Frazz's Jef Mallett on Endurance Sports and Writingby Charlie Upchurch
We recently got the chance to pick the brain of Frazz creator Jef Mallett. Jef is in the throes of training to swim across the Straits of the Mackinac between Michigan's peninsulas - a 4.2 mile stretch as the bird flies. If Frazz fans think this sound suspiciously familiar to the title character's interests ... well, they're right! Jef talks about his history of taking on daunting running/cycling/swimming challenges over the years, as well as how he's used the experiences to reflect on writing, build up endurance while downshifting his ego, and color the characters in the Frazz universe.
GoComics: So you're set to swim across the Straits of Mackinac - what inspired you to do so?
First of all, I have to clarify: Back where I am in the swim pack, it’s not exactly a race, no matter what’s going on up in front. I’m still learning to really swim. I’ve got being stubborn down, and I’m working hard, but I have not yet been visited by the Speed Fairy.
I’ve swum across the Straits with a group in 2007 and 2015. This time it’s my own project, just me and a good friend (who’s literally a world-class marathon swimmer) in the water, plus one handler/food thrower and a boat captain and mate. It’s much safer with the small group.
I wasn’t a swim-team kid. Far from it. I waited until I was out of high school, decided to try this new triathlon sport and realized I was going to have to learn how to swim. I wasn’t good at it and didn’t especially like it, but that was how you got to the rest of the triathlon. Eventually I got a little better and, then, many years later, almost on a dare to myself, I tried that first Mackinac swim. Two thirds of the way across, something clicked and I realized I was enjoying myself. Thrilled, even. I still specialized in the triathlon for a few more years, but that was the moment. And the Straits are beautiful, and I’m a lifelong Michigander, so that water always meant a lot to be around or above. Now it means a lot to be in it.
GoComics: Give us a rundown of the different types of races you've done over the years.
That first triathlon was in, I think, 1981. I did pretty well, 8th or 9th. But then I looked at my splits and went straight into bicycle racing. I did pretty well for a few years. When I started working more and got married and couldn’t train the way I needed to, I started bouncing back and forth with the triathlon until it took over.
Eight years ago, after 20 years in mid-Michigan, I moved to the Detroit area, where the cycling is awful, dangerous and boring. Over the years I did three Ironman-distance races (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run), which is the distance that gets all the press, but I liked half-Ironmans and Olympic-distance (1500-meter swim, 40K bike, 10K run) a little better, where you weren’t conserving energy so much of the time. I did well, but ... I drifted more into pure running. It took a while, but I got to where I could reliably qualify for the Boston Marathon; between injuries and schedule, I only went once, in 2015. And I loved it, and ... then I quit running. I had been talked into Boston’s marathon-swim equivalent, the 8-mile Boston Light Swim, that August. I finished the marathon Monday and I was swimming in the 46-degree Boston Harbor on Tuesday, and I haven’t quit.
GoComics: What pushes you to complete in these type of extreme/endurance competitions?
It’s certainly not the glory. I was never that good — pack filler at the front of the pack is ultimately still pack filler — and people don’t really care as much as you think anyway. The competitions and events are an excuse to train, a motivation to keep it a high priority even when other parts of life get pushy, and an opportunity to travel. But it’s more than just fun and tourism. I think it’s important to push your boundaries, to really push them, to risk and fail and struggle and persist and eventually triumph; to take some risks and even, by God, absolutely frighten yourself.
GoComics: Does exercise clear your head for writing? Untangle some storylines?
A good portion of my back is covered by a tattoo depicting Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, with his family motto, “Fortitudine vincimus” — "By endurance we conquer." Part of why it’s so big is so I’m not tempted to squeeze in my own, much tackier, motto, “Scared shitless is my comfort zone.” You learn so much about yourself. First you learn what you can’t do that you thought you could do, and then you learn you can do some astonishing stuff you never thought you could.
I don’t write per se while I’m training, but there’s no question I write better WHEN I’m training, if you get the distinction. I’m funnier when I’m fitter. I don’t know if it’s more oxygen in the blood, just plain feeling good, or some other body-mind connection, but I do know it’s ultimately all one unit, and it works better when you take care of all the angles. And it’s great for material. Not just that I can do accurate sports gags, or actually draw someone riding a bicycle right, but to write well, you have to write from life itself. And each race, each event, is its own little life. You’ve got a beginning and an end and, if you do the long, hard stuff right, a full range of agony and ecstasy in between, and then it’s over and, boom, what you thought might never end, you might never finish, is suddenly a moment, a story, yeah, a life. You know the quote about how it’s not the years in your life but the life in your years, right? I get entire extra lives in my years this way. And that’s awfully handy when your job is coming up with a short story a day.
GoComics: Clearly Frazz shares your affinity for biking and sports. Are there any other characters who've gained some characteristics from you? Have you gained any personality traits from them?
Frazz is the character I most shamelessly model after myself. Or, rather, my much more ideal self. And it’s interesting to watch him change over the years. He wasn’t supposed to be this big an athlete in the beginning; he’s a musician, a songwriter. He still is, but it doesn’t feature as prominently as the sports. When I created the strip, it was because I thought I was done with sports. I got hit hard in my late 30s with mononucleosis and some pretty crushing fatigue, and I directed what energy I had toward what eventually became Frazz. I grew up in a family of musicians and thought maybe that could be my new future, if only in my comic strip. But over the years I got my strength back and couldn’t stay away from the physical stuff, and as I got back into it, so did Frazz. Now we change and grow together. Sometimes I wonder if I’d be able to see my future better if I just read my own comic strip more carefully. Right now, Frazz is swimming an awful lot. I sure hope he gets faster.