Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

BEM: Just like “Shazam!” only you know, not.

Back in the Silver Age, DC was always including one-page features to help us kids be better people. Reading them I learned to treat others as I’d like to be treated, that every job worth doing is worth doing well and that studying in front of the TV leads to bad grades (I ignored that one and know what? My grades were excellent). You can find a collection of them at Mike’s Amazing World if you’re curious.

But then there was … BEM. No, not a bug-eyed monster; this BEM:Even as a nine-year-old, I could sort of understand the message here. Being all brains, all jock or all emotion is bad; balance is the key to being a person people (particularly girls) would like to hang with. I doubt I thought about it very closely, because I knew even then that “muscles” was never going to be on my self-description bingo card, yet that detail never bothered me. Neither did I stop to consider that it was an odd message compared to the others DC published. It wasn’t about studying or good conduct and the theme is debatable; you don’t actually need an even mix of all three attributes to get along with the beautiful girls.

Most of DC’s friendly advice pages had someone (parent, teacher, fellow student) spelling out the message. BEM Shows Up doesn’t go that way, which is why I found it (and still find it) so strange. The comic strip is almost an allegory, with three guys actually named Brains, Emotions and Muscles, as if they’d been cast in a modern-day version of Pilgrim’s Progress.  The trio don’t simply learn their lesson and change their style; instead they fuse together to create the Ultimate Teenager, BEM. That blew my mind. Why did they merge into one body? Would they ever change back? Was this strangeness actually a house ad for some new teen series, like Swing With Scooter? In hindsight, obviously not; the ad came from the National Social Welfare Assembly, who were not a comics publisher. But I was no more likely to read that stuff at the bottom of the page than the indicia under the comic book splash pages. Still the fact there was no “BEM Is Coming” tagline or the like did make me think it probably wasn’t promoting a new comic … but then what was the point of it all?

BEM. A mystery for the ages, at least if your age is nine.

#SFWApro. Art on BEM is uncredited; Swing With Scooter cover is Joe Orlando.

13 Comments

  1. I remember that ad as well, and I remember being really annoyed by it. Not because of the essential weirdness of it, but by the obnoxious subtext.

    “Brains” and “Emotions” are goofy-looking weirdos, and “Muscles” is not only strong, he’s also tall and handsome, the very epitome of the Aryan stereotype. So when the three merge, the result looks like Muscles, and the other two are just there to rein in his feral caveman impulses. They have no other purpose. What REALLY matters is made clear: the ideal teenager looks just like the lunkhead oaf.

    This call for balance is really just another case of propping up the toxic tropes: smart men are weird, sensitive men are creepy, and brains and emotions are only tolerable when possessed by a square-jawed mesomorph.

    1. I think he looks like Emotions, actually, but with better hair. That said, you make good points. Even Muscles’ problem doesn’t quite fit with the other two: they drive people away with their personality, he has so little control of his strength he hurls chicks up in the air.

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