Remembering Mell Lazarus, Creator of Miss Peach and Inspiration to Joseph Heller

Mell (born Melvin) Lazarus, the American Jewish cartoonist who died on May 24 at age 89, was more than just the creator of the long-running comic strips Miss Peach and Momma.

Lazarus was also a novelist, whose fiction may have inspired his friend Joseph Heller, author of “Catch-22”. Lazarus had befriended Heller, a fan of Miss Peach, a strip about a kindly schoolteacher and her smart-aleck, precocious pupils that ran from 1957 to 2002. Miss Peach depicts childhood as a time of verbal firecrackers, akin to the collection “A Progressive Education” by the American Jewish poet Richard Howard. Lazarus told Heller’s biographer Tracy Daugherty that he and Heller enjoyed hanging out in bars and kvetching about their respective mothers: “We were both Jewish, both mother-stricken. We had so much in common…He was so much fun, so interesting to know. He seemed to get to know everybody very quickly. He was magnetic, charismatic.” Lazarus too had his own charisma, according to David Seed’s “The Fiction of Joseph Heller” who suggests that Lazarus may have influenced Heller’s novel “Something Happened” (1974), a satire of business life. Lazarus’s own novel, “The Boss is Crazy, Too.” (1963) depicts a comic book printing company destroyed by a director who hopes thereby to save his other dubious business interests. Seed suggests:

“‘The Boss Is Crazy, Too’ perhaps stands behind some of the comic details of ‘Something Happened,’ especially in its emphasis on business as theatre. In the former the presumption of honesty has to be knocked down; in the latter the presumption of meaning.”

Heller’s wry blurb for Lazarus’ novel claimed: “Mell Lazarus is the second-funniest writer in America and has written the second-funniest novel.” Lazarus wrote it after working as a comic book editor for the legendarily difficult Al Capp, born Alfred Caplin (1909 –1979), the American Jewish creator of the comic strip Li’l Abner. As Lazarus suggested to an audience at the 2011 San Diego Comic Con, after that experience, the possibility of working at home became extremely attractive.

This career path clearly did not enchant Lazarus’s mother, a tiny materfamilias with a sniping wit who, the cartoonist admits, was depicted in “Momma” which ran from 1970 until now. A typical image would be Momma dreaming of her guilt-ridden children gathering at her gravesite to study her tombstone, engraved with the words: “Momma: I’m not saying you caused this, but you did make me pretty sick.” The California-based comic-book artist Michael Aushenker has claimed that “some camps are eager to dismiss ‘Momma’ for watering down a Jewish premise into broad, universal themes.” The cartoon art maven Don Markstein (1947–2012) disagreed with these critics, asserting a decade ago that Momma was “one of the most overtly Jewish comic strip protagonists since Abie the Agent,” referring to a comic strip launched by Harry Hershfield in 1914, about a Jewish car salesman. Rather than watering down Yiddishkeit, “Momma,” by not stating the Jewishness of the characters but leaving it to be understood, expanded the definition of Jewish mother into a universally applicable phenomenon. At one point, “Momma” was published in over 400 newspapers internationally, translating idiomatically into Italian, Spanish, and other languages. Lazarus confided during a 2008 lecture at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California, that his mother would sling out sarcastic comments that were a constant goad to further creation.

If his mother could be harsh, his father was mild-mannered. Irwin Richman’s “Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memoirs Of Catskill Summers” recounts a tale told by Lazarus about his stay at a Catskill Mountains boarding house in August 1938, when he was nine. He and other boys broke the walls in a bingo parlor, after which his friends’ fathers resorted to corporal punishment. Lazarus’ father reacted differently, silently repairing the damage himself. As Lazarus would recall in 2008:
“Unlike the fathers of my buddies, [my father] couldn’t play into a conspiracy of revenge and spectacle. But my father had made his point. I never forgot that my vandalism on that August afternoon was outrageous. And I’ll never forget that it was also the day I first understood how deeply I could trust him.”

Lazarus too was seen as a benevolent, trustworthy friend to generations of artists. When the cartoonist Johnny Hart, creator of the B.C. comic strip, died in 2007, Lazarus had praise for his friend and colleague despite Hart’s controversial drawing published on Easter Sunday, 2001 of a menorah fading away, panel by panel, until all that remained was a crucifix, suggesting to some viewers that Christianity was superseding Judaism.

However kindly, Lazarus’ father must have been as concerned as his mother was when he dropped out of James Madison High School in Brooklyn, alma mater of such overachievers as Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and “Judge Judy” Sheindlin. Although landing on his feet, Lazarus retained sympathy for society’s underdogs. His second published novel, “The Neighborhood Watch” (1986) was about Loring Neiman, a struggling Brooklyn writer who robs his fellow Jewish neighbors. This and other wide-ranging achievements were part of the reason why Lazarus popped up on an episode of “The Simpsons” in 1999, “They Saved Lisa’s Brain.” Lazarus was mentioned as a member of Mensa, a society for people who score top marks on standardized IQ tests. Sharing an episode with similarly mocked Stephen Hawking must have settled any lingering worries Lazarus’s family may have had about his intellectual bona fides as a high school dropout.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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