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The senses-shattering origin of Smokey (the) Bear – The True Story of Smokey Bear

January 16, 2013

smokey

Note: The bipedal bear known as Smokey has gone by either Smokey Bear or Smokey the Bear during his illustrious fire-prevention-awareness career. Whenever his second moniker is put into play in this post, it will be in the Smokey THE Bear format, because that’s how modern, civilized people refer to him. Though, yes, it’s Smokey Bear in the comic and, indeed, Smokey Bear officially.

Smokey the Bear is one of the most venerable of public service mascots, outdistancing his Forest Service co-worker, Woodsy Owl (“Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!”), and perhaps running neck and neck with, if not a bit ahead of, McGruff the Crime Dog (“Take a bite out of crime!”) in the pop consciousness marathon. This giveaway comic, the last (1969) of several editions(1960, 1964), tells his tale of woe and stardom, at the same time drilling the evils of forest fires into the minds of young children. The blaze that sent Bambi scurrying for safety not terrifying enough for you youngsters? Then the U.S. Department of Agriculture has just the thing for you! With an ursine twist!

Before we get started, we should all be clear that Smokey was created by the Forest Service as a mascot in 1944, while the events that brought the real Smokey into the public eye happened in 1950. It’s the latter that forms the meat of this comic, in a case of art imitating life imitating art. Got it? Good. Let’s proceed to the tale — narrated by a falcon, of all things. (The writer and artist are uncredited.)

Smokey’s life starts innocently enough, with playful romps through the forest, though hints of danger lurk under his very paws:

smokeya

And wouldn’t you know it, some disgusting human comes along and ruins it all, using any one of the myriad conflagration-spawning techniques — take your pick:

smokeyb

You ready for some sweet wildlife death, kids? HERE YOU GO:

smokeyc

Cheerful.

Thanks to the efforts of countless firefighters and guardsmen, the fire is finally put out (no sign of Thumper smothering flames with his huge foot), but not before a giant swath of forest is swiped away. And lo and behold, some of the soldiers find a little somebody hugging a tree with his burned paws:

smokeyd

Instead of putting him out of his misery, they take him back to be tended by the best vets. Good for them. He makes a complete recovery, and gets his stage name:

smokeye

And so begins his life as a mascot, with kids and hats and posters:

smokeyf

A stick in the mud might point out that the humane thing to do might have been to release him back into the wild instead of making him a travelling carnival act. But maybe he was too tame by this point. Or maybe his wounds hampered him. Who among us can judge? After all, the green-clad men and women of the Forest Service are blameless, holy creatures.

Here’s the point in the narrative where the lines get a little blurred. I don’t think anyone believes that the real Smokey the Bear grew up, started walking on two feet and wearing jeans (in fairness, according to Lee denim has fire-fighting properties), and also grew opposable thumbs, but this comic makes that leap. It also brings our beloved comic books into play as one of the reasons that woodsy infernos are so awful:

smokeyg

IF I WASN’T BEFORE, I AM NOW CONVINCED OF THE EVILS OF FOREST FIRES.

How else should the book end but with some handy tips about prevention?:

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I’ve been wracking my brain trying to remember if I had a copy of this book as a kid or not — the image on the cover has stirred the soil over long-buried memories. I have no idea where I would have obtained one (School? Campground? Were they still being handed out in the 1980s?), but the iconic image of young Smokey clinging to tree in a charred landscape is familiar. Not only that, it has some personal resonance, as there was a bad fire at my house when I was a kid (5 or so). I grew up in a small town in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, and our house was surrounded on all sides by dense forest, with only our long driveway connecting us to the main road. Long story short, my father was using a roto-tiller, hit a rock, threw a spark, some dry brush caught fire, cut us off from the nearest road, and things got out of control quick. The fire department got there fast and put things out, though there wound up being a lot of blackened earth and cindered trees. At no point were we in mortal danger, as we could have simply fled into the woods and come out at another road a few miles off, but it was a terrifying experience, one that I’ll carry to my grave. At the time it felt like Smokey’s tree fate awaited us all.

Anyway, the real Smokey wound up with a cushy pad at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he died in 1976. There was a short-lived ongoing comic book series published by Gold Key in the 1970s, but it was focused more on generic misadventures rather than public awareness. Let this old comic stand as one of the real, singed Smokey’s monuments to the dangers of not dousing campfires.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2013 10:50 pm

    Cool find! These pages bring back memories. We did not own a copy but our gramma had one stored in the mythic garage of silver age goodies. We read it many times. It’s a good story, even if it’s totally mythologized – as are tales of most of our icons and legends. Thank you for reminding us of the source!

  2. January 27, 2013 8:06 pm

    The shelling of an oil field near Santa Barbara, Calif., by a Japanese submarine in 1942 got people’s attention. Just inland was nearly 2 million acres of the Los Padres National Forest. The nation’s war machine relied on wood for everything from rifle stocks to ships. Manpower to fight forest fires was scarce.

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