Monday, February 27, 2012

Indies: The Natural Food Of Comics

A couple years ago, I was trying to track down a really good pizza sauce. I love pizza, and I spent a while honing a pretty good recipe for the dough. But then I needed a really good sauce for it. I tried any number of different brands and finally stumbled on one that just tasted far an away better than everything else. It wasn't even a contest at that point! So I looked at the ingredients to see if that might give a clue as to why it tasted so much better... tomatoes, canola oil, olive oil, Romano cheese, onion, garlic, oregano. That's it! Every item in the list was something I recognized, and you could really taste the difference. (It's from Rossi Pasta if you're interested.)

I visited my folks around Christmas. Mom had stocked the fridge with plenty of beverages (I tend to drink a lot) and I pulled down the jug of orange juice. Some local brand I'd never heard of. But I was surprised at how good it was. When I went to look at the label, it was actually difficult to find the ingredient listing. Not because it was small or hidden, but because it was on the front next to the logo: "100% orange juice".

Since then, I've taken to hunting down more natural foods. There's a health benefit, I'm sure, to not ingesting calcium propionates and sodium nitrites and whatever. But more to my purpose, those natural foods just taste better! I've found fantastic tasting foods and drinks in recent weeks because I've been selecting options without any extra chemicals added.

See, back in the 1940s the U.S. government wanted to make sure that A) all soldiers had plenty to eat and B) soldiers' food could get safely stored and shipped anywhere in the world. So they started putting a lot of additives and preservatives in everything so it wouldn't rot en route from New York to Normandy. The food didn't taste quite as good, but it stayed fresher for a lot longer. Then, after the War, food companies were encouraged to use the same additives so that everyone would have something familiar when they came back. Food companies saw a financial benefit to it as well, and they've had chemists working since then to improve their ability to make food cheaper and more profitable. Now, over a half century later, many Americans have never even tasted an apple that wasn't covered/doused in chemicals; people assume that's how they're supposed to taste.

You may have noticed an increasing backlash from that in recent years though. The natural/health food sections of many grocery stores has grown remarkably. Whole Foods is making a killing in that market sector, with effectively zero competition and plans on some natural growth in the next year or two. Yeah, Barbara's Whole Wheat Fig Bars are a bit pricier than Nabisco's Fig Newtons, but they're a hell of a lot tastier! There's a relatively small, but growing, group of people like myself who are willing to pay a little more for a better product.

You're wondering, of course, what any of this has to do with comics.

In a strange way, this natural foods movement is similar to independent comics. This natural foods thing isn't new; it's an extension of the reactions people had in the 1960s when there was a generation of kids who grew up on chemicals and wanted to go back to something less manufactured. They were called hippies. It wasn't a huge movement that got into grocery stores and fast food chains, but it was there.

Along with underground comix.

In one sense, the hippies of the 1960s lost to big agribusiness. You can't find an aisle in the supermarket that doesn't have something from Kraft in it. Or Procter & Gamble. A few huge companies essentially took over the entire retail food industry.

Not unlike how Marvel and DC took over the comics industry.

The costs of production, though, have dropped in recent years thanks to technological advances. It's more reasonable now to start your own micro-brewery or local cannery. The technology is fairly cheap and still produces a professional looking product. Distribution can be a bit difficult, but not insurmountable as long as you keep things local. Alternatively, you can sell your goods online to virtually anywhere.

Kind of like how print-on-demand works for self-publishers.

Tom McLean just posted about his leaving the mainstream comics arena in favor of higher quality stories. That's not all that different from my reasons for dropping out of the Wednesday crowd (though McLean articulated himself much better). Here, much like the natural food trend, there's a relatively small, but growing, group of people like myself who are willing to pay a little more for a better product.

I'm sure the analogy isn't perfect; I've only given it as much thought as it took to write this post. But, offhand at least, it seems like there are some interesting parallels there. I wonder if there's some lessons that independent comic creators can learn from their brothers-in-spirit of the food world.

3 comments:

Matt K said...

Fig Newtons are made with fruit and cake. What could be simpler or more natural?

I think if you want to talk "unnatural," you're talking about something like Oreos. What are those made with? Or Cheetos. Or Spaghetti-Os. (I'm sensing a pattern here, actually.)

Anyway, "unnatural" applies to a lot more than just food. Like sitting in a little cube all day beneath fluorescent lights and staring at a glowing rectangle is natural? That said, though, I think "natural" is overrated. Let's not assume "natural" as entirely interchangeable with "good."

Sean Kleefeld said...

Fig Newtons Ingredient List: Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduce Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2], Folic Acid), Figs Preserved with Sulfur Dioxide, Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sugar, Soybean Oil, Whey (from Milk), Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil (Adds a Trivial Amount of Saturated Fat), Salt, Baking Soda, Calcium Lactate, Malic Acid, Soy Lecithin (Emulsifier), Potassium Sorbate Added to Preserve Freshness, Natural and Artificial Flavor.

Figs are listed there but so is a lot of other crap.

But, yeah, Cheetos, Twinkies, and the like are a WHOLE other ballpark of WTF.

You're right, too, that "natural" does not necessarily equate with quality. But my personal findings so far have been that the foods I've found that taste better (which, obviously, is a decidedly personal preference) have been more natural in their makeup. The same holds for comics; the ones that I've enjoyed more in recent years tend to be less corporate and more creator driven. It's not that Marvel and DC can't produce good works, but the ones that leave a better taste in my mouth have been independent ones.

Matt K said...

I think "a WHOLE other ballpark of WTF" could make an even trade for "Look, Estrogen!". :-)

And personally I do share your perceptions in both food and comics, to a considerable extent. I love eggs, which are made of "eggs," and Rooibos tea which is made with water and a teabag containing "roobios." And although it turns into a rock after 24 hours, traditional bread like you find in France is tastier than the stuff I typically get to make sandwiches from.

And comics, yeah, there too the "farm-fresh" stuff usually has more flavor than the highly-processed stuff in slick, flashy packaging from Marvel and DC. It has not always been thus nor, I think, has it been a consistent one-way shift at the big two. But right now, I think Marvel and DC are both about as far from "raw" as they have ever been.