FRESHLY FRIED FROGS’ LEGS, alligator stew and genuine bear burgers.
That sampling of the animal world belongs on an exotic restaurant menu – or in one comic-book writer’s refrigerator.
David Gerstein has worked for years as an award-winning comic-book writer, researcher and editor for Mickey Mouse and his friends. Among Gerstein’s own friends, however, he is well known for his yen for the most unusual dishes.
When you visit him in his Flushing digs for an evening of cartoon and comic talk, he’ll often be coating some frog extremities or blending one of his patented peanut butter-coconut smoothies in the background.
He’s never above using this hobby for the stories he writes. “Weird foods are funny by their very nature, so of course they’ve inspired a few comic stories over the years,” said Gerstein. “I’ve had Donald Duck fix a great-looking, but hideous-tasting ‘gourmet’ meal to embarrass a rival. In another story, he was trying to impress the ‘Raj of Needadrinkawadra’ by cooking the hottest curry in history.”
When did this impact on his art begin? Turn back the clock some 35 years and you find Gerstein growing up in Santa Barbara, California, reading Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox with an overwhelming sense of wonder.
“Every chapter had the animals going on about cooking ducks, geese, and other things that, at 7, I didn’t know were edible,” he said. “The idea of trying these new foods was very cool, a kind of exploration.”
Intensifying that craving was a cartoon, Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur, in which the title character concocts fake ad signs preaching the value of eating duck to heckle his pursuer. The animators could never have predicted the sales pitch would actually work.
“I was out shopping with my mom that day and threw a duck into her shopping cart,” he said. “After that, trying unusual food became a joke in our family. But my folks encouraged it as a real hobby for me – fixing special dishes for my birthday like pheasant and lobster, things that would normally be too unusual for their tastes, or too hard to afford.”
It’s important never to let writing about large rodents dissuade one from frying them.
Maintaining an expensive diet is a nonissue for those in the comic-book field, said Frank Young, author of the graphic novel The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song. As these folks scrape by, anything going into their gullets has to be cheap.
“Just about every cartoonist I’ve ever known has a refined taste for inexpensive foodstuffs,” said Young. “Rather than eating unusual things, they more often choose eccentric times of day to eat, like having a bowl of cold cereal in the middle of the night, or eating Pad Thai at dawn.”
Gerstein doesn’t eat weird stuff 24/7. He and his friends just like to pretend he does. One way of economizing, he said, is to eat cheaply and normally when alone, saving Chinese snake-eye soup and the like for restaurant trips with friends. Of course, one must be sensitive when friends get squeamish.
“If a comics friend doesn’t want to watch rabbit going on the grill, I don’t have to eat it when they’re around,” he said.
Graphic designer Scott Modrzynski suggests that comics are a niche market that attract a specific kind of person: imaginative, obsessive and slightly off.
“The people who are out there making full scale replicas of the Death Star or Wrigley Field out of red velvet cake mix could be the same people out there looking for that missing issue to complete their run of Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew,” Modrzynski said. “Or at the very least, would find they have some things in common.”
His “Foogos” art projects ran their course, but in their heyday they varied from a pizza emblazoned with the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” logo to portraits of Adam West and others in the 1966 “Batman” TV show’s cast made entirely out of gummy bears.
“Adam West himself told me he thinks those are what modern art should be,” Modrzynski said. “Was he being nice? Probably, but it’s still something I will quote him on, because it’s Adam West.”
As Gerstein prepared our meal that evening, it was probably the only time a lecture about the strengths and weaknesses of the Scrooge McDuck’s adversaries was ever conducted over a frying pan of frogs’ legs—and easily the only time in history anyone ever asked, aloud, “Flintheart Glomgold, what’s that guy’s deal?”
The crossbreeding of these two unusual cultures will likely never be accepted into the mainstream. But it’s important, Gerstein said, never to let writing about large rodents dissuade one from frying them.
“Cooking is an art, comics are an art,” Gerstein said. “There has to be some overlap. But I know the difference between Donald and the genuine article. One’s a meal. The other’s a meal ticket.” ■