Dagwood Should Be Fat, Sick and Impoverished

Todd Litman's picture

By all logic, the comic strip character Dagwood should be fat, sick and impoverished due to his gluttonous eating, sedentary habits, and automobile-dependent lifestyle. Blondie should worry about his high blood pressure and clogged arteries, and the Bumsteads should struggle to bear rising automobile expenses. Yet they are all thin, healthy and financially secure, protected from all consequences of indulgent consumerism.


Good literature challenges our assumptions. Comics such as Blondie play it safe by validating rather than questioning conventional values. A fat, sick and impoverished Dagwood could still be funny, while challenging readers' assumptions about what constitutes a normal and desirable lifestyle.

This is a planning issue because conventional comics often portray automobile-dependent suburban development as an ideal, and ignore or ridicule alternatives. Early strips showed Dagwood racing for buses (see image below), but the Bumsteads now live in a sprawled neighborhood, drive everywhere (to be fair, Dagwood carpools to work), shop at malls, never walk or bicycle for transportation, consider public transit the butt of jokes, and chauffeur their children in mini-vans.

This strip from 1948 showed Dagwood and Herb racing for a bus.


Other comic worlds express different values. I particularly appreciate Calvin's Father, who among many positive attributes (a dry sense of humor and a love of the outdoors) was a bicycle enthusiast. Cartoonist Bill Watterson had the good sense to retire the strip rather than let it grow stale, an example that some other cartoonists should follow.


Calvin's Dad was a bicycle enthusiast.


Television seems more progressive. Although many television shows portray suburban families, some of the most popular (e.g., Seinfeld, Friends, Sex In The City, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, etc.) celebrate the pleasures of urban living, including diverse and interesting neighbors, nearby shops and restaurants, and unexpected sidewalk encounters.

Comic and sitcoms reflect the id of society, what Freud described as "the dark, inaccessible part of our personality...filled with energy reaching it from the instincts." A fat, sick and impoverished Dagwood would more accurately reflect the dark soul of modern consumerism. 

Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.




Frazz -- a modern comic -- also illustrates an active life. I've posted one on my 'fridge commenting on the lack of TV coverage of bicycle racing. The punch line is that the target audience is out riding bikes, rather than being a good consumer sitting at home watching TV.

Logic doesn't apply to comics, they're pen on paper

Feeling kinda dark today, eh? Trying to rationalize the habits of characters seems a bit of a stretch to your normally spot on analysis of trends about the imbalance of moto/sprawl subsidies versus the advantages and barriers of cycling/walking/transit.

I like it better when you battle that tool.

Television is not progressive. It has to survive with the commercials from the auto industry and thus we will always see a suburban/driving tilt, where cycling is used as a spoof. Helmet strapped up and kneepads for a road ride on a mountain bike, etc.

Sienfield did gift us George and his analogy of circling the block/searching for a parking spot used so well by Dr. Shoup.

But yeah, trying to compare Calvin's dad to Dagwood. Maybe next time a piece on the various cycling cartoonists: Frazz, O'Grady, Singer, that Moon fellow.

Todd Litman's picture

Logic doesn't apply to comics

Dear EHauser,

Thank you for our comments. Yes, you are completely correct that comics are not intended to reflect logic - that's what makes they so fun.

However, they do communicate values. Dogwood validates conventional values associated with automobile-dependent, sprawled development, including selfishness, laziness and exclusivity. I think that is worth noting, or even challenging.

I agree, televisionland reflects a wide range of values, including lots of automobile-dependency. You could find examples of anything.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Validate or Satirize?

Does Dagwood validate those conventional values or satirize them?

I think it is obvious that those huge sandwiches he eats are a satire of gluttony.

Likewise, his running for the bus used to be a satire of the harried commuter, as is his being late for the carpool. Napping as his favorite activity is a satire of laziness, and so on.

Charles Siegel

Bicycling Comic Strip

For a comic strip about bicycling check this out:


And TV sitcoms did go from urban (Honeymooners, early Lucy) to suburban (later Lucy, Beaver, Dick van Dyke) and then back to urban (Mary Tyler Moore, Seinfeld, and most of todays shows).

Crime shows, however, were almost always urban.

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