Art with a Bite The dog in him draws Mike Peters to his work on the funny pages

January 16, 1992|By Eric Siegel

Last Saturday morning, the editorial pages of several newspapers carried a political cartoon in which a concerned President Bush was being told by an aide to "convince these people to start buying American products." "OK," the president was seen replying, "where are we?" "America," the aide replied.

Meanwhile, on the comic pages, the mischievous bull terrier who is the protagonist in "Mother Goose & Grimm" (which appears in The Sun) was dumping the litter box of his feline nemesis Attila into a trash can emblazoned with the instructions "Put Litter Here."

And in the Saturday morning animated version, Grimmy, as he is affectionately called by his elderly owner, Mother Goose, was being transformed by a witch into a creature with a high, squeaky voice. "I'm either turning into a cat or a New Kid on the Block," he said.

The creator of all of the above is one and the same: Mike Peters, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist turned comic conglomerate.

"It's all using different parts of the brain," explained Mr. Peters, 49, who was in town yesterday to promote the TV version of "Mother Goose & Grimm," which began airing last fall on CBS (WBAL-TV Channel 11 at 8:30 a.m. Saturdays). "When I started doing the comic strip [in 1984] the big thing I learned was that you can do more than one thing, have twice the body of work and not be twice as tired. If I'm hitting a wall with a cartoon, I can put it aside and sit down with the strip and do some silly little thing with the dog and be refreshed because it's so different."

As for the animated "Mother Goose & Grimm," which he writes with Mark Evanier, creator of the sharply satirical "Groo" comic books, he said, "I always wanted to do an animated show. I love having the ability to do physical humor. You can't really take that to the nth degree in a comic strip."

When Mr. Peters talks, he exhibits the same kind of engaging self-examination he imparts to Grimm, who he pointed out, is a "bull terrier, like George Patton had, not a pit bull." Which is no surprise, since as he said, "when the strip is most fun is when I get me into the character."

And Mr. Peters, who has a pair of lap dogs he describes as "absolutely the opposite of Grimm," added "People ask me if I get my ideas from my dogs. No. I get them from me."

If Grimm is Mr. Peters, then who is the long-suffering Mother Goose, who puts up with her pet's complaints about dog food and endures his antics such as bouncing on his bed? "She's my wife, she's in large part my mother," says Mr. Peters. "I live with women. I have three daughters."

Mr. Peters -- who began drawing political cartoons for the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News in 1969 and for national syndication in 1972 -- developed the idea for "Mother Goose & Grimm" not long after winning the 1981 Pulitzer for his political cartoons. As he tells it, he had been spending about half his time giving speeches when he realized his real gift was for cartooning, not talking. "I was interested in seeing what I could do with another side of me," he said.

At the time, the comic strip field included not only such well-known animal cartoon characters as Snoopy and Garfield but several other dog strips. "People told me, 'Do something different. Do a kangaroo. Do a kid who drives a cab.' But I always thought of myself as a dog," recalled Mr. Peters.

"A comic strip has to be like a marriage," he added. "If it's successful, you have to be doing it for the rest of your life. So it has to be something you enjoy. I felt natural with this character."

So, apparently, did his audience. Today, the strip appears in more than 500 papers and has spawned 11 softcover collections, not to mention such miscellanea as bookmarks and calendars.

Because he continues to do four political cartoons a week, Mr. Peters says he feels no need to do "political stuff" in his strip, a la Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury." But, he said with a twinkle in his eye, "On the plane up here I did come up with an idea about Pat Buchanan, and I may do that."

While "Mother Goose & Grimm" may not be political, it can be pointed: Mr. Peters has used the strip to skewer everything from anti-drug commercials to actor Michael J. Fox.

And although he is seldom at a loss for opinions in his cartooning, political or comic, Mr. Peters sounds more like an even-handed editorial writer than a satirical cartoonist in talking about the Great Comic Strip Controversy of 1992. In that tempest, cartoonist Bill Watterson, creator of the hugely successful "Calvin and Hobbes," has demanded that beginning Feb. 2 newspapers give the strip half a page of space on Sundays -- or not run it at all.

"He has a lot of conviction and I respect him for sticking to his beliefs," Mr. Peters said of Mr. Watterson. "On the other hand, it really makes it difficult for editors to have someone dictate the size they're going to be running the comics."

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