Friday, May 7, 2004; 1:00 PM
Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin welcomes Mell Lazarus of "Momma" for a special Mother's Day chat.
Lazarus joined Tobin online Friday, May 7 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Momma," mothers and the art of cartooning.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Welcome, comics fans to a special Mother's Day edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Mell Lazarus, creator of "Momma" and "Miss Peach," who is joining us from his studio in Los Angeles. Welcome, Mell, and thanks for joining us Live Online.
Mell Lazarus: Hello, Suzanne, and thanks for inviting me.
What is your work process? Do you produce "Momma" in batches, do you work at a steady pace, do you vary when you work, or how do you do it? Whatever you do, I've been enjoying it for years.
Mell Lazarus: I write toward the beginning of the week and draw toward the end of the week. The writing process is by far the most difficult, but it's also the most fun. It's as simple as that. I write them all and then draw them. I produce a week's worth of strips every week, in other words, six dailies and a Sunday. Some weeks are, obviously, harder than others. But I've been doing it so long, it's like second nature.
I love the way you draw Momma, and the expressions on her face. Is she based at all on your own mother?
Mell Lazarus: Yes. She was inspired by my mother, let's put it that way. Of course my mother never realized it, by some mercy of her unconscious, she always thought I was doing my Aunt Helen. She had three kids, two boys and a girl, just like Sonya Hobbs. I, of course, am not at all like Thomas or Francis.
Do you ever receive any hate mail from mothers who don't appreciate your strip?
Mell Lazarus: Yes. I had one from a woman who told me I should be ashamed of myself for committing this terrible libel on mothers everywhere. And another one simply said "I hope you walk off a tall building." That's my favorite.
Did you know that the Momma Treasury book is currently being sold by someone on Amazon for more than $200? Is it you?
Mell Lazarus: NO! I want to get in on it! $200!!!! I can get it for you wholesale. The book, if I remember correctly, originally sold for $7 or $8 in 1980 or thereabouts. One of my daughters is always looking for my stuff on EBay, I'm surprised she didn't see that one.
Will Mary Lou ever find a boyfriend who's NOT a jerk?
Mell Lazarus: No, she won't. Because there's really no fun in that. It would make her life too simple, and Momma's life too simple and there goes part of the conflict. I base some of Mary Lou's boyfriends on the presentation that I made when I was courting women years ago. But I guess I've improved because I've been married to my second wife for nine years this month.
Hi, Several Internet sites quote you as saying "The secret of dealing successfully with a child is not to be its parent." Did you make that comment before or after you created "Momma" and in what context did you say it?
Mell Lazarus: I actually did it as a gag in Momma. I had her say it. As a father of 3 and a grandfather of 6, I know it to be true.
Kansas City, Mo.:
Hi, Mell: Did you ever think of creating a line of Mother's Day cards featuring Momma, Francis, Thomas and Mary Lou? I, for one, would love to see them on the greeting card racks in my local Hallmark.
Mell Lazarus: If you happen to be an executive at Hallmark, which happens to be located in Kansas City, I'd be available. I guess some of my gags could be adapted, but I think the reader would have to identify with the characters. Most successful greeting card lines are based on animals, like Snoopy or Garfield, or Ziggy, who's kind of a unisex character. Alot of my colleagues have tried that and it just doesn't work.
What made you decide to retire "Miss Peach"? And I want to thank you for having the integrity to not let someone else take it over so you could continue to cash in on it.
Mell Lazarus: Actually, I think it ran its course as far as I was concerned. I had done it from 1957 to 2002, 45 years, so that seemed long enough. Very few comic strips last that long. I must say I still get letters and e-mails asking about her, and people who apparently miss it and are very kind to say so.
How old is Momma? How long have you been doing the strip? I remember my late mother used to read it to us five kids back in the '60s and just roar with laughter at how ungrateful and clueless Momma's kids were. One of my mother's sayings that was worthy of Sonja Hobbs was "If I had to do it all over again, I would've had puppies." Thanks for the fond memory.
Mell Lazarus: That's sweet. It started in 1970, which means it's 34 years old. I peg Momma at about 65, because she needs to be a pensioner. It allows me to occassionally make a comment about the plight of senior citizens through her.
Is it true that a toy manufacturer wanted to create a line of merchandise based on "Momma"? I don't recall ever seeing any, so I guess the deal fell through?
Mell Lazarus: Mattel wanted to do a talking "Momma" where you pull a string and she kvetches. I still have the little prototype on my shelf it's very cute. I talked them out of it because I just thought she was so annoying and repetitive and I couldn't stand it after awhile, so I convinced them it wouldn't sell. I'm sure they thought I was nuts.
What did you do with the Reuben award after you won it in 1981? Is it displayed in a prominent place in your home?
Mell Lazarus: It sure is. I'm looking at it right now. Wherever you go, you can see it in this studio. I did know Rube Goldberg, after whom the award was named. I met him when I joined the National Cartoonists Society in 1958 and I was overwhelmed to meet an absolute among cartoonists. I also served as president of the NCS for two terms, from 1989-1993, and it was a great honor. It allowed me to try to refashion the society and to bring it more up to date.
Mell, I love Momma!; Is your comic strip Miss Peach still
around? And was it ever a Sat. morning animated cartoon? I
seem to remember seeing it on TV when I was a kid.
Mell Lazarus: Thanks for loving Momma, sometimes I do also. I retired Miss Peach about two years ago. And you did see some Miss Peach TV specials in the early ?90s, but they were puppets rather than animated cartoons.
Which of the characters from the "Momma" strip resembles you the most?
Mell Lazarus: Physically, I'm much better looking than either of those two guys. I don't have all that hair cluttering up my head.
Mel, What are the Reuben awards and whatever happened to Cartoonist Day?
Mell Lazarus: I sort of answered that before, but the Reuben is the cartoonist's Oscar. The Reuben is for the Cartoonist of the Year, and then there are division awards in about 11 categories for best strip, best panel, etc. Cartoonist Day was an idea that died aborning. First of all, some of the members of NCS decided they wanted to do it on my birthday, May 3, which was very sweet, but I didn't want them to do it that day. So then they decided on May 5, but it was tough to compete with Cinco de Mayo. The idea was to acknowledge the profession on a particular day. But it was tough sell. I haven't seen it on any calendars yet.
Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.:
Hi, Mell: I'm a big "Murder She Wrote" fan and I remember you appearing in one of the episodes as a cartoonist. How did you get that gig?
Mell Lazarus: It's very interesting. They called me one day and asked me if they could borrow my Reuben, because it was a story about someone being killed by being hit over the head with a Reuben. It seems to weigh about 16 pounds, it's very heavy. In the course of that conversation, I asked them who wrote the script. It turned out to be a man named Tom Sawyer, believe it or not, and I happened to know him. I told the producers to tell Tom that I'd let them borrow the statue to make a rubber cast of it, which is what they wanted to do, if he would write me into the script. He did, and I played myself. I had to join the Screen Actors Guild, whose dues were more than they paid me for the gig. Since then, I actually had another job also playing myself on "The Bob Show," with Bob Newhart, when he was a greeting card cartoonist. So now I'm a bona fide actor, and I carry a SAG card and in my neighborhood they shoot movies every two weeks. So I keep thinking I should go up to the director and show him my SAG card and ask for work.
Hi, Mr. Larazus. Thanks for taking my question. I was just wondering if any of your children had followed you into cartooning or some other form of art or graphic design?
Mell Lazarus: No. They all went straight. I have a real estate agent, a fitness instructor, and a television technical director, but no cartoonists.
At what point in your career did you actually realize that you could make a living doing a comic strip? I would assume most writers of comic strips need another job initially.
Mell Lazarus: I'm looking forward to making a living as a cartoonist. Since I was 5, I wanted to be a cartoonist. I loved the idea of doing a comic strip. When I was about 12, I found out you actually got paid for doing comics, so then it became an obsession. I never got further than high school because of World War II, but I was only in the Navy for a couple of month before I went back to civilian life. Then I freelanced for anyone who would pay me. Eventually, I got a job working for Al Capp and his brothers who were publishing comic magazines and they hired me as their art director. One of the syndicates ran a contest in 1957, United Features, and they were looking for a strip they could actually offer a contract on. I submitted three weeks of "Miss Peach," which never made the cut. But having done three weeks of work, I started to make the rounds and sold it to the old New York Herald Tribute syndicate. They were almost defunct, and Miss Peach changed their lives and mine. It helped make them a saleable entity, so that they were able to sell the syndicate to a bigger syndicate soon thereafter.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
Hi. I know you were a close friend of Charles Schulz. What's your favorite story about him?
Mell Lazarus: Hmmm...there were so, so many. He was one of the last literate gentleman. I went to see him speak one time in Santa Barbara and he didn't know I was coming. But when he got up to speak, he spotted me in the audience and he spent the first five minutes of his speech talking about me, in the most gracious terms. It was typical of him, he was just that generous.
I am a big fan of your comic, as well as Cathy, and sometimes I wonder, what would Momma say if Cathy was her daughter? I think her getting married is a bad idea, because Irwin is NOT her soul mate, and I think Momma would tell it like it is! What do you think? Viva la Momma!
Mell Lazarus: I'm a neighbor of Cathy Guisewite's so I have to tread carefully here. I think the cartoon character Cathy is neurotic enough to fit into the Hobbs family. I think it's good the cartoon character Cathy is getting married, because since her creator is married she now has a whole new range of experience to draw on.
Salt Lake City, Utah:
Which strip did you find easier to write: Miss Peach or Momma?
Mell Lazarus: Miss Peach, no contest. Because it was wide-ranging and the world was my source. I just had so much more material to draw on. Momma is a very tight structure. Practically every strip I do has to reflect the conflict between mother and children.
Since Momma appears to be the quintessential Jewish mother, do you ever get criticized for propagating the stereotype?
Mell Lazarus: Oddly enough, no. I've heard that she suggests the stereotype, but I've never been criticized for it. Alot of readers have suggested she represent the universal mother figure.
Hi, I remember reading a novel you wrote back in the '80s that was set in Brooklyn and I thought captured the feel of the area pretty well. Do you plan on writing any more novels?
Mell Lazarus: I'm writing my third now. The one you're talking about, "The Neighborhood Watch" was set in Brooklyn in a neighborhood in which I lived previously. It's a crime story about a writer who falls on hard times in an upper class, and when all else fails, he decides to steal from his neighbors. It's been optioned three times for a movie since it's been published and we're negotiating a fourth option right now. The first was, "The Boss Is Crazy, Too" and it was published 20 years before "The Neighborhood Watch." I write a novel every 20 years, like clockwork.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.:
Hi, Can you tell me what is going on with the International Museum of Cartoon Art? I know there were funding problems and that it closed its Boca Raton facility in 2002. Are there any plans to reopen it?
Mell Lazarus: Yes. I was on the Board of Trustees for 11 years. The museum has relocated to the Empire State Building in New York City and will reopen at some point. It'll probably be within the next year or so. It's just a stroke of absolute luck that we were able to get such a venue. Talk about landing on your feet.
I thought I read somewhere that you once worked with Al Capp on Li'l Abner. Is that true?
Mell Lazarus: No. As I mentioned before, I worked for his family business at the time, a comic book publishing company called Toby Press, but I never worked on Li'l Abner. That would have made a nice line on my resume.
Upper Marlboro, Md.:
Hi, Mell. I've noticed The Post lately has been running lines when cartoonists take vacation weeks and they publish reruns. Do you ever have the papers print reruns or do you still produce "Momma" 52 weeks a year?
Mell Lazarus: No, I've done reruns. We were all took our cue from Garry Trudeau who started this whole idea. After he took his hiatus several years back, it finally occurred to the rest of us, "Hey, now that's an idea!" So I do take about a two-week break each year and the syndicate sends out reruns to the papers then.
Hi, Mell: What are the best and worst changes you've seen in the newspaper comics industry in your long career?
Mell Lazarus: The worst in the shrinkage in the size of the comic strip displays. They're much smaller than they used to be. When you come right down to it, alot of newspapers do run more comics than they used to. The Houston Chronicle, I think, is the world's champ. I've heard they run more than any other paper.
Mell Lazarus: Happy Mother's Day, Suzanne! Thanks for a very, very pleasant experience!
Thanks so much, Mell. I hope Momma can one day be proud of her kids. I hope you and everyone else will join us again in two weeks when we have Glenn McCoy, a 2004 NCS division nominee for best humor strip for his "Duplex" cartoon that appears in our Express edition, Live Online here at washingtonpost.com
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