l-r, Sugar and Spike. Artist: Sheldon Mayer.

SUGAR AND SPIKE

Medium: Comic books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1956
Creator: Sheldon Mayer
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From Little Lulu to Calvin & Hobbes, the comics scene has always been rife with series about young people. In the 1950s, they were …

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… particularly thick in American comic books, as publishers tried to cash in on the success of Dennis the Menace with such titles as Pat the Brat (Archie), Dexter the Demon (Marvel, and no relation) and Li'l Tomboy (Charlton). It was in this milieu, with a May, 1956 cover date, that DC Comics' Sugar & Spike debuted.

But Sugar & Spike had more going for it than most kid comics. For one thing, it was the only one that did a convincing job of depicting its world as seen by toddlers who haven't yet learned to talk — to adults, anyway. Sugar Plumm and Cecil "Spike" Wilson had to make sense of their environment without assistance from those who already knew their way around it, because everybody but their fellow babies spoke in the incomprehensible gobbledygook of grownups.

For another, Sugar & Spike was created, written and drawn by Sheldon Mayer, a giant in comics history. His credits as a cartoonist include Doodles Duck and Scribbly & The Red Tornado; his credits as a scripter include The Black Orchid and an adaptation of the Old Testament; and his credits as an editor include major roles in the creation or development of Green Lantern and The Justice Society of America.

Mayer said he got his inspiration for the two toddlers the same way Hank Ketcham got his for Dennis — by watching real-life kids. In Mayer's case, it was old home movies of his own children. One thing that struck him — and that strikes many people who watch pre-verbal youngsters — was that when they babbled at each other, it looked for all the world like they were communicating. In Sugar & Spike, they were communicating — but in a language known only to babies.

This is the formula that has made Rugrats such a success today — but Sugar & Spike did it first. (There was talk of a Sugar & Spike animated series in the 1960s, but Mayer nixed it because he was strongly opposed to anyone else handling the characters. They did, tho, appear in the early Nickelodeon series Video Comics in the form of still panels, with dialog and narration from off-screen voices.)

During its first ten or twelve years, the bimonthly comic book mostly concerned itself with the ordinary experiences of normal toddlers — going to the beach, getting stuck "inna pokey" (in the play pen), dealing with creatures and objects found in the back yard, etc. Adults, when seen at all, were simply towering legs with booming voices and lots of power, which they used arbitrarily.

But after fifty, sixty, seventy or more issues, Mayer apparently began to feel confined by this formula. Sugar and Spike started having slapstick adventures with jewel thieves, spies and the like. Participants in these adventures (of which the kids' parents were unaware) were seen in full view, faces and all — as, beginning in 1967, were the elder Plumms and Wilsons themselves. The emphasis shifted from babies in a baby world, to babies adventuring in a goofy adult world.

A major turn in this direction took place in the 72nd issue (September, 1967), with the introduction of Bernie the Brain — a fellow baby, but one whose fantastic inventions and even more fantastic exploits never failed to sweep them out of their everyday baby lives. Bernie quickly became an every-issue regular.

Both aspects of Sugar & Spike are fondly recalled by Mayer's many admirers, who include a majority of today's comics professionals and knowledgeable fans.

In the end, it wasn't low sales that did in the comic, nor was it a drying up of Mayer's creative wellspring. Mayer had to stop doing it because his eyesight failed — and following the animated series suggestion, he'd secured an agreement with DC that he would be the only one ever to write and draw those characters. The series ended with its 98th issue (November, 1971).

A few years later, surgery enabled Mayer to return to the drawing board, so he started turning out new "Sugar & Spike" stories and continued until his death in 1992. But the U.S. comic book market had shifted, and DC no longer felt able to sell the series at home; so these stories were published only overseas. A few saw print in digest form during the 1980s, but to this day, many of those late Sugar & Spike episodes have not been published in America.

In 1992, World Color Press, where DC comics had been printed for decades, shut down its Sparta, Illinois plant. The last set of DC comics printed there made up a retrospective of the plant's past work. Most of them were reprints of key issues, such as the first appearances of The Flash, Justice League, Legion of Super Heroes, etc. But the Sugar & Spike issue printed a couple of those hitherto-unseen stories, and was designated Sugar & Spike #99.

Will there ever be a Sugar & Spike #100? Maybe someday, DC will gather up all the remaining unseen stories, and that can be the centennial issue. Their fans have certainly waited long enough for it.

— DDM

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