Glorying in the Pages

Today on the site, Alex Dueben interviews Carlos Gimenez : on the occasion of the English language publication of his much-lauded graphic novel Paracuellos.

The first episode of Paracuellos was published in 1975 shortly after the death of General Franco. What was the response to the series?

The first issue of Paracuellos–it wasn’t called that yet—surprised the editors of the magazine I was working for. At the time I was writing it for a humor magazine of the so-called “T&A” variety, but that strip had nothing to do with humor–much less T&A. The first episode caught them by surprise so they published it, but by the second or third they told me very politely, and with every reason, to get out. So I did. I tried some other magazines and was able to publish a few more issues. After forty years of fascist dictatorship and severe censorship the magazine editors wanted to publish funny stories about tits, but I was determined to publish stories about sad children in the “Homes” of postwar Spain.

Were you afraid to tell these stories initially and publish this?

No. I wasn’t afraid.

Your art style in Paracuellos is different from your earlier comics. Did you change your style because that’s what you thought the story needed?

To draw the stories of the children of the Social Aid “Homes,” I chose the type of drawing that seemed right. Just as you wouldn’t draw a humor comic in the same style as you’d draw an adventure comic. In this case it wasn’t about drawing pretty children; what I had to draw was hunger, fear, and helplessness. At first, making the panels so small was for space reasons. With very small panels I could tell a larger part of the story. Later I kept this formula when I realized that the small panels left no room for backgrounds. And the only backgrounds I wanted were those that were essential to making the story easy to understand. Backgrounds embellish images, and I didn’t want pretty pictures, but rather sober and, if possible, claustrophobic panels.


The longtime syndicated cartoonist Mell Lazarus has passed away. R.C. Harvey was kind enough to send along this notice from the National Cartoonists Society, which he has edited and expanded in places:

Mell Lazarus, 1927-2016

A press release from the National Cartoonists Society arrived just as we were going to post with this opus. Mell loved NCS, and I suppose he’s a little put-out that he died so close to the annual meeting: if he’d lasted another week, he could have made the Reuben dinner this coming weekend in Memphis. I knew Mell a little; we had some happy, humorous exchanges, and I spent a few hours with him a couple years ago, interviewing him for a video I’m working on with Tom Tanquary. Given a little time, I could probably come up with a joyful anecdote or two. But I haven’t time to re-write any of the release or add to it. Here it is, verbatim except for a few facts I added from other sources—:

We are very sad to report the passing on May 24 of Reuben Award Winner, Past National Cartoonists Society President (two terms, 1989-1993) and Medal of Honor recipient Mell Lazarus. Mell joined the NCS as soon as Miss Peach was launched in February 1957. In October 1970, Momma debuted, and for 32 years Mell wrote and drew both strips—over 30,000 of them altogether, he reckoned. Up until a few weeks ago Mell was writing and drawing Momma dailies and Sundays with the help of his wife, the wonderful Sally Mitchell, who Mell met through her father, renowned comic strip gag writer Ed Mitchell. Among those at their wedding were Bil Keane and Stan Lee.

The eponymous heroine of Momma was based upon Mell’s own mother, Francis “Frankie” Lazarus. He based the character of her son, Francis, loosely on himself.

Mell joined Creators Syndicate in 1988, as soon as his contract with United Features let him take Momma and Miss Peach there. Said Rick Newcombe, founder and CEO of Creators: “He was an adviser to me from the beginning. I loved Mell. He was so talented, so smart and so much fun.”

Mell began his career editing comic books for Al Capp at Toby Press. His time with Capp inspired his first novel, The Boss Is Crazy, Too published in 1963. Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22 (whom Mell met through Walt Kelly) wrote this blurb for the book – “Mell Lazarus is the second-funniest writer in America and has written the second-funniest novel.” Mell wrote a second novel, Neighborhood Watch, three off-Broadway plays, and several television specials based on Miss Peach. At the time of his death Mell was working on another novel and a screenplay.

“Writing novels doesn’t interfere with doing the strips,” he said, “—they use different creative muscles.”

The time I met Mell, he learned I had been an English teacher, so he asked me a question that came out of his novel-writing. It was about quotation marks. At the end of a quotation sentence, he wanted to know, do you put the period inside the quotation mark—or outside?

“Inside,” I said. “The punctuation mark—the period—is embraced by the quotation marks.”

He smiled. Mell was always smiling. Even when he was criticizing my Milton Caniff biography—half joking that it was too long—he smiled.

As President of NCS, Mell helped create regional chapters, and he was instrumental in moving the annual Reuben weekend out of New York and to other cities. The years he was President included two Reuben weekends on cruise ships that people are still talking about.

Parties at Mell’s house are legendary. One resulted in the piano in his living room being covered in cartoons. “We had a bunch of drunken cartoonists in the house one night and they just destroyed a perfectly good French provincial baby grand piano,” Mell said in an interview. Among those who have drawn on the piano – Charles Schulz, Cathy Guisewite, Garry Trudeau, Don Martin, Arnold Roth, Sergio Arragones, and Matt Groening to name a few.

Mell was beloved by all at the NCS. He was funny, charming, and full of stories, many we cannot repeat here. Talk to any NCS member who spent time with Mell, and they will surely have a funny Mell Lazarus story.

“Here are a few facts about Mell that he told me over the years,” says friend Tom Gammill, “He was a high school drop-out who later joined Mensa. For a time he lived in Palm Springs down the street from Milton Caniff. He was in Times Square on VJ Day and told me ‘everybody was banging that day.' And he loved the NCS. In an interview Mell said, ‘We have the best club in the world. They’re all terrific guys and girls. It’s a body of people like no other industry. They all become relatives very fast.”

Mell is survived by his wife Sally, three daughters Marjorie, Susan and Cathy, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

We will all be toasting Mell at the Reuben Awards this year. If you have a funny Mell Lazarus story we can share on this website, please send it to the editors.

RCH—Here’s the last of Mell’s autobiographical entries in the NCS Membership Album. It leaves out a lot, but he included the important cartooning stuff—dates and images. 












Still more:

The aforementioned Alex Dueben spoke to Carol Tyler for the LA Review of Books.

Hyperallergic has a nice look at a graphic history of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The great Gilbert Hernandez has posted more information about his awesome commissions. 

Sean Howe posted this fascinating article by Milt Caniff about how WWII impacted his cartooning.

And via Nicole Rudick, here's a killer psychedelic animated short.