By Marc Barringer, Special to VeloNews
There’s a reason that Frazz, the songwriting janitor in the comic strip of the same name, spends a fair amount of his free time either running or riding a bicycle. His creator, cartoonist Jef Mallett, has raced the road and still competes in the occasional triathlon. We asked writer Marc Barringer to have a chat with Mallett, and a transcript of their conversation follows below. – Editor
VeloNews: What? A lead character who is a cyclist? How did that happen?
Jef Mallett: Pure self-centeredness. I modeled Frazz after myself – or, rather, I modeled Frazz after who I’d like to think I could be if I were a lot cooler. And I ride a bike. I always have. All my adult life I’ve bounced back and forth between bicycle racing and triathlon, being sure to switch before I was in danger of actually becoming good at either. These days it’s triathlon, and likely to stay that way. (Bike racing’s just a little too dangerous for my now-self-employed-without-a-substitute self; also, triathlon demands less actual racing, which is less disruptive to my top cycling priority, which is riding tandem with my wife, Patty.) But I’m still a cyclist at heart. Look at my swim and run splits, and you’ll see that I speak the truth.
VN: Do the cycling and triathlon references in the panels ever draw responses of “What is that”?
JM: Not so far. I try to keep the cycling stuff true enough for the insiders without being too insider-ish for the general public. The lack of critical mail would seem to say I’ve either succeeded or alienated people so much they don’t even bother. I get a lot of great mail from cyclists, though. They’re happy to see bike and tri’ material that looks like it was drawn by an actual bike-and-tri’ geek. And it’s more than letters, too. Patty will Google me every so often, and she’ll find these newsgroup debates over whether Frazz rides Shimano or Campy, that sort of thing. It’s a hoot. And it’s all very flattering.
VN: Frazz is often seen wearing the types of T-shirts given away in swag bags and as door prizes. Does this ever draw the wrath of companies, lawyers and the like?
JM: Quite the opposite. I’ve never had a company gripe, but I’ve heard from some companies that were delighted. And delightful, I might add. I’ve made some really good friends after I met them when they saw their logo in “Frazz.” And since people ask me this, I’ll spill: Yes, some companies have been very nice with gifts, discounts or deals. That was never the goal with the logos, and it still isn’t – they’re just there because that’s the kind of shirt a guy like Frazz would wear – but it’s a really nice benefit. Especially since those favors come from real people who, no surprise, turn out to be very cool. Faceless corporations? Not in cycling. At least not the ones I hear from.
VN: Would Frazz be a leg shaver?
JM: Well, since he’s modeled after me, I guess he would be. Or at least I don’t bother to draw him with leg hair in the first place. The older and slower I get, the more I feel a little silly about the razor, but tough. It’s still practical, and Patty still likes the way my legs look.
VN: Would Frazz like to spend a day with Phil and Paul? Bobke?
JM: Oh, hell, yes. One strip last summer featured Frazz and Caulfield playing catch on Bobke’s Bluff; you get in touch, Bob, and the original’s yours. Meeting people is one of the best parts of this whole business. I met Andy Hampsten because of the strip, and he’s even nicer than his reputation. Same with his brother, sister-in-law and a bunch of his friends. I met Maynard Hershon through the strip, too (which is funny, since I had illustrated a book of his 15 years ago but never met him then); he’s also terrific. I’ve had the chance to e-mail back and forth with Nicole DeBoom, who is terrific. And Lew Kidder, who is Sheila Taormina’s coach, something of a triathlon legend, and also a great person. And the aforementioned people associated with companies and shops, and no doubt a few who are such good people that they’ll forgive me for having a brain cramp and failing to mention them right now.
VN: What are you riding?
JM: In order of importance: (1) My tandem is a Burley Rivazza. I wouldn’t want to give up any bike or sport, but my riding with Patty would be the last to go. (2) My competition bike: A Cervelo P3. There aren’t enough E’s in sweeeeeeet for that bike. (3) My road bike: An old Trek OCLV. Still does the job very nicely, which is probably good, since I could easily go broke if I had an excuse to buy any of the other bikes I’m currently lusting over. (4) My mountain bike: An even older Klein Rascal. I confess I don’t ride in the dirt much. Not that I don’t love it. It’s just more appealing to go out the door and ride on the road instead of spending that time driving to a trail. Goodness. That’s a lot of bikes. But that’s the nice thing about not being 21 any more – I don’t have to wonder if there’s anything else out there to spend money trying. By now, I know. It’s the bike.
VN: Schools harbor Renaissance men as janitors? Or is it more that he’s a teacher without classroom?
JM: Renaissance men show up anywhere. Except, perhaps, in politics. But maybe even there. How’s Frazz a janitor? Before the strip, I wrote and illustrated a children’s book. That means I spend a lot of time in schools doing assemblies and workshops. That was where I noticed just to what extent the janitor could be The Man. And the good The Man, not the oppressive The Man. You know what it’s like before assemblies. That’s the next best thing to recess. Sometimes the teachers couldn’t calm the kids down when it was time for me to start (and get them riled up again). The principal wouldn’t have much luck, either. But the janitor would come out, and he (or she) wouldn’t even have to say anything. The janitor was a little more like one of them, and nobody wanted to disappoint him. When I decided to do a strip, the janitor was the obvious choice to try first. A few sketches later, and I never looked back.
VN: We don’t see a lot of parents in the day-to-day strips. Is it something like the kids see schools as an escape from the parents?
JM: That’s a good point. I don’t think I ever gave it that much thought. I just wanted to keep the strip in the school environment so I didn’t stretch myself thin or give my readers too much to keep track of, and during school hours you don’t see the parents around so much. They get mentioned, though.
VN: Has the Association of Grumpy Third-Grade teachers and Benignly Detached School Administrators Conference burned you in effigy yet?
JM: You know, every once in a while I’ll be signing autographs or speaking somewhere or answering mail and I’ll hear from a teacher who says, “You modeled Mrs. Olsen after me!” A couple of them were actually really named Mrs. Olsen. And they seemed pretty tickled, honestly. I’ll stick my neck out here and say that’s the good thing about doing a strip that’s, well, nice. I’m not drawing “Boondocks” here. Maybe I should be, and then I could afford a few more of those bikes I’m lusting over. But I like that I can use a name, or a logo, or a personality in a strip and have people know right off the bat that it’s all about fun. To my knowledge, I’ve only had one guy get miffed when I sort of used him, which I should have seen coming because he hates everything. Oh, well. You don’t fail, then you didn’t try, I guess.
VN: Caulfield with bagpipes? How did that come about?
JM: I’ve got Scottish ancestors going back a ways (and yet do I have Robert Millar’s cycling genes? No), so I suppose bagpipes were going to show up sooner or later. And if there’s ever a mention of whisky, you can be sure it’ll be spelled without an “e.”
VN: Did the Picture of Caulfield Gray Halloween series develop as seamlessly as it read?
JM: It never feels like it’s developing seamlessly at the time. What’s fun about that week is that readers came up with a better gag than I did. I’m establishing this tradition where every Halloween Caulfield dresses up as a literary character. This past year, he showed up in school with his school picture; the next day, his dad’s picture; the next day, his grandpa’s. He was “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” by Oscar Wilde. But after the first day, readers were writing me and showing up in chat groups asserting that he was “The Catcher in the Rye” – he was Holdin’ Caulfield. It’s tough when your readers are smarter than you.
VN: Do cartoonists get groupies?
JM: Not like rock stars get groupies, which simplifies my life greatly. But I have met some people I wouldn’t have met if not for “Frazz,” and whom I’m very, very glad I did. Hopefully there’s more of that in the future. I try not to be greedy, but I give myself a long leash when it comes to bikes, miles and friends. So far, that seems like a good call.
For more on Mallett and “Frazz”, see www.comics.com/comics/frazz.