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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 02/27/2011

The 'Riffs Interview: 'FRAZZ' creator Jef Mallett on art, childhood -- and inspiration at the 10-year mark

By Michael Cavna

(Editor's note: A shorter version of this interview appears in today's print edition of KidsPost.)

frazz1.jpg JEF MALLET AT THE BOARD (photos by Jeffrey Sauger for The Washington Post)

Neither Jef Mallett nor his comic-strip avatar, Frazz, has children, but both the cartoonist and his fictional grade-school janitor greatly appreciate kids as a constant source of discovery and inspiration.

Younger people, Mallett says, "haven't had time to gather as much utter nonsense as grown-ups are full of. So in that sense, kids may be the smarter ones. So I pay attention to them."

The Michigan-based creator of the syndicated strip "Frazz", in fact, had wanted to be a cartoonist since he himself was a boy. He created his first comic for his local newspaper while still in high school. And while Mallett would go off to college and study nursing, his dream of drawing a comic strip that would be read in papers across the country didn't fade.


In 2001, Mallett was able to launch his successful strip by going back to school: "Frazz" [right] centers on the Bryson Elementary exploits of students including the boy genius Caulfield; such teachers as the excellent Mr. Burke and the difficult Mrs. Olsen; and the titular Edwin "Frazz" Frasier, a hit songwriter turned maintenance man.

As "Frazz" celebrates its 10th birthday this April, Comic Riffs caught up with Mallett, 48, about his creativity, his artistry -- and how kids continue to provide that crucial spark of discovery:

MICHAEL CAVNA: So Jef, do you remember when you first began cartooning?

JEF MALLETT: I started farther back than my memory goes. I think all kids draw, and they're all better cartoonists than most adults. See, most adults quit at some point. I don't know why. I never quit. I just kept drawing and trying to get better, and here I am. That sounds like hard work and discipline, but the truth is, I've always loved it.

MC: So what was your journey from young aspiring artist to professional cartoonist? And did getting Frazz syndicated fulfill a dream or long-sought quest, or did you first approach it more as a new, intriguing sideline?

JM: Drawing a comic strip for a living was always the goal. I drew my first daily comic strip when I was in high school, for the local newspaper in Big Rapids, Mich. Then I got a real job and got distracted for about 20 years. That's good, though - life counts for a lot. I'd hate to be stuck now with characters I made up on only an 18-year-old's experience.

MC: Is Frazz based on anyone from real life, past or present -- an amalgam or your comic doppelganger, perhaps? Believe it was Chuck Jones who said there was a little bit of him, personality trait-wise, in every Termite Terrace character he worked on.

JM: Frazz himself is me. Well, me but a lot cooler. All good writers are pretty much writing about their own lives. Some of them just cover it up more than others do. I do the opposite. I draw a guy who has a more interesting life than mine, and then I try to live up to it.


MC: What comic strips or cartoonists inspired you -- or perhaps inspire you to this day?

JM: I have a lot of favorites and influences and I don't try to hide any of them, but people are more familiar with some of them than others. Let's get Bill Watterson out there right away -- everybody anywhere near my age is influenced by him. George Booth is a huge influence. The way he makes his characters move around on a still, 2-D sheet of paper is splendid. Jim Borgman was a favorite long before he started drawing "Zits." Garry Trudeau showed us all that comic strips can be serious and complicated while still being a delight to read. Washington's own Richard Thompson is a long-time favorite, and his strip "Cul de Sac" is a masterpiece. There are so many -- and then there are the non-cartoonist influences, like painters, writers and musicians. Nobody does art alone. We are all, as they say, standing on the shoulders of giants ... and trying to steal them blind.

MC: I've heard several cartoonists say it's best to work diligently -- when learning the craft of cartooning -- to get all the inevitable thousands of bad drawings out of your system. And Mike Peters has said the first thousand or so gags for a new feature are the easy part -- what's tough is the creative journey after that. Can you speak to your development and longevity as both an artist and a comics writer -- and what keeps you fresh and inspired?

JM: My answer to that is to create good, interesting, lifelike characters and build your drawings and stories around that instead of creating characters who fit the ideas in your head. Because stories have to be replaced by more stories. Characters generate those stories on their own.

MC: How do you keep your school-set characters and stories truthful and relevant? Memory? Relatives? Paid advisory staff?

JM: Typing and drawing is only the tiniest part of writing and art. The huge, huge majority of it is getting out there, doing stuff and paying attention so you have something to write about. I don't have kids, and I certainly don't have a staff. But I do know a lot of kids, and it turns out they aren't a lot different from adults. They don't have as much experience, but they're way more curious. And if they haven't had time to gather as much knowledge, they also haven't had time to gather as much utter nonsense as grown-ups are full of. So in that sense, kids may be the smarter ones. So I pay attention to them.

MC: Can you speak to being an athlete / triathlete yourself -- how does that inform "Frazz," and do you find athletics helps you mentally at the drawing board?

JM: I'm a big believer in the whole sound mind/sound body thing. The brain, amazing as it is, is still part of your body, and if you let your body go you're just making it harder on your brain. Some people can pull that off -- some people have no choice -- but my brain works a lot better when I'm fit, and I don't think I'm anything special.

And beyond just being fit and feeling good, racing triathlon and its three different parts (that's what I do, anyway) keeps life interesting. In fact, without being too groovy about it, every race is kind of its own little life. You do great, you melt down, you surprise yourself, you hurt, you feel great, often all in the same race. If you're paying attention, you get a lot of material from that. Plus, if you get crazy enough with it, you do things you never would have thought of. I've biked up mountains from Seattle to Italy, I've swum across the Straits of Mackinac and from Alcatraz to San Francisco, I'm running the Boston Marathon in just a few weeks, and that's just a little of it. I haven't been bored in a long, long time.

MC: How many hours a week do you spend be on the strip, from drawing-board time to syndicate dealings to promotion or other matters?

JM: It's kind of hard to say, because you feel like you're working all the time. And since you're always writing even when you're not at the desk, maybe you are. I do things assembly-line style, where I write up a whole week's ideas at once, and then sketch them all, then ink them all, shade them all, etc. It's a little more efficient and it helps with the continuity. I'd say the strip itself takes about one 40-50 hour week to draw, and then there's all the other stuff. I write a blog now -- -- which takes more time than I ever could have imagined. It's hard to keep up with, but it also helps my syndicate and publishers remind people who I am, and it helps me write better. It's all practice and cross-training.

MC: Any advice for kids who want to draw cartoons for a living? And did you study art in school?

JM: The shoe company Nike had a long-running ad campaign that went, "Just do it," and nobody has said it better before or since. But you have to do it like you mean it. You can't just draw when you feel like it. Draw every day, and try to tell a story with each picture you draw. Cartooning looks like a drawing job, but it's mostly a writing job.

Have a goal in mind, but be ready to change it. You'll discover new talents and preferences in yourself, and the world is changing so fast that you can't decide on one thing and expect it to be the same 20 years later. And be patient. Like I said earlier, life experience counts for a lot. Which is also a reminder: Don't just sit inside and draw. Live life full tilt so you've got something to write about.

College is a great idea -- though I left to work for a newspaper before I graduated; not the best idea, but it turned out OK this time -- and so is studying art, but don't feel you have to major in it. I almost think it could be better to major in something else and minor in art. You'll get all the basics and less pressure to do weird, trendy or ultra-specialized stuff. You can study writing, but you know, in college you're writing all the time no matter what you're studying. I studied nursing, of all things, and all that anatomy and physiology taught me more about how the human body is put together and moves than any art class could.

Just remember: Whatever you draw or write, however insignificant it seems, do it like you mean it. Never coast. When I draw "Frazz," I remember that every strip I draw is going to be the first "Frazz" somebody sees. And you know, everything you do is that way.

MC: Lastly, anything personal about yourself you'd like to share with young readers?

JM: I don't have kids, but I've been married for 23 years. My wife, Patty, does my lettering, which is great. She's a really good editor, and if she's doing my printing, she's going over my writing and catching most of my mistakes. I've got two cats (Sparky and Coach) and one dog (Zoey) who's part border collie, part terrier and all squirrel-herder. I haven't had a television that did anything more than play videos in more than 20 years, and I don't miss it a bit. Along with my love of racing a long way in a straight line, my big hobby is baking bread and pizzas. If I weren't drawing and writing, I might well have tried owning a little restaurant. Good thing I dodged that one!


By Michael Cavna  | February 27, 2011; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Comic Strip  | Tags:  Frazz, Jef Mallett  
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I've been reading the comics, or having them read to me for the better part of my 82 years. Back in my childhood they were called the funny papers. These days there's not so much that's funny. I dote on Frazz and believe he should appear in the Post 7 days a week. How about that, Amy Lago ? Ginny

Posted by: gsnave | February 27, 2011 10:44 AM | Report abuse

The interview is noteworthy for the question not asked, namely how Mallett feels about his strip's being relegated to a less-than-daily publication schedule in Kids' Post, where the readership won't even understand, much less appreciate, a substantial portion of its humor. This, of course, while "Classic Peanuts" continues to be reprinted daily in the "adults" comics, where the readership can already recite them from memory. Mallett would probably have a number of questions about that policy that he would like to pose to the Post's person who edits-but-apparently-does-not-actually-read the comics section, but just like us, he will never get an opportunity, in any print or online forum, to do so.

Posted by: seismic-2 | February 27, 2011 7:29 PM | Report abuse

Boy, Frazz is a good strip. Sure wish I could read it every day. Oh, wait, we must save room for "Judge Parker".

Posted by: Gunga2009 | February 28, 2011 12:08 PM | Report abuse

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