Thursday, June 02, 2011

Comic Cuisine - an article on the foodie foibles of favourite Comic Characters....

Guess who's coming soon? Illustration by Chandra Shekhar Ghildiyal
Having been a comic illustrator and animator in my misspent youth, I know from experience that it is hard to depict food in comics, the graphic styles, minimal colours and small spaces allow very little freedom. So introducing food into a comic strip as a regular feature is a daunting task. But some comic artists have managed to make it succeed. To the extent that their characters are remembered for their food foibles. And that is an amazing feat. Take Calvin and Hobbes for instance – a comic that my son is on a regular diet of currently. Thanks to it, last night’s dinner of Pasta in Spinach sauce snakes in a swamp, and the beetroot salad… I don’t think I will even go there… I don’t think I could describe the gory details of THAT particular creature with the EXACT finesse of an 9 year old!
For the uninitiated  (if such people DO in fact exist) Calvin and Hobbes is a comic strip by Bill Watterson that follows the foibles of Calvin, an over imaginative six-year-old boy and Hobbes, his energetic, sardonic stuffed tiger. Mealtimes can get terribly gory with Calvin around. He has a hate - hate relationship with food! Not only does he detest the food that his mother cooks but in his presence, food usually takes on a life of its own! According to Calvin, “Food should be both nutrition AND entertainment” which is why his favourite cereal is “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs” which he will continue to eat until it meets one basic requirement, to turn milk Purple! And making food entertaining is a goal he is in constant pursuit of. 
Ever eager to share his view about the meal he (or anyone else) is eating, Calvin loves to give riveting commentary on his food as well. Like the time he describes the school lunch of Beans 'n' Franks as "cigar butts in a gallstone sauce” infuriating Susie, his friend or the time he observes that “When birds burp, it must taste like bugs.” (Calvin’s fellow diners regularly go through a gamut of reactions from fury to total repulsion which is also the reason his parents rarely take him to restaurants.) On occasion, his meals are known to come alive warranting a full scale battle with them and a large mess to strain his mother's patience. But like all mothers Calvin’s mother is usually one – up on him, by pachaging her cooking the way her son needs it, serving up “monkey brains, toxic waste, spider pie or some other innovatively stomach-turning dish thet leads to Calvin eating with relish even as his dad is left without an appetite! 
But the immense impact of a comic character’s food fetishes on a child’s mind are noteworthy. In fact this was something the creators of “Popeye the sailor man” attempted to exploit when they were developing the comic for an animated series. What Calvin routinely rejects as green goop became a symbol of strength through the Popeye the sailor Man cartoon. A paragraph from the Popeye song goes
I'm Popeye the sailor man!
I'm Popeye the sailor man!
I'm strong to the finich,
'Cause I eats me spinach.
I'm Popeye the sailor man.
Popeye made his first public appearance in January 1929, in Elzie Segar's then 10-year-old comic strip, "Thimble Theatre" that originally revolved around Olive Oyl's family. Although Popeye was introduced as a minor walk-on character, he rapidly "muskled" his way into the limelight bringing with him, J. Wellington Wimpy, the world's most hamburger-obsessed moocher. Interestingly, while Popeye's spinach obsession did debut in Thimble Theatre it became an indispensable plot device much later when the series was being developed for animation.  A move so successful that the spinach growers credited Popeye with a 33 percent increase in U.S. spinach consumption — and saving the spinach industry in the 1930s! So much so that the Spinach capital Crystal City, Texas, even erected a statue to honour E.C. Segar and Popeye for their influence on America's eating habits, making Popeye the first cartoon character to be immortalized in stone! 
In direct antithesis to the spinach glugging sailor was his sidekick J. Wellington Wimpy. Perhaps the greatest of all Segar characters. Wimpy first appeared as a referee in one of Popeye's prize fights but stayed to become, possibly the most pitiable person in the entire strip! All his own fault, of course! Routinely betraying his friends in exchange for promises of food or safety, earning him a sputtered "Yer a disgrace, Wimpy!" from Popeye… Wimpy is not really a bad person of, just weak and while he has repeatedly betrayed his friends, he also vehemently refuses to commit murder regardless of threat or reward! Wimpy is freeloading personified and lines said by him like "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today", "Come over to my house for a duck dinner. You bring the duck!" and "Let's you and him fight!" all eventually became household phrases. Wimpy is also quite the ladies' man, with a silver tongue that can sweet-talk any woman (especially if he finds out she has access to hamburgers)! And Wimpy was on the scene when Popeye first encountered Swee'pea (his son) and promptly took on the task of babysitting, using it as an excuse for cleaning out Popeye's refrigerator!
A love for Hamburgers and a silver tongue with women when required are both characteristics that Wimpy shares with another food loving comic character. Forsythe Pendleton Jones AKA "Jughead" of Archie comics fame. In 1941 when Pep Comics issue 22 came out, nobody anticipated that the superheroes on the cover would be sidelined by a filler story in the back about a teenaged, Archie Andrews and his life. Jughead Archie’s best friend is the eccentric one of Archie's social circle. Regularly pursued by Big Ethel, Jughead usually avoids girls—unless a free meal is involved.
Eating is Jughead's number one hobby. Not only can he eat but he can eat anything, even cafeteria cook Miss Beazly’s awful cooking! His eating habits make Jughead a regular at Pop Tate's Chocklit Shoppe and a respected food critic. He has record breaking digestion, in one episode he is pitted against the chubby undefeated champion from an adjacent town's high school in an eating contest and wins but won't stay to celebrate. He wants to stock up on munchies for an evening of watching TV! He usually sports a pot belly immediately after his marathon meals but remains skinny as a twig, an explanation for which comes in one episode where Mr. Weatherbee, the principal tries to cut down on his diet with disastrous results… Jughead's brain stops functioning! The theory is that while Jughead eats a lot, it all goes to his brain and that's why he remains thin. (Jugheads IQ is well above average).

If Jughead gave burgers an identity, another comic character actually invented a sandwich that went on to become an identity in its own right! The Dagwood sandwich was named after Dagwood Brumstead, husband of Blondie from the famous strip by the same name. Dagwood was introduced into the popular comic strip In February 1933 when his wealthy family disowned him for marrying beneath himself. Ever since then he works at J.C. Dithers & co. to support his family. His favourite things in life include: food, Blondie, his kids, naps on the sofa, long, uninterrupted baths and his legendary culinary creation the famous Dagwood sandwich. A obsession and a weakness that has been diagnosed as an eating disorder, this is a constant source of irritation to his wife!

The Dagwood Sandwich is a towering sandwich stuffed with an infinite variety of contents that stun the imagination, and frighten the stomach of all but the original maker! And Dagwood is constantly dreaming up new combinations, permutations and ways to hold the sandwich together. In fact the term Dagwood sandwich has become so well-known that it’s even made it into Webster's New World Dictionary.  

Our next gourmand in the comic world is of the feline kind whose philosophy of life is an inspiration to the glutton! Born in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant on a winter's night in 1978, weighed in at a healthy five pounds, six ounces - and he was a kitten then -  Garfield has shown a passion for Italian food ever since. The restaurant owner, unable to afford feeding another mouth sold Garfield to a pet store from where he was bought by Jon Arbuckle. Fat, orange, distinctively marked with black stripes and full of ATTITUDE, Garfield hates Mondays (unless it's also his birthday), loves to eat “I eat too much because I'm depressed, and I'm depressed because I eat too much. It's a vicious circle... that took years to perfect!” And sleep (both in vast quantities) as he laments “All I do is eat and sleep. Eat and sleep. Eat and sleep. There must be more to a cat's life than that. But I hope not! He also likes to watch TV and play jokes on Jon and Odie.

But what is most riveting about Garfield is not so much his food fetishes rather than his philosophy to food. “My philosophy” he says on one occaission “It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you stuff your face." Like all gourmands he has refined tastes, he l-o-v-e-s lasagne, “When the lasagne content in my blood gets low, I get mean”, hates raisins and spinach and has an ongoing mission that involves the trapping and (presumably) eating of birds. He however, does NOT eat mice, choosing to befriend them instead! Why? Well “Show me a good mouser, and I'll show you a cat with bad breath.” he says.   When on a diet, Garfield often has hallucinations that take the shape of food that walks and provokes him to eat it! “You know what is a "diet" is, don't you? It's "die" with a "t," that's what it is!” and to conclude here’s a bit of advice “Eat every meal as though it were your last.

And the comic character that most lives up to that last piece of advice is Obelix the Gaul, best friend of Asterix, created in 1959 as the hero of a series of French comic books by René Goscinny (stories) and Albert Uderzo (illustrations). Asterix and Obelix live around 50 BC in a fictional village in northwest Armorica (a region of ancient Gaul mostly identical to modern Brittany). This village is celebrated amongst the Gauls as the only part of that country that has stood up to the conquering Romans. The secret lies in the magic potion that the resident druid cooks up for the inhabitants of the village. It gives them superhuman strength.
Obelix has a tremendous appetite, and his favourite dish is roast wild boar, of which he can go through numerous portions, leaving just bones on the plate. But aside from that obvious food fetish, the subtler nuances of the food depicted in this series are worth noting. Scattered amidst the recurring plots in the Asterix books in which the two gauls are foiling  attempts by the Romans to prevent the druid from making the potion, or trying to get the secret recipe for their own use are hidden commentaries and stereotypes on countries through food. 


And perhaps the best foodie comic ever created (and my favourite) is Asterix and the Banquet. The Romans try to contain the threat from the Gaulish village by building a stockade around it, Asterix and Obelix bet that not only will they break out and claim their right to travel freely all over Gaul, but they will collect local delicacies and bring them back to prove their point. Ham from Lutetia, fizzy wine from Durocortorum (Champagne from Rhiems),  fish stew from Massila (Marseille ) in the south...
The hidden culinary allusions are not confined to just this comic however, in Asterix in Britain the British are shown as polite and phlegmatic, drinking warm beer or hot water (tea comes to England thanks to Asterix) who boil all their food and serve it with mint sauce. Another comic depicts Spain as a cheap vacation spot for people from the North (who demand to eat the same food they are used to at home) and the French don’t get away either, French regions are also spoofed with people from Normandy smothering their food in cream and in Asterix in Corsica, the make cheese that smells so bad that it actually becomes an explosive! 

A food preference in a fiction character can act as a bond for the character throughout a series and truly round it off don't you think? What is your favourie Food comic? Do share it!.


Vinda Dravid said...

I absolutely love this post! Ingenious! Hats off!

Anonymous said...

Love it Rushina! :) Fabulous write up!

Anonymous said...

Loved it! You have managed to say it all!

Bon Vivant said...

Food and books. Another interesting view

Megha said...

Awesome! I'm all nostalgic and this happens when you read a great post :)

Diya said...

this is lovely.

Spaceman Spiff said...

That's quite some detailing you've done!

I remember one particular story of Jughead's, where he's taking a seminar on Napolean's exile, or something like that. Even Weatherbee comes to watch him teach, because he turns the history class into a gourmet cuisine class. That was a wonderful one. Trademark Jughead. There won't be any person who wouldn't have craved for a hamburger after reading Archies. Juggy made them so tempting.

And Bill Watterson is my god. Enough said. He does magic in three small little boxes.

Rushina said...

Thank you all of you!

Haani Mirza said...

Posted this on the wall :) Its a lovely post!

Haani Mirza said...

God bless those who share their food!

Harsha Sabhnani Bakhru said...

Great post Rushina!...
Love Shekhar's work on the illustration too!!.. :)