Maggie’s World 047: Food for Thought
Maybe you’ve decided that 2017 is the year you take control of what you’re eating. Nourishment has been a plot element in comic art ever since (or, perhaps, long before) Tad Dorgan popularized the term “hot dog.”
Realizing going in that this can only be an appetizer for the banquet that the topic deserves, let’s think about comics and food.
The Ad’s the Thing.
Cartoon characters quickly became connected with food as identifiable symbols. Sometimes, the characters were licensed from their comics origins. (Consider Skippy Peanut Butter and its fraught connection with Percy Crosby.) Sometimes, the characters were created as comics representatives of the brand. (Or its adversary. Some may recall Mr. Coffee Nerves, but I actually thought he might have appeared in ads for Sanka—until I realized it was Postum that sent him on his way. “Curses! If he’s switching to Postum, I’m through!” Milton Caniff and Noel Sickles worked on the comics-page ads that may not be in your collection of the work of either storyteller.)
Little Orphan Annie’s connection to Ovaltine is well-known. Well, maybe not so much these days, but we’re collectors here, right? By the way (if you consider chewing gum to be food), we should tip our hats to such characters as Bazooka Joe and the Dubble Bubble Twins. But that’s all the attention they’ll get here; there’s actually an entire website devoted to “Bubble Gum Comics,” if you want to chew over the topic.
A couple of the best-known comics-connected food items were Tootsie Rolls candy and Hostess baked goods. In the case of the former, Captain Tootsie came to the rescue by providing whatever energy was needed to solve the problem. In the case of the latter, a variety of trademarked super-heroes were involved in delicious escapades.
By the way, in the 1940s, we heard a lot about “energy.” Radio ads told us that Royal Pudding had “more food energy than sweet, fresh milk.” And Captain Tootsie assured us that we could skate 2½ miles on the energy in his candy. These days, we correctly call “food energy” by the alternate title of “calories.” Sigh. Eat that Tootsie Roll? You’re going to need to skate 2½ miles to work it off.
Sometimes, Food is Just Another Opportunity for Gags.
Dagwood in Chic Young’s Blondie newspaper strip in the 1930s would occasionally build himself what was soon referred to by readers as a “Dagwood sandwich.” For example, he extolled its ingredients in a 1939 strip: “They all have a purpose … Ham is the base … Cheese gives it tang … Onions give it authority, and the sliced pineapple a touch of color … The sausage is to make it look gay and the sardines lend variety.” Such strips would then wrap up with a gag. In the extended stories in comic books (specifically noted on some covers as only “based on Chic Young’s famous comic”), several pages might be occupied by Dagwood’s constructions.
And, of course, there’s Thimble Theatre. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Popeye and spinach—but that was the Fleisher cartoons, not Elzie Segar’s strip. The food I’m talking about is the nourishment so cherished by Wimpy. In 1932, he said, “Cook me up a hamburger. I’ll pay you Thursday,” and the rest is history. As with Chic Young’s strip, the theme of food continued, even when others took over the tales. (In the example shown here, the strip was drawn by Bill Zaboly.)
Again, these are only a couple of such instances. Entire story arcs featuring Walt Kelly’s Albert and Pogo involved the fact that (as might be the case with others of his species), Albert Alligator would ingest anything that would hold still—and some things that wouldn’t.
Sometimes, Food is the Whole Story.
In Maggie’s World #037, I cited “just looking for a snack” as one of the sources of villainy in the comics world. From Big Bad Wolf in Disney animation and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, to a variety of vampires, to Frau Totenkinder in Fables, hunger is sometimes the driving force for a character. (Superhero buffs may think immediately of Galactus—who’d have been just a big guy stomping around the universe in 1966, had it not been for an appetite that included regarding the Earth as a yummy main course.)
With the central character as victim, rather than villain, Winsor McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend began in 1904 and was based on the principle that eating Welch rarebit at bedtime would give the diner nightmares (which is what each strip was devoted to).
The more I consider the topic, the more food-oriented comics stories come to mind: Too Much Coffee Man, Garfield’s lasagna focus, Jughead’s hamburger obsession, not to mention Milk and Cheese. And Chew. And, hey, what was up with Peter Porkchops?
In any case, if I had to focus on just one comics tale that was entirely based on the importance of food, it’d be the story that Al Capp told in 1948 in one of his best and darkest commentaries on the modern world.
Collected by Pocket Books in the mass-market paperback The Life and Times of the Shmoo in 1949, the story survived in a way that many newspaper-strip continuities did not. And, as Dave Schreiner wrote in Vol. 14 of Kitchen Sink’s Li’l Abner Dailies, “Marketing aside, just why did the Shmoo hit it big? It was one of the great fantasy creations of all time, but it particularly struck a chord in 1948. The Shmoo offered comfort to an uneasy world, abundance in a time of shortages, security in the form of ham and eggs, steak, chicken, and anything else you wanted. A lovable creature, vaguely resembling a human organ with feet, it answered all of mankind’s needs and longings. How could something like that miss?”
And that, of course, meant that Shmoos would cause trouble. “What industry will be ruined next? “Transportation! Nobody needs any food any more—so they don’t need my trucks to carry it!!” “What’s the use of raising the prices of my cars higher and higher? — Shmoos don’t need gas or oil—and (sob!) they give a shmoother ride!!” “Who needs toys—with Shmoos around? They’re more fun than a barrel of monkeys!!” Time for Shmoo exterminators.
Oh, but remember comics in advertisements? Even Shmoos were delighted to get “that Cream of Wheat feeling!” And (if you wanted to wash your hands before eating, clean up those supper dishes, and launder your napkins afterward) Shmoos could lay Ivory Soap, Dreft, and Duz.
Food for thought, indeed …
Maggie’s World appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!