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                                A Healthy Dose of Humor:

      How Comic Strips Illustrate Consumer Reactions to Food Labeling

                           [redacted version: graphics deleted]

                                            Devon Bush

                                            Class of 2005

                                            April 7, 2005

This paper is submitted in satisfaction of the course requirement for the winter term Food & Drug Law



If the goal of food labeling requirements is more informed, rational decision-making by consumers, the success

of the labeling depends in large part on the psychology of consumers—how well they react to receiving given

information on their food products. This paper looks at newspaper comic strips as presenting a catalog

of consumer reactions to nutrition labeling. While each individual strip may be characterized by much

exaggeration and absurdity, the strips taken together present a surprising picture of the many possible

mistakes and poor choices that can be made by consumers. By observing the context and the characters

making these poor choices, the objectives and potential failings of food labeling and other food regulations

are highlighted.


                                                                                         [graphic deleted]1

  1 Watterson,   Bill. “Calvin & Hobbes.” 28 Feb. 1989, Universal Press Syndicate.

What can comic strips show us about food labeling? Comic strip characters who encounter food information

exhibit a wide variety of reactions, mostly intended to show the absurdity of a given character’s viewpoint.

Someone happily eating healthy, safe food generally isn’t funny, and so comic strips almost universally present

characters making nearsighted, unhealthy, biased, or otherwise foolish decisions concerning their food. Of

the approximately 8,000 individual strips reviewed for this paper, over 100 contained at least some reference

to food labels or the desire to eat healthy, and the vast majority of those featured at least one consumer who

was making either a poor or uninformed choice.2 One can thus see food-related comic strips as presenting

a catalogue of potential “bad behavior” by consumers or producers, and how food labeling plays a part in

their poor choices.

This paper will deal with three different, but related, scenarios in which the characters make poor choices.

The first poor-choice scenario occurs when a consumer is being deliberately deceived or distracted from the

nutritional value of their food, often by an entity characterized as manipulative or diabolical. The second,

and most common, scenario is the one in which the characters’ own irrational biases result in nutritional

information inducing the characters to eat less healthy food than they otherwise would. The most frequently

occurring bias is, of course, the prevalent belief that “anything that’s healthy can’t taste good.” The third

context is where a poor choice occurs because of the characters’ own confusion or ignorance in interpreting

labeling information. Throughout these contexts, it is interesting to note how the legal environment is

affecting the poor choices, notably the Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act (FD&C Act) and relevant regulations.

This paper focuses on three comic strips presenting a spectrum of common consumer types: Bill Watterson’s

“Calvin & Hobbes,” which features an impetuous conniving boy; and Cathy Guisewite’s “Cathy,” showing a

health-conscious but often weak-willed adult; Bill Amend’s “Foxtrot,” which portrays an entire dysfunctional
   2 In compiling examples, the comics reviewed were “Calvin & Hobbes” cartoons from 1985-1995, “Foxtrot” cartoons from

1999-present, and “Cathy” cartoons from 1996-present.


                            Poor Choices Caused by Deception and Distraction

Characters misled or distracted from the true nutritional value of food by claims or devices deliberately

included by the food makers are often used to generate humor. The comic relief comes in observing both

how far the stylized cynical and manipulative corporations are willing to go in peddling unhealthy wares and

how willing the consumer is to play along with the hoodwinking.

[graphic deleted]

The above “Calvin & Hobbes” cartoon shows the essence of the manipulative corporation willing to sell

any product, no matter how deceitfully, in order to make a buck.4 Calvin, the person behind the would-

be “curative-elixir” has a history of demonstrating shallow greed and dishonest get-rich-quick schemes.5

This comic provides one of the few cartoons in which one of the characters is a marketer attempting to

do the deluding, although this is perhaps because there aren’t terribly many cartoon characters who are

food company executives. Two things stand out about the cartoon from a food labeling perspective. First,

Calvin is fully aware of the ability to mislead consumers through nutrition claims; he is attempting to hide

the filthy and useless nature of his elixir behind a “fortified with chlorophyll” claim. The scientific sounding

claim, coupled with the “curative” in the title is an invitation to gullible consumer, and gives insight into
   3 Unless otherwise noted, all comic images contained in this paper were obtained from the comic archives maintained by
uclick, LLC, available online at http://www.ucomics.com.
   4 “Calvin.” 17 June, 1989.
   5 Another get-rich-quick scheme, for example, included Calvin photographing his toy plastic dinosaurs and attempting to sell

the photos to a science museum as actual dinosaur photos taken during a time-traveling expedition.

the motivation for the strict regulation of such health claims by the FDA.6 The FD&C Act restrictions on

natural contaminants also would bar Calvin’s drainage infused sludge.7 Second, the only thing that prevents

Calvin from marketing his elixir in the strip is Hobbes’ reminder that “anyone can see it’s filthy.” Calvin

ends up eschewing the bogus nutritional claims not because of a desire for honesty, and certainly not out of

fear of legal sanction,8 but only because the essence of the product is too obvious for the scheme to work.

That desire to mislead consumers to the maximum extent possible is also demonstrated in the following

Peanuts cartoon, although in a context where the ‘product’ is capable of being concealed.9

[graphic deleted]

Linus, with his (clearly insincere) sing-song call and deliberate mysteriousness, is playing the same role as

Calvin in the above strip: trying to unload an undesirable item on a hopefully unsuspecting bystander. But

here the consumer’s psychology is illustrated as well: Snoopy would love a piece of candy or satisfaction of

his curiosity, but is petrified of receiving a worm. This uncertainty-induced fear nearly paralyzes Snoopy,

but the joke comes as Snoopy resolves his dilemma with the sneaky realization that he too can play the role

of deceitful purveyor.

A deeper look at consumer side of deceptive labeling is provided in the following strip as Calvin believes his

cereal, “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs,” must be healthy as a result of the “fortified with eight essential

vitamins” claim.

[graphic deleted]
   6 21 C.F.R. 101.14(c) states that the FDA will only authorize health claims where there is “significant scientific agreement”

about the validity of the claim. However, Calvin could perhaps escape this by adding a disclaimer. See Pearson v. Shalala, 134
F.3d 650 (D.C.Cir. 1999).
   7 See 21 C.F.R. 128.10
   8 Perhaps with good reason: unless Calvin’s stand is very near a state line, he is outside the “interstate commerce” condition

required to trigger the prohibitions of the FD&C Act. See 21 U.S.C 331(a)-(d).
   9 Schulz, Charles. “Peanuts.” 16 Mar. 1969, United Feature Syndicate. Image obtained from the archives of United Media,

available online at www.comics.com.

Here, Calvin falls victim to exactly the sort of delusion he was trying to take advantage of when marketing

his elixir.10 One can see the earnestness in Calvin’s face as he refers Hobbes to the box’s own words: “part

of a wholesome, nutritious, balanced breakfast.” Although the cereal may be pure sugar, there is nothing

to prevent a profit-minded corporation from prominently displaying such a claim so long as the cereal is

sufficiently low in fats, cholesterol, and sodium.11 Cereal is also an interesting food in that a large number

of cereals are consumed by children, who one imagines are generally much more concerned about taste

than nutrition.12 Thus, one can see a portrait of cereal companies as manipulating a delicate balance of

convincing kids that theirs is the tastiest cereal around, while also attempting to convince the parents who

buy the cereal that it is at least moderately healthy.13 Other strips demonstrate the lengths to which the

cereal company goes to convince innocent children (and not-so-innocent children like Calvin) to buy the

sugar-saturated food.

[graphic deleted]

Here, Hobbes is skeptical of eating so much sugar, but Calvin’s enthusiasm for the promotional propeller

beanie trumps any concern over nutritional value.14

[graphic deleted]

Once again, the cereal company realizes that taste and clever promotions can override healthy, informed

choices.15 Calvin goes from being mildly interested in the nutrition labeling content (although because it’s
  10 “Calvin.”  28 Feb. 1989.
  11 21  C.F.R. 101.14(e)(3) requires that products containing a health claim must not exceed 20% of the daily recommended
consumption of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium. 21 C.F.R. 101.14(e)(6) also provides that foods (although not dietary
supplements) must exceed 10% of the daily recommendation for vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber. Oddly enough,
if Calvin’s concoction in the previous strip had enough leaves in it for fiber, it might pass this test anyway.
   12 Another strip features Calvin attempting to convince his dad to try a bowl of “lip-smacking, crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-

on-the-inside” Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs rather than the dad’s “bland, colorless oatmeal.” The dad responds “No thanks.
I’m trying to reach middle age.”
   13 A real-world example of this phenomenon is the “kid tested, mother approved” slogan of the relatively healthy Kix cereal.

A more typical example of the balance may be the boxes for Kellogg’s Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes, both of which feature
large cartoon characters attesting to the taste and fun, but have recently added a prominent“1/3 less sugar” claim to the box
front. Of course, both cereals still contain enough sugar such that it is the second ingredient...
   14 “Calvin.” 27 Feb. 1989.
   15 “Calvin.” 22 Mar. 1990.

Calvin, the caffeine may be a selling point), to being instantly distracted and excited by the “Buzzy the

Hummingbird Doll.” Although provisions of the FD&C Act regulate that extraneous information or graphics

cannot be placed within the nutrition information panel,16 nothing prevents the other portions of the box

from being far more attention-grabbing.

Just as Calvin’s absurd sweet tooth makes him only moderately convincing as the victim of cereal labeling,

there are other cartoon contexts where corporations may be manipulating food information, but consumers

are all too willing to go along for the ride.

[graphic deleted]

This “Cathy” strip transfers us to the adult context of fast food consumers who are reading a newspaper

and learning of the health consequences of the excessive portions pushed upon them by the evil corporations

“responsible for the fattening of America.”17 This strip was published in 2002, possibly drawn in response

to the widely publicized lawsuit claiming McDonald’s caused the plaintiff’s obesity by failing to inform

them of the consequences of larger portions.18 All of the characters are drawn with pudgy waistlines,

and two of them quickly proclaim their own innocence—they didn’t know about the calories so it wasn’t

their fault. Restaurants do not fall under the requirements placed on packaged food to display serving size

and proportional nutritional information,19 and the fist panel depicts consumers viewing the industry as

exploiting that fact to the detriment of everyone’s health. But the joke presented in the second panel is

whether the characters themselves are so innocent, and really mind having the wool pulled over their eyes.

The woman demanding nutrition labeling is drawn with her finger in the air and her eyes rolled back—a
  16 See 21 C.F.R. 101.2(e) (mandating that the required information on the information panel of a product may not be
interrupted with intervening material). Caffeine labeling is not required by the FDA, which makes this box illegal under 21
C.F.R. 101.2(e) if the caffeine label is interspersed within the other nutritional information. Perhaps in response to hyperactive
children like Calvin, campaigns to mandate caffeine quantity labeling have been mounted by, among others, the Center for
Science in the Public Interest. See e.g. http://www.cspinet.org/nutrition/caffeine.htm (urging citizens to write to the FDA
in support of caffeine labeling)
  17 Guisewite, Cathy. “Cathy.” 8 Aug. 2002, Universal Press Syndicate.
  18 Pelman v. McDonalds Corp. 237 F.Supp.2d 512 (2003).
  19 21 U.S.C. 343(q)(5)(A)(i) exempts food “served in restaurants . . . for immediate human consumption. . . ” from mandatory

nutritional labeling

comically-self-righteous pose suggesting that she perhaps knows her views are both temporary and in a

minority. The other three adults do a sudden about-face as they realize that being an innocent victim of

deliberately large portions is better than being informed and feeling guilty—since judging by the donut piles,

none of these characters is going to willingly choose healthy portions. The three characters leaving the room

in a row visually demonstrate the process of willfully ignoring in the deception—the further they are from

the newspaper the more ready they are to get some lunch.

The kernel of that joke—that characters will willingly cooperate with deceptive food appearances if it means

they can justify eating more tasty food—can even appear in contexts where nutrition isn’t explicitly at issue.

[graphic deleted]

This “Foxtrot” cartoon20 shows the girl as initially angry that her rabbit looked like it contained more

chocolate than it actually did.21 Then, just like the employees from the Cathy” cartoon realized that being

‘deceived’ by fast food companies wasn’t all bad, she realizes that hollow bunnies have their advantages, and

ignores the mother’s comment so that she can fill up on chocolate syrup.

Lastly, the strongest picture of a consumer being deceived by corporations may be another a consumer who

stubbornly refuses to believe the extent of his own delusion. Calvin, the same boy who guzzles Chocolate-

Frosted Sugar Bombs to get a hummingbird doll, asserts that marketing has no impact on him.22 [graphic


While the punch line relates to shoes, it could just have easily been fast food, sugary cereal, or cure-all elixirs.

The message is clear—as long as advertising still exists, there will be no shortage of cartoon characters making

poor food decisions.
  20 Amend,  Bill. “Foxtrot.” 28 Mar. 2005, Universal Press Syndicate.
  21 21U.S.C. 343(e) would require the total weight of the bunny to be listed on the wrapper, but a manufacturer may sculpt
food to maximize the appearance of size where justification can be shown (hollow chocolate may be less susceptible to cracking).
  22 Watterson, Bill. “Calvin & Hobbes,” It’s a Magical World. Universal Press Syndicate, 1996. p 75.

                                 Poor Choices Caused by Consumer Bias

Comic strips, as opposed to political cartoons, are generally character-focused. Generally, more punch lines

are directed at individual character’s idiosyncrasies and absurdities than the idiosyncrasies and absurdities

of their surroundings. This tendency may explain why consumer bias is perhaps the most common source

of poor food choices in cartoons. Of course, the FDA was never intended to specifically change consumer

preferences—but rather to ensure public safety as well as provide information to consumers.23 What some

of these comics is demonstrate is the inevitable consequence of “helping the public get the accurate, science-

based information they need to use medicines and foods to improve their health”—consumers may use that

information for purposes other than improving their health. Others demonstrate that for many consumers,

all the information in the world will not help them in their attempts to eat well.

[graphic deleted]

The FD&C Act and implementing regulations mandate listing the ingredients of foods in order of their

proportion,24 and this cartoon shows those laws functioning exactly as intended.25 The impulsive kid wants

the sweetest tasting cereal he can find, but the rational mom, who is also shown studiously comparing jar

labels in the fourth panel, uses the ingredient information on the cereal boxes to control her son’s sugar
 23 The   FDA’s mission statement is the following: “The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by assur-
ing the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation’s
food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation. The FDA is also responsible for advancing the public health
by helping to speed innovations that make medicines and foods more effective, safer, and more affordable; and helping
the public get the accurate, science-based information they need to use medicines and foods to improve their health.”
  24 See 21 U.S.C. 343(i); 21 C.F.R. 101.4, 101.22-.35.
  25 “Foxtrot.” 25 July 2004.

intake. However, when the mom isn’t around. . .

[graphic deleted]

. . . the son uses the ingredient listings for his own purpose: verifying that the cereal is going to satisfy his

sweet tooth.26 After hearing that the ingredients are almost entirely various sugars, the boy raises his bowl in

approval and anticipation of sugary goodness. While the younger boy’s bias is confined to simply preferring

sugar, the classic “if it’s unhealthy it must be better-tasting” bias is demonstrated by the other brother and

father shopping in the following cartoon.

[graphic deleted]

Here the dad, Roger, is playing a slightly different version of the thoughtful consumer than the mom in the

previous strip.27 The dad is comparing the fat and calorie content of various products, and, with his hand on

his chin—the generic cartoon symbol for thoughtfulness—is thinking seriously about the choices. However,

with the son’s advice, the pudgy28 Roger always chooses the least healthy option. Both characters clearly

believe that the unhealthy options are the way to go for tasty food. These “Foxtrot” cartoons depict a type

of consumer who would actually fare better if no foods were labeled or marketed based on nutritional merit,

but instead all foods were marketed solely on taste. If that were the case, one could imagine the son and

dad in the above strip might occasionally choose the healthier option (which may also taste better too), if

only by chance. Further, after his scrutinizing of the packages, the dad remarks that the son is “more fun”

to shop with than the rational mom. This illustrates yet another consumer mindset—that making healthy

choices is both exhausting and no fun.
  26 “Foxtrot.”14 May 2003.
  27 “Foxtrot.”19 July 2003.
  28 Although his weight is not easily visible in this strip, other “Foxtrot” strips show the dad as the stereotypical overweight

suburbanite using various jokes involving failed diets, abandoned exercise routines, and swimming pool fiascos.

[graphic deleted]

Like Roger in “Foxtrot,” Cathy faces a series of choices between healthy and less healthy alternatives, and she

eventually cracks under the stress of continually weighing her bias for less-healthy foods against her desire

to be healthy.29 Again, we see a portrait of a consumer who would be better off without so many choices,

or without such clear health-labeling, though at a different level of health-consciousness. Interestingly, if we

assume the above strips are representative of Cathy and Roger’s food preferences, it would be impossible to

design a single array of food options and labels such that both characters would eat an optimal diet. While,

Roger, as mentioned above, might eat healthiest in an environment in which all foods were marketed on taste

alone, Cathy might eat healthiest and be happiest in an environment where food was divided into “normal”

and “healthy” categories, but with no further exhausting range of healthier and healthier options. Or she

might not. . .

[graphic deleted]

All the information in the world isn’t going to stop Cathy or her dad from devouring huge amounts of

holiday food in this strip.30 Indeed, the nutritional information only aids in the characters ability to delude

themselves about how healthy they are planning to eat. By spending the time before the meal carefully

calculating the caloric content, the characters are able to pretend that they’re taking steps towards a healthy

diet, when they all know that they’re just going to eat everything in sight. This failure of Cathy’s to control

portions exists in other contexts as well.

[graphic deleted]

Again, we see a huge serving size undermining Cathy’s attempt to eat healthy. Cathy’s large belly and
 29 “Cathy.”   6 July 2003.
 30 “Cathy.”   27 Nov. 1997.

her friend’s chubby facial expression illustrate just how unsuccessful their diet is.31 Again, the existence of

nutritional information will only aid the characters’ delusion that they are eating healthily—the knowledge

that the dressing is nonfat will enable them to turn a blind eye to the huge amount of calories they are


While legal and market forces have both increased in the amount of nutritional information available for

consumers to use and perhaps be biased towards, one psychologically significant aspect of foods remains

unlabeled: the amounts of natural contaminants, or “filth” in food.

[graphic deleted]

Continuing the earlier theme of unhealthy decisions made by young boys with a taste for sugary foods,

the above “Calvin & Hobbes” cartoon demonstrates how a prejudice against contaminants or processing of

natural foods can lead to poor food decisions.32 Calvin is grossed out by the prospect of potential filth in

his lunchmeat, which results in him consuming the much less healthy Twinkie. Further, Susie, the girl in

the strip, is so nauseated by the prospect of eating lizard parts that she eschews her lunch completely. The

FDA’s response to reactions such as Calvin’s and Susie’s are the Food Defect Action Levels, promulgated in

pursuance of 21 CFR 110.110. These establish maximum levels of natural defects that do not present a health

hazard, and, most importantly from a consumer psychology perspective, do not require a manufacturer to

label the amount of such defects, which may include mites, mold, and insect parts.33 Thus, those consumers

fortunate not to sit near Calvin can enjoy their natural products without being reminded of their “gross”

contaminants. But the psychology of consumers (at least cartoon consumers) is more complex, as the next

strip shows:
 31 “Cathy.”18 May, 1997.
 32 “Calvin.”26 Oct. 1987.
 33 See FDA/CFSAN Defect Action Level Handbook. Available online at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/%7edms/dalbook.html

[graphic deleted]

Calvin is unwilling to eat the healthy dinner until he is deceived by his mom into thinking it is a gross

specialty.34 Calvin’s disgusted, yet immensely impressed, expression in the third panel shows the psycho-

logical transition from trying to avoid bugs and filth, to actively seeking them out as a novel or impressive

experience. Calvin’s dad, meanwhile, is going the opposite route, with his puckered face in the last panel

indicating he is not as excited by the idea of spider pie. These idiosyncrasies surface again, but reversed, in

a strip featuring a mosquito-ridden camping trip where Calvin’s dad enthusiastically guts a fish to eat while

Calvin watches in disgust.

                          Poor Choices as a Result of Consumer Confusion

[graphic deleted]

The above comic is a classic and absurd example of consumer confusion.35 Peter knows carrots contain

vitamin A, and he knows that vitamin A is good for him. His confusion, placed in the vehicle of a pun, is

in assuming that vitamin A is correlated with like-named grades. This illustrates the trade-off inherent in

the FDA’s requirement that companies list vitamin content on their foods, but not requiring manufacturers

to inform consumers about the precise effects of those vitamins.36 Although the FDA’s mission includes

“helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need”37 there are no legal provisions
 34 “Calvin.” 8 Dec. 1989.
 35 “Foxtrot.” 27 Jan. 2005
 36 See 21 U.S.C. 343(q)(1)(E).
 37 http://www.fda.gov/opacom/morechoices/mission.html.

which will help poor misguided souls like Peter other than those preventing manufacturers from making false

or unsupported claims about the vitamins.38

Perhaps more realistic examples of consumer confusion come in the following two cartoons involving potato


[graphic deleted]

Here, Calvin’s dad is trying to make a simple decision about which potato chips to get but the overload of

information conveyed results in confusion and fatigue.

While there are several provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) directly intended

to address the veracity of labeling on these potato chip packages,40 information overload is much more difficult

to prevent, given the need to provide some information combined with huge number of brands and varieties

on the market.41 The dad is not an ignorant or lazy consumer—like the dad in “Foxtrot” he has his hand

to his mouth indicating his thoughtfulness. He just doesn’t want to have to invest a huge amount of energy

to make a nutritional decision about a food which probably isn’t going to have health benefits regardless

of which bag he chooses. While we don’t get to see how Calvin’s dad resolves the situation, the following

“Cathy” cartoon illustrates one possible outcome involving potato chips.

[graphic deleted]

Both bags are drawn with what is likely a flashy health claim in the top left corner, and one can observe

squiggly lines on both bags that probably represent more pronouncements of “lite,” “low-fat,” “no fat,” or
  38 See 21 C.F.R. 101.14(c).
  39 Watterson,  Bill. “Calvin & Hobbes,” It’s a Magical World. Universal Press Syndicate, 1996. p 107.
  40 See e.g. 21 U.S.C. 343(a) (specifically addressing “false or misleading” labels; 21 U.S.C 343(j) (products may not claim to

have special dietary uses without bearing required information concerning the nutritional properties).
  41 See generally Lars Noah, “The Imperative to Warn: Disentangling the ‘Right to Know’ from the ‘Need to Know’ About

Consumer Product Hazards.” 11 Yale J. Reg. 293 (arguing that ever-increasing government labeling regulations will result in
increasing consumer apathy and confusion). Compare 21 C.F.R. 101.2(e) (indirectly addressing overloading by mandating that
the required information on the information panel of a product may not be interrupted with intervening material) with 42 Fed.
Reg. 27261 (preferring that all foods list all nutrient contents individually, rather than allow the simplified claim “contains no
vitamins or minerals” for foods not possessing them)

“diet.”        Cathy is happy and carefree as she throws her head back and tosses the chips she believes are not

fattening into her mouth. But she has confused the bags, and anguish results.

So what can consumers do about confusion? The following “Foxtrot” cartoon illustrates a different perspec-

tive on consumer confusion—the confused (or at least ostensibly confused) consumer as the unscrupulous


[graphic deleted]

Jason is concocting a get-rich-quick scheme exactly the inverse of Calvin’s scheme involving the Curative

Elixir made from drainage water.43 Instead of taking advantage of ignorant or confused consumers to sell a

questionable product, Jason’s idea is to pretend to be just such a confused consumer, and then litigate for



. Nutritional information, food labeling, and the desire to eat healthy has become a part of the public

consciousness such that a significant number of comic strips show the foibles of consumers in understanding

and acting on health information.
 42 “Cathy.”    18 Jan. 1997.
 43 “Foxtrot.”   29 Oct. 2004.

Cartoon characters have no shortage of devices causing them to make poor food decisions: ignorance, bias,

confusion, deception, and distraction.

Most of the cartoon characters would have some protection from the deceptions involving bugs, elixirs, and

bogus nutritional content, assuming current FDA regulations could be enforced in comic strips. However,

with regards to ignorance, distraction, and confusion, the cartoon consumers are left to their own devices,

and, fortunately for readers of the strips, comical choices result.


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