Seriously Funny

By staff December 1, 2003

Mike Peters' tiny home office was a mess one recent morning, strewn with dozens of discarded sketches from the last few hours. Sarasota's Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and creator of the popular comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm had been working on a sketch about one of President Bush's statements the day before. Bush had caused a front-page uproar when he stated at a news conference that his administration had no evidence that deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

It was perfect fodder for Peters, who likes nothing more than pointing out in thick, black strokes what he sees as deceit and hypocrisy, especially from the government. His wife, Marian, says he was so churned up the night before, lying in bed with his fists clenched, that she gave him half a sleeping pill, telling him, "You have to get some sleep." Still, he was awake by four in the morning and back in his studio, agonizing over how to focus his anger into biting visual commentary that would strike the reader. "Do you think this one works?" he asked of a sketch where the last frame showed a U.S. military commander staring at endless rows of soldiers' headstones, saying, "Sorry."

This sleep-deprived, agitated person is not the Mike Peters most people experience. Sarasotans are used to seeing the effusive 60-year-old cartoonist at various events, with his trademark shaggy brown hair and colorful sweaters, hugging everyone he meets, sometimes inviting near strangers over to dinner while his wife Marian stands in the background tactfully-or maybe not so tactfully-disengaging him from such commitments. His goofy persona is legendary among fellow cartoonists and the public, so much so that he's almost a cartoon himself. Even the nickname of his small Missouri hometown-Dogtown-seems tailor-made for his zany, over-the-top personality. His comic strip character, Grimm, a mischievous but lovable pooch, is based on his own tendencies to break all rules and then sheepishly confess-Peters once admitted to licking the bottom of a trash can to savor the last crumbs from a bag of corn chips-in such a disarming fashion that people forgive and adore him.

Fueling this wacky reputation are his escapades. The editorial cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News since 1969, he once famously burst into an editorial meeting from a third-story window ledge in the middle of winter, wearing a Superman costume, trumpeting, "Sorry I'm late, but the weather was bad over Cleveland." He met his wife in college while he was hanging from a scaffold, chattering like a monkey to get her attention. Another time, after introducing himself to the head of the Pulitzer committee, he slipped the guy $20 and winked, "Remember me?"

But like all comic book superheroes, Peters has a hidden side, one that's highly critical of his own work and more serious, intellectual and insecure than the funny and almost childlike cartoonist people view on the Today Show, Good Morning America, C-SPAN and MSNBC. He works obsessively to produce seven strips and four to five editorial cartoons a week. His political cartoons are published in 400 papers around the world as well as in Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report and The New Republic; his strip in 800. He's published dozens of books of his comic strips, created animated cartoons and won hosts of professional awards. "I wake up at 6 a.m. and I'm in the office by 6:02," he says. As his son-in-law, Jude, passes through the room, he comments that 10- to 12-hour days are the norm for Peters; and the office door is usually shut, meaning "don't dare disturb."

"He's prolific," says Marian. She's her husband's fiercest champion and protector, and her spiky strawberry blond hair and wrist and ankle tattoos show she's just as unconventional as and way more formidable than her husband. "Unlike other cartoonists who usually go with their first idea, he has 50 ideas for every one he draws. He knows what other people in the world draw and he says, 'I'll do something better.'"

It takes energy and lots of care to keep Peters' creativity and stacks of cartoons flowing, especially since Peters admits he's ill-equipped to deal with the mundane details of life. He half jokes that Marian keeps him away from sharp objects so he won't cut himself (It's true, she nods); and she meticulously plans and oversees his schedule, because Peters has been known to fly to speaking engagements with no money or wallet. Good friend Jim Borgman, another Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist and the co-creator of Zits, says Marian jokes that she pins $10 and a note that says "Please take care of Mike" on his jacket when he travels. "I know there's a mature man inside," says Borgman, hopefully. "There must be an inner, older Mike, monitoring the scene and keeping him safe from harm."

Peters and his wife have been living in Orlando for the last year to be near their daughter, Tracy, and son-in-law and newborn granddaughter, Addison. They had been just about to build a new house on Siesta Key when they got the news that Tracy was pregnant. "I've built houses before," says Marian, "and I didn't want to be busy with the contractors and miss the first year of my granddaughter's life." So they bought a generic Mediterranean-style house in a new Orlando subdivision with similar-style houses, just off a golf course, and close to their daughter and her family. Furniture is sparse and the walls are still bare; the focal point of the empty dining room is Addison, who lies on a blanket happily gurgling to herself. In about a year, Marian figures, they'll move back to Sarasota and build their new home, but for now, they're more than happy to baby-sit whenever necessary. "And I can work from wherever we are," adds Peters, whether that means their house in Colorado, a vacation retreat in Key West or renting a unit at the Colony on Longboat Key.

For as long as he can remember, Peters has been drawing. It started with his mother, Charlotte Peters, an attractive, extremely creative and unconventional woman who had a successful talk show in St. Louis, on which she interviewed every major celebrity who passed through town. Peters' father, William, was a traveling salesmen of women's clothing and came home only on the weekends. More reserved than his gregarious wife-"She was a combination of Lucille Ball and Oprah Winfrey," Peters says-he was present but not the dominant figure in the family. It was Charlotte who made the decisions and gave Peters his first set of pens and paper. "We would sit on the front porch and she would tell me stories of a dinosaur that would go to the store and buy things and I would draw them," Peters says. As he grew older, like most boys, he became enamored with Superman. His mother made him a costume for Christmas, which he wore to elementary school under his uniform. He would strip during recess and fly around the playground as his superhero.

By his own account, Peters was a terrible student. And since his mother had only finished school through the eighth grade, she couldn't help with his education. (Peters' mother had a remarkable life story. Orphaned at eight, she and her sister-both beauties-were raised by an aunt who forced them to quit school, hand over any money they made, and live in an attic that she locked at night.) "She didn't know anything about school," he says. "I went through school in the slow classes and all those years, I thought I was stupid."

He stuttered, as well, all the way through high school, which added to the misconception. He dreaded answering the phone. Drawing became a refuge. Once, in the last half of his last year at his Catholic military high school, back in 1961, the assistant principal called his mother into the office. "I'm worried about Mike," he told Charlotte. "I believe he's retarded." Charlotte came home shocked, asking "Mike, what have you been doing at school?" Peters laughs at the story now, wondering if he should be embarrassed telling it. (He adds that the assistant principal was one of the first to congratulate him 20 years later when he won the Pulitzer, gushing, "I knew you could do it.") He also remarks that he lost his stutter his second year in college when his roommate said simply, "Mike, talk lower." Peters dropped his voice as low as he could. "It forced me to speak more slowly," he says. "I think my thoughts had always been going faster than my mouth." But despite the Pulitzer and all the other accolades and fame, Peters admits his school years left their mark: "I'm always trying to prove myself. I get depressed if I have lousy cartoons."

Looking back on those days, Peters says it was probably good that his mother wasn't constrained by traditional educational notions. He was free to explore. And because of Charlotte's creative nature-he once came home from school and found her head inside the piano listening to the echo of her voice; she then got Peters to join her while she began a story about finding gold in a cave-he felt empowered to pursue art. It was Charlotte who introduced Peters at age 13 to the famous Bill Mauldin, then the cartoonist at the St. Louis Post- Dispatch, who eventually helped Peters get his job at the Dayton Daily News. Up to that point, Peters assumed he would go into animation. "Then, when I met Bill, I noticed he was doing something new every day." And, he recognized, it appealed to his social conscience-another byproduct of his mother's show, where she was constantly exhorting her viewers to help someone. "You get into wanting to help, to right wrongs, to tell people, 'That's not fair,'" he says.

Peters' political cartoons are often about righting wrongs-as he sees them, of course, which usually means from a liberal perspective. Peters was influenced by his two years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and by Watergate. His favorite targets are often the NRA, opponents of Planned Parenthood and the Catholic Church. His drawing style is energetic and powerful, immediately identifiable to regular readers of the op-ed pages. And usually the message is funny and sharp, a single frame that crystallizes volumes of outrage over politicians' duplicity or lack of common sense or the deep public loss over the death of a famous person.

When Bush asked President Jacques Chirac to send French troops to Iraq, Peters drew a cartoon of Chirac responding, "Do you want Freedom Fries with those?" When Katharine Hepburn died, St. Peter was standing at the pearly gates announcing: "Guess who's coming to dinner?" Paul Conrad, the L.A. Times editorial cartoonist, says Peters once drew a cartoon of a mother strolling her baby in a carriage outside a nuclear power plant. A friend peered into the carriage at the baby, who happened to have a foot growing out of his head. The caption read: "My, he's grown a foot since I saw him last." "Now that's funny," Conrad says. "He's got great gags! They just occur to him. You can't think this stuff up if it's not natural."

At times, Peters' witty double-entendres and slapstick gags get him into trouble, with those he lampoons, other cartoonists and the reading public. The Moral Majority rallied members to picket the Dayton Daily News after one of his cartoons skewered its platform-he said that under their rigid criteria, even Jesus wouldn't qualify as a candidate. He's had his phone tapped and received used toilet paper in the mail. Once he walked through the room as his wife was arguing on the phone with a TV repairman who refused to come to their house after he found out the TV belonged to Peters. "He's against everything I'm for," the repairman yelled to Marian over the phone. Marian, undaunted as usual, demanded, 'Why don't you read James Madison?' and started quoting the Federalist Papers, Peters boasts.

Even cartoonists have had their criticisms over the years. "Because I use humor, I've always been considered a lightweight," Peters says. In the cartooning world, gag cartoonists are called "Newsweek" cartoonists because of the non-controversial cartoons that run in the magazine's Perspectives department. Joel Pett, another Pulitzer cartooning crony, who works for the Lexington Herald-Leader, says years ago he used to be mad at Peters for making humor acceptable in editorial cartoons. "A steady diet of funny but not controversial is really bad," he says. "The editors of Friday's USA Today, the Sunday New York Times and Newsweek have a broad influence on the reading public and they're not pushing the envelope." But, Pett adds, "Mike can slam with the best of them. He's as wicked as you can get, like the cartoon he did of Bush with a dead soldier-a-day calendar. Using humor is a smart and good thing and I have since tried to emulate him."

Peters says humor is his weapon. "It's the only reason anybody would put one of my cartoons on the refrigerator," he says. He figured out how important it was to make people laugh after he'd spent 10 years doing the lucrative speaking circuit around the country.

Since cartoonists are mostly bookish social misfits, jokes cartoonist Borgman, fun-loving, impetuous Peters was a media godsend. For years, Jane Pauley from the Today Show interviewed him on Friday mornings. People began thinking of him as a humorous commentator rather than a cartoonist. At one function, as a woman babbled on and on about how wonderful he was, he noticed a boy looking at one of his cartoons on the wall and laughing. "I realized that what I really enjoyed was drawing a cartoon that made people laugh. My ego was up there on the wall. Here I was, doing all of this traveling and I'm taking time from my ego, my artwork."

So he quit the speaking circuit and eventually quit living in Dayton as well, moving to Sarasota in 1989. The Peterses loved the Gulf of Mexico and the arts that Sarasota had to offer, but especially appreciated Sarasota's community of cartoonists such as the late Dik Browne, Chris Browne, Mort Walker, Jim Davis, Ralph Smith and Tom Armstrong. They also wanted the anonymity that Dayton didn't afford. "He came back to Dayton from a speech and a woman came up to him and said, 'It's about time you got back,'" Marian remembers. It was disturbing. "I couldn't drive and pick my nose," says Peters. "I had to live with that with my mom. I didn't want to do it again."

The Peterses raised three daughters: Tracy is a technical writer of all of Disney's operating guidelines; Molly is a painter and a Ringling School of Art graduate who now lives in New York City; and Marci, another Ringling grad, is a printmaker, actor and artist who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Ben. (Ben, who also graduated from Ringling, colors Peters' comics, handles his Web site and works for other cartoonists as well.)

For the most part, Republican Sarasota has embraced the Peterses, in large part due to Peters' disarming, Peter Pan persona. "He's the most lovable human being on the face of the earth," says Sarasota Republican Party activist and friend Graci McGillicuddy, who says she and Mike have agreed to disagree when it comes to politics.

The workload and the pressure to create never diminish, says Peters, who says his only hobby is his wife. "I just realized five years ago that here she's been waiting around for me all of my life," he says. So now he makes it a point to stop in the late afternoon to have a cocktail-non-alcoholic beer only-and some homemade salsa or maybe some flying fish eggs on a cracker to enjoy a few hours with his wife before heading back to his desk. Marian, who taught English literature for 15 years at the high school and college level before making Peters her profession, says she has accepted her role of caring for and supporting Mike. "I'm not going to be the creative one this time around," she says.

Peters understands and appreciates that. "I've been like this all my life," he says about his Peter Pan personality, and he has no plans to grow up. "And Marion is the reason I don't have to," he admits. And though he says may slow his obsessive work pace down some day, he will never retire. "I'm blessed to do what I love," he says.

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