In our collection of original comic-strip art, my wife and I already have several Miss Peach dailies by Mell Lazarus (see here, here, and here), but my personal grail has long been a Sunday strip from the 1960s, when Mell’s drawings of his cartoon kids were at their most expressive and his wit was always razor sharp. Well, my quest is finally complete! Because yesterday I won an ebay auction for a big, beautiful original Miss Peach Sunday strip dated 12-2-1962 with a great gag featuring Francine and Arthur. (And at a good price, which is important, because our budget for original art is currently stretched to the max!) I don’t have the artwork in hand yet, but here’s the image from the ebay auction, and though it looks pieced together from smaller scans, it is probably as good as or better than anything I could possibly produce with our little scanner/printer:
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The strip is a whopping 24 inches wide by 18 1/2 inches high, and it comes with a tissue paper overlay roughly festooned with Mell’s crayon colour notes, intended as a guide for the printer:
And you know what? At this moment I feel like I never need to buy another Miss Peach original. I have what I wanted. I’m happy. And I’m done.
From our curious collection of comic art, old and new, here are a pair of scans of the original art for two comic strips by Mell Lazarus, “Miss Peach” and “Momma”; both strips are dated 8-24-2001, and both have been personalized by the artist with a greeting and signature in red marking pen:
[CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE]
If you are a fan of Mell Lazarus’s work, but have never seen his originals in person, you might be interested to know that the strips from 2001 are drawn on lightweight sheets of paper trimmed to a mere 11 inches wide by 4.25 inches high while the strips from 1958 and 1961 are on much heavier sheets that are a whopping 18.5 by 6.06 inches!
Likewise, if you click to enlarge the scans posted above, you’ll find that both strips — which Mell drew some forty-four years after “Miss Peach” debuted in 1957 — are drawn on pre-printed templates that include the name of the strip and the author’s name, the syndicate name and Web address, the author’s copyright notice, an empty box in proportion to the size of the finished art, and underlined spaces — unused — for the specification of “% BLACK” and “LINES PER INCH.”
My guess is that Mell moved to the smaller size and lighter weight paper in part because he appreciated the convenience of being able to create custom templates for his strips that he could edit at any time and output on a standard home printer and in part because, at some point, as the Internet revolution took hold, he needed to be able to scan his artwork himself — “in house,” as it were — for electronic submission to his syndicate.
At some point, Mell also ditched his dip pen and bottles of ink and began drawing with a fine-point, fiber-tipped pen or “fineliner,” e.g., a Pilot, a Micron, or some such. The 2001 originals were drawn with a fiber-tipped pen, and though I like them well enough, I have to say, if you want to add a daily or two by Mell Lazarus to your comic-art collection, you definitely will want to get hold of one of the large “Miss Peach” originals from back in the day. The drawings are confident, amusing, and expressive — fiber-tipped “archival” fineliners may be convenient and easy to control, but paired with the right kind of paper, dip-pen nibs make beautiful lines — and the gags are often laugh-out-loud funny. And if by chance you find yourself the proud owner of a “Miss Peach” Sunday strip from the 1960s (see below), you definitely will be the envy of at least one other comic-art collector: me!
As you can see here and here, Mell initially drew his daily strips — “Miss Peach” started out this way — as wide single-panel cartoons, and he clearly understood how to parcel out the characters and the dialogue to make that format work. But he was not rigidly committed to the single-panel ideal. Rather, he never hesitated to make changes to his template to allow for more precise control of the timing of his gags. In the “Miss Peach” strip posted above, for instance, Mell has divided the large pre-printed panel in two with a single inked line, thereby establishing a strong pause between the wordy setup and the one-word punchline. And in the “Momma” strip, he has gone much farther, briskly brushing whiteout over sections of the pre-printed lines to open up the second panel right the way along the bottom and at the corners of the word balloon along the top and taking a moment to establish a gutter/pause between the third and fourth panels with two hand-drawn lines and a couple of touches of whiteout. Because even though his cartoon style is simple, and has been the subject of ridicule by some, Mell has always taken seriously the craft of writing dialogue and staging interactions that make people laugh.
Mell Lazarus retired his “Miss Peach” strip in 2002, but he has continued to draw “Momma” right up to the present day. He will celebrate his 85th birthday on 03 May 2012.
Just for fun, here are the first five pages of “Miss Peach” strips reprinted in the paperback collection, Miss Peach of the Kelly School (New York: Tempo Books, 1972):
Funny thing is, even though we bought the above strip from a different seller than the other two, and we had to outbid another person to get it — it wasn’t a “Buy It Now” listing — the final price, shipping included, came to US$55.00 even, almost exactly what we paid for each of the other two strips.
Not sure we’ll buy many more “Miss Peach” dailies after this, but I’d sure love to own a Sunday strip or two.
Mell “The Ladies’ Man” Lazarus visits the Sun-Times public service lounge on 09 April 1962:
In the past month or so, my wife and I have become the proud owners of two pieces of original art from the second year of the amazing 45-year run, 1957 to 2002, of the comic strip, Miss Peach, by Mell Lazarus. Although I feel that Lazarus did his best work in his Sunday strips, where he was able more fully to indulge his tremendous gift for comic dialogue, I was thrilled to be able to purchase two fine dailies, dated 09-09-58 and 09-24-58, in two separate auctions, for a mere US$55.50 each, shipping from the USA to Canada included. Here are the strips, which, btw, are not only huge — the paper is 18.5 inches wide by 6.06 inches high — but also in excellent condition, especially considering that they’re more than 50 years old:
Now, I am fully aware that many academically trained artists hate Mell Lazarus’s style of cartooning in Miss Peach, dismissing it as “childish” or worse, but as for me, well, I’ve always had a soft spot for the big-headed, big-nosed, sharp-tongued kids of the Kelly School. Modelled to a large extent on Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts, Lazarus’s Miss Peach combined economical but expressive and amusing drawings with witty and incisive social observation and punch lines that could make you laugh and squirm at the same time. The effectiveness of Lazarus’s visual shorthand is especially evident in his characters’ facial expressions, which in my experience always deliver more relevant and touching emotion than Lazarus’s (and Schulz’s) critics would have you believe possible.
In the first decade and a half of his career, Lazarus, who was never short on ambition, steadily worked his way up in the newspaper comics world, going from fledgling freelancer/comic-strip artist — his first, moderately successful strips were “Wee Women” and “Li’l One” — to an assistant position with Al Capp and Elliot A. Caplin’s Toby Press, to art director/comics editor at Toby Press, to nationally syndicated cartoonist. Following the success of Miss Peach, Lazarus, restless as ever, went on to create a short-lived humour-adventure strip, Pauline McPeril, with artist Jack Rickard, in 1966 — it was cancelled after three years — and then bounced back with a second comic-strip hit with Momma, in 1970. And for the next 30 years, Lazarus wrote and drew two syndicated strips, Miss Peach and Momma, until health issues caused him to reduce his work load by dropping Miss Peach in 2002. Momma, however, is still going strong!
But Mell Lazarus hasn’t only had success with readers; he’s also enjoyed the respect and approbation of his peers, winning the Best in Humour Strip Award from the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) in 1973 and 1979, the Reuben from the NCS for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year in 1982 for his work on Miss Peach, and the Silver T-Square from the NCS “for outstanding dedication or service to the NCS or the profession” in 2000. And as if that wasn’t enough, Lazarus’s fellow cartoonists also elected him President of the National Cartoonists Society for two terms, 1989 to 1991 and 1991 to 1993.
Finally, in addition to cartooning, Mell Lazarus has found time to write television scripts, plays, two novels — The Boss is Crazy, Too and The Neighborhood Watch — and, well, you get the picture. He’s always been a busy guy. But not too busy to answer his own front door: