THE LAST TIME I spoke with cartooning great Mell Lazarus, at a 2010 comics-award ceremony in Jersey City, he had me laughing at not only his wit, but also at the easy and gliding way he delivered a punchline. Somehow, a joke from Lazarus’s mouth both entertained you and, in a subtly sophisticated way, included you. Standing there in his stylish tux, Lazarus was like the Fred Astaire of the one-liners. No wasted motion, with a verbal pivot perfected over decades, yet surely a gift of his DNA.
Then, as we began to part ways after leaving the Reuben Awards ballroom, Lazarus quickly pointed to a bustling hallway, where waves of tuxedoed cartoonists swarmed toward the alcohol, like salmon spawning upstream toward some hard-wired instinctual goal. “I think,” Lazarus said, as dry as a martini, “the party is now that way.”
That was Mell Lazarus. An urbane man who forever brought the warmth of shared humor to the party of life.
Lazarus, the Brooklyn-bred cartoonist, writer and creator of the syndicated comic strips “Momma” and “Miss Peach,” died Tuesday morning in Southern California, family members said. He was 89.
“Mell Lazarus was a true renaissance man,” comics historian and cartoonist Brian Walker tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “His first strip, ‘Miss Peach,’ which debuted in 1957, pioneered a new graphic minimalism in comics.”
“He created a second comic strip, ‘Momma,’ in 1970 and won the National Cartoonists Society’s (NCS) highest honor, the Reuben Award, in 1981,” continues Walker. Lazarus was also a two-term president of the NCS, from 1989 to 1993, and spearheaded that professional group’s regional chapter system.
“He was a high school dropout who later joined Mensa,” writer and cartoonist Tom Gammill told the NCS, confirming that Lazarus was literally a comic “genius.”
His first novel, “The Boss Is Crazy Too” (1963), was based on his experiences working for legendary “Li’l Abner” creator Al Capp. His second novel, “The Neighborhood Watch” (1986), was optioned for a film.
“As one of the first cartoonists to sign with Creators Syndicate in 1987,” Walker notes, Lazarus also “became a strong advocate for cartoonist rights.”
In February, Lazarus received the NCS Medal of Honor.
Lazarus was also beloved by his comics-industry colleagues. Comic Riffs asked some of them to share their memories of the man and his talent — as well as, of course, his gift for appreciating the party of a humorous life:
DAVE COVERLY (“Speed Bump”):
“He was a true gentlemen in every sense of the word. He helped me professionally … and he helped me personally, as a welcoming face in a sea of intimidating cartoonists when I first joined the NCS. But what I loved most about Mell was that he was a great listener. With his wit and intelligence, he could have easily held court in any conversation, but he had too much grace and sophistication for that. His stories will be missed, but no more than the warm smile he gave you while he listened.”
BARBARA DALE (founder and creator of Dale Cards):
“Mell Lazarus was a suave, urbane ex-New Yorker with a huge, kind heart and a ready laugh. His work was funny and humanistic. He was a mensch and the best cheerleader a cartoonist could ever have. I adored him, and so did everybody else in our ink-stained world. Even though I knew it was coming, his passing hit me like a ton of bricks. I just hope they have cocktail hour and the Sunday New York Times Crossword puzzle in heaven.”
ANDREW FARAGO (Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco):
“The highlight of every annual gathering with the National Cartoonists Society was catching up with Mell and his wife, Sally. Mell’s cartooning career spanned 70-plus years, and every five-minute conversation with him was like a master class in comic-strip history.”
LYNN JOHNSTON (“For Better or for Worse”):
“I remember Mell best as the new NCS president. He took the reins after me and really did pull the association out of New York. Being a California guy, and having a sense of humor that matched Arnold Roth, volley for jibe, Mell broke the mold and got everyone together. …
I had the pleasure of knowing Mell when he was at his feistiness, funniest and most prolific. I’m proud to say I’m one of the cartoonists he invited to draw on his [famed, cartoon-happy] piano. He will be very sadly missed.”
RICK KIRKMAN (“Baby Blues”):
“There are so many ways to describe Mell: urbane, erudite, witty, debonair, a raconteur, bon vivant, man-about-town. … He was incredibly talented at making everything look easy: carrying two comic strips, play writing, fiction author, former NCS president, even a little foray into acting. Sure, he could kvetch, but he really took great joy in life. To me, he was a great friend and late-in-life mentor to whom I owe a great deal.”
TERRI LIBENSON (“The Pajama Diaries”):
“He was one cartoonist I was nervous to approach [at the NCS Reuben Awards]. I had grown up reading ‘Momma,’ and was very familiar with his work. But wow, was he ever warm and sweet. Made me feel completely at ease. I still have a 1978 ‘Momma’ treasury that I cherish. It’s dilapidated and many of the pages have fallen out — and shoved back in — but I will never get rid of it. Like ‘Peanuts,’ I think ‘Momma’ sparked something in me at an early age that helped fuel my desire to become a cartoonist.”
MIKE LUCKOVICH (Atlanta Journal Constitution):
“Mel was a gentle, urbane soul with a great wit. I always felt fortunate to be in his company. He was happy to be in the moment and made you feel appreciated. He was a giant in our [NCS] organization, not only because of his incredible cartoons, but because he was such a decent person.”
PATRICK McDONNELL (“Mutts”):
“Mell was always the coolest, smartest, funniest, kindest, classiest, most charming guy in the room. And he looked great in a tux. I admired him as a cartoonist, and even more so for his humanity.”
WILEY MILLER (“Non Sequitur”):
“My lasting memory of Mell was our first meeting. … The Northern California Spelling Bee competition [had] roped Mell into being the lunch speaker. … We had time to kill, so Mell asked me if there was a bar in the hotel. Like bees to nectar, that’s where cartoonists also are drawn, so to speak. As we sat down, continuing talking about cartooning and the business, Mell paused, then asked me, ‘So what should I talk about at this thing?’ I did a spit-take, laughed and said, “Mell, I’m here to learn from you!” That was Mell. No big-timing a young cartoonist. He dearly loved the art form and cartoonists, never treating one better than the other, no matter how long or short they’ve been in the business. Mell and I became very close friends since that day over 30 years ago.
“My last memory of Mell was two years ago at the Reubens Weekend when he was the presenter for the Reuben Award, which went to me. Having Mell hand the award to me meant more — far more — to me than the award itself. I’ll cherish those bookend memories the rest of my life. As I said in my acceptance speech about Mell, his influence on me didn’t make me a better cartoonist — it made me a better person.”
MIKE PETERS (“Mother Goose and Grimm”):
“Not only was Mel one of the great cartoonists — he was the closest thing to an ambassador the NCS will ever have. He was regal just drinking a cup of coffee or, more likely, a Scotch. He could charm you in to anything, and you would be honored to do it. He would brighten any room he walked into. You don’t miss the sun until it’s gone.”
DAN PIRARO (“Bizarro”):
“Mell Lazarus was one of those rare people who was — without exception — always fun to be around. He inspired and befriended all of us cartoonists, making each of us feel that we were receiving special treatment from a master. Since my first conversation with him back in the ’90s, I have considered myself extraordinarily lucky to have been his friend.”
HILARY PRICE (“Rhymes With Orange”):
“Mell epitomized classiness. One of my cherished memories is sitting in his dining room one morning for brunch with he and [his wife] Sally and my partner. The Bloody Marys he mixed had to be one-third tomato juice, one-third vodka, and one-third black pepper. And in a way, that mixture was Mell: a third pure goodness, a third the life of the party and a third spicy wit. I loved him and will miss him.”
TOM RICHMOND (MAD magazine):
“Mell Lazarus was a true cartooning original. One of the smartest, funniest, most talented and most charming cartoonists I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.”
JEAN SCHULZ (Charles M. Schulz Museum):
“Mell was a wonderful friend to all cartoonists. He seemed to have a way of being the friendliest guy around, with no sense of self-importance. The fact that he created two comic strips — ‘Momma’ and ‘Miss Peach,’ each equally funny and relevant — is a tribute to his creativity and hard work. Mell will be mightily missed.”
JERRY SCOTT (“Zits” and “Baby Blues”):
“Mell brought me into the NCS 30-plus years ago, and remained a close friend and adviser ever since. His intellect, wit and endless stories are what I’ll remember about him. I loved the guy, and always felt welcome in his home … especially when I arrived with a good single-malt Scotch.”
RICK STROMOSKI (“Soup to Nutz”):
“Mell was my mentor and friend. The first cartoonist I ever knew in person who treated me as a contemporary.”
MARK TATULLI (“Lio” and “Heart of the City”):
“Mell Lazarus was the first syndicated comic strip artist I ever met. It was in 1986, at the Plaza Hotel. There was this great syndication seminar set up for would-be cartoonists, and being one of those, I had to attend. All the great artists were there and mobbed by the aforementioned wanna-bes. But I saw Mell Lazarus standing alone in the hall outside of the ballroom and I approached him. He was so kind and thoughtful and full of good advice. A great first experience for a fledgling cartoonist and I’ll never forget his graciousness.
GARRY TRUDEAU (“Doonesbury”):
“As I learned early on, no one was more supportive of rookie cartoonists than Mell. He was famous the world over for creating ‘Miss Peach’ and ‘Momma,’ but he was famous among his peers for being a sweetheart.”
BRIAN WALKER (comics historian, “Hi and Lois”):
“He was a fixture at the Reuben Awards for many years as a host, presenter and roast recipient. During these weekends, Mell could always be found holding court in the bar, entertaining an audience of fellow cartoonists with his signature wit and charm. The Reubens won’t be the same without him.”
Note: The NCS Reuben Awards will be Memorial Day weekend in Memphis. The event will surely be occasion, too, to celebrate the life and camaraderie of Mell Lazarus.