Comics/Graphic Novels

The Weird World of Celebrity Comics

If you read any Silver Age DC comics, you will eventually come across something bizarre: house ads for comics starring real people like Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, and Dean Martin. I’ve read a lot of Silver Age DC, and I always wondered about this quirky little aspect of their publishing line, so I decided to do a deeper dive into celebrity comics in general, and those of the 1950s in particular.

Celebrity comics have existed basically as long as comics in general have, it turns out. As early as 1898, there was Dan Leno’s Comic Journal, a black-and-white periodical about the British music hall star Dan Leno, who also wrote much of it. Subsequent decades brought countless others, from Charlie Chaplin’s Comic Capers, a newspaper strip that ran in the 1910s and was for a time drawn by the creator of Popeye, to the currently-running Bettie Page, a monthly series from Dynamite where the late pinup model apparently fights aliens (?!).

The cover of a comic called "Female Force: Stephenie Meyer," with a mediocre drawing of Stephenie Meyer.
Also, those of you who were frequenting comic book shops about a decade ago may remember this line of celebrity comics. They also did Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. Badly.

Here in the U.S., celebrity comics — by which I mean ongoing, licensed series about a living famous person, not written or drawn by said person — reached their peak in the 1950s. This makes sense when you consider the historical context of the comic book industry at the time. Superheroes had fallen out of favor in the late ’40s and hadn’t yet experienced their early ’60s renaissance, meaning that other genres had a chance to shine. And the Comics Code Authority was at the height of its power, pushing out the previously popular crime and horror comics and severely curtailing others that relied on violence, like adventure and war comics.

A celebrity comic, on the other hand, is going to be pretty tame by its very nature, because it has to be approved by the celebrity (or their team), and because the celebrity wouldn’t have become popular enough to star in a comic in the 1950s if they weren’t already considered wholesome enough to pass muster with the Hayes Code. And thus: the 1950s celebrity comic.

Surprising no one, this meant a lot of cowboys. Dell Comics was the undisputed champ here, publishing long-running series about both Roy Rogers and Gene Autry; entertainingly, both series were eventually renamed to include the cowboys’ famous horses as costars (Trigger and Champion, respectively), plus the horses got their own comics! With, uh, limited success. Apparently when you ban sex, violence, diversity, vampires, and independent thought, you end up really scraping the bottom of the barrel for subject matter. Either that or someone at Dell really liked horses. John Wayne also starred in his own comic for a bit, published by “Toby Press,” who I have literally never heard of. (And all this is just in the U.S.! There were plenty of long-running UK comics about American western actors, which is its own fascinating little oddity.)

But as I mentioned, the comics that initially piqued my interest were DC’s comedy mainstays, The Adventures of Bob Hope and The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, later renamed The Adventures of Jerry Lewis after he and Martin went splitsville. (There was also The Adventures of Alan Ladd, but this only ran for nine issues, and might fit better on the cowboy side of things.)

Both of these comedy series ran for an astonishingly long time: Bob Hope for 109 issues from 1950 to 1968, and Jerry Lewis for 124 issues from 1952 to 1972. This is mind-boggling, both because nowadays it seems like no one but Batman can hold down more than six issues at a stretch, and because the world of pop culture changed so drastically from the early ’50s to the late ’60s. I can’t imagine a celebrity retaining that kind of popularity for 20 years today. (And, well, Hope and Lewis didn’t really, as we’ll see.) It’s also strange because Hope, Martin, and Lewis were all singers as well as comedians, which…isn’t really an art form that translates well to comics.

So what actually happened in these books? I was still curious, so I read a small sampling to get an idea. And trust me, a small sampling is all you need.

Four panels from Bob Hope #1.

Panel 1: Hope stands on his bed, swinging a golf club with a box attached near the head. His landlady enters, furious.

Hope: "Ulp! The landlady!"
Landlady: "Mr. Hope - now what are you up to? Get off that bed! You're disturbing the other tenants!"

Panel 2: 

Hope: "Mrs. Peabody - I have just invented a new golf club which - "
Landlady: "You had better invent a way to pay your rent, instead!"

Panel 3: Hope clicks buttons on the golf club.

Hope: "But look at this club! All you have to do is press a button and a new head pops out of the shaft!"
Landlady: "You ought to press a button and have a new head pop out on your shoulder!"

Panel 4: 

Hope: "Notice how quickly you can change the objects! Push-pull, click-click, and you have a mashie - a niblick - and look! Here's one for slicing!"
Landlady: "I notice how quickly you can change the subject! I want my rent! You owe me - "
I love screwball patter in movies. I love it less in comics, it turns out.

The early comics are more straightforward. Basically, if you’ve ever seen a Bob Hope or Martin and Lewis comedy, it’s that, but drawings. In Bob Hope #1, for example, our hero invents a new golf club, accidentally enters a ski contest despite being afraid of heights, and tries to avoid his landlady because his rent’s overdue; in Martin and Lewis #1, our heroes get fired from their jobs at a bakery, only to discover that Lewis is the perfect size and shape to pilot a one-man rocket to the moon, which Martin proceeds to bully him into doing for the sake of the $100 salary. There’s no explicit acknowledgement of any of these actors’ real-life careers — that is, these comics aren’t about the actors Bob Hope, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis, but about the sorts of characters they played in their movies, who just happen to be called Bob Hope, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis in these comics. (Though there are winking references to their real, celebrity lives, e.g. jokes about Hope’s frequent costar Bing Crosby.)

A panel from Bob Hope #1. Hope gleefully pulls cash out of a mattress, saying "Boy, oh, boy! What a jackpot! This must have been one of Crosby's old mattresses!"
But you don’t…you don’t know him if you’re not…but…

So are they funny? I mean…I guess so, in a mild kind of way? The thing is, I can see how these gags would translate to film, because they’re trying so hard to emulate the movies, and a good comedian could probably sell it. I could see myself laughing if these were movies. (Well, Bob Hope. Jerry Lewis’s humor has…perhaps not aged very well.) But as comics? They’re just sort of okay.

Four panels from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis #1.

Panel 1: Martin yells at Lewis.

Martin: "Will you stop that complaining about trifles! you want these beautiful dolls to think that my friend isn't a perfect man? It's embarrassing!"
Lewis: "You don't like me, you talk mean to me!"

Panel 2: An older woman speaks, to the excitement of two pretty girls as well as Martin and Lewis.

Woman: "Girls! I think we should take the boys up on the roof and show them the rocket and check the measurements while we're at it!"
Girl #1: "Wonderful! Come on, Jer, you doll!"
Girl #2: "We're going up and see the rocket!"
Lewis: "A rocket?"

Panel 3: They walk up the stairs to the roof.

Lewis: "A real rocket? A skyrocket? Can I light it? I wanna light it, can I Dean? Lemme light it!"

Panel 4: Lewis emerges onto the roof to see the older woman standing next to a comically pitiful rocket shaped almost exactly like Lewis.

Lewis: "I wanna light - "
Woman: "Here it is!"
I have never seen a Martin and Lewis movie and now I’m pretty happy about that.

However. By the mid ’60s, the comic book industry had changed drastically, and the popularity of these actors had long past peaked. In response, both books added new characters, and they were bizarre. Over in Bob Hope, issue #95 introduced Hope’s honorary nephew, Tadwallader Jutefruce, a buttoned-up nerd — but when he gets angry, he becomes the mop-topped, guitar-playing Super-Hip, who can fly and shapeshift. Also the faculty of his high school consists of Universal movie monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein. Also Bob Hope got a talking dog somewhere in there, because why not I guess.

A splash page from Bob Hope #95, with the title "Super-Hip, the Sickest Super-Hero of 'Em All."

Panel 1: A closeup of Hope.

Hope: "Hooray! I'm the honorary uncle of the biggest drip in town! But wait - that other kid - the one who can fly like a jet, explode like an A-bomb and even play a six-string guitar - ahh! He's something else!"

Panel 2: Super-Hip, a teenager with a blond mop-top and holding a guitar, flies down and stretches his inhumanly long arm out to punch a 1950s-style biker in the stomach.

Super-Hip: "That's what you get for mussin' my hair!"

Panel 3: Super-Hip swells his head to a gigantic size and blows the biker into a swimming pool.

Super-Hip: "That's for stepping on my pointed Italian shoes!"

Panel 4: Super-Hip flies and tips over a giant novelty coffee cup on a billboard, spilling it onto another teenager.

Super-Hip: "And that's for sticking your chewing gum on my guitar!"

Panel 4: A closeup of Hope and his dog.

Hope: "Ha-ha-ha! That Super-Hip kills me! He's a boy you could really love - if he wasn't such a loud-mouthed, fat-headed creep!"
I don’t know what teens were into in the 60s but I know it wasn’t this.

Jerry Lewis also gave its hero a nephew with issue #85, although instead of a “cool” teen superhero, Renfrew is a pint-sized terror who wreaks havoc on his uncle’s life. To cope, Lewis hires a witch named Witch Kraft, complete with pointy hat and cauldron, as his new housekeeper. The Universal movie monsters show up here too for some reason. It’s less weird than the Bob Hope stuff, but only marginally. Of course, it’s hard to top “Hey kids! This comic is about actual real life 62-year-old comedian Bob Hope and his shapeshifting superhero nephew and his talking dog and Dracula!” for weirdness.

Four panels from Jerry Lewis #85.

Panel 1: A dazed Lewis staggers toward his nephew Renfrew, a bucktoothed little boy who is shoving something into a garbage can.

Lewis: "What made them all run like that?"
Renfrew: "Everything was fine until they saw you, Uncle! I don't think you've got much sex appeal!"
Off-Panel Voice: "I think he's kind of cute! Hee-hee-hee!"

Panel 2: Lewis looks at a stereotypical cartoon witch in surprise. She has red hair, a warty nose, a pointy hat, and a bag covered in travel stickers.

Lewis: "Huh?"
Witch Kraft: "I'm here for that housekeeper job! I've got the finest references! I worked for Captain Kidd, Dr. Jekyll, the emperor Nero, the Borgia family and many more!"
Lewis: "Wow! A captain, a count, a doctor and an emperor! That's class! You're hired!"

Panel 3: Renfrew and Witch Kraft enter Renfrew's extremely messy room.

Narration Box: "Shortly..."
Witch Kraft: "Now, first, we get this room cleaned!"
Renfrew: "Who, me? Fat chance! Not on your warty nose! Go fly a kite - or a broom, even!"

Panel 4: Witch Kraft points a finger at Renfrew and he begins levitating upside down, causing various things to fall out of his pockets.

Witch Kraft: "Charming little boy! Zippy zowie, zeekie zoy, let's make a little upside down boy!"
Renfrew: "Oops! Hey lemme down! Those are the finest loaded dice! I had to swap my marked cards for them! Lemme down!"
I cropped out the child abuse joke. You’re welcome.

I find the early iteration of these comics fascinating in sort of an abstract sense, because the idea of making a long-running comic ostensibly about a famous person, but they’re not famous in the comic, is so strange to me. But the later comics are fascinating to actually read and not just in concept, if only because the flop sweat is so very visible. You can smell how desperate DC was to somehow appeal to young people with these books by chucking in ever-weirder elements, while the entire existence of Super-Hip also radiates contempt for teenagers. It’s extremely entertaining.

As I said at the start, the world of celebrity comics is far more vast than the strange little Hope and Lewis universe — we haven’t even talked about what’s probably the most famous celebrity comic of all time, Superman vs. Muhammed Ali — but I enjoyed wandering down this rabbit hole and discovering that yes, these comics were both as boring and as weird as I expected them to be from the house ads. Are they worth reading today? Eh, probably not. But if DC wants to dust off Super-Hip for a new comic, I would absolutely read it. Especially if they include the talking dog.

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