Review by Bill Henley
For a time in the late 1960's, Sheldon Mayer moved away from the short, humorous and mostly down-to-earth stories featured in SUGAR & SPIKE, in favor of elaborate book-length humorous adventures in which Sugar and Spike and their new friend Bernie the Brain (an infant genius who could understand grown-up language as well as baby-talk) got involved with gangsters, spies and outre sci-fi situations. Also, for a time during this period, apparently in a nod to the popularity of teen humor comics like Archie and DC's knockoffs Scooter, Binky etc., SUGAR & SPIKE carried a blurb on the cover logo, "Tomorrow's Teen-Agers!"
In general, as a SUGAR & SPIKE fan and collector, I don't like these "adventure" stories as well as the simpler tales before and afterwards. This story is an exception, though, because of the clever insertion of the "Tomorrow's Teenagers" premise into the actual story.
On the cover, the gangster "Baron Von Grabbe" is leaning out a window pointing a gun and shouting, "You brats can't escape me! I want that money and I'm gonna get it! I'M GONNA GET IT!" Above him on the roof of the building, Sugar and Spike are about to dump a heavy bag of cash down on Grabbe's head. But the main point of interest of the story is indicated by a silhouette figure of our familar toddlers Sugar and Spike accompanied by older versions of themselves, as Bernie the Brain promises, "This is the issue you've been waiting for! Sugar and Spike step into the future, and guess who they meet! Themselves as grown-ups!"
The story begins with a mundane scene of baby hijinks, as Sugar pulls a tablecloth off a table, toppling a stack of dishes down on the head of her father. (In the earliest Sugar and Spike stories, their parents were occasionally seen on-panel. Then Mayer decided that-- like with Charles Schulz' "Peanuts"-- the parents' faces would never be seen, in order to keep the focus on the babies and their point of view. Then, when he started the "adventure" stories-- possibly at the urging of new editor Murray Boltinoff-- Mayer started showing the parents again, so that they could be more active participants in the stories. But the parents looked entirely different from how Mayer had drawn them in the first few issues!) Anyway, as the rotund Mr. Plumm is grabbing for baby Sugar to chastise her, suddenly there is a "Poof!" and in her place is a teen-age girl with a familiar blonde pony-tail. She finds the sight of her father as he looked "when I was little and he still had his hair" so adorable that she has to plant a kiss on his cheek. This does not sit well with Mrs. Plumm who happens to enter the room at that moment. As an irate wife grabs her husband by the arm and swings him around in a circle (quite a feat considering he is rather rotund), teen Sugar reflects, "Oh dear! I'd forgotten how jealous Mom was in her younger days!, and ducks into hiding in a closet. The outraged Barbara Plumm yanks open the closet door and finds no one inside but Sugar-- baby Sugar, that is. While Barbara vows to tear the closet apart in order to find where the blonde "husband-kissing" interloper is hiding, baby Sugar darts out a window and through a broken fence to check if "anything funny" is going on at Spike's house. Nothing unusual-- just Mr. Harvey Wilson lying in a hammock while wife Peg rakes leaves-- until a teenage boy with a mop of carrot-colored hair suddenly appears and dumps Spike's father out of his hammock! Now both sets of parents are at odds, as Mr. Wilson charges Mrs. Wilson with dumping him because she was angry about being stuck with raking leaves. Mrs. Wilson blames the dumping on the "young man" but her husband is unconvinced, as the teen carrot-top first hides behind a tree and then disappears altogether! The babies are fascinated with these goings-on (though worried they will somewhow get blamed) until they see a large tree limb crack loose and fall upon the hammock where Spike's father had just been lying! The babies realize that the teen boy is not a "trouble-maker" but a savior, but as usual they are utterly unable to convey this message to the adults with their baby-talk vocabulary. Meanwhile, Mrs. Plumm has torn the closet floor completely apart looking for a trap door or secret panel, but does not notice a bag of coins which the babies spot under the closet floor.
Sugar and Spike deduce that whenever anything this weird goes on in their lives, their friend Bernie the Brain is probably "fooling with his crazy inventions" again, and indeed Bernie appears at their upstairs window, having climbed a tree to escape a man who is after him! The pursuer sticks his head into the window and Spike clobbers him with a lamp ("Why do I always have to do the dirty work?" "If my family caught ME breaking that lamp, they'd make a terrible fuss-- but YOU'RE a GUEST!" ) But in fact there is only a ball, not a head, under the hat that came through the window. "I know you kids too well to put my real head through that window! Think I'm STUPID?" I guess not, since the intruder turns out to be a teenaged version of Bernie the Brain himself! He still remembers baby-talk along with the 32 other languages he understands, and so he is able to start explaining the situation. He has come from the future using a "time-ray," an invention which baby Bernie just created but has not dared to use! "That's dangerous! Anything you do NOW could change the world so much you won't recognize it when you get back!", says baby Bernie. Grown-up Bernie knows that, but he had to take the risk, because of events that happened just the previous night-- or, rather, a night 17 years from now!
It seems that, that night, teenaged Sugar and Spike were cruising in Spike's father's flying "jet-about" car, when Sugar mischievously covers Spike's eyes to see if he can natigate blindfolded. The vehicle collides with, and gets stuck upon, a flagpole reaching straight up from a building below, wihch Sugar swears wasn't there before. And indeed it wasn't, for the telescoping flagpole is part of a scam being run by the aging gangster "Baron Von Grabbe," as he styles himself, who had several previous run-ins with Sugar, Spike and Bernie back in their toddler years. (Bear in mind that since the original story took place in 1969, this flash-forward must be in 1986. As many people have complained, flying cars and other neat stuff had failed to materialize by the 1986 we lived through, or indeed even now. A footnote narrated by Bernie explains that under the influence of superheroes and TV Westerns, capes, tights and sombrero hats came to dominate men's fashions by 1986. I missed that fashion trend, too.) Von Grabbe pushes a button which causes the top of his building to collapse into rubble, but complains to a passing "house-guard" (cop) that Spike's collision with his flagpole has damaged his building. But Von Grabbe generously agrees not to press charges if Spike pays $5,000 damages. (Apparently auto liability insurance isn't offered for flying "jet-abouts".)
Now teen Spike not only has to come up with $5,000, but has to explain what has happened to his father, who has been continuously cranky ever since a tree limb fell on him and confined him to a wheelchair 17 years earlier! Sugar and Spike take their troubles to teen Bernie, who offers them a double solution. Not only can he arrange to provide the $5,000, but he can cure Spike's father's paralysis so that he will be in a better mood! As Bernie starts to explain his plan, they are under surveillance by the Baron's "loot-spotter," which sounds an alarm when there is something worth stealing (though the fastidous Baron prefers to refer to it as an "opportunity scanner" pointing out opportunities to "acquire" something). As the crooks (excuse me, "opportunists") look on, Bernie outlines his plan. Between them, the three teens are able to come up with $11.95 of money minted before 1969. Teen Sugar and Spike will go back in time by means of Bernie's time-ray, and while Spike saves his dad from being crippled, Sugar will take the $11.95 to a 1969 bank and exchange it all for copper pennies. Since copper pennies haven't been made since 1980, and they are valuable to collectors, Sugar and Spike will now have a stash of pennies worth about $5,000 to pay off Spike's debt. (Mayer actually made a fairly close prediction here. Googling "copper pennies", I find that the government stopped minting all-copper pennies in 1982; pennies since then are mostly made of zinc with a thin copper coating, and the copper in the old pennies is worth more than the face value of the pennies-- though only about twice as much, so Spike wouldn't really be able to get $5,000 from $11.95 worth of pennies. Nonetheless, an online ABC News item indicates some people are hoarding copper pennies in the hope that the government will one day abolish the penny altogether and allow old pennies to be melted down for the copper.)
For some reason (like "plot convenience"), Bernie's time-ray won't work on copper, so Sugar can't simply bring the pennies back to the future with her. However, she suggests she can stash the pennies under a loose board in a closet floor of her house in 1969, and they should still be there in 1986 for Spike to cash in on. Bernie delivers a stern warning that when Sugar and Spike go back in time, they must do nothing else besides what they have discussed, lest they change the future too much! None of the teenagers know that they are being watched by the evil Baron, and he is making his own nefarious plans as to how to use the time-ray.
Spike's part of the mission back in time works fine, as, in 1986, Spike's father's wheelchair suddenly vanishes and he is standing on his own two feet-- though he still blames his wife for dumping him out of the hammock all those years ago! But Sugar's job doesn't go so well; though she planted the bag of pennies in the closet back in 1969, they are no longer there in 1986! Someone must have found them in the meantime. Teen Spike groans that now they need to raise another twelve bucks and do it all over again. But climbing in the window, the Baron and his henchmen try to grab the time-ray; "We've got much better ways to use that gadget of yours! So hand it over!" (Incidentally, one of the Baron's henchmen played the fake "house-guard," so Spike isn't really on the hook with the law for $5,000.) Only Bernie recognizes the Baron, their old adversary from their "baby days," but Sugar, Spike and Bernie play keep-away with the time ray-- until Mr. Plumm happens by and hands the ray to the Baron, thinking the kids are just being impolite to a guest! When Spike briefly gets a grip on the ray again, grown-up Bernie tells Spike to squeeze the trigger and send Bernie himself into the past! And so we catch up to where we came in, as adult Berrnie's plan is to persuade baby Bernie to lend his time-ray, so that adult Bernie can go back to the future just in time to be ready for the Baron's attack.
But before baby Bernie can sort his time-ray out from all the other stuff in his pockets (such as an "electronic yo-yo" and a pocket-size brain surgery kit") adult Bernie disappears! Baby Bernie figures it is up to him to send himself to "17 years from last night" and save the day. But baby Sugar and Spike want to go along to see what happens, and Bernie accidentally sends them to the past without himself! He tries to follow them, but the time-ray has jammed, and can't be fixed except by taking it entirely apart and putting it back together. And in 1986, the Baron is holding a gun on teen Spike while his henchmen have teen Sugar in their grasp. Adult Bernie popping back into existence knocks the gun into Spike's hands, but then the appearance of baby Sugar and Spike accidentally sends the gun flying back to the Baron! The Baron demands that teen Spike hand over the time-ray, but because Bernie has disassembled the ray in the past, the time-ray comes apart in Spike's hands in 1986! (I'm not sure the depiction of how time travel would work altogether makes sense here. But then, I've seen much more serious-minded time travel stories, in both prose and comics, that made less sense.) Thinking teen Spike is deliberately trying to thwart him, the Baron kidnaps both teen Sugar and Spike in order to coerce them into rebuilding the ray. Baby Sugar says to baby Spike, "Doll-Boy, that's US those clowns are kidnapping! Are you just gonna STAND there?" "Only for 17 years! By then, I'll be big enough to do something about it!" Baby Sugar calls that a "chicken attitude" and tries to bite one of the gangsters, but is caught and taken along with the kidnappers.
Baby Spike is left behind, stung by Sugar's "chicken" accusation but at a loss as to what he can do. But back in the past, Bernie has reassembled his time-ray; "so, of course, 17 years later" the time-ray is again in one piece for Spike to use! Soon, baby Spike is outside whapping at the bad guys with a broom before they can make a getaway... and though by himself he might not be much problem for them, he is accompanied by a whole throng of duplicate Spikes joining in the fray! "Where did all those little Doll-Boys come from?", asks teen Sugar, and adult Bernie explains; "He pushed the time-ray dial ahead a little bit-- and made an army of himself-- each copy being ONE MINUTE older than the other-- clever?" (Cleverer than a lot of time-traveling villains, such as Kang the Conqueror, who rarely seem to think of such a ploy.) Alas, the duplicates pop out of existence as their minutes are up, and baby Spike is left alone again to face the Baron and his gang. Until baby Bernie appears from the past, using the time-ray which he has repaired, and aims it at the bad guys; "Whaddaya say we let our great-grandchildrden's grandchildren worry about these clowns for a change! Seeya in 300 years!" (But sending the aging Baron of 1986 farther into the future didn't affect the Baron of 1969, and I think he made another appearance or two before Mayer abandoned the "book-length adventure" format in S & S a few issues later.)
As teen Sugar and Spike get untied from their captivity. baby Spike points at teen Sugar and whispers, "Now, HER they could sit me in a corner with ANY TIME and I wouldn't mind!" Baby Sugar overhears, and, jealous like her mother, demands that baby Bernie send them back to their own time immediately. Teen Sugar worries that now they'll never find where the valuable copper pennies are hidden, but grown-up Bernie says the kids promised to put the pennies back under the closet floor. However, when the babies start to do so, Spike worries that the grownups will fix the closet and seal the pennies in, and Sugar suggests another "perfect place" to hide them. Back in 1986, the teens rip open the repaired closet floor but find nothing, then hear Sugar's father bellowing angrily about pennies! It seems that he has summoned a plumber to find out why the plumbing isn't working right, and the reason is that someone long ago stuffed a bag of copper pennies down the pipes! The pennies may be worth $5,000, but the plumbing repairs will cost six or seven thousand dollars! And so, Sugar's mother finds her daughter and her boyfriend in a position familiar from long ago; "Sugar! Spike! Why on Earth are you sitting in the CORNER?" "It's a long story, Mom!" Like most Sugar and Spike stories, this one carries a closing dedication to a reader; "This story was for Carol Kopkus, age 11, Buffalo, NY. and Doug Martin, age 19 (I think-- the lettering is unclear), Rome, NY. who wanted to meet Sugar and Spike as teen-agers! I was kind of glad to meet 'em myself!" S.M."
I've sometimes wondered whether, with the resurgence in interest in teen-humor comics, DC was toying with the idea of switching over permanently to telling stories of the teen-aged Sugar and Spike. Probably not, or if so, the idea was dropped. But as S.M. said, it was fun seeing them the once.
In addition to a "Pint-Sized Pin-Up" paper-doll page and a one-page preview of the next issue's story (What the Heck's in Formula X?", in which the formula in question gives Spike super-strength), we have the letters page, a feature which SUGAR & SPIKE adopted very early on (issue #3, I think) well before most other DC comics adopted them. In this one, Gary Skinner, a noted fan and letterhack of that time, complains that though he has collected many rare comics of other types, "none of my sources seems to be able to supply me with back issues of SUGAR & SPIKE! Is it because SUGAR & SPIKE is not considered a collector's item, or because the collectors have grabbed them all up?" The editor responds in part, "While most collectors seem to go for the 'mystery-man' titles (ie, superheroes), S.M.'s work has always had a strong following among certain more sophisticated collectors. His early Scribbly books from '48-50 are reportedly selling at very high figures. Since many of the well-known vintage 'mystery-man' titles were created under his direction when he was an editorial director, it's not surprising that his own work should have a following."
I myself fortunately had less trouble than Skinner did starting a few years later. After avidly reading SUGAR & SPIKE as a young child and giving it up under the misapprehension that I was getting too old for "baby" comics, I rediscovered the title with an issue appearing a few issues after this one (#87, I think). In addition to buying off the newsstand each issue that appeared from then until the title folded with #98, I started collecting back issues, and managed over the course of the 1970's and 80's to accumulate an extensive, though not quite complete, collection of S & S. I may never see the last few issues I'm missing, though, since it's been a long time since I've seen a S & S issue I don't have at a price I'm able and willing to pay.