JETTA: TEEN-AGE SWEETHEART OF THE 21ST CENTURY
Jetta, starring in "Jet Jaunt." Can anything be more of a Jetsons rip-off? Flying cars, dancing in the clouds, dated slang projected into the future, miniskirts and flared collars; all the tropes of the look and feel of the consensus future piled on top of one another.
Only one thing spoils the obvious conclusion. Jetta appeared a full decade before The Jetsons.
The Jetsons didn't invent what I call the consensus future: they finished it off. For several decades in the middle of the 20th century, popular media converged on a common picture of the future that all purveyors of popular culture could draw upon, secure in the knowledge they didn't have to waste long exposition on the obvious. Atomic power would be free and omnipresent, rockets would blast into the unknown, clean, safe, uncrowded cities would soar to the skies, ray guns would replace revolvers, people would swallow food pills and get around with jetpacks and flying cars, while robots did the heavy chores.
The comic strip Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century, which debuted in 1929, would put many of these images into the public mind and ensured that for the next half-century, down to the original Star Trek, producers, directors, and artists would titillate audiences with images of beautiful women wearing miniskirts and stalwart men stomping out injustice in their space boots. The cartoonish kiddy space shows of the 1950s - Tom Corbett, Captain Video, Commander Cody - and the omnipresent publicity given them stamped the tropes deep into the minds of impressionable millions, young and old alike. Legions of cartoons used the future as fodder for bad gags. By the time The Jetsons blasted off in 1962, the clichés were ripe for satire. As a show, The Jetsons was a low-rated failure that lasted only one season. Somehow nevertheless, probably through years of reruns and reboots, its depiction of the future so overwhelmed all its predecessors that most people treat it as the alpha and omega.
It isn't. And of all the clichéd take-the-middle-class-white-bread-present-and-extrapolate-it-into-the-futures that came before it, Jetta is the most complete version of The Jetsons pre-Jetsons.
Like The Jetsons, Jetta was also a failure in its time that's become a modern icon. The comic lasted only three issues in 1952 and 1953. That's the first issue's cover above. Ignore that it's #5. Jetta was a product of Standard Comics, an also-ran publisher that for a few years after WWII put out dozens of comics nobody but collectors and historians today have ever heard of. Standard had the weird gimmick of starting new comic titles with #5, somehow hoping to fool distributors and newsstands into believing that the title had a solid history. How this could possibly work is unfathomable. That it didn't work is proven. Off the 25 titles Standard started as #5, only six made it to issue #10. Jetta did worse than most. Apparently it had extremely poor distribution, so it lasted only to #7 and is today a scarce and expensive collectable.
Just in case the flying saucer on the cover didn't clue kids in, Standard added the helpfully explanatory slogan "Teen-Aged Sweetheart of the 21st Century" above the title. Standard continually hyped its titles that way, usually with some awesome superlative that even kids could figure out wasn't true or it wouldn't need to be said.
Kathy, America’s Most Lovable Teen-Ager!
Leroy, The Funniest Teen-Ager of Them All!
Lucky Duck, The World’s Wackiest Screwball
Teena, The Teen-Age Girl That Millions Love!
Tuffy, America’s Funniest Little Girl!
Coo Coo Comics, America’s Funniest Magazine!
Hey, it might have worked if the insides lived up to the outsides. They say that the fastest way to kill off a bad product is with good advertising. Everybody buys it. Once.
A lot of comic fans will look at that cover and splash page and think that Jetta wasn't ripping off The Jetsons, it was ripping off Archie. C'mon, the guy's even named Arky!
Well, yes and no. All of Jetta's adventures were written and drawn by Dan DeCarlo. DeCarlo had done the art on a few Archie characters before 1952 - he was a freelancer and worked for just about everyone in comics - but he didn't take over the Archie books until 1958. In the 1940s, Bob Montana created and drew Archie. His version wasn't the one familiar to legions of baby boomers. That Archie was the one drawn by DeCarlo, who insisted on changing the look of the characters to his own style. The look of Jetta is simply Dan DeCarlo being Dan DeCarlo the artist. Unfortunately, the characters themselves are absolutely rip-offs of the Archie gang, all the way to Miss Grundy and Principal Weatherbee. And Pep Comics, the comic that introduced the characters, also featured a splashline: "Archie-America's Top Teen-Ager." Hmm. (The Archie comic itself had the much milder "America's Typical Teen-Ager" as a slogan. That's like labeling Superman as "America's Typical Superhero." Ginger, another Archie comic, was "America's Typical Teen-Age Girl," if anyone's wondering. Double-sloganed, she also was called "Sweetheart of a Nation." Hmm again.)
What makes reading Jetta fun today - it's certainly not the stories themselves, which seldom rise above the sitcom clichés of "misunderstanding and/or bungling creates trouble" and are almost completely free of anything resembling actual humor - is spotting the proto-Jetsons futuristic inventions layered thinly atop standard white middle-class storylines. Get out your retrofuture bingo cards and see how quickly you can line up a winner.
Here's the first panel from the first story, from December 1952, called "Man Trouble." The plot: there's a new gal in school and Jetta is jealous.
The gang is hanging around outside Neutron High School. It's a rare panel with everyone included. Arky is arm-in-arm with Jetta, rivals Biff and new gal Hilaria are setting up a date, and brainiac Gizmo - nerds are never seen with a partner - is testing a new invention. Dig the cosmic styling of the high school itself, the helicopter in the background, and all the everyday details of the future in the foreground. Biff's jalopy is a flying car, Gizmo made an anti-grav belt, and some poor goofball we never meet again is stuck with his old-fashioned propeller helmet. Why, the kid's such a schmuck he's still wearing pants, instead of the superhero tights and outside underwear that's Arky's choice of duds. DeCarlo also never misses a chance to pepper his panels with futuretalk, mainly by stabbing a pencil randomly into a science fiction magazine for vocabulary for his teen-age slang. Hair is "cosmic" and "electronic." A milk shake becomes a "chocolate fission fizz." "Cooking with gas" transforms into "cookin' with uranium!"
Furturistic insults don't work quite as well.
A nice touch here on page 2. Putting the robot in the foreground and making the gang silhouettes emphasizes the futuristic aspects of the story better than pointing them out. Classic example of why show is better than tell. Too bad he couldn't convince Standard, who was addicted to tell over show on their covers.
Of course, every story has a happy ending. Arky and Jetta end up at the very Jetsonian diner in the clouds, Joe's Blast-Inn (blast-off/blast-inn, get it?). Don't ask how high they must be up to see Saturn's rings.
We're back in the clouds in the second story, "Jet Jaunt." The Flying Saucer Inn must be classier than Joe's Blast-Inn if it's holding the Junior Prom.
Some of the background details tell us more about history than the future. As seen here and in more detail in the image at the top of this page, kids of that era must have scrawled funny slogans on their jalopies. Kids of some era, at least. Here's a real one that doesn't look much like 1952.
We get a glimpse of home life. DeCarlo drew upon the same stockpile of clichés as the Jetsons. Jetta's mother, like Judy Jetson, can't drive.
Don't worry, though. Dad just uses the visiphone to call the Mad Martian and order a used jetmobile. It's "real celestial."
Jetta asks to borrow the car for the prom. She and Arky need to help Dad get the chores done around the house first. Why this takes hours is a mystery. Just like the Jetsons, there's an automatic appliance that obviates the need to do any work at all, although, also just like the Jetsons, they always malfunction in spectacular disasters.
Ha. You didn't see a twist ending coming. Dad is a member of the "old timer's auto club" and he's getting a classic 1952 convertible. And they still yell "get a horse," just as you'd expect of someone in 2052 to do.
BTW, why is Arky driving Jetta's Dad's car? Girls drove even in 1952 (and earlier in that jalopy photo). But in the same way that Jetta and Hilaria get into a baton twirling contest in "Man Trouble," while Gizmo provides all the inventions, and Arky and Biff keep getting into fights, all the stereotypes about men's roles and women's roles will be on display throughout Jetta, just as they would be in The Jetsons. The 50s didn't end until late in the 60s, at best.
All comics had little filler strips in the early 50s. Jetta has two, "Zoomer," a clone of "Jetta" except drawn by Fred Eng, and the uncredited "Digzy 2072 A.D." Digzy has some funny lines about the future forgetting and misinterpreting the past.
The final Jetta story in the issue, "My Cosmic Hero," seems at first glance to give the stereotypes a tweak, with the introduction of a villainous female. Never fear. Arky moons over her like a fool, Jetta instantly becomes jealous through misunderstanding and when DeCarlo calls her a "girl space bandit" masculine pride is salvaged. Though Arky finds himself at first staring down the barrel of a ray gun.
Girl space bandits are easy to handle, though. Just give 'em a great big smooch.
Arky's a hero. With everybody except Jetta.
Readers were probably too weak from laughter to pick up the next Jetta, but it generally took three issues for sales figures to trickle back to headquarters, so Jetta #6, cover dated February 1953, came out on bi-monthly schedule.
Jetta taking an advanced science course is by itself a joke. (So is the wind-up key on the robot's back.) Only nerds like Gizmo would be caught dead in one. Sneerers at girls' brains could relax: nothing on the inside supports such atypical behavior.
The cover makes me intensely curious about what an advanced science class would look like in a future where taking a space bus to a new meteor is considered a normal school field trip for the regular science class. Girls can do science, it seems, but it turns them into harridans like the science teacher. In "What a Specimen," the class is taught by a Miss Gorgon, quite the specimen herself. In Greek mythology a Gorgon was one of three sisters with snakes for hair whose visage was so frightening that it turned men to stone. (Medusa was one.) DeCarlo tries his best to update her. BTW, maybe DeCarlo was the one who needed the advanced science class. It there are no living things on the meteor, what's a yiffel plant?
There's a Jetsons connection here as well. On the first episode of the 1985 revival of The Jetsons, Elroy goes by bus on a field trip to an asteroid. By this time you have to wonder if the writers had a secret stash of Jetta comics to crib from.
DeCarlo was on a science kick in issue #6. Arky and Biff spend five weeks calibrating their short wave gamma receiver to get Mars only to make Jetta so wildly jealous when she sees a girl on the screen that she smashes it.
She can. She does. And she contacts alien dreamboats from Planet X, who can rush over in their atomic rocket.
Nothing was more futuristic in 1952 than atomics. (Jets, the book's other favorite theme, already existed.) DeCarlo stuffs atomic imagery all the way through Jetta, starting on the first panel with Neutron High School.
Here's another example of why I like DeCarlo the artist so much more than DeCarlo the writer. Twin future fashions along with a futuristic living room lamp that underscores the timeline.
And another. The flying jetmobile dominates the frame but check out the jetpacking commuter in the background reading his book. Did The Jetsons do this? Almost. In the opening credits, watch the commuters on the moving sidewalk. They're reading what looks like ebooks, as well as watching a variety of tv-like gadgets.
Speaking of The Jetsons, what do George and Mr. Spacely do in episode 3? They sneak out on their wives' plans to attend a space football game. Jetta, as always, is way ahead of them in "Pardon My Power."
Microfilm programs! How futuristic could you get in 1953?
I keep emphasizng that science fiction is never really about the future, it's always about the present. If microfilm being the future isn't enough to drive that home, how about this cover of Jetta #7, April 1953, where already passé Picasso-ish cubism is peddled as "futuristic art?"
Sidenote: Standard Comics aimed all its titles in the early 1950s at teens, tweens, and pre-teens to stay on the good side of the crusading comic fanatics. The first page of Jetta promoted the banner of Standard Comics: "Look for this banner whenever you buy a comic magazine/It is your guarantee of wholesome reading". Even so, artists always tried to sneak in a few panels that appealed to an older audience or their artist peers. Jetta, with her microskirt, Barbiesque figure, and "headlights" (to use a Fredric Wertham term), is as cheesecake a cover as comics got in 1953, no matter the purported age group of the buyers. Teen-age skin, revealed by swimsuits, tennis skirts, or other devices, seemed to sell magazines and the mostly male artists competed to draw the sexiest girls, in comics and out. As did so many other comics artists, DeCarlo would supplement his teen sitcom characters with racy pin-ups for adult cartoon magazines during the 50s.
"Act Your Age" starts with a bit of meta-commentary that breaks the fourth wall.
Biff buzzes Miss Gorgon, sending her helmet (she's bald underneath, a sly Gorgon joke) flying into Dean Foible. The boys think this is wildly funny, but Jetta and Hilaria feel sorry for their lonely teachers. Arky waxes philosophic. "You don't understand women, Biff! They're all hopped up with romance! The mood they're in, they even think teachers are human!" Imagine.
Futuristic technology, supplied as always by girl-less Gizmo, creates the plotline. He's invented a "youthifying machine" that Arky trains on his elders while they are sleeping. Surprise. The young Foible is handsome and dashing while the youthful Gorgon is orange-haired and beautiful. They fall for one another until Gizmo's treatment wears off at the worst possible time.
Miss Gorgon, remember, is their science teacher. "Atom and Evil," getting atomics right into the title, has the class creating inventions for the "National Atomic League Prize Contest;" first prize is a week on Mars. (Second prize is two weeks on Mars. Rimshot.) Arky and Jetta get Gizmo on their team. He's really good.
So good that DeCarlo can't help using him again in "Celestial Celebrity."
Moving food belts? Golly. Maybe it's a good thing DeCarlo didn't have to think up more inventions for a fourth Jetta issue.
And I take it back. The Jetsons' writers had a push-button food-ordering wall with pop-up food delivery. As I said, the future was a buffet that writers could choose pre-created ideas from.
Wait. Didn't we see robots back in the very first issue? So what's so special here? Ah, I get it. A hat-check girl has to translate into a girl robot, because sex is built into the name. The future is always the present.
And that's where Jetta ends, forever, utterly unmourned until the Internet rediscovered this weird little treat. DeCarlo probably never looked up from his drawing board.
DeCarlo was insanely prolific over many decades. Putting his name in as penciller into the Grand Comics Database brings up 19,587 hits. After his Archie work, he's best known for creating Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josie and the Pussycats, named after his wife and model Josie. He died in 2001 at the age of 82.
Setting the current world into the future to make fun of both will live forever.
September 14, 2020