Fruit Pie the Magician’s best trick may yet be coming back from the dead. Or, more specifically, the death of Hostess, the company famous for making Wonder Bread, Fruit Pies, Ho-Hos, Ding-Dongs, and Twinkies, among others. Hostess today filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection — that’s the kind of bankruptcy where you wind the company down, sell off the assets, call it quits, cease to exist. The company will be unwinding over the next few months; already it has dismissed a veritable legion of workers, just in time for the holidays. Sucks for them far worse than those with a nostalgic sweet tooth. Let’s keep that in mind as we discuss.
While long-time comic readers or back-issue divers familiar with the old Hostess ads in comics may joke that the business would be yet thriving had they continued to this day, it’s very silly to think that comics, with sales declining from kajillions in the 1950s-’90s to the mere low-six-figure mark for top-selling individual issues today, could spur much more demand. If our ever-increasing obesity isn’t an indication that the market for junk food is alive and thriving, this examination of Hostess’ Chapter 7 from the Wall Street Journal makes it clear that the iconic gluten-peddler’s problems went far beyond issues of demand. The demand is there; Hostess maintains sales of $2 billion yearly, according to the WSJ piece. It came down to commodity costs and labor issues.
I can’t claim to have had any Hostess products in many years, and I can’t claim to miss consumption of such. But I do harbor an inordinate amount of affection for the old Hostess comics ads. Those adverts in the back of comics were iconic cultural touchstones; an otherwise forgettable issue of X-Men could be made memorable by a Hostess advert wherein the Hulk could only overcome some cheesy villain with the assistance of a well-placed Fruit Pie. Those ads are part of comic book history; in fact, it could be said that Twinkie the Kid and his fellow mascots, who were also featured in some comics ads, not to mention the products themselves, can now be classified as comic book characters, in a sense.
Comics Are Magic, Right?
Pardon me while I go off the deep end here. There’s an issue of The Question, No. 27 with a cover date of June 1989, written by Dennis O’Neil and beautifully illustrated by Denys Cowan and Malcom Jones III, that features a fictional WWII-era comic artist called Alvin. He’s the cousin of Tot, a.k.a., Aristotle Rodor, Vic Sage/The Question’s friend and confidant. While Sage frets about his love interest, Myra Fermin, being comatose, Alvin and Tot reacquaint themselves after being apart for about 30 years.
TOT: You left the United States in–?
ALVIN: Fall of 1946. About a year after I won the war.
TOT: Beg pardon?
ALVIN: World War Two. I won it. [Pause]. You Look as though you think I’m insane.
Long story short, Alvin was convinced that his Captain America-like comic book, which two flag-wearing men and a similarly decked out woman battling Nazis, was a form of shamanistic magic, the immense repetition of which he believes won the war for the allies.
ALVIN: Consider… I and dozens of other cartoonists, were producing hundreds–thousands–of drawings every month. Depicting what? Depicting Americans destroying Germans and Japanese. [A few panels later] Neither the Germans, the Japanese, nor the Italians had comic books. That’s why they lost.
He goes onto share this wasn’t by design — it was subconscious, “which may be why it worked.”
(This is, of course, something of a story-specific fantasy; the Japanese had comics as well, for more info check out this historical look back by About.com’s Deb Aoki; Italy did as well, though this Wikipedia page agrees that the Germans weren’t making comic books under the Nazi party)
In any case, the end-game for this issue of The Question sees Vic Sage asking Alvin to pencil a likeness of Myra into a comic where he’d originally had his star-spangled heroine coming out of a zombie-like state. As Vic destroys the new drawing — the final step of Alvin’s shamanistic ritual — Myra is hit with a dose of adrenaline by her doctor, and she comes out of the coma.
So, comic book magic works within comic books. Sure. But what about in the real world? We’re getting into Grant Morrison territory here — concepts like inserting an author into a story, fiction suits, worldwide wankathons to increase comics sales . . . (really, look it up) — these things may capture the imagination and have anecdotal effects on the real world, but are certainly hard to quantify.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy means that Hostess’ assets are up for grabs to a company willing to pay the price. Per the Wall Street Journal:
The fate of the company’s brands remains uncertain, set to be decided by a bankruptcy court auction run by Hostess’s investment bankers, or perhaps determined by a group of liquidators. Mr. Rayburn has said he is unsure if all of the company’s brands — there are about 30, from Drake’s to Ding Dongs — will sell or how much they might fetch.
The article goes on to state that competitors may be reluctant to buy Hostess product rights due to self-cannibalization of sharing shelf space with their existing line-up, that kind of thing.
But I’ll submit that a kind of magic was made with the likes of this, imprinting young minds with every comic book read and re-read:
Thank you, Seanbaby; for the world’s best Hostess Ad archive, visit Seanbaby’s Hostess Museum
There’s no reason that these ads should stick any less in the minds of comics fans than “The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac,” the classic ad for Charles Atlas’ Dynamic Tension bodybuilding, which creators such as Morrison (in Flex Mentallo) and Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore (The Strange Talent of Luther Strode) used as jumping off points for great fiction. Perhaps they stick even more in some minds due to the presence of Marvel, Archie, DC characters’ participation (eight-year-old me would have eaten a case of Twinkies if it meant meeting Josie and the Pussycats. Come to think of it, so would current old-man me).
“Mac” is a comic book character. And we all know that comic characters never really die. Not Jason Todd, not Peter Quill, not Superman, and sure as s**t not Jean Grey. Come on now. Maybe Mac’s not exactly the same, nor are Hostess products and mascots, but we know comic books involve continuity shifts. See “Crisis,” “New 52,” “retconning.” “Live again” doesn’t mean “exactly the same.”
Hostess properties will continue on after Chapter 7 death because comic book characters don’t have to die. Those comics themselves will continue to be the basis of parody after parody, at least until Gen Y is wearing adult diapers. The snacks have a good shot at coming back in some form, whether mass-market from a company willing to make a gamble on a marketable property, or maybe as a small-scale nostalgia business once all the heavy liquidating is done. And, damn it, they’ll sure as hell live on in comics.
Images: Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Hostess