The world lost a true cartooning legend today with the passing of Mell Lazarus. Mell has been ailing for some time now so we all knew this was coming, but it’s still hard.
The word “legend” gets tossed around a lot these days, but in Mell’s case that title is well bestowed. Of course he is best known as the creator of the long running daily comic strips Momma and Miss Peach, but that was just a part of what made Mell such a giant in the cartooning industry.
Mell was one of the pioneers in securing creators right of ownership of their comic strips, something that had a profound impact on the livelyhoods of hundred and hundreds of cartoonists over the years.
As you would imagine, Mell was extremely funny. His comics aside, he had a tremendously charming personality and sharp, quick wit that made talking with him thoroughly enjoyable. He’d been doing cartooning professionally since the early 1940’s, and he had a seemingly endless reservoir of stories that were as fascinating as they were funny. It was a real joy to be in his company.
He was also one of the smartest cartoonists I’ve ever met. A member of MENSA, Mell was probably a certifiable genius… he would have said he was certainly “certifiable”.
Mell served two terms as president of the National Cartoonists Society from 1989-1993. He planned and presided on two of the most talked about Reuben awards weekends ever, both on the high seas on a cruise ship! Mell was also one of a group of NCS members who went to Vietnam during the war to meet and draw for the troops. He won numerous awards including The Reuben Award in 1981, the Silver T-Square in 2000 and the Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in 2016. He was a huge part of the NCS, and a source of advice for me in my years as president.
He was a terrific writer, and not just on his comic strips. Mell wrote two novels, The Boss is Crazy, Too (1963) and The Neighborhood Watch (1986). I’ve never found a copy of The Neighborhood Watch but I am very familiar with the The Boss is Crazy, Too, for reasons I’ll get to shortly. It is an extremely hilarious story about a small comic book company in the 50’s and the antics that went on, based on Mell’s experiences as an editor at the Al Capp-family owned Toby Press.
I met Mell and his wonderful wife Sally through the NCS. Living so far from them (they lived in LA) we didn’t get to see them as much and get to know them as well as we would have liked, but I did get the opportunity to get to know Mell over the years. In fact, he will always be part of one of my biggest regrets as a cartoonist.
A number of years ago Mell asked me to collaborate with him on a graphic novel adaptation of The Boss is Crazy, Too. I readily agreed but after a while realized I was never going to be able to find the time to do it. I eventually had to call Mell and tell him I just couldn’t do it. I’ll always regret that, even though there really was no way I could have made the time to do the graphic novel no matter how much I wanted to. The story was great, at the time the TV show “Mad Men” was huge and 60’s nostalgia was “in” so it had a chance of being a hit, but what hurt most of all is I felt I was letting Mell down.
This weekend is the annual NCS Reuben Awards, being held in Memphis. You might think that Mell’s passing would put a damper on the event, but I think it will be the opposite. Mell’s contributions to the world of cartooning in general and the NCS in particular were bigger than life, and so was he. Rather than mourning I think we’ll be celebrating Mell’s life this weekend, remembering how special he was to all of us and how grateful we all are for having been privileged to know him.
I know I am grateful to have had the chance to have some of the wonderful talks we had over scotch and cigars, and to have been able to call him friend.
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