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Comics: Meet the Artist

Mike Peters
Cartoonist,
Friday, January 14, 2005; 1:00 PM

Join Washington Post Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin online two Fridays each month to discuss the comics pages. From artists to writers to editors, Tobin is joined by a different guest for each show. This week, Tobin will be joined by cartoonist Mike Peters to discuss "Mother Goose and Grimm" and his award-winning editorial cartoons.

Tobin and Peters were online on Friday, Jan. 14, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the art of cartooning.


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Suzanne Tobin: Greetings, comics fans, and welcome to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Mike Peters, creator of "Mother Goose and Grimm," as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News. Mike is joining us from his studio in Colorado. Welcome, Mike, and thank you for joining us Live Online.

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Piscataway, N.J.: Mike, I love and admire your comic strip and editorial work, and read you daily. I also loved the "Wonderful World of Cartooning" series you did for PBS in Dayton, Oh. in the mid-'80s. From what I could gather, it was a 13-week series. I was lucky enough to have taped about 9 of those, including the terrific two-part interview you did with Chuck Jones. Do you know of any source I could go to obtain the ones I missed? Tom

Mike Peters: That was a series that someone asked me to do the same month that I started my comic strip. I was able to interview some of my heroes, great cartoonists like Chuck Jones, and Jules Feiffer, and some of my friends like Mort Walker and Jeff MacNelly. It was a 13-part series sponsored by Mead Paper. It was nationally syndicated to all the PBS stations in America. It was amazing! The one thing I learned about myself was, I have a stutter. I've always had a stutter, whenever I have to start a sentence with a soft letter, like h's or w's, I have a hard time. But I realize that every question starts with a soft letter, like "What?" or "Who?" or "Where?" or "Why?" And that first show was with Jim Davis of "Garfield," the producer asked me why I started every question with "Tell me about..."

My wife got on the phone about where you can get the tapes, and the TV station in Dayton is WPTD, and the phone number is 937-220-1600. I don't know if they'll have the tape, or even know about the tape...it's been 20 years. But that's where I would start.

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Just sharing a compliment: A favorite comic strip, laminated and posted on my bulletin board, is one of yours -- "Little Edgar studies hard, hoping one day to become a thesaurus." Thank you.

Mike Peters: That was my son, Benjamin, who gave me that idea! It's amazing, I have very creative kids who will call me and say, "Hey, Dad, you oughta do this..," and when most people say that, I say, "Oh, noooo, nooo, thank you anyway." But two of my daughters have married very interesting, creative and funny guys. And, like every two weeks, I'll get an idea from them. Thank you so much, it's one of my favorites, too. Don't you have a fabulous memory!

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Fairborn, Ohio: Greetings Mike!
I want you to know that you're probably the best editorial cartoonist a kid could have. I still have my "Send in the Clones" collection, and I remember seeing you on local TV in the '70s giving lessons on how to draw Nixon. Thanks for 30+ great years!

Mike Peters: Thanks so much for the compliment.
I love talking to kids who want to be cartoonists. It's not an easy job and you're putting your ego out there every single day. But when you come up with a good idea, it's just, oh, God, this is great, it gives you a reason to live. But on the dark side, I did this very long editorial cartoon that was published today, and I was so excited about and I was trying to say something about Bush using hysteria and fear, and I looked at it again today, and I thought, "Oh, God, this cartoon sucks!" So I've been depressed all morning, but that's what makes cartooning fascinating. You have these days sometimes when you are so ashamed of what you've done, but then other days, you say, "God, I nailed it!" And I try to tell that to kids that tell me they want to be cartoonists.

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Washington, D.C.: I doubt if you'll answer this question, but how did it feel when Andy Rooney showed one of your Mother Goose strips on "60 Minutes" a few years ago, and then said, "I don't get it."

Was that your worst day ever? I usually enjoy your strip, along with the recently dropped "Shoe" (grrr) but I remember not "getting it" either.

Mike Peters: This is very funny. I think it was Chris Browne (who does "Hagar the Horrible") who called me and said, "I was walking by the TV and Andy Rooney was showing one of your cartoons on there." So I got my wife, and we were in different time zone from Chris, so I was going to see it an hour later. And I called my kids, and I said "Andy Rooney's showing one of my cartoons on '60 Minutes' on TV!" So we all sat down with our TV trays and dinner to see this, and we turn it on, and we're eating, and he says, "Things I don't understand..." And he says, "For instance, this cartoon strip, 'Mother Goose and Grimm,' I don't understand this." Well, I immediately lost my appetite for anything I was eating.

But, that was not my worst day by far. Bad days for me are like the time when I did a cartoon that was trying to show that even in the future the situation was going to be the same. So I was showing life in the future, I forget what the topic was, it was a Sunday cartoon, like in 1975, which is a big deal to me. I was trying to show like what was going on now, was going to go on in the future, like a strike going on for a long time. And what I wrote in the cartoon was, "The strike was finally ended by President John F. Kennedy." But I left off the Jr. It was supposed to be in 2020, or something. I took the cartoon down to the engravers and they said "I don't get it." And I said, "Oh, you guys never get anything. Just run it." So, the next day, I was getting phone calls from people thinking I was making fun of a dead president. So that WAS a bad day.

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Springfield, Va.: I just wanted to let you know that I have a framed copy of this cartoon hanging in my basement. As if on cue, it ran the day after I had surgery for testicular cancer. It certainly gave me some perspective and brought a smile to my face!

Mike Peters: I'm glad you enjoyed it and thank you for not suing me.

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Bloomington, Ind.: Mike,

In life, as well as cartooning, what have you learned along the way?

Thank you.

Mike Peters: The biggest thing that I think that I've learned in both life and cartooning is try to do what you love. And this in true in both doing cartoons and in life. In life, if you're not going to be a lawyer or a doctor, or some very fabulous profession, and you don't know where you want to go, try to look at your life and do what you love. You've lived in your body for 18 or 20 or 25 or 30 years and there are things that you love. I love eating Fritos. I love using

Stairmaster. I watch Hopalong Cassidy movies when I'm exercising. These are things that I get pleasure from. Now, if I have nothing else, and I don't have any other area of interest, then try to work at the Fritos factory...go to an exercise gym and see if you can be a trainer. Take the things that you love and go toward that direction, instead of taking whatever comes along. Most jobs just come to you, with someone saying, "You want to work here?" And the same is true in cartoons. I don't know what people are going to think when I draw a cartoon, whether they're going to like it or not. The only gauge I have is "Did I laugh? Did I giggle?" Now if I don't giggle at the cartoon, I can't expect you to giggle at the cartoon. If I sit there long enough, I'll think of something that I'll giggle at. And that's the only gauge I have.

So, again, it's do what you love. In trying to find a profession that you love, even if you don't do it for money, you'll do it well. And if you do something you love well enough and long enough, people start giving you money for it.
That's what I learned.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: If you create a brand new comic strip, would you do so, and what type of characters would it involve and what type of subjects would you like for it to delve into?

Mike Peters: I've thought about it many times and people have tried to get me to do it, but with my political cartoons (which I do 4-5 times a week) and then my comic strip (which is 7 days a week), I think I'd be dead if I took on anything else. But there are topics that I would love to tackle. Maybe in my next life.

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Annandale, Va.: Mr Peters,

No question. I always enjoy your strip and I wanted to thank you for sharing your talent.

Mike Peters: Thank you. That is so sweet and I wish I could hear that every morning.

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Someplace in Reston, Va.: I enjoyed your book, "The World of Cartooning: How Caricatures Develop." Do you have other how-to books planned?

And do you have advice to adults (extremely aging kids) who want to be cartoonists?

Mike Peters: Yes, I'm coming out with the 20th anniversary book of "Mother Goose and Grimm" which will be published by Andrews McMeel in April. It's got alot of my favorite comic strips in it.

As for "The World of Cartooning," which was published 20 years ago, I want to revise it, and take some time and update that book, because it's been one of those interesting things...people call and write and e-mail me and say that the book has meant alot to them.

I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

As for advice, first of all, what I tell younger kids, because this was told to me when I was 13 years old, and it was a wonderful cartoonist in St. Louis, said "Take a small sketchbook that you can carry with you, and draw everything you see. When you're watching TV, draw the TV. Draw your feet up on the ottoman. Any free moment that you have, just draw anything you see. And give yourself a deadline, for example, "I'm going to fill this book up in a month." And when you're done, just get another book and just keep doing it.
I always tell kids who want to be editorial cartoonists to go to your local paper, not the large metropolitan daily, but the weekly paper or the daily newspaper that's in your small community, read their front page, read their editorials, and start doing cartoons about those things. Then, every week, take a batch to the editor and slip them under his door, and do the same thing every single week. And, eventually, something may get printed. And, for comic strip people, often cartoonists will fall in love with whatever idea they have for a strip. You do up, in ink, 30 finished strips, you take out the 15 best, send them out to every single syndicate with a letter about yourself. When you're standing at the mailbox, and you've put them in the mailbox, and when you turn around to walk away, start working on a brand new strip idea that's totally different. What that does is, that when you start getting the rejection letters, if you're in love with your strip, and you haven't moved on to the next idea, these rejection letters will depress you, and you'll give up. But if you're working on a new idea, you'll say, "That's okay, I'm working on an even better idea now." And if you keep doing that, someday somebody is going to say, "This is what we're looking for..."

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Kennebunkport, Maine: Mike,
Please extend my sympathies to Marian for having to put up with you all these years.

Wiley

Mike Peters: Wiley! You know my life better than anybody! Thanks for taking the time to write.

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Escanaba, Mich. (Or Is It Siberia?):
Hi, I just wanted to say I LOVE your cartoon.

But as an old guy, your 1-11 cartoon had me just about falling out of my chair!

Mike Peters: I'm sure glad you liked that cartoon. The one I heard most about this week, was the one that came out on Monday about "Desperate House Cats." People called and wrote me from all over. It was one of those cartoons that made my day.

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re: Little Edgar / thesaurus: I don't get it.

Mike Peters: This is a riot! And neither would Andy Rooney!

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Michigan: Mike:
Where can someone acquire the original comic strips of Grimmy?
-- A collector

Mike Peters: Go to grimmy.com and there are all kinds of links on how to acquire my cartoons. Thanks for your interest. I love collectors and so do my bill collectors.

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Pharr, Tex.: Do you get a chance to pal around with other cartoonists like Bill Hinds?

Mike Peters: I love Bill Hinds, but I only get a chance to see him about once year the National Cartoonist Society convention. He did an animated cartoon of me for the NCS convention and it was extremely funny and I looked like Dick Clark. However, there's not alot of cartoonists all living in the same place. So one of the joys for me is to go to the NCS meetings, and see not only my friends, but I see people who are my idols. I know giants in the business and I call them by their first name, like Mort Walker, and I just talked to Paul Conrad, the great three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for the Los Angeles Times. Herblock was a perfect example. I would talk with Herb on the phone, and I'd get off the phone, and I'd say to Marian, "Hey, Marian, I just got off the phone with Herblock!"
In Sarasota, where we have had a house, one of the joys of living there, I get to ride my bike over to Chris Browne's house to Tom Armstrong, who does "Marvin." And Dean Young is right down the road in Clearwater. So that's a true joy for me.

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Tacoma, Wash.: Hi Mike! First off, let me say I'm a huge admirer of your work and you've been an influence in my own work.

So here's my question... How do you approach your gag writing, and on days when you're not feeling particularly funny but still have to produce, overcome the unfunny barrier?

Also, (If I can get away with one more) do you approach gag writing on your political cartoons differently that you do on Grimmy, and if so, how?

Mike Peters: I know this one cartoonist and when people ask him where do you get your ideas he says "I have an idea box, and everyday I just go to the idea box and I reach in and I pull out a piece of paper, I read it, and then I do a cartoon." And I said to him, are these just old ideas that you just haven't used yet? And he said, "No, they are bills that I haven't paid yet."
With the comic strip, all of the ideas come from within. And the political cartoons, all of the ideas come from without.
I read at least four newspapers a day. Then I've got CNN, MSNBC, all these news programs on.
But when I try to come up with the comic strip ideas, every morning around 6 o'clock, I go into my bathroom, and I sit on the floor because there's no telephone, there's nothing to look and I sit with my sketch book, and I think about what I did yesterday, what theories I might be working on, and I spend at least two hours sitting on the floor (and yes, it is uncomfortable, but it keeps me awake). What I found is, the first day I start thinking, I don't usually have anything, and the second day, I'll put down little blips, but nothing really happens. But by the third day--it's almost like priming a water pump--a bunch of stuff comes. So that's how my comic strip happens.
When I first started drawing the comic strip, I asked my friend Doug Marlette (who does "Kudzu"), "Doug, I realize I have to do two cartoons today, I've got to do a political cartoon and a comic strip, and I've got to do two cartoons and I've got to do two cartoons on Wednesday, so by Wednesday, I've got to have six cartoons done." And I found myself laying in bed at 2 in the morning, so I asked him "How do you deal with that?" And he said, "It's just like brushing your teeth. You don't say, I've got to brush my teeth twice today and twice tomorrow. You just get up and do it."
And, that really meant alot, because you can go crazy if you think about everything you have to do.

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Arlington, Va.: Thank you for your recent series on Jack Russells! It was as if you had a hidden camera on our JT. How did you know his nickname was "Down, Boy?"

Mike Peters: Thank you, that means so much to me. I got so many responses about that series. I've introduced two new characters who are going to be regulars. One is named Ralph and he's a Boston Terrier. And the other one...well, a friend of ours just got a new Jack Russell, and the dog is so adorable, I decided to introduce a Jack Russell and that's going to be his name, too.

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Arlington, Va.: Are there any new, or old strips, that you think are particularly good? Any editorial cartoonists whose work you just love? Who're your cartooning influences?

Mike Peters: I love a bunch of the new ones and a lot of the old ones. I love Hagar and Shoe and Garfield. These are all classic cartoons. And I also love Get Fuzzy, Bizarro, and those are the cartoons I usually go to. And I know there's alot more things out there, but I don't get a chance to see alot of them, except on the Internet. The editorial cartoonists that I love are Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Constitution, Jeff Stahler of the Columbus Dispatch and Steve Kelly, even though I disagree with alot of what he believes in, and Mike Ramirez of the L.A. Times.

Mike Peters: Steve Kelley, by the way is with the New Orleans Times-Picayne.

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Arlington, Va.: I love Mother Goose and Grimm. Every time you do a "Bad Dog" strip, I have to cut it out and keep it. Would you say Grimmy and Attila's relationship has strengthened over the years (I have an early stip where Grimmy is holding a hoop up to a window and trying to train Attila to jump out through it)? They seem to have a much more amiable aspect.

Mike Peters: At the beginning of the strip, the cat was just an adversary, just something that Grimm could do bad things to all the time. But I realized that I found it kind of evil having Attila be the brunt of Grimm's actions. And I didn't want that. For me, that was not working. So eventually, I had them kind of palling around together. He still will do bad things to him, but they are more travelers on the road of life rather than the Road Runner and the Coyote.

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Detroit, Mich.: I have been a fan of your comic strip for many years. What do you do to keep yourself fresh with ideas without burning out? (exercise, vacations, etc.?)

Mike Peters: That is exactly the reason why I do two strips in Mother Goose and Grimm. I do the dog and the cat and the goose in one strip and then I do Frankenstein in the next strip. Because so many of the strips that I loved, like "Calvin and Hobbes," "The Far Side," "Bloom County," all shining lights on the comics pages, are gone because their creators got burned out. I learned very early in my strip that if I do really two strips, the storyline and then whatever else I find funny that's not the storyline, that keeps me excited every day. Because I may get tired of a storyline, or I may get tired of the dog talking to the goose about something, so then I switch over to another strip, and I get excited. That's how I've been doing this for 20 years, and I hope to God I can do it for another 20.

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Little Edgar, thesaurus wannabe : wasn't Edgar a little dinosaur? A brontosaurus or something?

If this is the strip I am thinking of it put me in mind of MacNelly's Skylar, in Shoe.

Seriously, you have a sort of low-key humor in there. Some days I have to let the joke "bloom" in the back of my mind for a minute. Puns allowed!;

Thanks for the laughs!;

Mike Peters: Yes, Edgar was a little dinosaur reading a thesaurus.
I try not to do puns anymore, unless they're really great. If they are, I can't stop myself. I try not to do them anymore just because the strip is printed in all kinds of languages, and puns don't work in translation. But I love gags that can stick in the back of your mind. That's the true strength of a cartoon. For sure, it's the strength of a political cartoon, because, say, there have been thousands of editorials written about the Vietnam War, by fabulous writers, but I can't quote you from any of those articles.
But there have been certain cartoons done about the Vietnam War that will always come to mind when I hear something about Vietnam by David Levine from the New York Review of Books, drawing Lyndon Johnson lifting his shirt showing his scar from some operation and the scar is in the shape of Vietnam. Or the Bill Mauldin cartoon of the statue of Lincoln from the Lincoln Memorial crying after JFK's death. Those have been soldered into our brain. We'll never forget them, and that's the strength of a cartoon.

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Suzanne Tobin: Jan. 10 | Jan. 11

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Washington, D.C.: HI Mike and Suzanne. Mike, I love your strip and am a big fan. But, The Washington Post has made some REALLY BIG MISTAKES recently in cancelling strips like "Shoe."

I know Jeff MacNelly was your friend. (may he rest in peace) So you know that "Shoe" has been done by the same folks who were assisting him for years and still has a HUGE fan base. And, there is not much difference in the way it is done today as it was done in the 90s. In fact, "Shoe" and "Rex Morgan MD" are still as popular as they ever were. But, editors kill that market when they cut the strip. Sparky Shultz is dead, "Blondie" is done by a third generation artist. If an editor cuts them, their market disappears. This seems so counter-productive. Sure, if there is a strip out there that is better put add it in. But, why add unfunny claptrap that is alienates everyone except the "hipster" crowd?!

Mike, Can you discuss the difficulties of keeping a strip alive in syndication especially when comics editors like Suzanne think they need to get an infusion of new poorly done "post-modernist" comics that aren't even funny. P.S.: The most I can thank Suzanne for is not cutting "Grimmy" out of The Post.

Mike Peters: Thanks so much.

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Suzanne Tobin: Thanks for your comments. It never ceases to amaze me how different people view different comic strips. It's just like the adage, "One man's meat is another man's poison." We are trying to make room for fresh voices on our pages, and we only have so much room. At some point, we just have to make a decision of how to fit them in, and what strips to kill. And we ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS ask for reader feedback. Even our own Comics Committee here at The Post doesn't always agree on what strips are good, so how can we expect 800,000 to 1,000,000 readers to do so? I'm sorry you were unhappy with our decisions. But do, please, give the new strips a try. It often takes weeks to get to know the characters and appreciate them. Then, if you still don't like them, feel free to call our comics hotline at 202-334-4775 or e-mail comics@washpost.com to register your dissatisfaction. We have people who transcribe and tally every single phone call or e-mail we get, and when it's clear we've made a mistake, we sometimes bring a strip back. I can remember a few years back we dropped "Tank McNamara" and there was such an outcry, we reinstated it. My boss, Shirley Carswell, was on an online chat earlier this week that my producer will link to below if you want to see how others reacted to the changes.

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Suzanne Tobin: Shirley Carswell, (Live Online, Jan. 12)

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