FOOD PILLS IN COMIC STRIPS

Buck Rogers April 3, 1934 panel
 

Our Boarding House wasn't the only comic strip to feature food pills. (And also see the classic That Synthetic Food of the Future for a one-time strip.) I've collected a sampling of strips from the 1930s to the 1960s with food pill jokes, along with the few that took them seriously.

Few people remember the Thimble Theatre comic strip, but it had been around for a decade before it introduced a minor character named Popeye. He not only took over the strip but was a such a smash that the strip was bought up by hundreds of newspapers. It ran half a page on Sundays, so the wily creator, E. C. Segar, created a "topper" - a lesser strip that filled in the rest of the page - for double income. Renamed several times, Sappo for a while chronicled the hijinks of little man John Sappo and his much larger wife Myrtle. About ten billion other comic strips had similar miss-sized couples so people must have thought it was hilariously funny in the 1930s.

Sappo, April 24, 1932

Sappo, April 24, 1932

Segar introduced a boarder in the Sappo household, O. G. Wotasnozzle, who - guess what - unexpectedly took over the strip. Wotasnozzle was an inventor and - guess what - his inventions always backfired, as with this concentrated food pill.

Sappo, November 11, 1934

Sappo, November 11, 1934

You could starve before you stumbled over a science fiction strip that mentioned food pills. They should have been everyday household items in Buck Rogers' 25th Century but this literally throwaway usage is one of the very few I've found. Two other later strips, below, also made glancing references.

Buck Rogers, April 3, 1934

Buck Rogers, April 3, 1934

1946-08-26 North Hollywodd [CA] Valley Times 18 Buck Rogers.JPG

Buck Rogers, August 26, 1946

1950-04-25 Wilmington [DE] Morning News Buck Rogers food pills.JPG

Buck Rogers, April 24, 1950

A search through other classic strips like Flash Gordon, Brick Bradford, and Alley Oop came up with a similarly bare cupboard, even though they all frequently used other standard tropes like robots and spaceships. Truly odd.

I debated whether to include this one-panel strip, but despite the caricatured image, it is one of the most straightforward and not deliberately demeaning uses of a black character in early cartoons outside of black newspapers. (See The First Black Superhero.) The Knoxville News Sentinel started the front page cartoon in 1903 as a way to enliven its capsule weather forecasts. Paul T. Fogarty took over in 1927 and kept on until his death in 1981. I didn't decide to use it until I looked through dozens of other Fogarty cartoons from 1939 and saw that Jo Jo was a representative of the ordinary man's wisdom and not made stupid or foolish because the color of the mouth it came out of. Bottom line: if this is the least offensive imagine what the others were like. History was not as bad as you think; it was worse.

Jo Jo Says, October 26, 1939

Jo Jo Says, October 26, 1939

You don't get much more obscure in comic history than The Nebbs, even though it ran in over 500 papers at its peak and lasted from 1923 to 1946(?). The story behind the strip is probably more interesting than the strip itself, although some of it is unprovable lore. Sol Hess, the strip's creator, was an idea man for Sidney Smith's far more famous strip The Gumps, a national sensation between the wars. The Chicago Tribune gave Smith a much publicized million-dollar contract ($100,000 a year for 10 years) for the strip in 1922. Smith in turn offered Hess a weekly salary. Reports vary on the amount, but all were several times average. That was good money but Hess felt he not only deserved more, he could get it on his own. So he started a Gumps-lite strip. Rudy and Fanny Nebb plus  their two children Betsy and Junior were also a working-class family, albeit a nicer, gentler one than the abrasive couples typical of the day. Nebb came from the Yiddish nebbish, a bumbling loser (think Woody Allen in his early films).

Hess's daughter, also named Betsy, started her own family strip named The Toodle Family in 1941 just weeks before her father died. She and her husband ran both strips for five years before deciding to merge them into one in 1946, as The Toodles. Turns out they were all related to one another and lived next door. Comics.

Also: comics? If The Nebbs was discontinued in 1946, how can the sequence below have run in 1952? Historian Maurice Horn says that some newspapers might have continued using the older name for the strip but fails to explain the actual weirdness. A search in the newspaper database shows that The Toodles ran strips during the exact same time period in December 1952 but with a totally different storyline and cast of characters. A 1949 magazine article says Betsy and her husband were still running both strips, so I have to assume that they continued doing so no matter what the histories say.

 

The full sequence runs for about two weeks, but these strips give you the flavor, so to speak. Wilbur (Willie) is a cousin of the Nebbs, introduced to replace the married Betsy.

The Nebbs, December 2, 1952

The Nebbs,  December 2, 1952

The Nebbs, December 3, 1952

The Nebbs,  December 3, 1952

The Nebbs, December 4, 1952

The Nebbs,  December 4, 1952

A Flash Gordon from the 1950s belatedly gets in the game. Food pills are no longer a marvel, but a common compact food of the future. They satisfy hunger but not the psyche. All they're good for is emergency use.

Flash Gordon, July 10, 1954

Flash Gordon, July 10, 1954

Joe Palooka is the most famous boxing strip ever, running for decades and regularly winning popularity polls. As strips were wont to do over decades, the writers introduced more secondary characters and often let them take over the strip. One such was the extraordinarily fat, super-strong, great at tinkering, and incredibly naive and self-sacrificing Humphrey Pennysworth. His personal popularity is attested by starring in one of Joe's b-movie series entries, Joe Palooka Meets Humphrey (1950). Six years later, Humphrey gets entangled with absent-minded Professor Noodil and becomes the first man in space when launched in Noodil's one-man rocket. Noodil also gives him concentrated food pills, which come in handy when Humphrey crash-lands on Earth and gets jailed in a crooked town and sentenced to bread and water. Don't worry, he wins the fight because of the food pills that the public doesn't believe in. Note that the sequence takes place a year before Sputnik, evidence of how all-pervasive the desire to send men into space had become in popular culture.

Joe Palooka, March 11, 1956

Joe Palooka, May 11, 1956

Joe Palooka, May 27, 1956

Joe Palooka, May 27, 1956

Mandrake the Magician has been around since 1934 and is seemingly immortal. As with Joe Palooka, its creator, Lee Falk, eventually ran out of plot ideas and altered it regularly to make it either more realistic or more fantastic, whatever came to him at the moment. In 1956, Mandrake met an alien, and that gave Falk an opportunity to throw in the mandatory food pills.

Mandrake the Magician, October 4, 1956

Mandrake the Magician, October 4, 1956

Blondie has been doing the same set of jokes for so many decades that only comic historians can remember how weird it was in the beginning. Dagwood Bumstead was a snooty millionaire's son who was disinherited for insisting on a relationship with a flapperish floozy. The flighty girl was named - really - Blondie Boopadoop. Flappers were already passe in 1930 when the strip began and the trials of a millionaire playboy went over nowhere outside of Hollywood. "Chic" Young (first name Murat; he apparently inherited his parents' naming ability) threw out the old premise in 1933. Blondie and Dagwood got married and the strip turned into the standard bumbling middle-class husband with out-of-his-class wife trope that spawned several million sitcoms. (Including Blondie's own radio and television series and no fewer than 28 movies. By comparison there were 12 Joe Palooka full-length movies, nine shorts, and a tv series. Poor Mandrake was limited to one serial.)

The Dagwood sandwich, a foot-high triple-decker too huge to fit into any human mouth, has been a signature feature of the strip since 1936, so the insertion of the blasphemous notion of a food pill was an inevitability. The fateful day occurred on October 9, 1961, when one of the unceasing stream of door-to-door salesmen that torment Dagwood (nobody else ever answered the door in the Bumstead household) gets him to taste the untasteable.

Blondie, October 9, 1961

Blondie, October 9, 1961

There may be more out there from this era. The older the reference the more likely that food "pills" might be called capsules, or tablets, or pellets, or tabloids. And instead of food pills they might be called concentrated or compressed tablets, etc. Searching for hits for just "food pills" in newspaper databases takes forever; redoing that for every variant is too much to bear. However, if any of you happen to know of something that I missed before 1963 send me the name and date via the Contact page. If it fits the page, I promise to add it and give you credit.

August 16, 2021