14 February 2012

Revisiting Herbie Popnecker aka the Fat Fury

A while back Simon Murphy, brought home a comic for us to look at. I can't remember who did it or what it was about, possibly it was something by Art Spiegelman. But I do remember a little row of drawings of fat cartoon characters at the top of the page. One of them stood out: Fat Fury! I wanted to know more about him. Simon did some research and ordered some copies of the comics featuring Fat Fury, and he wrote a little piece about it for a zine that never came to be published. I liked the piece a lot, Simon agreed to me publishing it here, so have a read. PS. I'm wearing my Fat Fury t-shirt as I write this.

Herbie Popnecker: the Little Fat Nothing that saved the world (regularly)
by Simon Murphy

The comic character Herbie Popnecker first saw the light in 1958, and after several well-received appearances in the mystery comic Forbidden Worlds, he got his own title in 1962. Written by Richard Hughes under a variety of pseudonyms, and drawn by Ogden Whitney, he was very popular for a few years as the flagship title of the American Comics Group.

Herbie is not your typical comics protagonist. He is a dorky-looking boy of about 13, short and fat with glasses and apparently no friends. He seems bored most of the time, almost sleepy, and doesn’t talk much. And yet he lives a secret parallel life as one of the most famous and powerful beings in the universe, known and loved by all. He’s everybody’s favourite fatty, popular with the ladies (in whom he has no interest), but doesn’t let it go to his head.

Herbie manages this without his parents even showing the slightest glint of curiosity or suspicion. His eternally disappointed and resentful Dad sees only a "little fat nothing," even when faced with concrete evidence of his super strength or time-travelling abilities. But Herbie doesn’t suffer any of the angst of characters like Spiderman or The Thing, he just ignores his stupid parents and gets on with it. They think he is an ignorant fat lump, and their lack of interest and low expectations would be tragic in real life, but in Herbie’s world it just means he can do whatever he wants without them noticing. If they don’t love him at least they don’t cramp his style: ideal parents. Teachers and other authority figures are equally stupid, yet when transformed into costumed superhero Fat Fury he is required to put the world that rejects him in order, which he does pretty much effortlessly, with no reward or recognition. He exposes the absurdities of that world and invites you to identify with him, join him on the cool side of the generation gap and be in on the joke. In a world of nagging, pushy but out-of-touch adults, Herbie is a role model for thrill-seeking misfit kids and under-the-radar fat freaks – one of the first.

In a range of truly bizarre stories he fights crazy monsters and criminals of the past present and future, dropping worms into Chairman Mao’s mouth in one story and leading a strike of Satan’s imps in another, as well as hanging out with The Beatles, Liz Taylor, the Queen, President Johnson, Nikita Khrushchev and other real-world people. Ironically, he is less successful at fighting criminals like Hattaman, Pizzaman and Roderick Dump when disguised as Fat Fury, because Herbie is more famous than his superhero alter-ego, and he isn’t very good at the traditional hero stuff. It’s only really as Fat Fury that he is the butt of any jokes. His powers are many and varied but never really explained. Some, like walking in the sky and talking to animals, seem innate and possibly genetic. His fatness is itself the source of these powers (he loses them when a bite from a snake-beast makes him temporarily thin), while other powers are the result of sucking on a particular lollipop. He is never without a lollipop in his mouth, but his special secret power lollies are usually kept in a locked and labelled chest of drawers in his room, and occasionally on a kind of utility belt. There is one for every situation: time travel, invisibility, digging holes, super strength etc. He also has a knack for having just the right random object on him to foil the baddies and save the day.

In retrospect you can place him somewhere in the camp pop culture melting pot of the 1960s that produced the Batman and Monkees TV series, but the fact that readers identified so closely with him sets him aside I think; he is a ridiculous character, but powerful, with a message of quiet defiance for the geeks misfits and fatties who read him. He’s not exactly subversive, the comic has its fair share of the racism and sexism of the period, but 45 years after his disappearance you can still get Fat Fury t-shirts on eBay.

Simon Murphy's excellent zine about fuzz history and culture, Good Fuzzy Sounds, can be ordered via thesimonmurphy@yahoo.com Check out his occasional blog http://www.musical-den.blogspot.com


Cyn said...

Reduce Reschmuce! Fuck yeah! Great to know a fat character has ever seen under a positive, almost Chubster Gang-esque, in comics. After someone got slimmed-down in the new DC reworks, it's quite a reminder we can be superheroes.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Yeah! He's a Chubster.