Years ago I got a book about skyscrapers. It was a collection of articles from Architectural Digest or some similar quasi-trade publication. The articles were mostly about what contemporaries thought of buildings at the time. It was one of those this-looks-interesting-in-the-dollar-bin purchases, since I know less about architectural criticism than you imagine. No, less than that.
One essay catching my attention, though, was about a circa 1910 skyscraper. The article praised its design for having finally solved the problem of skyscraper proportions. And the picture looked … normal. Boring. There was nothing distinctive about this building. You could drop this maybe fifteen-storey thing into any city and not be noticed. It was a mystifying phrase until I understood the context. If this solved the problem, well, of course it wouldn’t stand out nearly a century later.
The National Cartoonists Society announced yesterday the death of Mell Lazarus. He was renowned in comic strip circles for Miss Peach and Momma. Miss Peach, particularly, I keep hearing singled out for brilliance, and I confess I don’t get it. Probably that’s from lack of exposure. It was never running in a newspaper when I was growing up, and I never saw it on a newspaper’s web site before the strip closed up in 2002. I may have seen it parodied, mostly in Mad Magazine, more than I’ve seen the original. It’s hard to understand what’s great in something that way. It looks like an average example of that Mid-Century Modern comic strip style shared by every comic strip from between about 1960 and whenever it was Dilbert became trendy. But see the problem of the solved skyscraper.
Momma, though, that I read growing up and through to the present day. The family dynamics are awfully screwed up, but in a way normal enough for a joke-engine daily strip. The art, at least at Lazarus’s peak, had that style that looks shaggy and undisciplined, but which you learn is really tightly controlled when you study it seriously or, better, try to imitate it. And the jokes may have gotten harder to parse lately, but it’s hard to land every joke successfully, especially in a comic strip with a necessarily small cast of characters and limited set of continuing stories.
Anyway, by all accounts, Lazarus was a fantastic person and your life was considerably better if he was in it. That’s a great thing for people to be able to say about you.