiction. Comic books were the ultimate kiddy drug, since they were legal, readily available, and cheap. Regular comics cost a dime; Classic comics cost 15 cents. The Classic comics, which were comic book versions of classic novels, were by dint of their cost – and profundity – less preferred. I’d read them from time to time as an intellectual affectation, but my heart truly lay with Green Arrow, Batman, Superman, and the rest.

One other fabulous thing about comic books: We traded them constantly. So unless you actually collected them?- something I was far too disorganized and unfocused to do -?you could, for a cheap initial investment, read an infinite number of them.

The comic books kept me in thrall for several years, but were quickly and permanently replaced by a one-two literary punch – the men’s magazines and Mad Magazine.

The peak of sophistication

Unlike today’s men’s magazines, the cartoons in the old ones were not sexual – at best, they were mildly risque. But they were witty and wonderfully drawn. Without doubt, my favorite cartoonist was Virgil Partch (who signed his stuff Vip). I thought, and still think, his work is brilliant, and it’s an opinion shared by every cartoonist I’ve met that’s offered an opinion of him. Luckily, his anthologies can be had cheaply, and if you want a lot of laughs for a very few bucks, give him a try.

As for Mad? Since it was a vehicle of total satire, it made everyone look like an idiot. As kids back then, we thought we were idiots too, since that’s mostly what we got told. (Yes, Virginia, there once was a time when sky-high self-esteem among the young was not the norm) So for Mad to make kids look like total jackasses was less satire than simple reality.

But adults, on the other hand, were IT! They had it all going on. They could swear, smoke, drink, spit in the street even while they ordered us never to do it. They ran the show; they ran the world, and according to prevailing myth, they did it perfectly. So for me to see them as flawed, fallible, and fumbling was sheer delight.

And there they were, the Masters and Mistresses of the Universe, spilling drinks, crashing cars, falling on banana peels – always looking like the incompetent boobs we were never allowed to see. I could hardly wait for each new issue, showing grown-ups in new and more foolish lights.

I still read Mad, not often or fervently, but I do read it. And while I may not laugh with the hilarity I did as a kid, I still laugh. And how could I not? They still make everyone look like, in the words of The Bard, “the fools these mortals be.”

But now when I read Mad, for reasons I don’t understand, I least enjoy their spoofs of adults anywhere as much as their spoofs of kids.