Spend a few minutes with Jef Mallet and you can’t help but notice that he’s clever and bright. Spend a couple of hours with him and you’ll see that not only is his humor is wry and subservient, but he’s keenly aware of everything going on in the world around him.
Spend much more time with him and you’ll be shaking your head in amazement, wondering if you aren’t in the presence of genius.
You probably are.
A 45-year-old jack of all trades, master of most of them, Mallett has "raced bicycles and competed in triathlons, flown hang gliders and airplanes, studied fine art and great writing
," according to his bio on comics.com
He's also the creator of "Frazz
," a syndicated comic strip that appears in some 150 daily newspapers across America.
Frazz, the strip’s hero, is a modern-day everyman – a young, song-writing, guitar-playing, participation-sports freak – who works as a middle school janitor.
And though there are no geographic clues – other than the four seasons that rotate through the strip – it wouldn’t be that hard to imagine that it takes place in a town very like Lansing.
And why wouldn’t it? Lansing's Westside is where Mallett shares a modest ranch home with his , wife, Patty, and four cats.
And it’s where the idea of building a story line with an unlikely hero – a school janitor? – first popped into his head. It was an idea that fermented for years.Beginnings
A long-time writer/illustrator, Mallett actually penned – and published in the local daily – his first strip when he was in high school in Big Rapids, Michigan.
“Birchbark” – the tale of a hunter/trapper/voyageur and his loyal Native American sidekick – was “so comically ‘70s, so youthful, so politically incorrect,” Mallett said, that he quit doing it as soon as he left town to attend nursing school in Grand Rapids.
But nursing school didn’t take, neither did EMT training, and Mallett soon found himself in the newspaper business, working as a writer, copy editor and illustrator and even, for a short stint, as a columnist.
Mallett’s talents led him to Lansing, where he became art director (and a part-time computer geek) for the Lansing Bureau of Booth Newspapers
. But in his spare time, Mallett dabbled in writing and illustrating beyond the boundaries of newspapers and when he published his first book – an illustrated children’s adventure called “Dangerous Dan” – it became obvious that the newspaper job couldn’t hold him for long.
The high priests at Booth tried, making him an editorial cartoonist. But Mallet said that was “a really illogical step” as it only made him realize how much he missed drawing and writing a daily strip.
So Mallett drew on the time he spent reading his children’s book in classrooms and came up with Frazz.
“That’s when I noticed that the janitor was ‘the man,’ ” he said. “He’s the guy that all the kids looked up to.”
Mallett went to work creating a cast of characters: a clueless principal, a cranky old schoolmarm, and a couple of precocious youngsters, bright but sometimes a little-smart mouthed, who are constantly bantering with Frazz, who, between mop strokes, dispenses bits of wisdom to the next generation.Arrival
In April of 2001, with the help of United Feature Syndicate, "Frazz" debuted in 50 newspapers. It’s gotten nothing but bigger since, appearing in some of America’s best papers – the Los Angeles Times
, the Chicago Tribune
and the Washington Post
All of which appears not to impress the modest, self-effacing Mallett at all.
“It’s a solid living,” he said. “It’s not rock star stuff. It’s not Dilbert – Dilbert’s in thousands of papers. But it has been around for more than five years now and in the comics world, that’s status, too.”
There’s a lot of Jef – the one-F spelling is an affectation from youth when he was trying desperately to get attention, he says – in Frazz, who is a hiker, biker, skier, runner.
Mallett, for his part, participated in six triathlons last summer, completed his first marathon and even swam the Straits of Mackinac as part of a charity fund-raising event.
All of which, Mallett says, was just prep work for next summer when he plans on participating in his first Iron Man – a full marathon, 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride.
“Any author, any artist, any songwriter, when you get right down to it, is autobiographical,” Mallett said. “I figure I’ll just write about myself and try to be the most interesting person I can be.”
At Home in Lansing
The physical fitness pastimes he engages in passionately are part recreation, part therapy, part training for real life.
“You how the financial advisors say pay yourself first? “Mallett asked. “I see it that way with activities, too. I’m not as efficient with the job or the family if I’m not in shape. I think there’s a lot to be said for ‘healthy body, healthy mind.’ Plus I’m happier. Maybe some artists do their best work when they’re miserable, but I think I do my best work when I’m fit.”
He must be in some kind of shape because he never seems to stop working.
Besides his comic strip, (365 brand new short stories a year, he says) Mallett writes and illustrates a regular feature for a triathlon magazine as well as a one-panel cartoon for a bicycle racing periodical.
He does design work for magazines and books – he did the cover art for the most recent CD released by radio’s “Bob and Tom Show
” – and is in demand as a speaker for groups as diverse as triathletes to cancer nurses to Kiwanis Clubs. He’s been the commencement speaker at not only his own high school, but U of M - Flint
But what is most impressive about Mallet is Frazz, who is a philosopher of the first order.
Mallet has been honored by the Religion Communicator’s Council
for “values and ethics in the secular media” and has been a finalist for national comic strip of the year, all for the basic values that Frazz espouses.
Despite the honors, Mallett is often floored when people ask him where he plans to move when he hits the big time (which, in case you haven’t figured it out, he already has).
“I hope people have started to figure out I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “The job brought me here, but even without a conscious thought, it became home.
“I can pick up and go anywhere – all I need is a computer connection and a UPS truck – but I like Lansing a lot. It’s just a great city. It’s big enough to offer lots of options, but small enough that you don’t have to ride five miles to get to the good part of your bike ride.”
Bob Gwizdz is a veteran journalist from East Lansing who believes Jef Mallett is a genius.
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
Photos:Jef Mallet drawing his syndicated comic strip “Frazz”
All Photographs © Dave Trumpie