NEW YORK—The world of bubblegum- related comics was forever changed Monday, when, after more than 50 years, the Bazooka Joe supporting character known as "Mort" finally revealed the lower half of his face to be a grotesque mask of third-degree burns.
The eye-opening strip, unveiled earlier this week by the Topps Company, is being called the darkest, most compelling installment in the entire Bazooka Joe series. In the strip, a wisecracking Mort pulls down his trademark red turtleneck and, for the first time, exposes millions of readers to the jumbled mass of flesh and bone that lies beneath it.
"Readers will never look at Mort or, for that matter, any of the other Bazooka Joe characters the same way again," said noted bubblegum-art historian and author Phillip Weissenthal. "This changes everything—Mort's relationship with Jane, the time he and Bazooka Joe went to the zoo together, his fervent dislike of Metaldude. It's a paradigmatic shift on a scale never before seen in bubblegum literature."
"That face," Weissenthal continued. "God, that scarred and blistered face."
According to sources at Topps, the shocking revelation represents five decades of careful planning on the part of the strip's many artists. Though initially concerned about unveiling Mort's scorched and deformed face to the public, all agreed that the time had come to show what had remained covered all these years.
"This was perhaps not what people expected from Bazooka Joe," said the strip's current art director Anthony Sheppard. "It may not be pretty and it may not be easy to swallow, but it's the truth. This is Bazooka Joe. This is two square inches of real life."
Created in 1953 by World War II veterans Woody Gelman and Wesley Morse, Bazooka Joe was reportedly started as a way for its two creators to deal with the horrors they had witnessed while fighting overseas.
"Bazooka Joe has always been about mankind's search for meaning in a world marked by pain," said staff artist Martin Shore, who claimed that the idea for Mort first came to Gelman after he watched entire villages burn to the ground in the Philippines. "Sure, the sight of Mort's charred and blackened jaw may shock some of our readers, but maybe they should be shocked. Maybe it's time they woke up and realized the true, unrelenting nightmare that is our very existence."
Added Shore, "If they don't like it, they can buy another fruit-flavored gum."
A number of Bazooka Joe writers, some of whom have been with the comic since its inception, said that Gelman and Morse would be proud of the controversial strip were they still alive today. According to veteran gag-writer Henry Paluschi, the latest Bazooka Joe strip is a living testament to the spirit of the bubblegum comic.
"Why do you think it's called Bazooka Joe?" said Paluschi, explaining that Morse named the strip in honor of Pvt. Joseph Weinek, who was blinded in his right eye by a surprise bazooka attack shortly before U.S. forces were overrun in the Battle of Mindanao.
"All this time—haven't you ever wondered what's beneath Bazooka's eyepatch?" Paluschi continued. "Well, I'll tell you. It's nothing. Nothing at all—just an empty, gaping mass of pus and scar tissue. A gaping hole, one as dark and bare and devoid of all hope as the future we face."
Though some have called the controversial comic strip "inappropriate for the majority of its intended audience," others have praised the strip, heralding it as a profoundly moving and inspirational artistic risk.
"Seeing Mort reveal the source of his inner demons is what finally gave me the courage to stop pulling my own turtleneck over my face," said Ted Hyams, a cancer survivor who lost his lower jaw to the devastating disease. "He is a symbol of that which enables us, at our best, to transcend man's inhumanity to man."
"And also, you can win prizes, like a fun Bazooka Joe bobblehead figure, if you collect enough strips and mail them in," he added.
Hyams' support is reflected by many within the creative world who have been affected by Bazooka Joe over the years.
"There are those who may be angered by the frankly disturbing imagery the Bazooka Joe comic strip is choosing to present," said Art Spiegelman, a Pulitzer Prize–winning artist and former Topps employee. "But it's the job of all true art to challenge and subvert the assumptions of its audience, and to confront them with the brutal realities they may not otherwise want to see."
"Hehe," Spiegelman continued. "Face facts."