Readers are continuing to discover FRAZZ, a relatively new humor strip about a school janitor who stays a step ahead of the faculty. With FRAZZ in the running for the 2004 Reuben Newspaper Strip Division Award, the time is perfect to find out a little about its creator, the GLC's Jef Mallett.

Craig B, armed with a tape recorder, met Jef at a random Indianapolis intersection in June '04, the day before he (Jef, that is) was to participate in a triathlon.

NOTE: Jeff was commencement speaker at the University of Michigan-Flint on Sunday, May 1, 2005. Click HERE to read his address to the graduating class.


 

CB: You work at home, I assume?

JEF: I work at home, like most of us, yeah. That was one of the biggest adjustments when I got the strip job and was successful enough to quit my day job. Working at home is kind of lonely. It's one of those weird things about this profession, you take people who, I think, are naturally real social, real gregarious, and lock 'em up in a room by themselves and say "Here, make up characters and interact with them."

CB: Do you stay cocooned in your little studio?

JEF: To a certain extent. It almost disturbs me that a lot of my interaction with other people is through e-mail rather than face to face. I have to work, But that's another good thing about the racing, is you get out and meet other people. That's a good thing.

CB: Is there any kind of cartooning community in Lansing?

JEF: No, if there is, I'm not a part of it.

CB: How about the local arts situation? Are you involved with other...

JEF: No, I'm really not. The cartoon is its own little world, and my social life is people that I knew before the strip and people that I know from doing other things. The strip is just... that's what I do, but I don't go out of my way to make it my identity. It's my job. It's enough of 'me' all day that I don't need to have it be 'me' once I'm off the clock.

Hard to explain.

CB: You'd previously worked as an art director, right?

JEF: Yes, for the Capital Bureau for a chain of newspapers. I didn't work for a newspaper per se, but for eight daily papers throughout Michigan, I worked at the Capital Bureau covering stuff. It was actually really great because it was a small office, so you learned to do a little bit of everything. It's kind of like working at a little tiny newspaper, except you're working for eight big newspapers. So you get that versatility but you also get the resources.

CB: So when you formulated the plan to do the strip, it wasn't 'cause you were itching to get out of this office job.

JEF: Actually, it kinda was. It was about the time that newspapers were going through hard times and going through some transitions and cutbacks. And it got me thinking that maybe this isn't the career that's going to last me the rest of my life. And the downside of working at such a unique place is that it doesn't necessarily fit automatically into the next place you want to work. And more and more, the Human Resources are going 'square peg, square hole.' They're not saying "These skills could work very well for us after two weeks but not immediately." So I was thinking, well, it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to go back to school. I don't have a college degree. Plenty of college, but no degree. So yeah, I'm going to do that. But first, let's try this comic strip thing. 'Cause I don't want to turn 90 years old and wonder what would have happened if I'd only have tried.

CB: Speaking of longevity, we've done a few things on the web page about Popeye, who just celebrated his 75th anniversary on the comics page. You had an early contact with a Popeye cartoonist.

JEF: When I was like, 16. My big thrill was to meet Bud Sagendorf.

CB: You met him?

JEF: Yeah, I spent an evening at his place. Sagendorf was awfully nice. At that time he was ­ well, I was 16, so everybody older that me was old, but he seemed older at the time. He was probably in his 50's, maybe 60. And real outgoing, real friendly, real enthusiastic about everything. Full of stories. He had all sorts of stories to tell. We didn't end up talking about cartooning that much. Mostly small talk, different stories. It was great. His wife was just as delightful. They would step on each other's lines when they were telling stories. Just like George and Gracie or something. They were a team, they worked together.

CB: Where was he living?

JEF: In Connecticut. I don't remember the exact city.

CB: Can you imagine Frazz running 75 years from now?

JEF: Um, no. No I can't. Because 75 years from now I'll most likely be dead and I don't intend to have the strip continue on after I die.

CB: All right, then let's scale it back. 50 years from now.

JEF: That's hard to say. If I'm still funny, yeah. If I'm still funny, if I'm still good, yeah.

CB: You can see yourself still committed to this particular ­

JEF: It's what I do. Yeah. It doesn't seem like a job, so retirement doesn't seem like a factor. It's something I get to do rather than something I have to do.

CB: This is also presupposing that newspapers will still be around that long.

JEF: Yeah, or whatever is around will run comic strips. In terms of my own attitude, I'll keep drawing it as long as people keep reading it.

CB: What do you suppose the strip would look like at that point? Would the characters still pretty much be in place, where they are?

JEF: Probably. But you never know, the characters pretty much run their own show. I'm just trying to keep up. I thought when novelists and other cartoonists said that, they were just feeding me a line. A nice sound bite. And, it's true. You come up with the characters and you follow them as much as you direct them.

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CB: What do you find funny? What's your idea of comedy, what makes you laugh?

JEF: Oh, that's a good question. Stuff that's real. Less stuff that's contrived. I don't like stuff with a long, elaborate set-up. Life in general is really kind of funny, It's gentle. I find the gentler stuff a lot more funny than the zingers. I don't see that much humor in cutting someone down. I like the classic kind of humor where it's, well, this probably sounds "groovy," but, more of a healing thing. More of a coping thing.

CB: I pick that up from the strip. It strikes me that Frazz is somewhat different that other characters on the comics page. You've mentioned that in schools you've been to, the janitor was always the coolest guy in the school. What strikes me is, on the comics page it's very unusual to do a comic strip about the cool guy. Typically the main character is the one who's beset with problems, the lovable loser...

JEF: Interesting. Yeah. Some of the novels that I like, I identify with the main protagonist. But a lot of novels will have what I call the God character. Like in "Of Mice and Men." The story is more about Lenny and George. But there's Slim, the mule-skinner, the guy who's almost like the God figure. He's got it together, he's the one who makes it work for everybody else, people learn things from him. I like characters like that. Maybe Frazz is that kind of a character.

CB: Yeah, I think he absolutely is. In relation to Caulfield, he's rather like a conscience, or mentor.

JEF: Kind of like the conscience and kind of like the curiosity drive. Frazz is the kind of guy that everybody wants to be, as opposed to the kind of guy that everybody's afraid they are. And, where Caulfield's the kind of guy who blurts out whatever comes to mind without thinking about it, Frazz can be the "then again" voice.

CB: When I look at the two of them together I see them as two sides of the coin. You probably get tired of comparisons to Calvin and Hobbes ­

JEF: Not really. This is the kind of business where you're going to get compared to somebody, and come up wanting. It might as well be Bill Waterson.

CB: In that strip, where Hobbes was almost certainly an extension of Calvin, I get that sense even more readily in the relationship between Frazz and Caulfield. It seems like they're two parts of the same personality. Frazz's "inner child," or whatever.

JEF: Probably two parts of my personality. I don't mean to be self-centered, but on the other hand, what else do I have to work with? Some people are such acute observers of life. I try to be observant, but I'm not that confident that I'm going to be as observant as some of the best novelists, or cartoonists or whatever. So I might as well ­ I'm 42 years old, I'm not a young guy just starting this. I've got some of my own paths and my own personality to fall back on. I might as well do that and hope that I'm not so strange that nobody can relate.

CB: Are you trying to accomplish anything in particular with the strip beyond the entertainment factor?

JEF: Yeah I am. My whole conceit when I started the strip was -- again, I'd been working at or for newspapers, and I got so sick of the fact that newspapers were dumbing themselves down to the lowest common denominator when, that's not who's reading newspapers any more. College graduates; the people who are curious and ambitious enough to pick up a paper, pay for a paper and read a paper, which, any more, reading a paper takes time. Everyone thinks they don't have time for anything. And yet, we were trying to cater to the sixth-grade education. And not only was the reading level catering to that, but it seemed sometimes, so was the content level. And I thought, we're selling our readers short. Comic strips were no different. So much of it was, not bad, but I felt there could be more there that I just wasn't seeing. And I thought we could make jokes that smart people get. And we can layer them so that maybe the left-brained people get them as well. I just wanted a smart strip out there. Which is funny, because I'm not a genius myself, I'm just a regular, fairly bright, very curious guy. And I don't think I'm that strange, I think there's a lot of people out there like that. So, let's draw a comic strip for 'em.

CB: You anticipated my question: These days whenever a new strip gets in the paper, another strip has to go. When a paper picks up Frazz, what are they bringing into the comics page that wasn't there before?

JEF: Yeah. It sounds so pompous to say it, but I think the intellectual level. I'm not afraid to use big words, I'm not afraid to send readers to the dictionary to look up a big word. The readers love that.

CB: Your editors don't resist that idea?

JEF: Not any more. They let it go. They see that it seems to be working. Sometimes it backfires, because you know how sometimes you just make up a word? I've done that a couple of times, where I just make up a word, and the readers will say. "New word. Gotta go look it up!" And it's not there! And I'll get the e-mail that says "Hey, no fair. You can't do that!" So, that's a good sign, actually.

CB: Are your readers primarily adults, or do you have a kid following too?

JEF: I get both. I get a lot of the precocious teenagers. It's really encouraging to get letters from the teenagers. People don't necessarily, when they write a letter -- some of them you can really tell they're teenagers. But some of them -- unless they give you a real specific reference point, you don't know who's writing, do you? You don't know if they're a Ph.D or a 13-year old who's particularly precocious. That's the nice thing about writing back, because I'll respond to all my e-mail and sometimes a dialogue gets going and sometimes you learn a little more about them from that. But I don't think there's a lot of little kids reading the strip, even though there are a lot of little kids in the strip. It's funny, because I was on a kind of short leash in terms of material sometimes, because the syndicates feared the newspapers would think that it's a kid's strip. So you can't go too far above the kids' heads. Now that the strip has established itself as what it is, they'll let me make jokes with bigger words.

CB: When I look at strips that have been around a while, and look at the early days of those strips, they always look markedly different than the later strips, waiting to get into their groove. How has your strip changed since the beginning, and what has happened with the character development? Has it gone in ways that you weren't expecting?

JEF: I look at the original strips and I kind of cringe. "Oh my god, that looks so crude and rough!" Of course when you're sketching the strip out and selling the strip, you think that it's there. This is what we want. And it's not like I was new to art. I was 41 when the strip launched. The older strips look very ­ the heads are pointier, the proportions are different. They're a little more refined now. Frazz has more of a squared-off face. Early on he had almost kind of a pointed head. It's fun to watch that develop. And the characters developed a little bit too. Mrs. Olsen, the teacher, originally was supposed to be pure evil. And now we're seeing a little bit of a softer side to her. It's pretty well hidden, but you can tell it's there.

CB: The interaction between the characters in the school is interesting. Frazz is an adult, but he's squarely with the kids. Unlike my (Archie) strip, where you've got the teachers on one side and the students on the other side. You break that barrier.

JEF: Yeah. He's kind of a bridge, but more on the kids' side. He's got the physical aspect of being an adult, but his behavior and actions, that's the bridge over to the kids' side.

CB: He seems like a pretty bright guy. Is he living up to his potential?

JEF: I think so. Living up to his potential by his own terms. I suspect that a similar bright guy, of flesh and blood, people would say "You're just being a janitor and writing songs, you're not living up to your potential." But I've got him as a successful songwriter. And I think that, hopefully, keeps in the back of everybody's mind that he's doing okay. I've never outlined in the strip exactly how successful other than, you know, he's got a song that'll reach the top ten or something. Readers will make it clear to me that, as far as they're aware, he's a millionaire. He's filthy rich, he's absolutely wealthy. And that's just something that they read into it. I leave that completely open.

CB: Is that something that you found to be necessary? If all you ever showed about him was that he was a janitor, would that be fine with you?

JEF: Um, a little bit. The reason I did that -- Two-fold. One, and the main reason: I wanted to show that he was a janitor because he wanted to be. Not because he had to be. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with being a janitor for a living. But I think a lot of people see it as a lowly, demeaning, dirt under the fingernails kind of job. And I didn't want that getting in the way of peoples' perception of the character. I didn't want people waiting for the jokes about him trying to leave the job. I wanted to make it clear that he was there because he wanted to be, not because he had to be. But again, he's bright enough that I didn't want him to come off as a slacker, either. So I came up with the songwriter device where he could be successful doing something else that adds one more facet to his personality and allows him to do what he wants to do. If he wants to take a trip, if he wants to ride expensive bicycles, things like that. We don't have to mess with peoples' notions of how much a janitor makes or things like that. It gives me a chance to work a little bit more with him. And the other reason I made him a songwriter was because I like to mess around with verse. It gave me a chance to put that into the strip.

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An example of Jef "messing around with verse."


CB: I've never seen the early days of the strip where there was a flirtation between Frazz and Jane.

JEF: Jane Plainwell.

CB: Is that something that you would have done now?

JEF: It's not something I would have done then. When I started the strip, the idea was that the flirtation would last like a one-week series. And that would be it. I wanted to have a strip where there was a relationship ­ boyfriend/girlfriend; husband/wife, whatever, that was just-happy. And it was just there. There are enough strips out there where the husband and wife are always squabbling.

CB: Again, you're running contrary to the convention.

JEF: Yeah. It does.

CB: It's like the conventional wisdom that good news doesn't sell the newspapers.

JEF: Well it's all conflict. News is conflict, literature is conflict, screenplays are conflict. There's always conflict set up. And I just didn't want to go for the easy conflict. People are plenty good at creating their own conflict in their minds. And I think there's enough conflict, even within the confines of a steady, stable life. My life, I'm very happily married, my wife and I get along just great. And there's enough disagreements and seeing things different ways that there's some humor there, but we're not squabbling. Why not make a strip that way? So yeah, the original idea was, it's always nerve-wracking to ask somebody out. And the more you put it off and the more you decide you like them, the higher the stakes get, and it's kind of a funny thing that way. But I didn't want to turn that into the whole strip. 'Cause then it runs the risk of becoming the focus of the strip. And if it becomes the focus of the strip, sooner or later you have to resolve it. One way or the other.

CB: Some strips let that sort of thing run for years and years.

JEF: And we get tired of it. But for the most part if you've got that kind of tension, people are eventually going to want it resolved. They get tired of you milking it. Because that's not the way life goes. Eventually it does get resolved. Either it gets resolved in a good way, or it gets resolved in a bad way. And either way it usually spells the end of the series. You know, "I Dream of Jeannie," when they got together, boom, that was the end of the show. "Cheers" was all based on the tension between Sam and Diane.

CB: It became a very different show afterward.

JEF: Yes it did. So, when to end this. Like I said, I wanted it to last about a week. My editors at United said, "Oh, this is great, you can get a lot of material out of this." Oh geez, what do I do now? So I said, "Okay, but can I end it at a certain point when I see it's necessary to?" And I let it go for about a year ­

CB: Oh really, that long? That's funny, because I haven't seen those early strips, but when I look at the strip now I can't picture Frazz going through the kind of anxiety that follows the storyline you're talking about. He seems to be more centered than that. Is he a different character now than he was at the time?

JEF: A little bit. Even when I intended for them to get together right from the start I wanted to have Jane be the only character in the strip who could fluster Frazz. Again, the characters take their own direction. And she just doesn't fluster him now. Once they got it together they just seemed to mesh and there's not even the flustering so much. So yeah, it turned out to be a little different than I'd envisioned. But it works okay.

CB: It's funny how that works, isn't it?

JEF: Yeah, it really is.

CB: Caulfield. Is there anything to his name, other than as a nod to the book ("The Catcher In The Rye")?

JEF: Just that, Caulfield in the book was a bright, unsatisfied, kind of obnoxious character. It fits. It fits just close enough. And then you get that literary reference so that people say "Hmm, I wonder if that's a reference to the book?". Early on there was a strip that referenced that yes, he was named after Caulfield in "The Catcher In The Rye." I don't think a lot of it, it's enough to just have it there.

CB: Did you come up with the character first and then hunt for a name for him?

JEF: Yeah. It's funny, 'cause, once you give a character a name, you're stuck with that name. And for the most part, the names have been good. Like, with Mrs. Olsen, after the strip had been going for a month or so, that's when I slapped my forehead ­ well, it was when she started showing a little bit of a gentle side, buried deep down, that I thought of a better name for her. And, whelp, tough, she's got the old craggy Nordic name instead.

CB: Do you remember what the better name was?

JEF: Yeah, it would have been Mrs. Durian.

CB: After the fruit?

JEF: After the fruit. It's really unappealing on the outside, but on the inside it's got kind of a sweet core.

CB: I did a Jughead story that had to do with the durian.

JEF: No kidding! That's funny. It's a fascinating fruit, have you ever tried it?

CB: No, I've never been brave enough to because of everything I've read about it. It scares me.

JEF: I know. I love food. I'm just perpetually curious about food. And one of my big things is I'll try what the locals try anywhere I go. I'm not going to go on "Fear Factor" and eat worms, that's just gratuitous. But if I was somehow hiking through the Amazon and dining with some of the natives there and they ate something that looked like bugs and that's what they were eating that was part of their culture, then I would join in and eat that too. So, you learn about very odd, different kinds of food that way. Durians are odd, different kind of food. And I just thought, that would have been the perfect name.

CB: That would have been the perfect name!

JEF: Now I have made jokes about the durian in the strip. But I can't go back and rename Mrs. Olsen.

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CB: So you're doing the triathlon tomorrow -- That entails running, bicycling, and...

JEF: Swimming. In reverse order. First you swim, then you bicycle and then you run. I'm not that good at them. I can hold my own, but I don't tend to have to stick around for the awards if you know what I mean. I just do it and have a good time. It's how I keep myself sane. The competition is almost an afterthought, so I've got incentive to train. When you're busy ­ and we all are, with everybody putting demands on your time ­ it's hard to put your own important things first. But if you've got competition, you can't very well shunt training to the back burner. If you do then you're going to get humiliated in the race. The fact that I get humiliated in the race is beside the point; it happens anyway. But knowing that I've got the race to do forces me to train. And that's what keeps me healthy, what keeps me sane.

CB: That's funny that you say it keeps you sane. As opposed to working on the strip? Is writing the strip therapeutic at all? Do you get things off your chest in the strip?

JEF: Yeah, I think so. A lot of times when I'm trying to come up with subject matter it'll be stuff that's been on my mind lately. Sometimes things annoy me. A lot of times I'll make jokes about people in SUV's, and bad drivers and other peoples' bad habits. And my own bad habits. I never looked at it as therapeutic, but I guess it is. To me it's just raw material. Whatever I see. And it's a kind of nice thing. I think it was Garrison Keillor, and maybe every other writer has made the same joke that when you're a writer, there is no bad news. It's all just material. So that's how I approach the strip too. If anything happens to me I just write about it; it's material. And if it just happens to be therapeutic or something, then so much the better. But drawing the strip, at least for me, is hard work. Professionally, it's easily the hardest thing I've ever done. A lot of pressure, a lot of work. The way I draw is time-consuming.

CB: Explain that.

JEF: Oh, with the more elaborate hatching, the shading with the parallel lines.

CB: That's all by hand then?

JEF: Yeah, it's hand-done. I guess I could buy that duo-tint, or ­

CB: Push a button on the computer.

JEF: Well, you can tell when it's done on the computer and people don't mind, but I just like that hand-drawn look. And also, I find that I've got a lot more control over it when I do it with the parallel lines. It's a look that I like. And there are times when I wish that I liked a cruder look, when the weather's beautiful and I'm still stuck in there finishing up the cartoon. And you just know that the guys who draw more simply ­ you know Scott Adams is outside playing, and I'm in here working. I'm a slow cartoonist, and also distractible, 'cause I lost my train of thought.

CB: Is the material always there for you, or are you walking around trying to come up with an idea for today's strip?

JEF: Oh, it's always there, but sometimes it's harder and harder to get to. Like any other job, you have your good days and your bad days. And there are some days when it's time to write, and it's just not coming, but you've got to make it. Just work a little longer. Squeeze a little harder.

CB: I've been looking at recent Mutts strips by Patrick McDonnell. The strip is often so minimalist; for instance, nothing more than the pup popping his head around a door ­ and that's the gag. He can do that because his readers know his strip now, and they go with what these characters do. He doesn't have to sit down and write a joke per se. have you gotten to the point where the humor just comes from the characters, or do you feel like you have to have a proper punch line?

JEF: I like to tell a story each time. One of the other things that Patrick has going for him is his characters are cute. And he's been doing it long enough, and he's been stable enough in papers, apparently, that he's built up a relationship with his readers, so that the readers can ­ not to analyze somebody else's strip, but I see it as more of a comfort food type of thing. He's gone beyond having to tell a joke. He just wants to be comforting, and the readers want to know that he's there. It's their chance to pop in and see a friend every morning. I want to tell them a story. Every day. And even if I didn't, I think I would have to, because I've only been in papers for a little over three years, and not all papers have been on board right from the start. I've still got readers who are getting used to me, getting to know me, getting to know all my characters. And I haven't gotten to the point where just having the characters there is enough. I've got to give them a reason to care. And the fact that they might learn something, that they might laugh, that's what I want.

CB: How labored is the writing in your strip? Do you work and work at getting just the right ­

JEF: Yes. I tweak. I tweak the words, I use my eraser a lot. I go through those faster than I go through ink, faster than I go through pencils.

CB: What's a good strip for you? Are you always satisfied with the end result?

JEF: No, I'm never satisfied with the end result. Until I see it in the paper and say "Okay, that works."

CB: Oh, is that right? Typically it's when I see my strip in the paper that I think "I should have done it this way or that way."

JEF: Yeah, that happens to me too sometimes. It's a good thing that it's so deadline oriented. So that you've got to let one go and get started on the next. Otherwise I'm afraid that I would tweak it and mess with it and never say, "It's done." It's kind of nice now, having been doing it for a while, because I know that even when I'm not completely satisfied with a strip now, that they turn out okay. There's a certain kind of competence there. It's like that competence when you're having a bad day of writing, you know you've had those bad days before, and you've gotten through them. So if you're having a bad day again, you'll get through this one too.

CB: Also, you never know what a reader's going to respond to. The readers filter it through their own prism.

JEF: I've had strips that I thought were, "Okay I'll send this out" You want everything to be good. But you know that even within that range you're going to have some things that are really, really good, and some stuff that's 'good enough.' And I'll put one out that I think is 'good enough,' and the readers will just go nuts over it. "I love it!" And I'll put one that I think is really, really great, and I won't get nearly the response that I anticipated.

CB: Does that amuse you, or does it drive you nuts?

JEF: It amuses me, it's kind of comforting, too, and it's a reminder that I need to let it go and not over-think things. If I feel that it's good enough to go in the papers, then put it in the papers and let it rest. And I don't get too down on myself when I'm having trouble, and I don't get too full of myself when things seem to be going well. Because three months later when they show up in the newspaper I'll probably be proven wrong one way or the other.

CB: You told me earlier that your wife lends a hand with the strip?

JEF: That would be Patty. She does my lettering -- her normal handwriting is better than just about anybody's careful lettering except Borgman's, and that certainly includes mine. She's a corporate writer in her real job, and one of the best copy editor/proofreaders I know. So she's very helpful in that regard as well. And then there's the general support, input, feedback and health insurance.

CB: What kind of contact do you have with your readers?

JEF: E-mail. I get maybe one or two dozen e-mail notes a day. I don't know how that compares to anybody else. But, it's in the happy zone for me where I can still respond to them. It's hard. I never in my life would have pictured fan mail at all, let alone taking up as much of the day as it does. But I like the fact that I get just enough that I can respond to each one of the notes, and you get the feedback going and you even make a few new friends that way. I've got some very good friends that I met through the comic strip and wouldn't have known otherwise. It's fantastic.

CB: The idea of doing a comic strip didn't just pop into your head one day, you've been oriented toward that sort of thing?

JEF: When I was a kid, when I was a teenager, that was what I wanted to do. I loved the comics, I loved telling stories, and I liked to draw. All kids like to draw. And I stuck with it for a while, and I was still getting better at drawing when other kids were finding other things to do. And I mistook that for skill. But that was enough for me to keep at it, and keeping at it eventually does become skill. And then somewhere along the line I learned that just drawing wasn't going to be enough. You've got to actually tell stories, you've got to have something to say. So I thought, "Well, I'd better learn to write, and by god that was fun too, I really loved writing. And by the time I was in high school, the comic strip seemed like really the thing to do. And I did a daily comic strip for my local newspaper for, like 2-3 years. While I was in high school. And that was a really good introduction. It was a small newspaper. But it was a daily newspaper.

CB: Do you have any samples of that laying around? I'd love to run one.

JEF: I do, they're pretty hideous.

CB: Well, that's the fun of it.

JEF: Yeah, you can tell from it that my influence was the Beetle Baileys and the Hagar the Horribles of the world. And there's nothing wrong with those strips. But I'm happy to have moved beyond that. But you can tell the strip was very much influenced by those guys. And, much more broad, much more crude. And it's pretty funny to go back and look.

CB: Is that a reasonable starting point for somebody starting a strip, do you think? To start with something more broad and refine it down? Or --

JEF: I think so. I think that's the way just about everything works. You start with something broad, and eventually you narrow it and you focus and you decide what you want. Even Frazz got that way for me. You start, and it can go in many different directions. And then over time you find that it tends to go off in a few specific directions. And all of a sudden you've got a personality.

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"Birchbark," a pre-Frazz humor strip effort by Jef.


CB: Is the strip guided much at all by reader reaction?

JEF: No. No. Some -- I mean, I listen to my readers, but eventually it just has to come down to you. What's the quote by that great American philosopher Bill Cosby? He said "I don't know the secret of success. But I do know the secret of failure, and that's trying to please everyone." So there's a fine line between getting information from people; kind of taking their pulse; and letting them guide you, letting them dictate what you do. And I love my readers. One of the nice things about doing a "smart strip" is, you get smart readers. And they write the best letters, and they're the most interesting people to hear from. And yeah, I pick up on that, very definitely. But ultimately I have to draw what I know and I have to write about what I know, and hope it fits.

CB: Have you ever done anything in the strip that garnered reaction that made you thing, "Oh, I shouldn't have done that."

JEF: Yeah. A couple of times. There was one where I had Frazz and Caulfield discussing religion. Specifically, religion over science. Religion over Creation; evolution over Creationism.

CB: That's not a can of worms.

JEF: Oh no, no. And I thought, okay, fine. But a year before, I had won an award called the Wilber Award, it's from the Religion Communicator's Council. Which really kinda caught me by surprise, 'cause I'm not a particularly religious person. It was a very cool organization and a nice award. I was proud to get it. I think religion is fascinating, but almost from an observer's standpoint. Well, when I was putting this strip together I told my wife, "Either they're going to give me another award or they're going to come back and take away the one they gave me last year." You try, you know. I don't go out of my way to piss people off. But again, you've got to nudge people out of their comfort zone and get their attention and get them talking. But that one -- Some people I think it might have pushed them a little bit too hard. I got some angry letters from people saying "Don't go there. You're getting a little bit too close to sensitive issues." And I had a few different offers to save my soul, and a few offers to do other things with my soul. It's how it works out. But even that storm has died down. I don't think I lost any papers over it or anything.

There's another case too, where, you know how you'll put a 'nod' in your strip to a friend, or even, in my strip, to other authors. People I respect even though I'll never meet them in my life, I'll mention them in the strip because it's part of the real world. But a lot of times you'll do inside jokes with your friends. And I put in a nod to an old editor of mine at the papers. Like with a lot of editors and creative types, it had been a kind of contentious head-butting relationship. And he was a difficult person, but I had still had a certain amount of respect for him. And when I left the chain to go work on my own, he had called with the usual "Sayonara, good luck --" He stuck his foot in his mouth and said something dumb.So I responded by saying something dumb myself. And it got a little bit ugly that way. Eventually I thought "This is ridiculous, we don't need this." So I went to give him kind of a cameo in the strip. Kind of a 'salut,' nod kind of thing, and he took it exactly the wrong way. There's a certain kind of mentality out there where if you're inserting it into a joke you must be making fun of it. And so apparently he thought it was me taking an opportunity to take a swing at him in public. And he got very mad, swore that I'd never be in his newspaper. Eh, I was never going to be in his newspaper anyway. But still, you hate when you try to do one thing and it ends up working the other way. But that's how it goes, you can't play it safe all the time. Fortunately, instances like that are really rare. And the overwhelming majority of feedback I get is positive. It's really flattering. My biggest worry is that it'll distort my sense of reality.

CB: Here's my open question: What do you want people to know about the strip? Is there anything in particular that people usually don't touch on?

JEF: Uhh... good question. Hopefully everything I do in the strip doesn't make people confused: "Ooh, let's play games with words." I want to leave people wondering; I don't want to leave them confused. Wondering is a good thing, that's the beginning of learning. And I love that.

It's funny because, I'm so used to doing the strip that I don't see it as anything special. I see myself as extremely fortunate, but the strip itself is -- What's so special? If I can do it, how special can it be?

One of the things that continually fascinated me is, I'll get e-mail from people who are a lot smarter than I am. I somehow manage to make Frazz look like a smart strip when I'm really just an average guy who's really curious and has a lot of books on his shelf. So I can reference something in the strip, and to the reader it just popped off the top of my head. They don't know that I spent a lot of time going through the bookshelf looking up that particular quote and finding what I need. So it's funny because I'll put the strip out there and I'll get feedback from readers that I can't keep up with. It's really hilarious. A good example of how readers think I'm smarter than I am: In a real lucky coincidence, I did a strip that appeared a couple of weeks ago that mentioned James Joyce and the book 'Ulysses.' The strip appeared one week before "Bloom's Day." Are you familiar with the book Ulysses?

CB: A little.

Probably more so than I am. The book is about a day in the life of the protagonist. He spends his day walking around Dublin, and that's the book. It's like a stream of consciousness book. Which I mentioned in the strip, but had never read. It takes an afternoon to put it in the strip, but it takes forever to read that book. So by happy coincidence, the strip appeared really close to Bloom's Day, where I guess the protagonist's name is Bloom. And the day that he walks around Dublin in the book is June 16th. And the strip ran June 10th. And I had no idea, it just happened that way. And I get all these e-mails saying, "Great! But why did you put it a week before Bloom's Day?" And I'm wondering, what the heck are they talking about? I try to do the strip so other people will learn, but I'm the one who ends up learning the most from it.

VeloNews Q&A with Jef Mallett

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