Mice to Men
By Jud Hurd
(Originally published in Cartoonist PROfiles, March 1982)
Beginning on February 8th of this year, Howie Schneider's popular 'Eek & Meek' strip, which he writes and draws for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, began to chronicle their adventures as men, rather than as mice which they've been since 1965! In this conversation Howie, who lives and works out of his oceanside in Provincetown, Massachusetts, tells how the change came about.
Hurd: Howie, when did you first start thinking about changing your mice characters into men?
Schneider: Maybe about a year-and-a-half ago, but there's been a constant change going on with 'Eek & Meek' ever since it started sixteen years ago. This latest change, I guess, was just a natural development of this continuing process. Eek and Meek started back in 1965, looking like a little cocktail franks with one-line arms and legs, ant there wasn't that much expression on their faces-which was just what I wanted. At that time I really wanted to write something and I didn't specifically wamt to do a comic strip. But I wanted to write on the comic strip page, so I needed drawings. I didn't even want Eek and Meek ro be different from each other-I wanted them to be identical-but they talked me into putting a little black hat on Eek. And then I needed more expressions so I began to draw more open mouths, and to put in more eye and body expressions. (There hadn't been too much movement in a cocktail frank!)
Then gradually the backgrounds began to change to accommodate the changes that were taking place in the figures. I began to do closeups and there's nothing more uninteresting than a cocktail frank, with a stick arm and leg, in a closeup. At this point I gave the characters thick, flesh-and-bone arms and legs. Next, in order to get more color in the strip, in the form of zip-a-tone, I began to put sweaters and shirts on them-only because I was beginning to enjoy drawing them that way. The art was beginning to become as important as the words. Television sets were coming into the strip, as were interiors of homes, and innocuous bedroom scenes. And then I began to draw bar scenes with characters who were actually people, standing next to this somewhat weird-looking character that wasn't really a mouse but something which had a lumpy head with no hair. It wasn't obvious to me but it was pointed out that this was a strange combination. So I began to give some consideration to making a 'people' strip. This turned out to be difficult because I didn't want the change to seem obvious. The hair on my 1982 characters follows the same contours as the head, and as I look at them now, it seems to me that they've been that way for years. So I'm happy now that I've created two human beings by a devious process.
Hurd: Our readers would be interested in hearing how 'Eek and Meek' started.
Howie Schneider: I had been trying to develop a comic strip about a Washington secretary who had all kinds of people coming into her office. But as often happens when you're devising a comic strip that doesn't really suit your temperament, I got into a hole with nowhere to go. After a couple of months of trying to go somewhere this idea, I dried up. However, one of the characters was a government scientist doing research and he was performing experiments on two mice. At this point I decided to have the two mice talking to each other. So one mouse, with a big cigar, bragged to the other that he was working on a cancer research program, and smoking for the government. Whereupon the other mouse comments, "Big deal-I'm in genetics!" I had a great time showing these two talking to each other, without knowing who was saying what.
Hurd: I know you've said that the strip follows your life. Would you elaborate on that a little?
Schneider: I read a lot-magazines, books, newspapers-about three hours a day with the idea in mind of covering as much ground as I can. I play the piano so there will be some of that in the strip, and 'Eek and Meek' seem to mirror whatever I happen to be doing. My divorce influenced the subject matter, as did the rearing of children. I had two kids in the strip at one time - 'Lovable' and 'Freaky'-and when my children began to take up more time than the comic strip, I stopped including them. I'll read the paper and get incensed at something somebody has said, and this will probably get me off on a strip comment about unemployment, for instance. I try to take something that's obvious and put it in a way that makes a point. Here's one example: When the value of the dollar kept dropping, as the price of gold was going up, it was devastating to a lot of people. I wanted to put this thought in the comic strip in some form that would make a point. I said that the dollar used to be worth 75¢ and now it's worth 55¢, which is really a good thing for the poor because now, when you don't have a buck to your name, you're only out 55¢.
Anything a cartoonist does that gets him out of the studio and gives him some sort of challenge-such as sailing or going on a cross-country camping trip as I did recently-is valuable and eventually productive of ideas. I was part of a crew on a sailboat and this turned me onto sailing, and now I want to do a lot more of it. I think maybe I will live in Barcelona this coming year. Even if I don't do anyuthing specific about Spain in the strip, the ideas just jog your mind. You break certain pieces loose, maybe you start thinking in terms of loneliness if you're away from home, or of alineation if you're dealing in a foreign language. Doing something like spending time in Spain changes your intake and it all helps.
Hurd: Do you read other comic strips?
Schneider: No. If you read the other person's strip, things seep in and eventually you'll come up with an idea that you think is yours-and it really isn't. Of course, I look at them from time to time, to see who's doing what, and so on, but not on a daily basis.