I’m not sure where I’m going to get a full-blown comics slot blogpost out of Sugar & Spike but if all I do is to say that it’s every bit as hilarious as its reputation makes it out to be, and that it’s a DC comic comic that actually makes me laugh, out loud, several times an issue, then I’m going to say that. Sugar & Spike is funny, but of course it was going to be, it’s by Sheldon Mayer, and Mayer was a genius.
It’s also a wonderfully sweet series too. It stars two babies, somewhere in that age bracket between ten months and two years, where they can walk, but they can’t talk, except to each other and with perfect understanding – of each other, that is. As for the rest of it, these are two little kids trying to make sense of the world as they see it, interpreting grown-up reactions as best they can, to their own standards of logic.
Which gives Mayer so many levels on which to play that no two stories are alike, no matter how familiar the ingredients, because he can bend sense into a pretzel without ever once taking the little pair’s actions and understandings anywhere near to the improbable.
Our heroes are both only children. Spike is a red-headed boy baby, real name Cecil Wilson but somehow that doesn’t seem to fit him, so everyone goes with his Dad’s nickname for him, Spike. And Sugar, whose surname is naturally Plumm, is a blonde whose hair sticks up in one top-knot, who lives next door.
They’re each the first, and only, other person either can communicate with. Sugar seems to be the brighter and more experienced of the two, and she’s certainly the more adventurous of the pair, but that’s because Spike is the more careful, who thinks a lot more about what he does before trying it. She constantly, from the first, refers to him as Doll-Boy, which is not so much sweet as almost proprietorial.
Even the letter column is a delight to read, which it ought to be because it’s one of the very first DC ever ran. It’s full of letters from little kids, all of whom give their age (usually between 8 and 12), just writing to say how much they love Sugar & Spike and can’t it come out more often and have more pages? They ask for stories they’d like to see, and Mayer does that, taking inspiration from the settings they ask about.
And it’s all just joyful. They’ve got something for themselves, something that their parents occasionally write in to praise, something that’s about their lives, that they can all recognise, and Mayer sends them little postcards with drawings on, and they write to say thank you for them, and this is lightness in and of itself, without meanness or misery, and each issue is washing everything you’ve experienced out of your eyes and being amazed at what you see.
Mayer’s having a great time of it too, being fed all these requests. No matter how nebulous they are, like wanting to see what Sugar and Spike would do on a train, he has a topic for his imagination and the little kids do all the rest.
So many people seemed to have missed issue 1, featuring Sugar and Spike’s first meeting that Mayer ended up redrawing it in issue 16, the requests having been constant for months. The same issue included a one-pager for an old friend, Scribbly Jibbet: now Mayer can do that for as long as he likes.
The value of the comic to its young readers was never more forcefully demonstrated than in issue 18, featuring a short note from a 12 year old girl with covering note from her mother to confirm that the girl was cerebral palsied and partially deaf, but loves the comic so much that she will go to the drugstore on her own to buy it. As well as being printed, that letter resulted in a personal reply. Imagine what that little girl must have felt.
The thing about a series like Sugar & Spike is that it doesn’t really develop. It’s not a serial but a venue for endless short stories about two characters whose essence is that they can’t change, so neither can the stories. Mayer hit his stride immediately and, though some issues aren’t as funny as others, no 22 being one such example, he’s cruising at altitude.
Nor is the cast too expansive. Outside the families, the only real regular we’ve had is Sugar’s traffic cop uncle, Charley, who is always bringing his niece presents his sister disapproves of. But Mayer started bringing back an older boy named Arthur, a bully aged 4, who was popular but not with me, whilst another and better character was Sugar’s Great Great Great Granpa, who’s been lost in the desert for eighty years and who’s in his second childhood and so can both speak and understand baby-talk. He was fun.
There was a sweet moment in issue 30’s leading story, as the babies had a day at the beach and discovered another little kid drawing great pictures in the sand, Sugar and Spike’s faces. He was a compulsive cartoonist, but the great thing was that his name was Scribbly, that is, Scribbly Junior, there on the beach with his grown up Dad.
Mayer went for broke in issue 44 with a single story in four chapters, occupying practically the whole book, as the babies get hold of a Robot Santa Claus and prove remarkably adept at pressing the control buttons. This issue also featured a letter from a girl who’d written to the first issue when she was seven, and who was still a faithful reader at the age of fifteen.
For some reason he went and duplicated a past cover for issue 45, though the stories inside were all new. I was delighted to see the cover of 47 as that was the earliest issue I ever saw advertised for this series so it was fun to finally be able to read the story behind it, though there wasn’t one, it just a perfect sight gag.
It was disappointing to see the DVD go to a smaller size of reproduction from issue 50 onwards, making the dialogue harder to see, especially as Mayer started doing many more two-part stories. Equally, the stories started to move more towards the fantastic, with the baby twosome achieving things that grew increasingly improbable, even with wild luck.
Despite many readers’ ardent wishes, the tiny baby alien Space-Sprout did not return after her second appearance, whilst Sugar’s motor-cycle cop Uncle Charlie was not seen after the babies delivered the Valentine’s card he bottled out of giving his girlfriend to a lonely sobbing girl in the Park who turned out to be his girlfriend.
On the other hand, there are far too many Little Arthur stories, who keeps pulling Sugar’s pony-tail and shouting ‘Ding Dong!’. I know Mayer’s a comic genius but this was one area where I felt his genius was running dry.
The ‘Go-Go Check’ era hit with issue 66, which means we’re in 1966. The whole landscape of DC Comics had changed since Mayer started this title and yet it was still in the Fifties, and still as funny as ever. But this accompanied a jump to book-length stories delving deeper into the fantastic, like aliens, invisibilisers and witches. Within a couple of issues, the Batman movie was being advertised and Sugar and Spike were becoming superheroes. It was inevitable for that year, but it was also trash for the two babies.
Suddenly, the ordinariness of life and a baby’s perceptions of it, out of which delightful and hilarious comedy, built on insight, was gone. Sugar and Spike were a variation upon superheroes, living in the middle of fantasy and impossibility. It was disheartening.
Issue 72 introduced a figure who would briefly become a regular in the series, in Bernie the Brain, an incredibly clever baby under one year old, who knew everything, could invent fantastically clever devices, mostly robots, but got upset when he learned he wasn’t like normal, ordinary babies. In search of babies to learn from, he meets Sugar and Spike…
And Mayer, who had stoutly created stories from the baby’s eye-level for over a decade, refusing to show either sets of parents in full, letting each reader imagine their parents in their places, abandoned that policy in issue 75, bringing all four in as individuals, instead of universal parents.
Bernie was back in issue 77, and not just as a regular but as a third member of the team. We were now doomed to nothing but fantastic stories with no basis in reality anymore. In a way, it made sense, like the introduction of Foggy Dewhurst for Cyril Blamire in series 3 of Last of the Summer Wine, an active character causing stories rather than a third passive character letting things happen to them. But it served a direction that was all but ruining the series for me.
With issue 81, Mayer started including a preview page for the next issue, showing a scene he then redrew, so I had advance notice that no 82 was going to feature the two babies as teenagers – and Sugar’s going to grow up to be a big girl. The actual story was too convoluted to be readable but considering it was committing series heresy, it was better than I feared. And the preview page only lasted two issues anyway.
The series had been bi-monthly for years but now, as of issue 85, it went to seven times a year. This was to accommodate an extra-sized special composed of reprints, five stories, including one as recent as Bernie’s debut. New stories resumed with issue 86. Then Bernie was given the day off as of issue 87. This turned into a two issue vacation but he was back in the back-up story in issue 89. Yes, suddenly the book-length stories were out and the comic was inclining back to more realistic stories, but lacking the sheer spark of the early years.
Mayer’s cartooning style was gradually simplifying, using more outlines and less detail. This was because he was developing eye-trouble, and before much longer it would become overwhelming.
In the meantime, issue 91 recycled an old story of the babies causing havoc at the beach, completely redrawn but not replotted. Maybe it was some sort of catalyst because suddenly, in issue 94, the old magic came back, with grounded little tales, happy confusion and one and half pagers. What a pity it was so late.
It was a happy regression. Issue 95 started the 25c era. It mixed new and old stories and but for my having read the old ones already, you wouldn’t have known the difference. Mayer had introduced a new character in issue 91 in Raymond, a little black kid and a sunny, uncomplicated, optimistic child. He got a wonderfully touching solo story in issue 97, with elements of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ involved.
All things must end, however, and comic book series are no exception. Sugar & Spike was pulled at issue 98, two short of its century, with an all-reprint issue. It was not, however, sales that were to blame but rather Sheldon Mayer’s eye-problems, leaving him unable to draw, without which the series would have gone on. At least it was back to its best when it left us.
There is a semi-happy coda to this. A couple of years later Mayer underwent a successful operation, restoring him to cartooning health, and returning him to Sugar and Spike. In those few years, however, the market had changed. Comic comics no longer had an audience in America. In Europe, it was a different matter, and the series resumed there with great success. With the exception of two stories selected for a Silver Age Classic one-off, the equivalent of issue 99, none of these stories ever appeared in America or, for that matter, English. Now, fifty years on from the series’ American demise, the chances of our seeing those tales is almost certainly non-existant.
Nevertheless, what we did get was wonderful. And the only thing I can say in conclusion is, Glx. Spitzl. Glahh.
In selecting images to illustrate this piece, I was exposed to art from the 2016 reboot of Sugar & Spike by Keith Giffen and Bilquis Evley. I knew it existed but was ognoring it completely, but you know what it’s like when you see a car crash… A brief examination elicited the fact that it ran for six issues in the short-lived Legends of Tomorrow anthology comic and was collected as a Graphic Novel. The idea was that Sugar and Spike are all grown up now and are partnered as private eyes specialising in cleaning up messes for superheroes by resolving embarrassments based on Silver Age stories everyone wants to forget. As the site that gave the series the most amount of consideration pointed out that’s actually a pretty nifty idea for a series, but for Sugar and Spike? That’s ten years each in purgatory as far as I’m concerned. Apparently, the adult simulacra reflected the personalities of the babies with ‘Sugar’ as the driving force and ‘Spike’ as the somewhat hapless dummy, but Sugar was entirely aggressive to the point of acting like a bitch, whilst Evley apparently did a very good job of depicting Spike as being in love with his dismissive partner solely on body language, in which case good for her, but that doesn’t get her even a day off her purgatory. Why do people do stupid things like this?