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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 01/ 8/2009

'Mother Goose & Grimm' vs. Juan Valdez--The Lawsuit

By Michael Cavna

THIS JUST IN: Cartoonist Mike Peters v. Juan Valdez

"Mother Goose and Grimm" cartoonist MIKE PETERS is used to getting sued over his political cartoons. What he never anticipated was facing international legal action over a comic strip.

Now, though, he could be in legal hot water over a cartoon that invoked the character Juan Valdez -- and provoked the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, which represents more than a half-million growers.

Beginning Dec. 29, Peters ran a weeklong series whose comic premise played off the fact that the creator of the Pringles can, who died in 2008, had some of his ashes buried in his invention. (The Washington Post blog Comic Riffs wrote about this series Dec. 29.) On Jan. 2, "Mother Goose and Grimm" -- referencing violence in Colombia -- had a character say: "Y'know, there's a big crime syndicate in Colombia. So when they say there's a little bit of Juan Valdez in every can, maybe they're not kidding."

The cartoon spoofed the federation's marketing character. Now, according to the Associated Press, the Colombian federation says it will sue Peters "for damage and harm, detriment to intellectual property and defamation." The federation, founded in 1927, will file the suit Friday for at least $20 million and will demand a retraction from any newspaper that ran the cartoon, according to the federation's Web site and AP. (The strip ran in The Washington Post.)

MIKE PETERS (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)Enlarge Image

Peters, who is also a Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist, invoked a number of commercially popular product characters in the weeklong series, including Colonel Sanders, Betty Crocker and Dr. Pepper. According to Peters's syndicate, King Features, the strip appears in about 800 newspapers.

On Wednesday, Comic Riffs spoke with Mike Peters about the series of cartoons and the reportedly imminent legal action:

MICHAEL CAVNA: So, were you completely surprised by this news?
MIKE PETERS: It's crazy. I was totally blindsided by this, I LOVE their coffee. I buy Colombian. I learned about the Pringles guy and thought: "What a great little [premise for] a series." ... I thought, "I need to figure out how to keep it going for a week." So I started thinking of all the different products and their characters and [Juan Valdez] was one of them. i never thought that that was going to be the thing that got me in trouble. If anyone was going to call, it was going to be the Pringles [family] or something. I tried to do it with some sort of taste.

MC: So how did you get word that there was controversy around the strip?
MP: It was from the e-mails that I got from readers. I haven't got any letters or e-mails [from the Colombia Coffee Growers]. It was just readers and so, that's all I know. People then started calling me up and saying to me: "You ought to be sued." I never knew Juan Valdez was like George Washington in Colombia. I still haven't heard anything from anybody -- I called my syndicate and said: "Heads-up about this."

MC: So do you understand why the Colombian Coffee Growers might be offended?
MP: What the cartoon said was that there is an underground [syndicate] in Colombia. So I am totally amazed at this. I'm an editorial cartoonist. I expect bad things from my editorial cartoons, not from my comic strip.

MC: Some years ago, you drew some heat from a "Mother Goose and Grimm" that was a pun off of the term "penis envy," right?
MP: Yes. The caption was "Peanuts Envy" with Charlie Brown. I just got some bad letters. Mainly, I was just didn't want to get letters from Charles Schulz and get him mad at me.

MC: So do you get used to drawing fire and controversy?
MP: You're always going to offend someone. If I draw a smiley face, I'm going to offend somebody. And God love the people down there in Colombia. I was not trying to do anything bad about them. I was just making a joke about product characters. I immediately sent out an e-mail to reply to readers who were upset. I got around 50 e-mails from readers who were upset. Some were in Spanish. Immediately we sent out a [statement].

MC: Have you ever been sued before for drawing a commercial character?
MP: A long time ago, I got sued for using Reddy Kilowatt, the character that was representing the electric company -- with a [stick-figure] lightning body and arms and legs. And they sued me because I was [painting] him as a bad person. Whenever electric bills were up, I and a couple of other editorial cartoonists used that as a symbol for the electric company. It was for the [Dayton] Daily News, and it went to the Supreme Court. This was 30 years ago. The court came out and said this was satire. They said that [in the cartoons], the symbol was not selling a product, so [we won].

MC: So, do you have anything to say to the Colombia Coffee Growers?
MP: For the record, I love Colombian coffee -- it keeps many cartoonists going.

By Michael Cavna  | January 8, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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Mike Peters is still alive?

Posted by: tomtildrum | January 8, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I was going to send an article I read about this to you. I should have known you'd already be up to date about it. Maybe Betty Crocker, Dr. Pepper, KFC etc. are going to jump into the lawsuit also (not really). It looks like as if some people need a lesson in understanding humor in comic strips.

Posted by: elyrest | January 8, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

When a consortium of coffee producers adopts as its slogan, "there's a little bit of Juan Valdez in every can", then what do they expect? Surely images of Steve Buscemi's cremation from "The Big Lebowski" must come to everyone's mind, so it was inevitable that some cartoonist would verbalize what everyone was already thinking. Grow up, coffee producers!

Posted by: seismic-2 | January 8, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the Columbian Coffee Growers Assn. needs a strong shot of humor with their caffeine. The Ethic Soup blog has a really funny article on the "25 reasons you know you've had too much coffee" and one of those ways is: Juan Valdex names his donkey after you. Another is: you know you've had too much coffee when you start chewing on OTHER people's fingernails.

You can read it at:

Posted by: s_mceachern | January 8, 2009 9:10 PM | Report abuse

As an American who lives in Colombia, I can see both sides of this issue. I realize it seems ridiculous to get upset, and maybe with a slogan like that they did have it coming. However, I MET Juan Valdez and a bunch of people from the Coffee Federation yesterday, and I can see why they´re upset. Colombia has enough difficulty changing its public image (the country itself has already changed - Medellin has a lower homicide rate than DC.) without the constant snide jokes. The coffee industry in Colombia has done a lot to salvage this country from drug trafficking and violence, so they don´t like to see their industry defamed.

I learned yesterday, though, that the Coffee Federation has invited Mike Peters to come to Colombia and check out the coffee plantations for himself! I think that´s a great idea - Colombia is a beautiful country and they are long over due for some respect from the international community!

Posted by: Colombian-American | January 13, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

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