I don’t recall having seen this Hostess ad featuring Thor, despite having some familiarity with Seanbaby’s archive. While others frequently scoff at these commercial ventures on the part of the major comics publishers’ staff in the 70s and 80s, I find that they frequently open themselves up to greater analysis, providing a great deal of insight into the nature of the medium.
Despite the sheer number of words in this piece, there’s an economy of storytelling that’s admirable right off the bat: the threat is established, the Asgardian response from Thor and Volstagg is definitive, and the surreal nature of the world on display is almost casually introduced. In panel 01, the unknown writer lays a tableau out that not only establishes setting and swifly but also introduces a new, very unique threat in the form of a clan of space hillbillies: the Ding-A-Ling Family.
This (presumably) inbred brood is, perhaps by necessity, a jumble of stereotypes and clichés. Led by Grandma Ding-A-Ling, they speak in a dialect that serves as a testament to the author’s familiarity with the vernacular as placed in display in countless numbers of films and television scenarios and very little imagination is required on the part of the audience to establish the nature of the menace. However, it is interesting to note the steps the writer has taken to ensure that they are a greater menace than it would appear: the atomic shotgun featured in Panel 02, along with the greater-than-usual strength on display in Panel 031, are certainly indicative of humans that have been empowered by unknown forces in some way. Idle speculation has me believing that extraterrestrial intervention of some kind may have been involved, or perhaps the Ding-A-Lings serve as a previously-unknown tie-in to the Kirby Eternals mythos2.
While the artist also remains unidentified, there’s a very Buscema feel to the layouts and facial expressions. The smiles on the Ding-A-Ling brood in Panels 01, 04, and 06 as well as the pose Thor assumes in Panels 02 and 03 show this influence most clearly. I particularly like the expression on Cousin Bee’s face in panel 04 – his childish nature is brought to the fore with a simple facial expression. Storytelling remains at the core of the art in this effort: each panel is an example of a character performing an action that is vital to the strip in question. Perhaps with a two-page version of this piece, some nuance could be brought into play, but necessity forces the direct approach, and “The Ding-A-Ling Family” shows how well the single-page format can be used.
Some may complain that Panel 04 offers a (quite literal, in this case) deus ex machina resolution to the conflict with Sif’s appearance, but she’s clearly seen in Panel 01. This could, arguably, be an example of Chekhov’s gun in play, but the presence of Volstagg and the other Asgardians in the first panel show that unnecessary elements are included in the story. I’d prefer to think of it as traditional foreshadowing that ties into the nature of the goddess as proposed by H.R. Ellis Davidson, who stated that perhaps she was a fertility goddess with her golden locks being linked to field of golden wheat. In addition to this, “the hair of Sif” was frequently used as a linguistic metaphor (or kenning) for “gold,” implying that she possess a treasure of sorts to those who are worthy. While Twinkies are the product traditionally associated with gold3, one could easily point out that the flaky crust on Hostess Fruit Pies is a golden color and thus easily connected to Sif’s flaxen locks and how they fit in thematically with the character. This is, of course, setting aside the fact Jack Kirby’s (and thus, Marvel Comics’) interpretation of the character is a brunette.
The final panel, with Thor hoisting Cousins Bee and Bye aloft as Grandma Ding-A-Ling rages in the background, is near-perfect. I say “near-perfect” because Volstagg, surely a character who would enjoy the flavor of a Hostess Fruit Pie himself, feels a bit shoehorned into the frame and the lack of a pastry in his hand calls no small amount of attention to itself. That said, however, this panel does its job very well: it provides an emotional and plot-oriented beat that shows the final resolution to the conflict at hand, and allows readers to savor the core message of the piece: a big delight awaits in every bite of a Hostess Fruit Pie. What more need to be said on the page? The audience can imagine how loudly the Asgardians will celebrate their victory, as their wont for libation and boasting has been expressed innumerable times, and it’s assumed that the Ding-A-Ling clan will be jailed in Asgard or, perhaps, turned over to the appropriate cosmic authorities. The reader need not see these events to know they will transpire, much like they needn’t see the bodies of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid collapse to the ground, riddled with the bullets at the end of that film. Leaving the occasional knot untied allows greater audience participation in the finished work, even if the end result is obvious.
In conclusion, it’s obvious that a lot of the basics of superhero cartooning can be learned and passed on through these simple commerce-driven parables. Are they trite and craven in their message? Yes, but the nature of the genre they explore explicitly demands it, much like the archetypical superhero works with their blunt-force, cause-and-effect plots and rigid adherence to strict rules set forth by continuity and editorial direction, often without any quarter given for creativity. This paradigm and how readers relate to it is key to the success of the dual genre pieces that Hostess commissioned. If only today’s generation of trademark continuance artists and writers would look towards these “simple” works and understand the message they impart.
1Apropos of nothing, I particularly like the fact that being distracted weakens the two cousins. It’s an interesting weakness that readers can relate to much more easily than, say, rocks from your destroyed homeworld, or the color yellow.
2I’m quite sure that Roy Thomas would be able to inform interested parties exactly how the Ding-A-Ling clan connects to the Marvel universe circa 1977.
3The most memorable example being, of course “A Passion For Gold,” featuring Mister Fantastic and Goldigger, a character with a golden hue to skin that is described as “A nefarious villain with a taste for gold and power to make himself intangible.”