Mike Peters: The Man Behind Mother Goose and Grimm
Mike Peters extracts humor from catastrophe, political angst, private fears, and a goose's pet dog...
(page 2 of 2)
One Sunday afternoon, Mike and Marian were pulling away from his parents’ house, planning to drive out west for a picnic. Bang! The car screeched to a halt. A tire had blown. On one of his mother’s bad days, that would’ve been all it took. “The day is ruined!” she would have announced.
“I think we’ve got a flat tire,” he said, his voice tentative.
“So let’s change it,” Marian said.
It felt like an epiphany. No drama. We change the tire, then we go have fun.
With that, the tone for their marriage was set.
In 1966, Mike was drafted. He got through basic training by drawing cartoons of its ordeals late at night in the men’s room. Marian went with him to Okinawa, Japan, where he worked as an artist for the U.S. Army’s 7th Psychological Operations Group. She landed a teaching job that carried military rank, so she took him to the officers’ club once a week.
When he was discharged, he went back to the Daily News. His mentor, Bill Mauldin—a St. Louis native who’d won two Pulitzer Prizes for cartooning, and who was the reason Mike wanted to do political cartoons in the first place—came down the hall from the Chicago Sun-Times, which shared the building, and told Mike he’d just recommended him for a job at the Dayton Daily News.
Bespectacled, Mike wore a coat and tie to his new job. One day it hit him: He was now officially a mild-mannered cartoonist. He put on the Superman suit Marian had bought him for Halloween and wore it to the next editorial meeting, arriving early and climbing out on a ledge so he could make his entrance: “Sorry I’m late. I ran into lousy weather over Cleveland.”
Henry Kissinger was secretary of state, and Mike was racking his brain to come up with a cartoon about him. The TV kept blaring news about the first space shuttle being flown from California to Florida on a huge plane, and the kids were yelling that the space shuttle was gonna go over Dayton, and Mike was yelling, “Please, keep it down!” and all of a sudden the house started shaking, and a shadow passed over them, and everything went black.
“The shuttle just went over,” Mike realized. “And I’m living in the city where the Wright brothers invented the airplane.” He crumpled the Kissinger sheets and drew the shuttle on top of a huge plane on top of the Wright brothers’ plane. After it was published, the astronauts asked for a copy.
“It takes a friggin’ supersonic plane and the house to shake and go black for me to say, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t I do the shuttle?’” he thought afterward. “When you’re trying to do some big, heavy cartoon, just be listening to things around you, because those are the things that people care most about.”
When Mike’s eldest daughter, Marci, was 12, she sank into the bleakest, angriest of moods. “The only time she would ever talk to me was if she needed me desperately,” Mike says. “One day she called and said, “Dad! Dad! I left my English term paper in my room. Bring it down as fast as you can!”
When Marian walked into their bedroom, Mike was stepping into his Superman tights.
“What are you doing?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Copyright Grimmy, Inc., Distributed by King Features Syndicate
He put a trench coat over the costume and drove to school. “I’m walking down the hall in a trench coat with a long red cape sticking out behind me and red shoes, saying hi to the janitor, and nobody says, ‘What the f—k are you doing?’” He walked up to the glass window in Marci’s classroom door, took off his trench coat, and put his hand on his hip like Superman. He heard a high girl’s voice say, “Oh shit.” The teacher came to the door and said, “Why, Superman, what brings you here?”
“You have a little girl here named Marci Peters,” Superman replied, knowing his daughter would cringe at the “little.” “She wanted me to bring this down as fast as I could!”
Marci didn’t speak to him for months.
In 1980, Mike decided that he should stop trying to win big prizes and just draw stuff that made him laugh.
In 1981, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning.
The same year, he did a series of animated editorial cartoons, “Peters Postscripts,” for NBC’s Nightly News. His work was now appearing in Newsweek, TIME, U.S. News & World Report, and The New Republic.
That spring, Our Lady of Armageddon invited Mike back to speak. CBC wanted him in its Hall of Fame. Pickled tink, he started paging through his old high-school yearbooks for inspiration; maybe he could do a few cartoons for the occasion.
In the senior yearbook, he found a note from Mr. Morgan, his English teacher:
Dear Mr. Peters,
You had better start growing up really soon because, remember, you can’t always draw cartoons.
Fritos remained Mike’s muse. He crunched them nervously, one handful after another, whenever he had to think up an idea. And in 1984, he needed a lot of ideas: He was doing The World of Cartooning With Mike Peters, a 14-part interview series for PBS, and starting a comic strip, Mother Goose & Grimm, about a fairy-tale goose and her pet dog. His doctor kept lecturing him about high cholesterol, so he tried a trick: He’d take a big handful of Fritos and then, while his mouth was full, crush the rest of the bag and toss it in the trash.
One day Marian walked in and saw that the entire top half of her husband’s body had disappeared into his trash can.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
He came up licking salt and grease from his fingers.
“Oh my God,” she said. “You’re the dog.”
And that’s when it clicked. He’d been drawing Mother Goose & Grimm for months without realizing it.
He was the dog.
After Vanity Fair put a naked, pregnant Demi Moore on its August 1991 cover, Mike drew Saddam Hussein, naked and pregnant on the cover of a magazine called Insanity Fair. Under the headline “Saddam Bares All,” Hussein stands, hands splayed to cradle a distended stomach emblazoned with the sign for atomic energy. He’s looking straight at you, eyes a little crossed, mouth disappearing beneath his bushy mustache, and he looks somehow vulnerable, caught.
Mike’s good at capturing vulnerability.
A bleeding-heart liberal, he tried hard, during the Reagan years, to draw President Ronald Reagan as mean, but it never worked. That’s because he wasn’t mean, in Mike’s opinion, just clueless. When you cartoon, yes, you work broad-brush, you stereotype, you exaggerate—but you can’t lie.
“During Nixon’s time, God, it was great to be a cartoonist,” he says. “Nixon was such a scoundrel. James G. Watt was fun to draw, too, because you knew that he was conniving. There are some people, when you draw them—if I did a bad cartoon of Obama, I couldn’t make him mean and angry. He’s very calm, very steady. You know he thinks about things.
“I learned very early in cartooning—there are some guys I wanted to be like. Paul Conrad, he was a fabulously mean, angry cartoonist. Herblock [Herb Block], when he got into his office at The Washington Post, you would hear him breathing like Darth Vader, and he would do wonderfully vicious cartoons.” He sighs. “Unfortunately, I’m not mean and angry. I’ve never been. The only reason people would ever take the time to come back and look at my work is if it made them laugh.”
When Mike’s editorial cartoons started to be syndicated, he was giddy at the compliment—but it didn’t make him work any faster. He was once threatened with the bill for FedExing his late cartoon to hundreds of newspapers. And one day, when he was really behind and fiddling, Marian walked into his office, took out a dollar bill, and calmly set it on fire. She let it crumble into ash, then took out another bill, lit the corner…
“If he doesn’t have a good idea, I go shopping,” she says. “There is no assurance for him; it’s all got to come from within. If he draws something he likes, the entire world could tell him it’s shit, and he wouldn’t care.”
That hasn’t happened, though. “His cartoons are incisive; they are astute,” says cartoonist Steve Kelley, editor of Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year. “They reduce pompous egos to little puddles of goo.
“His style is wonderful because there’s so much depth—so much black ink that you simply cannot avoid it, even if you wanted to,” Kelley continues. “And his work is disarmingly whimsical. On the surface, it appears almost silly, and as you’re walking away, you realize your legs were cut off at the knees.”
Kelley points out that not only do political cartoons reach far more readers than caustic editorials, they also have more power, sneaking behind people’s defenses in a matter of seconds.
“If you beat your chest about some policy, you are taking it seriously; if you ridicule it, you are dismissing it,” he says. “To point and giggle is the worst thing you can do to somebody who wants to be taken seriously.”
Mother Goose & Grimm is different, Kelley says—not devastating, just fanciful. “It’s all play for Mike; it’s cotton candy.”
Mike jams his Pookie—the little red pillow he hugs for reassurance—between his back and the beige porcelain tub. He plugs his laptop into the outlet in the undersink cabinet. The Colorado house has thick forest-green carpet on the floor, not hard, cold ceramic tile like the Orlando, Fla., house, so his tush will be reasonably comfortable for the next two hours. He’ll stay here—no phone, no Fritos—until he has an idea for Mother Goose & Grimm.
It might take three days of two-hour sessions in the sensory-deprivation tank of his bathroom before a single good idea emerges. When he started this ritual, his housekeeper worried for weeks: Was Mr. Peters ill? She was used to him working on his editorial cartoons out at the wooden drawing board with the TV going constantly: CNN, C-SPAN, FOX News to get riled up. But the comic strip was different, personal. It had to come from within.
Mike doesn’t pretend the world’s rosy, but he does manage to filter and soften adversarial relationships, especially in MGG. Grimm started out wanting Attila, the cat, to jump out the window; now the two roll their eyes at each other’s foibles like an old married couple. Animals hunt prey—so Mike puts Grimmy in an easy chair reading To Kill a Mockingbird, saying, “Darn… I thought this was an instruction manual.” Or he draws a lion tossing bones over his shoulder, telling Dorothy and the Tin Man, “Relax. Why do you think they call them Munchkins?”
True to the Brothers Grimm, his fairy-tale cartoons make it easier to tolerate what’s dark. He learned how to laugh through anger or upset as a kid, and the lessons left him gentle.
In the early days, Mike dipped pen in ink. Then hard-tip felt pens came out. Then he went to brushes; he still uses brush pens with cartridges. “And now I have this thing that cost $2,500, a tablet you can actually draw on with a stylus. I’ve had it for half a year, and I’m afraid to plug it in.”
His office is an archaeological dig. Books are laid on the shelves horizontally, so you don’t see the spines, only the white pages. Every time he wants one, he has to look through all of them to find it. Near the drawing table, he has a copy machine, so he can draw things small and blow them up or draw them big and shrink them. There’s a little picture of Grimmy flexing his muscles, another with Grimmy holding a huge heart (for Marian). His 1991 Reuben Award is here, naming him Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year—his profession’s highest honor. His Pulitzer is here.
His secret? Never settling for an idea that’s just good enough. Trying again, letting the sheets stack up in layers on his drawing table until something makes him giggle, because if it doesn’t make him laugh right then, he’ll groan when he sees it in print.
Once he was in a mall in D.C., waiting while Marian shopped, and he saw a woman reading the comics in The Washington Post. “I knew where my strip was, right at the bottom. I’m looking at her, and she gets down to the bottom, and I see her giggle. It was the best feeling in the world! I think about that lady when I do a cartoon: Will she giggle?”
Another secret is doing more rather than less: three or four editorial cartoons a week and seven comic strips. “If I do two strips—the storyline, and then whatever else I find funny that’s not the storyline—that keeps me excited every day. Because I may get tired of a storyline, or I may get tired of the dog talking to the goose about something, so then I switch over to another strip, and I get excited.”
He loves visual puns, like his CAT scan cartoon, in which a cat perches on a patient’s knees, scrutinizing his chest with binoculars. But now that the strip is printed in many different languages, he has to hold back—unless it’s so great he can’t stop himself.
For the editorial cartoons, he mines anything that pisses him off, then filters out all the excess rhetoric and data, letting the picture and a few words carry the essence. “There have been thousands of editorials written about the Vietnam War, but I can’t quote you from any of those articles,” he says. “But David Levine drawing Lyndon Johnson lifting his shirt to show his scar from his operation, and the scar is in the shape of Vietnam?
“You think there are things you can’t do cartoons about, and the truth is, you can,” he remarks. “Like 9/11. Or when the Challenger crashed. On the first two or three days, what you do is what you feel, and that’s just horror. You can’t do anything funny; you can’t do anything mean yet. So you do the Statue of Liberty with her eyes covered. Then, after those three days, you can start asking some questions, and at day four or five, you can start saying, ‘Why did this happen?’”
His favorite cartoons are the ones that get him in the most trouble, like the picture of Jesus back in the Moral Majority days, with a caption saying that if this man were a candidate, he would be for social reform, against a big military budget, and against capital punishment, and therefore unacceptable to the religious right. “I got so many bad letters,” he groans. “Then two teachers sent me envelopes filled with letters written by their fifth-grade students. Two separate teachers had asked their students to explain the cartoon. And all the students got it. They got the irony.”
We lose that ability to grasp irony, he says, because we get rigid. He takes a sip of water, then slides the glass forward. “I could give a Republican this glass of water and they would find something wrong if Obama had touched it. And if Cheney had touched it, I would say, ‘Oh, that sonofabitch.’ You get so clawed into your extremes.”
Gowned figures processed sedately into Washington University’s quadrangle. The chancellor…the faculty in their Ph.D. hoods…the 2012 honorary-degree recipients, among them feminist crusader Gloria Steinem, retired Monsanto chairman and CEO Richard Mahoney, internationally recognized diabetes researcher Dr. C. Ronald Kahn…
And cartoonist Mike Peters, who would give the commencement address.
Copyright Grimmy, Inc., Distributed by King Features Syndicate
He was nervous and a little sweaty in the morning sun, but he didn’t flub a word. He said his fraternity brothers had reminded him that his first degree was honorary. He talked about his mother being on TV: “It was like Oprah and I Love Lucy all in the same show.” He said he was “a weird little kid. I was cross-eyed, so one of my eyes was always looking at the other eye, and any picture I had always had me smiling, but it was sad… And I was very skinny; I had a concave chest… I had this horrible stutter… My mom would introduce me to 100 people because she had this TV show, and she would say, ‘Hi, this is my son, Mike. He’s a future president of the United States,’ and I’d look up cross-eyed, and I’d go c-c-c-c-c. And people would go, ‘Oh, Jesus,’ and then kind of turn away… I started drawing because I thought if I drew, I wouldn’t have to open my mouth.”
He had the crowd of thousands’ single-minded attention, and they were laughing hard. He smoothed his gown, wiped perspiration from his forehead, and sketched more scenes from his life, sliding his Superman suit in somewhere in the middle. He talked about dreams and unlikely successes, and he urged the graduates, “Write down the things you love…and then for six or seven months, try to get a job in those things you love.”
He ended by calling out, “You, the class of 2012, you are Superman!”—ripping open his black gown to reveal his seventh Superman suit.
Every time 1525 Gregg Avenue in Dogtown is sold, the sellers tell the new owners, “A cartoonist will be coming up to the front porch; just let him sit there.” Mike goes back every time he’s in town, sits on the porch, and lets the images wash over him. That first decade of life was so free, so pure. His mother didn’t go to work until he started school; before that, they used to paint dinosaurs together.
He felt a bit ashamed—although not enough to stop going back—until he read about Walt Disney going alone to his “dreaming tree” whenever he visited his hometown of Marceline, Mo. “He was keeping the kid in him alive,” Mike says.
Mike and Marian are friends with Ken Burns, and he recently showed them footage from his upcoming documentary. Marian laughed a little too hard at the part where a member of Teddy Roosevelt’s staff prepares a guest by saying there’s something he has to understand: Mr. Roosevelt is 6.
Mike might be older than 6, but he’s definitely under 10, still in that golden age before his mother became a star and teachers got strict and everybody started taking everything so seriously. Plus, he has dyslexia, Marian points out, “and that is just another definition of creativity. When you have your normal human with synapses in nice little lines, they get patterned, and you always put the dishes back on the same shelf—but you may never come up with a comic strip.”
Life with a husband so much younger can get annoying, but Marian and Mike both realize that by managing the practical side of their lives, she’s preserving something essential for him, something uninhibited and innocent. Everything is new to Mike; everything is special. He greets people with a golden retriever’s exuberance, tells strangers he loves them, hugs them goodbye. His energy spills over and never runs dry.
“He’s hard to keep up with,” admits Tuffli. “We’ve gone on safaris with them to Africa, three-week cruises to the Baltic—there’s an energy most normal people can’t take for too long.”
Mike inherited his mother’s buoyancy and mischief, but because he didn’t suffer her childhood, he doesn’t have her temper, Tuffli adds. “You never knew what you were going to get with her. You always know what you’re going to get with Mike.”
You’ll get Grimmy.