Comics: Meet the Artist
With Mike Peters
Cartoonist, "Mother Goose and Grimm"
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, Feb. 15, 2002; 1 p.m. EST
Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin.
Mike Peters created "Mother Goose and Grimm" in 1984. By that time, Peters was already an established editorial cartoonist and his political cartoons continue to be featured in over 400 publications. His daily strip focuses on the hilarious misadventures of Grimmy, the bull terrier who specializes in drinking from toilets, attacking vacuum cleaners and provoking his feline sidekick, Attila.
Peters was online Friday, Feb. 15 at 1 p.m. EST to discuss "Mother Goose and Grimm," his editorial cartoons the art of cartooning.
The transcript follows.
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.
Greetings, comics fans, and welcome to "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Mike Peters, creator of "Mother Goose and Grimm," who is joining us from his studio in Sarasota, Florida. Welcome, Mike, and thanks so much for taking the time to meet and greet your readers Live Online.
Mike Peters: It's a joy to be here. I've read the other online chats and can't wait to get to all your questions.
I know you got your start at the Dayton Daily News. In fact, you were the speaker at my high school graduation ceremony (Beavercreek High School, Class of 1987).
Do you still live in Ohio? Do you wear the Superman costume often or only for special occasions?
Mike Peters: As Suzanne mentioned, I don't live in Ohio any more. But I think others might want to hear the story of the Superman costume.
Superman was the first character I ever drew, and I used to have a costume that I wore to school as a kid. My parents could barely get me to take it off to wash it. So when I moved to Dayton, my wife made me a Superman costume, and it dawned on me, that here I have this costume, and even though I'm this mild-mannered cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News, I thought I could wear it one day to the office. So a week or so after Halloween, I got to the office early, where each day we had this editorial meeting at 10:00. So I change into my costume and go into the empty meeting room, so that I'm hide behind the drapes and jump out and surprise everybody. But the drapes weren't long enough to hide my red feet. So I opened this old creaky window and stood out on the ledge (which is about 3 feet wide) and I was holding onto this pillar. Then I shut the drapes and shut the window, leaving it about 3 inches open. So I thought the meeting would start in about 10 minutes, but everyone was running late, so I ended up freezing to death out there for about 30 minutes. No one from the street could see me, but the people in the building across the street could, and when I glanced around, I saw all these women laughing at me and one even had the sign that said "Hi, Superman."
Anyway, when the rest of the staff finally showed up in the meeting room, I start to lift the window so I could surprise them, but everyone heard this old window squeak and so they all stopped talking. Then I threw back the drapes and stood up full height and starting brushing off my shoulders, and I said, "I'm sorry I'm late but I had lousy weather over Cleveland." Needless to say, everyone cracked up. And so this has gone down into Daily News folklore and now the tour groups have a stop at the sill where I made my grand entrance.
I grew up with your political concerns, and I have to say that you remain one of my favorites to this day. I'll always remember "Send in the Clones" and your lessons on drawing Richard Nixon.
Do you get back to Dayton much?
Mike Peters: Thanks so much for the compliment. For Washington Post readers who may not know, I'm still doing the editorial cartoons for the Dayton Daily News five days a week, in addition "Mother Goose and Grimm." They are kind enough to let me live in Florida, where I want to be.
I do try to get back to Dayton four or five times a year, and it's so sweet that you remember my book, "Send in the Clones," because it's been about 20 years since it was published.
I love the way Grimmy refers to Mother Goose as Mom. I'm sure my dog does the same with me.
Did you ever do stand-up comedy? I have this vague memory of seeing you at a comedy club in Cleveland but I could be completely mistaken.
Mike Peters: No, I've never done a comedy club.
Humping legs, peeing, etc. are all funny. Really. I am not kidding. GRIMMY makes it all very funny. But are there people who complain about the baser bodily functions depicted? Maybe more today than when GRIMMY started?
Mike Peters: It's really amazing. I try to do cartoons for me. I don't really think about who's reading them, and I can't draw for anyone else. So the only person I really care about is me. I know where the line is for bad taste, because I've been doing this for a long time, but if something is really, really funny to me, I've gotta put it in. Now, I know I may lose newspapers, but it's worth it! I know I was treading on bad taste with my comic a few days ago with the dog walking out of the adult dog store with an inflatable leg. But it was just too good to pass up. The letters on that one I've gotten have been so appreciative.
I don't get more complaints today than when Grimmy started, because when I first started the strip in 1984, I had him drinking out of the toilet and no one had seen that on the comics page before. So I got letters on that, but now that's old hat. And this one lady wrote in and got her canasta club to write to the syndicate and the newspaper. And she got her local paper to drop me because of her letter writing campaign. When the syndicate called her back, she said the reason that she was so upset was if you put a drawing of dogs drinking out of toilets in the newspaper and dogs see this, it would be a bad influence on them. (I'm not making this up.) And that's when the syndicate realized this lady was nuts, and just let me be.
Are Grimmy and Attila based on "real" pets? Yours?
Also, thanks for your strip -- both my second-grade son and I read you every morning.
Mike Peters: That is so kind of you. I've owned dogs all my life and I knew if I ever did a strip, the main character would be a dog, because dogs are inherently funny. When I started, there was Snoopy, Marmaduke and a handful of other dogs in the funny pages, but I know dogs, so I had to make the character a dog and I wanted to have him do dog things, like having fleas, eat out of trashcans and chase cars, because there weren't any comic page dogs doing that. They were fighting the Red Baron and playing golf. So that's why I started the strip. And yes, I have had dogs and cats all my life, but the characters are actually based on people, not animals. Grimm is actually me. Mother Goose is my wife and Attila is a combination of a lot of friends that I've gotten into trouble because of stupid things I've done. But that's really who they're based on.
Mike, I have a question about editorial cartoons (though I love Mother Goose and Grimm, too). Were you a fan of the late Herblock?
Mike Peters: Absolutely. Herblock wasn't just a star, he was a supernova in our business. I would see him every year when I came to Washington for a dinner for cartoonists, and he was always the omnipresence there. Around 1971, The Post starting inviting a group of cartoonists to come for dinner each year. This went on until about three or four years ago. The general roster usually included the late Jeff MacNelly, Tony Auth, Doug Marlette, Tom Toles, Mark Alan Stamaty, Jim Borgman, Mike Luckovich and myself. What's funny here is that every year Herb would be there. Now when we started, Herb was around 60 and it occurred to us younger cartoonists that if anything, God forbid, should happen to Herb one of us from this group might be the person who would take over for him. Yet 30 years later, Herblock was still drawing like a maniac and all us "younger" folk were planning our retirement.
But, seriously, I realized before his death that he was the premiere political cartoonist of this last century when I had to accept an award for him, when he was inducted into the Cartoon Hall of Fame in Florida. He couldn't go, so he asked me to do it. There have been great cartoonists in that time, but his work was undeniably the most effective. And he was at the most effective newspaper in the country. And his career lasted almost 70 years.
the reason I say this is that we cartoonists love doing local cartoons because with local cartoons you can affect change. When I do a cartoon about the president, he may or may not see it. But if I do a cartoon about my city commissioner, he'll see that cartoon and he'll get mad. And so I've affected something in a local cartoon. EVERY cartoon Herblock did was a local cartoon. All his subjects saw them, so he was the most influential cartoonist in our lifetime.
I need your help. My mother's canasta club members have begun drinking out of the toilet and they claim only you are able to help them. Can you do anything?
Mike Peters: Do you ever write for cartoonists? I need you desperately.
I want to compliment you on creating one of the most consistently funny strips.
I always imagined that you have this notebook full of ideas that you carry around to jot down notes whenever inspiration strikes. Is this near the reality of the creative process?
Mike Peters: Yes. I keep a sketchbook with me almost everywhere I go. My entertainment--and I know this sounds stupid--is sitting and trying to make myself laugh. And early in the morning I'll be down in the bathroom sitting on the cold floor, because it keeps me awake, and there are no windows and phones in the bathroom, and my wife will come downstairs and hear me giggling.
I'll tell you a quick story, and I've never told this to anyone before. I use Washington as a source of inspiration. This one day, I was at some mall near The Washington Post, (National Place). And I was in that mall and I was waiting for my wife to buy something. So on the lower level I saw this young man reading The Washington Post and reading the comics page. And I knew where my cartoon was, and I could sort of see it, because it had black shading that day. I saw him get down to that cartoon and I saw him physically laugh. And I knew that's the effect I want to have on everyone that looks at my strip. And so I picture that young guy once a week or so, and I ask myself, "Is he gonna laugh at this?" And if he doesn't laugh at it in my head, I keep working until I find something he will laugh at.
What? What? Is he gone?
Just love your strip, the odder the better. I had one on my fridge for years, the one with two handpuppets and one says "I don't know, I've just got to question whether there really is a hand." That's the most existential comic strip I've ever seen! Thank you for having the guts and wit to churn it out. Are any of these pearls available for posterity as, I don't know, posters, coffeecups, tee shirts and the like?
P.S. Loved the dog with the inflatable leg this week, too.
Mike Peters: Actually, my son does my Web site, grimmy.com. Let me go to it here. On the Web site, there's a button you can click on that says "Merchandising" and there's a company called Cafepress that has mugs and T-shirts, and stuff. It's a fun way for me to store my cartoons on objects people can keep on their desk, and they won't yellow and disintegrate. I'll yellow and disintegrate but the merchandise won't. So you can check it out.
Let's go back in time to the late 50's. Your career as a published cartoonist was going strong. While at CBC your cartoons were featured in the school paper, the Turret. I was a representative to CBC from Rosati Kain and I managed to save many of those school papers. I still enjoy your early cartoons as well as your daily strip and the political cartoons. Thanks for all the thoughtful moments and chuckles you have given me.
Rosemary Ruffieux-Harger (Wagner in the 50's)
Mike Peters: This is a riot. You have got to email me at email@example.com. For the uninitiated, CBC stands for Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis, Mo., which I graduated from in '61. There are about 12 billion Catholic high schools in St. Louis and Rosati Kain was a girls school. Thank you for the nice compliments.
I love the way Grimmy runs, with his hind legs way up in the air and his front legs way down. I think the exaggerated physicality of your drawing is a big part of what makes people, as you say, "physically laugh." How did you develop that aspect of your art?
Mike Peters: I love animation and I used to look at Chuck Jones' animated cartoons all the time. He did Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, along with most of the Warner Bros. characters and everything I know about funny drawings I learned from him.
The Post often features your cartoons on its Saturday "Free for All" page -- much to my delight. Any chance you will replace the beloved Herblock at the Post?
Mike Peters: It's impossible to fill Herb's shoes.
But every cartoonist in the world would love to work The Post. Except for one, and I love working for the Dayton Daily News.
Do you ever read the Style Invitational Contest? From what I've read, one of the "stars" of that humor contest, Chuck Smith, writes gags for your strip. Have you entered it at all? And what can you tell us about how one gets to write comic strip gags?
Mike Peters: Yes, Chuck is a regular writer for my comic strip. He is prolific, he is funny and he's saving my life. I've never entered the Style Invitational.
There's a Web site called Weisenheimer, and it has a group of gag writers, and they're the best people to ask. It's administered by Ted Goff, and you can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Peters: What a treat talking to all of you! I wish we could do this for a 24-hour period someday. It's because of the Internet that I know immediately if a cartoon is good or if it sucks. Thank you all for participating.
Thank YOU, Mike. It's been delightful. I hope everyone will tune in two weeks from now when Bil Keane of "The Family Circus" will be our guest. In the meantime, if you didn't get a chance to put in your two cents worth, you can e-mail mike at email@example.com, or if you want to get in touch with me, my e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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