Saturday, March 30, 2013

More On "Welcome Back, Kotter" #3

Now, I realize that I previously declared that I had said all I had to say about Welcome Back, Kotter #3.  It appears, however, that I was mistaken.  Upon reading it again after over three decades I was impressed by how well the comic has held up over time.  It would seem that one reason this particular comic has stuck in my mind for all that time is that its actually a pretty good comic.
As you may remember, if you're a fan of cheesy 70's TV sitcoms, the basic premise of Welcome Back, Kotter was that, in high school, Gabe Kotter had been a member of a group of remedial students known as the Sweat Hogs.  Years later, Gabe has become a teacher and finds himself back at his old alma mater, James Buchanan High School, teaching Social Studies to the newest group of Sweat Hogs.  I mention this because its important to the story in this issue.
"The Return of Augie Berelli" has Kotter receiving an unexpected visit at school by the Augie Berelli of the story's title.  Berelli was another of the original Sweat Hogs with a rep as the toughest kid in school, as well Gabe's rival for the affections of classmate Dolores Duffelmeyer.  Kotter tricked Augie to get him out of the way so that Gabe could go to the prom with Dolores, and Berelli vowed to get even.  It doesn't make Kotter feel any better about Berelli's return that, in the years since high school, his old classmate has become a prominent gangster.
The real purpose of Berelli's visit to James Buchanan High, however, is to visit his nephew, Vinnie Barbarino, one of the current crop of Sweat Hogs.  Vinnie looks up to his uncle and the other Sweat Hogs are impressed by his expensive clothes and fancy car.
After Berelli takes the Sweat Hogs out for pizza, Gabe is approached by FBI agents who want his help to apprehend Berelli.  Vinnie, who had stayed behind when everyone else left, confronts Kotter and the Feds and ends up slugging one of the G-Men on the jaw.  Kotter agrees to help the FBI if the agents will agree not to arrest Barbarino.
When Berelli hears about the incident, he worries that Vinnie follow his footsteps into a life of crime.  To prevent this, he contacts the Feds himself, and hatches a plot to turn himself in and make himself look like a heel in front of Vinnie and the Sweat Hogs while making Kotter look like a hero. 
As a tale of misplaced hero worship, "The Return of Augie Berelli" is hardly the most original of stories.  If you were in a particularly uncharitable mood, you might even call it cliched.  Even Shakespeare borrowed many of his plots from earlier works of myth and history.  The magic of any story lies in the telling.  I'm sure that even Tony Isabella, the writer of this issue, would agree that he's no Shakespeare, but he does tell this particular story very well.  He displays a gift for humor that I've not really seen in his super-hero comics.
I've mentioned the opening line of the story, which I had remembered, across the decades since I'd last read this story, as one of the funniest lines I'd ever read in a comic.  There are quite a few other funny lines as well.  For example, when Augie extends his hand to Kotter, Gabe, still fearing that Berelli has come seeking revenge, reacts, "This is the handshake of death, right?  Like the kiss of death, but more sanitary."  Overall, Isabella nicely captures the feel of a typical Kotter episode.
He also effectively portrays the emotional reactions of the characters, especially Vinnie.  The final panel image of Vinnie sitting in an empty classroom, head in hands and crying, is genuinely moving.
The art is by Bob Oksner over layouts by Ric Estrada.  Oksner was a veteran of earlier DC humor books, including The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, The Adventures of Bob Hope, and Angel and The Ape, and had a gift for caricature that made him perfect for this book.  Meanwhile, Oksner's layouts tell the story in a clear and effective manner.
The letters column heralded Isabella's arrival as the book's new writer.  However, this would be the only issue of Welcome Back, Kotter that he would write.  That's too bad, because based on his performance in this story, I'd kind of like to have seen him do more Kotter stories.
I was going to post this yesterday, but I decided to wait a bit and see if I have now really said all I have to say about Welcome Back, Kotter #3, and I think I have.  I can now move on to other, more important, topics, like....oh, I don't know...Prez or "Super-Heroes Battle Super-Gorillas" or something significant and earth-shaking like that.


  1. Your past two Kotter posts have got me curious about this series; this came out not long after I got bitten by the comics bug, but it was way outside of my super-hero comfort zone. It never occurred to me that there might be some worthwhile stories in there...

  2. -- did you ever find that your coffee cup?

  3. I was a fan of the show (being 7 when it debuted) and would occasionally run across the comics in trades back in the 70s. I think Isabella's gags perfectly capture the humor of the show.