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Alan Moore’s Lost Treasures: ‘The Hasty Smear of My Smile…’ by Marc Sobel

13 Sep

‘The Hasty Smear of My Smile,’ a four-page story which ran as a backup feature in the final issue of Peter Bagge’s Hate (#30), is a miniature masterpiece. It’s a capsule version of Moore’s considerable skill and the epitome of everything that makes him fascinating as a writer. The story essentially brings personality, perspective, voice and history to the Kool-Aid man character, a ubiquitous corporate mascot used to sell swill to unsuspecting children.

The Kool-Aid Man, originally named the ‘Pitcher Man,’ was created in 1954 by Marvin Plotts, an otherwise anonymous art director for a New York City advertising agency hired by General Foods, the powdered drink’s corporate manufacturer. Plotts, who claimed that the inspiration for the character – a glass pitcher full of cherry red Kool-Aid with arms, legs, and his signature broad smile – came from watching his son draw smiley faces on a frosted window. Fairly simple in concept, Plotts could not have imagined how successful his character design would become. Within just a few years, his beaming ‘Pitcher Man’ was at the heart of a massive advertising campaign aimed at America’s schoolchildren.

The Kool-Aid Man’s ascension into American popular culture began in the mid-1970s when the character was re-imagined and began appearing in live-action television commercials aired during children’s cartoons. In a typical advertisement, the ‘Kool-Aid Man was introduced as a walking/talking 6-foot-tall pitcher of cherry Kool-Aid. Children, parched from playing and/or other various activities, would typically exchange a few words referring to their thirst, then put a hand to the side of their mouths and call forth their ‘friend’ by shouting ‘Hey, Kool-Aid!’, whereupon, the Kool-Aid Man would make his grand entrance, breaking through walls, fences, ceilings and/or other furnishings, uttering the infamous words ‘Oh yeah!’ then pour the dehydrated youngsters a thirst-quenching glass of Kool-Aid’ (Wikipedia, ‘Kool-Aid Man’).

Despite being referred to as one of the “Top 10 Creepiest Product Mascots” by Time magazine (‘Our biggest gripe with Kool-Aid Man: Why did he have to cause such a mess every time he entered the scene?’), by the mid-‘80s, the Kool-Aid Man was one of the most widely-recognized corporate-owned advertising characters in the United States. Marketing executives, recognizing the signs of a cresting fad, understood that Americans were both enamored with and amused by the absurd character. As a result, in addition to the ongoing General Foods advertising campaign, the Kool-Aid man enjoyed a brief moment of pop culture notoriety, in which his familiar rotund likeness was featured on everything from toys and television shows to clothing and video games (one noteworthy success was a game developed for the Atari 2600 and Intellivision platforms).

At its height of popularity, the Kool-Aid Man even earned his own comic book title, perhaps the greatest sign of the wider culture’s obsession with the glass-pitcher turned human. From 1983 through 1989, seven issues of the The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man were published by Marvel Comics (#1-3) and Archie Comics (#4-7). Clearly aimed at children, this ridiculous series saw the ‘beloved giant wall-bashing red pitcher… battl(ing) the evil thirsties who are the enemies of children everywhere…’ (Comicvine) The final four Archie-published issues were even illustrated by legendary Betty and Veronica artist Dan DeCarlo and featured the Kool-Aid Man interacting with (and quenching the thirst of) the familiar cast of Riverdale characters.

However, while children clearly responded to the farcical character on a certain level, the absurdity of the Kool-Aid Man’s cultural ascension was also the subject of many adult-focused satires. Even today, the character remains the subject of an ongoing series of gags on the animated sitcom, Family Guy. However, perhaps the most famous satire of the Kool-Aid Man was perpetrated by the artist, David Hammons, during an exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2003. Hammons’ controversial ‘Kool-Aid’ painting, which, although hung in the museum, was covered by a white silk cloth and could only be viewed by making a private appointment with the artist, was ‘an absolute stunner’ (Russeth). The painting, which featured a small abstract representation of the Kool-Aid Man in a corner of the canvass, was created using Kool-Aid in lieu of paint. However, by restricting access to the painting by appointment only, Hammons was making a social comment about consumer culture’s addiction to instant gratification (represented in this case by the Kool-Aid Man perpetually bursting onto the scene to immediately satiate the merest thirst).

It is this category of conscientious cultural satire in which Alan Moore’s short collaboration with Peter Bagge undeniably belongs. In ‘The Hasty Smear of My Smile…’ the Kool-Aid man is not only a real person living in the real world, he is acutely aware of the absurdity of his existence. He knows he’s just a pitcher of Kool-Aid with a face ‘hastily smeared’ on it, yet he has the same human desires to be loved and accepted as anyone else.

As usual, Moore’s prose is more than just functional, it’s poetic. The Kool-Aid man’s distinctive voice as narrator is a note-perfect evocation of the somberness of his paradoxical nature, a recalcitrant reflection on a life comprised mostly of torment and ridicule, only occasionally rising from the depths to experience a few brief moments of fleeting joy. Even the title is strangely beautiful, foreshadowing the melancholy meditation that follows and implying hidden depths of depression behind that gleaming, yet unsustainable smile.

On the opening page, Moore immediately sets the scene, establishing the Kool-Aid man as a highly sensitive writer and poet, uniquely talented at translating the horror and ridicule he’s endured into haunting and painful lyrics. ‘Sometimes I am purple in angry negro thunder over night tenements,’ he writes, ‘sometimes I am rock-a-dile red, queer commie blood leaked from America’s television asshole.’ In just these few panels, Moore has revealed the soul of a tormented genius.

Or has he?

Former Comics Journal editor, Robert Boyd, has argued that Moore’s unusual protagonist was rather intended as a satire of the ‘50s Beat poets. Boyd described the Kool-Aid man as ‘a lame fellow traveller who had a little cache because of his fame,’ which was a result of his bizarre appearance rather than his literary talents. Boyd further noted that ‘his hilarious poem is an obvious rip-off of Allen Ginsberg…’ which Moore all but acknowledged in the text when the Kool-Aid man himself recalls how critics compared his work to ‘a young Allen Ginsberg.’ Indeed Moore’s carefully chosen use of the phrase ‘negro thunder’ in the Kool-Aid man’s absurd poem echoes Ginsberg’s similar line, ‘the negro streets at dawn’ from his most famous work, ‘Howl’ (9).

‘Hasty Smear’ also demonstrates that not only is Moore an immensely talented storyteller, but his sense of humor, an underrated quality in his work in general, is also razor-sharp. In the story, Moore takes a swipe at several of Ginsberg’s counter-culture contemporaries, including, most appropriately, Tom Wolfe, whose classic novel, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was an obvious yet perfect target for satire. But rather than play it straight, Moore twists the book’s concept to imply that the Kool-Aid man himself was addicted to psychedelic drugs. After a hilarious fight in which he called Wolfe ‘a hack journalist,’ the Kool-Aid Man painfully recounts how ‘Hunter S. Thompson held me down while Wolfe pissed into my head.’

Of course, Peter Bagge (with inks by Eric Reynolds) deserves much of the credit for his skillful handling of the physical comedy in this story. His looping, rubbery drawings, which hyper-exaggerate emotions to their cartoon extremes, are perfectly suited for the psycho-mascot lead character. And the red monotone coloring added a tenor of sadness to the proceedings, while also staining the panels the all-too-familiar color of its subject. As Boyd notes, in reality, the Kool-Aid man’s brief moment of notoriety was derived not from his talents as a poet, as he desperately tried to convince himself, but rather from his hideously grotesque appearance and the overall absurdity of his life, a fact which, deep down, he understands though tries to deny. According to Boyd, ‘He (tries) to define himself by the famous people he knew. But unlike most of the people mentioned in the (story), his fame is built purely on his physical appearance, not on any talent he may have, and that is what torments him.’

Perhaps this short piece, written in 1998, a period in which the author had just completed From Hell and was preparing to launch his ambitious quartet of superhero series for America’s Best Comics (including Top 10, Promethea, Tom Strong and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), was also a bit self-reflexive. By this point a veteran writer, Moore may have paused momentarily to scrutinize some of his more frivolous tendencies in earlier works, such as Swamp Thing and Miracleman, poking fun at his own similar use of overblown flowery language.

In the hands of a gifted writer, anything can become a character, and Alan Moore, possesses the perfect combination of imagination, talent, skill, and vision to not only bring this bizarre figure to life, but to use his story to mock and ridicule the society which created and worships such an absurd character. In addition to a clever cultural satire, ‘Hasty Smear’ is, in the end, a tragedy, an elegiac memoir of a difficult life, and while it can hardly be expected to garner the same degree of praise or critical attention as Moore’s longer works, it’s every bit as satisfying.

Works Cited

Bagge, Peter and Moore, Alan. ‘The Hasty Smear of My Smile…’ Hate #30. Fantagraphics Books, Inc. June 1998.

Boyd, Robert. ‘Alan Moore’s Lost Treasures.’ In Comic Book Galaxy. Published November 3rd, 2009. http://www.comicbookgalaxy.com/troublewithcomics/2009/11/alan-moores-lost-treasures-1-in-6-part.html

Carbone, Nick. ‘Top 10 Creepiest Product Mascots.’ In Time Magazine. Published August 24th, 2011. http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2090074_2090076_2090101,00.html

Comicvine. ‘Adventures of Kool-Aid Man’ http://www.comicvine.com/adventures-of-kool-aid-man/49-18580/

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956.

Russeth, Andrew. ‘The Man Behind the Curtain: At MoMA, a David Hammons Hidden Behind Silk.’ Gallerist NY. February 28th, 2012. http://galleristny.com/2012/02/the-man-behind-the-curtain/

Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Kool-Aid Man,’ Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, last modified July 25th, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kool-Aid_Man.

Marc Sobel is the author of the forthcoming books The Love & Rockets Reader: From Hoppers to Palomar and The Love & Rockets Companion: 30 Years (and Counting) from Fantagraphics Books. His article, “The Decade in Comics” was recently featured in The Comics Journal #301. In addition, Sobel’s reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in a variety of publications and websites, including The Comics Journal, Sequart Research and Literacy Organization, Hooded Utilitarian, Comic Book Galaxy, and elsewhere. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and two sons.

This article is part of a series on Alan Moore’s short comics, guest edited by Maggie Gray. To read the other articles in this series click here.

 

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