February 5, 2012
Fat Fury Redux
Throughout the just concluded academic year here in Japan, I encountered
on a twice weekly basis a college freshman who was aggressively, nay giddily
ugly. Indeed, Hiromi was profoundly ugly. He was fundamentally ugly. Frankly, he was deeply ugly. And deeply, he was frankly ugly. Sorry about the adverbs—a bit too much Gingrich in my diet of late.
You will want specifics rather than adverbs, I suppose. He was rotund in
both body and head, in the manner of a low-rent snowman composed of only
two clumps. He sported thick, black-framed glasses over drooping eyes and
a tiny, feminine mouth, the lips always slightly agape, the effect of which
was to make it appear as if he were forever taking in anesthesia. But I
suppose it was the way his black bangs curtained his forehead in a fashion
known in the Midwest of my youth as “farm boy bowl-cut” that, more than
any other factor, caused me to puzzle, “Who is it that this guy reminds
me of?” Someone from the distant past, I was sure, but beyond that I could
not draw a bead.
Despite superficial similarities, I ruled out the Pillsbury Doughboy from the get-go. Doughy? Yes, Hiromi was more than doughy enough. But the Doughboy is chipper, playful, edible. I can’t imagine anyone ever unsheathing these modifiers for use in a description of Hiromi.
In the course of a long school year, there will be days when both teacher and class are in an upbeat mood and the air shimmers with laughter; there will be other days fraught with tension and whining and acrimony; and in between, there will be days of pure, undiluted tedium. A time-lapse video of Hiromi’s face throughout a whole semester would fail to give the viewer a clue as to which type of day was being shown at any given time, for Hiromi’s expression—roughly that of a man who has just had a week-old rotting mackerel placed in front of him—never changed, or even so much as flickered.
Yet he tested into the most advanced English class and was more competent
there at homework and in-class exercises than nearly all his classmates.
It was the realization that his pudgy, slack-jawed, almost retarded-seeming
demeanor cloaked a serene, jaded competence that ultimately jolted me into
an epiphany: Hiromi was Herbie Popnecker in the flesh. In lots and lots
and lots of flesh.
For those of you who missed the minor cultural phenomenon of the mid-Sixties
that was Herbie Popnecker, either because he was the spawn of a minor publishing
house (American Comics Group) who never sniffed a Saturday morning cartoon
adaptation or because you were born after the Kennedy administration, here
is the lowdown. (And here, as usual, I resort in part to that last refuge
of a research-hating scoundrel, Wikipedia, supplemented by the inelegantly named Perly Palms, a site which looms
as the unchallenged arbiter of all things Herbie.)
Conceived by Shane O’Shea (pseudonym of Richard E. Hughes) as a sardonic response to the intense, cleft-chinned, roided-up superheroes of industry giants DC and Marvel, Herbie flies by strolling upright through the skies and dispatches evildoers ranging from Fidel Castro to two-headed Commie Foo Manchoo to Satan to whatever this chatty thing is with a casual flick of his omnipresent lollipop. He converses and is on a first-name basis with animals, aliens, and—when he opts to matter-of-factly deploy his time-traveling prowess—historical figures. In all eras and venues he remains as irresistible to women (Jacqueline Kennedy, for one) as he is indifferent to their charms. After debuting in a clutch of Forbidden Worlds issues, Herbie thrived in his own title from 1963 through 1966.
A superhero in his own right, Herbie occasionally opts to don full-body red underwear and slap a plunger on his head to become another superhero, the Fat Fury. Herbie’s father, who derides him as a “fat little nothing” (among other forms of abuse that today would quickly attract the interest of Child Protective Services), cluelessly admires the Fat Fury.
The art, by Golden Age of Comics legend Ogden Whitney, is of a style and
quality that would be indistinguishable from mainstream superhero comics
of the Sixties but for the presence of Herbie, a visually jarring presence
who seems randomly pasted into every frame.
Here are some synopses of classic stories as cadged from the aforementioned Perly Palms:
Herbie's family goes to Florida to see Sonny Liston box. Herbie ends up boxing Liston to help win money to the ransom of the kidnapped head of the Cuban underground. Ultimately, Herbie has to go to Cuba to rescue the prisoner personally.
Herbie is resting and overhears that his mother let the car roll into a lake; Herbie gets it out and dries it with a searching look…
At school, Herbie is assigned to report on his biggest adventure. He is then called to the United Nations by Secretary-General U Thant to stop a Communist threat to India through the Principality of Hanki-Panki. Herbie catches a rocket to China, drops worms (left over from fishing) into Mao's mouth, and uses his many abilities (including his legendary allure to women) to stop communism from getting a foothold, When he returns to his class, Herbie reports that he is too fat to have adventures.
Secrete agent X-413½ has stolen the plans to the B-bomb, which gets its mighty power from beans. LBJ and Adlai Stevenson enlist the help of Herbie, who gets on the trail of Lovely Horowitz. To explain his absence, Adlai Stevenson tells Herbie's dad he will be at a camp for little fat nothings.
Someone's stealing all the fat in town and Herbie's dad becomes a private eye to solve the crime and get the reward.
Noodleman, Squarehead, and the Sheik invade a European country and Herbie is sent to defend it. After Herbie
saves Ruritania, its Queen tricks Herbie into signing a marriage contract.
Herbie tries everything to make himself unattractive, but it is only a
new suitor who lets Herbie off the hook.
Roderick Bump is an unsuccessful scientist who, after blowing up 327 homes of his parents, goes out to make his living. He creates defective superheroes: Moronman, Garbageman, Halfaman, Monkeyman, Pigman, Pizzaman, and Frogman who unleash a crime wave. Nemesis is called from the Adventures into the Unknown and Magicman from Forbidden Worlds, but they are quickly frozen solid. The Fat Fury comes to the rescue and
the superheroes combine forces.
I don’t know about you, but I’m awash in memories now.
I’m pretty sure that I never purchased or owned a single Herbie comic, and I can't rightly say why that was so. Perhaps the liquor store
where I made my purchases did not stock Herbie’s brand. Perhaps the title
character was simply too grotesque. More likely, it was a combination of
limited resources and the presence on the magazine rack of the more prominent
Mad magazine, which easily slaked a preteen lad's monthly thirst for irony
and satire by itself.
But I did devour Herbie comics whenever I had the chance. Usually, such chances came in the form of visits by my parents to their friends, the Ruegseggers, whose son Rollie was a Herbie aficionado.*
If you were a reasonably smart but hapless fat kid stuck with a verbally
abusive father, as Rollie was, Herbie must have proved a bracing read. The stories surgically plucked the fondest fantasies from the deepest recesses of your psyche, then held them up before you for ridicule, rather in the spirit of a Huron warrior cutting the heart out of your chest and brandishing it before your eyes. “You’d like to vanquish all the bullies and abusive adults in your life with a casual wave of a lollipop, wouldn’t you?” the series seemed to tease, quickly adding, “Nothing wrong with wishing it were so, but here, consider what that would actually look like.” And what it would look like was a thing simultaneously grotesque, hilarious, and pretty improbable.
Flashing back to the future, we might say that Rollie Ruegsegger was Herbie Popnecker, who in turn has now grown up to be my boy Hiromi. Now
that the connection has been made, I am forced to wonder how Hiromi might
react if introduced to the endlessly inventive Herbie comic series. Would he immediately embrace the character as his doppelganger?
Would his eyes widen with delight at the sight of Herbie going toe to toe with a persistent and savage penguin?
Most likely, he would maintain that uncanny composure that he shares with
Herbie and, at interludes, while flipping pages, emit the trademark comment
Herbie was wont to utter when, say, a miniature flying saucer would fly
into his bedroom:
|* I do hope that I need not remind the reader that I have chronicled my
awkward relationship with Rollie in the last chapter of Wussie: In Praise of Spineless Men, with a focus on Rollie’s ill-fated foray into high school theatricals.