Sunday, July 10, 2011

Power Rankings!: Bazooka Joe Raps

Nobody buys Bazooka Joe Gum for the actual gum. It's quite possibly the lowest quality gum available on the market, right below stale gumballs from a machine and Double Bubble. It's like chewing flavored shoe leather and even then the flavor doesn't last more than a minute. No, the only reason anyone would ever willingly purchase Bazooka Joe Gum is because of the sweet comics that accompany it. For over 50 years humorous little vignettes, plus jokey fortune readings, starring everyone's favorite one eyed (I always wondered how he ended up losing an eye at such a young age), blue baseball cap wearing teen protagonist and his ever changing gang of oddball characters have rewarded those willing to purchase a piece.

The success and longevity of the Bazooka Joe comics can be attributed to its many changes over the years to keep up with emerging trends. Through the decades, Bazooka Joe and crew have demonstrated a Madonna-like ability to constantly reinvent themselves; from evolving drawing styles, tweaking fashions, shamelessly co-oping fads, to straight up replacing members of the gang. Sure the eyepatch and cap remained but the modern day Bazooka Joe is a far cry from the moon faced youth of the 50s.

As someone who came of age in the 90s, it's that 90s era Bazooka Joe gang (actually "gang" was replaced by "and Company" due to negative connotations with all the gang violence going on at the time. Hey this was the same decade the the Bullets become the Wizards.) of Bazooka Joe, Metal Dude, Mort, Zena, and Ursula that I'll always associate the comic with. In addition to the hip new 90s cast, the comic creators also co-opted the emerging new genre of "Rap" music by releasing a set of Bazooka Joe "Raps" comics featuring all of the characters laying down some laughably crude rhymes about themselves and their wild gum fueled times together. Of all the comics I read then, these definitely stand out the most prominently in my mind; I'm afraid to admit I can probably recite a couple of these from memory. So given that I've had about 20 years of reflection and hindsight, here are my definitive Bazooka Joe Raps power rankings:

7. Bazooka Joe (#37)
Bazooka Joe may be "extra cool" and the iconic leader of the gang but his rap skills leave much to be desired. Here he's sort of all over the place. He starts with a possible shout out rap about his loving girlfriend Zena and then suddenly he throws in a line about how he likes to prank on people (and yes he actually used the word "jive") only to end with essentially a promotional message to buy Bazooka Joe gum. I guess since he is the namesake of the product he has to plug whenever he can. Overall, the weakest of the Raps.
The fortune was pretty clever. I liked the visual pun of the upside down message; not easy to pull off. Additional points for being a line that could actually be a fortune, some times Bazooka Joe fortunes are merely just punchlines.

6. Bazooka Joe (#15)
The bottom two Raps and they both turn out to be ones by the great Bazooka Joe. While the fact that he is the only character that gets multiple raps does make it more likely that he would be pulling up the rear, it's still a poor showing. Once again, Bazooka is done in by the lack of focus in his lyrics. The image on the left of a football uniform wearing Bazooka with a hockey stick and a basketball is symbolic of his slapdash approach to these Raps (plus, as we all know, the Chicago Bears Shuffling Crew has been the only hip hop artists to successfully merge the disparate elements of sports and rap). I also get the feeling that he's dissing on baseball, since his one positive line about ballplayers is they "pose for cards". Compared to the high praise he heaps on the other 3 sports, it does come off a little insulting. He also once again concludes the Rap with another plug for his gum. Give it a rest, Joe.
Fortune: Some nice word play there. It may be an irreverent pun, but it also has a relevant implied message about the importance of independence and being self reliant.

5. Zena
Our first contribution from a member of Joe's crew. I will give Zena credit, her Raps' themes of gross materialism and conspicuous consumption are a bit ahead of their times for the early 90s. I could totally see Lil' Kim or Nicki Minaj dropping similarly themed lyrics, perhaps with a bit more complexity. Had she stayed on her original topic for the whole rap she would have been ranked higher. However Zena loses significant points for turning her rap into a declaration of love her for beau Bazooka Joe. You can't talk about how bad you are and how much you drop at the mall and then say how all those things are secondary to your love of Bazooka Joe.
Fortune: This one sounds like a real fortune that you'd get from a fortune cookie or wherever. The humor element is a bit too subtle for what I expect from a Bazooka Joe comic. The best ones are groan inducing and read like they need to end with a rim shot. It's still good advice I suppose.

4. Bazooka Joe (#23)
Bazooka Joe comes back for his third and final appearance on the rankings. It's not that much of a leap forward from the previous two Raps but I do like how it gives a nice overview of the entire gang. Metal Dude may be a wild man but I don't know how well he'll take being labeled a "maniac". As for his view of Ursula, nobody wants to brag about a new pair of sweatpants. Really this should have been the first Bazooka Joe Rap in the series but going by comic numbers it's apparently the fourth. While the rhymes are lacking I do have to admit it's quite impressive how he can spit them out while blowing a gigantic bubble gum bubble. Of course no Bazooka Joe helmed rap can be complete without another aggressive push for the gum.
Fortune: This one is even more a straightforward fortune than Zena's. I can't really find the joke here. Nevertheless it's a good message about living for today and making every moment count. You won't get that from a pack of Chiclets.

3. Ursula
If I were the sort of person to rely on broad generalizations and unfair stereotypes I may have assumed that Ursula, being the only black member of the group, would have been the odds on favorite to top the Power Rankings. Fortunately I don't see color and it's not the case here. Overall Ursula's risque gym room rap is commendable and does come up in the top half of the the rankings. I find Ursula's steamy rhymes about looking hot in tights, checking out the sights, compromising workout positions, and making many "friends" at the gym to be the perfect compliment to Zena's previous rap about her obsession with shopping and her envious high end lifestyle. Put those two together and you get the ultimate empowered female rapper. This Rap also looks like the comic version of Oliva Newton-John's music video for "Physical" with its mix of sexy exercise chic and rampant homoeroticism.
Fortune: Now this is an example of a classic Bazooka Joe fortune. It starts off with a well known saying and then flips it at the end with a cheesy one liner. The fact that the joke is about jokes itself, just makes it all the better.

2. Metal Dude
Metal Dude's Rap is quite an important and pioneering track. Instead of insulating himself in his familiar genre of heavy metal rock, he took the impressively progressive step of incorporating his metal with the emerging rap sound. As far as I'm concerned, Metal Dude's Rap is right up there with Anthrax and Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" as critical landmarks of 90s rap metal. You also get to see a rare vulnerable side to the usually wild and outrageous Metal Dude when he talks about his admiration and loyalty to his friend and shockingly admits his long held secret that he is actually deaf. Heavy stuff, dude.
Fortune: This is one of those fortunes you get from a cookie where instead of predicting anything it just gives you a random observation about yourself. It still has a bit of the classic Bazooka Joe cheekiness to it.

1. Mort
Full disclosure, I admit that there is a little bit of personal bias here. Mort was always my favorite Bazooka Joe character and the Mort Rap comic is by far the Rap I received the most growing up. I'll probably be able to recite it until the day I die. That being said, I also remember it so well because it's a pretty decent rap. It stays true to the Mort character (gifted in the sciences while lacking even the most basic of social skills) and the lyrics don't sound as arbitratry or forced. Anyone else always suspected that Mort's unseen lower face was horrifically scarred, possibly from an unfortunate lab accident?
Fortune: A solid Bazooka Joe fortune pun, having fun with another tired old saying. Compared to a lot of the other fortunes, however, that preach seizing the day and being self sufficient, letting nature takes its course and hoping for the best seems somewhat incongruous.

Finally, I would like to give a hearty shout out to The Bazooka Joe Page at Caltech, clearly a holdover website from the early days of the internet when only members of large research universities had the technology and the time to create websites devoted to trivial pop culture minutiae, which featured quality scans of all 90's era Bazooka Joe comics.

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