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Artifact: Mulligan Stew comic book, no issue number.
Description: Color, printed on impressively cheap paper. Water damaged. I’m not sure how many pages there are, since they’re not numbered, and I have an allergy attack when I leaf through this thing too much.
Source: Junk store
Late in 2017, I bought He-Man and She-Ra: A Complete Guide to the Classic Animated Adventures. This is a hardcover book many hundreds of pages long, and which weighs about as much as a microwave oven. It purports to have all the background detail from the production of those two shows in the 1980s. Reading through it, that seems to be the case, but I wouldn’t really know. I’ve never seen either one.
I bought He-Man and She-Ra because I needed the answer to an obscure but nagging question: Can you reconstruct the experience of a TV show in a book?
Having read through it, I don’t really think I can give an answer. It’s a wishy-washy “yes and no” type thing. But, if He-Man and She-Ra didn’t quite make me feel like I’d watched He-Man and She-Ra, it did a GREAT job of preparing me for the Mulligan Stew comic book.
I knew nothing about this when I picked it up, except that whatever it was, it was supposed to be educational and interactive. Wikipedia has since taught me that Mulligan Stew was a TV program that ran for six episodes in syndication, starting in 1972. It followed a group of kids (the “Mulligans”) and their adult chaperone, Wilbur Dooright, on a quest to promote balanced nutrition. It was put together by the USDA, 4H and something called the Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service.
This last was responsible for this comic book1. There’s a LOT going on in here: Six separate stories, nine sets of song lyrics, numerous interactive sections and recipes, and a goddamn board game. The board and its instructions are located at the center, and printed on glossy paper. You have to pull them out to use them. I lowered the resale value of my water-damaged copy of Mulligan Stew from 50¢ to 25¢ to scan this, so I hope you’re grateful.
I love this thing. Nothing says “teaching kids nutrition” like a giant mouth flume leading down to a bunch of smiling potatoes. If PBS dropped acid it would look like this. You play the game with 45 fun questions that you have to cut out yourself, like you’re redeeming ration coupons in wartime.
Let’s focus on this one in particular:
The sequence 4-4-3-2 refers to the number of daily servings you need of, in order: breads and cereals (4), fruits and vegetables (4), milk (3), and meat (2). Each one of these is a “group”; i.e., “the meat group.” The wording is kind of weird, but the concept itself is straightforward enough. Just to be safe, though, the numbers 4-4-3-2 come up approximately once per page.
If you’re wondering how well that was integrated into the narrative:
My copy of Mulligan Stew came with some of the answers filled in, courtesy of a child named “Paul.” Paul is probably now much older than I am. I try not to think about it.
Also, real quick:
This is from the first story, “The Great Nutrition Turn On.” Wilbur Dooright and the Mulligan Stews are contacted by a circus where “the animals, ringmaster and performers feel terrible.” Don’t take my word for it:
As you can see, though, the gang uses the power of 4-4-3-2 to get the circus back on track.
The layout for some of the pages is really interesting. Whoever blocked out Mulligan Stew had a thing for small square panels inset in the upper-left corner of larger ones. This can make things hard to follow. In the first two panels of the page above, I think you’re supposed to read the kids’ speech bubble before you read the elephant’s.
After “The Great Nutrition Turn On” is a full page dedicated to 4-4-3-2, which is worth going over in detail.
4-4-3-2 is a sloganized version of the USDA’s “Basic Four,” which were the food guidelines it promoted from 1956 until 1992. The Basic Four superseded the wartime Basic 7, and were later replaced with the Food Pyramid2.
I should also mention that the kids have names, although the comic book doesn’t really bother with them. Per Wikipedia, they’re Mulligan, Maggie, Mike, Manny and Micki, but I’m not really sure who’s who. Here’s the best shot I could get of everyone at once.
This is from the second story, in which Wilbur cuts to the chase and just cooks all four food groups together for the space program. This is arguably the ultimate Mulligan Stew power move, and the kids are suitably awed:
You could get an entire pop art career out of repainting individual panels from this comic book. Really drink that last one in.
Most of the time, the Mulligans are just fighting the abstract concept of bad nutrition. Occasionally, however, they are given an antagonist in the form of The Flim Flam Man. I love The Flim Flam Man. He looks like a G.I. Joe bad guy who would be named “Sex Offender.”
The Flim Flam Man’s hustle is dietary misinformation. You might think that’s kind of boring, but that was before I told you he has his own jet.
My pet theory is that The Flim Flam Man and Wilbur Dooright are in fact the same person, a soul so jaded that he can only get off by spreading fad diets and then going around telling people the fad diets are bad. I don’t care that there’s no way for one man to run back and forth between two moving airplanes. I want to believe.
The strongest story might be “Countdown 4-4-3-2,” in which Wilbur is accidentally sent to space in place of a chimpanzee named Sam. Stuff like this happened all the time in the ’70s.
Wilbur radios for help, and a supply rocket with “people food” is prepared for launch. This sets up a pretty good pop quiz, where you have to imagine fitting 15 days’ worth of food for one person into a shoebox.
Alright, what did you say? I wrote down “Luna Bars, Slim Jims and trail mix.”
The song lyrics, which are printed on the inside of both covers, are kind of confusing, since they don’t include melodies. Still, you’d be missing the Mulligan Stew experience if I didn’t include some of them:
Also, here’s one of the recipes. It sounds potentially tasty, if not exactly good for you:
And that’s pretty much it, except for a final story where the gang blows up two snowmobile engines.
Next time: The thrift stores of tomorrow.