the jef mallett interview

jef mallet

living on a remote(ish) scottish island, there are events, happenings and existences that tend to pass me by, many of them deliberately so, but it's still quite amazing what comes my way. in this instance, it was jamie smith's book roadie, quickly leading on to the beautifully observed illustrations by jef mallett.

but of course, even illustrators have bicycles to support, necessitating other avenues of illustration, and in this field, jef mallett seems pre-eminent. his cartoon strip, frazz, is syndicated by over 150 publications, appearing every day in most of them. all new information on this side of the pond, so it seemed only natural that thewashingmachinepost investigate further on your behalf. happily, jef is as amenable as his cartoons would suggest.

read on...

which came first, bicycling or drawing?

I think the art came even before walking. But that's typical almost all kids draw early. Frankly, kids typically ride a bike early, too, and a lot of them eventually give up on both. I just never did.

can one survive without the other?

I think either could survive without the other. But neither would be anywhere nearly as good. You can't draw or write without a life to draw and write about. And pure physical fitness without an engaged brain just turns you into an animal. Or a blind-side flanker, ha ha ha.

are you art school trained?

I don't have a college degree in the arts. I opted for on-the-job training instead. In retrospect, school would have been a lot more efficient, but the end result all comes down to endless curiosity, study and practice.

who's idea was it to match your illustrations with jamie smith's book?

The publisher gave me a call. I'm a regular contributor to two of the company's magazines (I write and illustrate a column for Inside Triathlon and draw a cartoon for VeloNews), and they thought my art and Jamie's writing would be a good fit. Somehow Jamie and I had never crossed paths before working on the book together.


how did you go about illustrating 'roadie'? did you read and define your own points, or did someone say which bits had to have pictures?

Jamie and the publisher gave me the perfect balance of guidance, feedback and freedom. They told me how much art they needed, and they had a few ideas that they offered but didn't bind me to. There was a basic plan - a certain ratio of chapter openers, full-page illustrations and spot cartoons - and we all knew enough to make sure I didn't load up one chapter with art and leave another wanting. Then they gave me the manuscript and turned me loose. I gave them art, they gave me feedback, but everything kind of instantly clicked. I think we had a team of seriously like-minded people.

i'm guessing that humour comes naturally?

Humor comes naturally to anyone who's going to survive in this nutty world. But like anything, it comes more naturally to some than to others. And also like any other skill or instinct, you get better the more you practice. And you practice a lot when it's your job. It's like ... racing a bike.

generally speaking, how are your illustrations made? is it simply a case of pen and ink, or do you emulate dave brinton and enhance in photoshop?

I'm an ink guy, but I'll also use a computer. For basic drawing, I really need that direct, physical, tactile process. But it's a digital world, so I'm not foolish enough to ignore what a computer has to offer. Typically, I start the cartoon with pencil on Bristol board, then India ink with a watercolor brush. Then I scan it and lay down my gray tones or color in Photoshop.


have you ever been cycling with jamie smith?

Not yet! And that's just wrong. We'll definitely get it together for a ride soon. In a real geographic coincidence, he only lives an hour and a half from me. We have no excuses.

have you been a competitive cyclist, and therefore have sympathies with certain chapters in the book?

I used to race bikes, and even got sort of competent at it on a local/regional level. Now I race triathlons, and I've gotten sort of competent on a local/regional level. I'm totally sympathetic to the whole book. Jamie got it right.

is it possible to purchase signed copies of the illustrations in the book?

Good question! Or good suggestion. I think the publisher is looking at possibilities like that. Nowadays, I know enough not to take it on myself. Last summer (here comes a digression), I joined a group of swimmers to cross the Straits of Mackinac, a 5-mile channel between Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas. It was a fundraiser, so to meet my share I sold art and prints from my comic strip, "Frazz." And I got completely swamped by the response and had a brand-new, additional full-time job for a month. I'm still trying to catch back up. So, yeah, I'd love to make all sorts of signed art available as long as someone else can handle the logistics.

is there likely to be a jef mallett book of cycling, but all in pictures?

There is a Jef Mallett book in the works but it's not just pictures, and it's not just about cycling. I'm writing and illustrating a book about triathlon, the way triathletes train, think and live. It's sort of like Roadie and yet very different. We (Velo Press, same publisher as Roadie) will release that in fall of '09.

any plans for a 'return of the roadie' book two?

I bet Jamie's got plans for more books, too. He pretty much nailed the cycling overview with Roadie, but there's a lot more to write about cycling. And we know Jamie can write.

for those of us not in the united states, can you give a brief overview of frazz, the cartoon strip?

The title character is a janitor in an elementary school (specifically Bryson Elementary, which I named for Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors, who now lives in England; doesn't that tie into this nicely?). The strip runs seven days a week in about 150 newspapers. It's also available online at


why a janitor? or, more to the point, why a cycling janitor?

Years before I started the comic strip, I wrote and illustrated a children's book. When I was touring (a word that sounds a lot more impressive than what I really did), it became clear right away that the janitor held a special status in the school hierarchy. He (she) could be an adult and a kid at the same time, loved by everybody. Nearly every adult has fond memories of at least one of their school janitors. So it was a natural premise to try when I decided to set up a comic strip, and it worked from the start. Frazz is a cyclist because I'm a cyclist, and all authors are essentially self-centered autobiographers. And I'm not a very subtle one.

is frazz' songwriting something that you share with him?

I grew up in a family of musicians. (Which was beautiful. How often can a guy go into art and writing and be considered the responsible one?) I never became a good musician, but I picked up on the musical nature of language and verse. So I guess I write lyrics, but I could never play anything I write.

is it an eternal struggle to continually draw the frazz cartoons, or does it all flow quite freely?

Sometimes the muse sings and it flows freely. Other times I feel like I've used up all the funny thoughts I'll ever have. But it's a job, not a hobby, so you find a way. Just like a bike racer: Some days you've got the legs, some days you struggle. But in this business, you can't DNF.

are there complete books of frazz cartoons like the charles schultz 'peanuts' series?

There can't be, because I'm not done drawing "Frazz"! But there are two "Frazz" collections on shelves ("Live at Bryson Elementary" and "99 Percent Perspiration"), with another ("Frazz 3.1416") due out in August.


any plans for world domination of the illustration world in the future?

World domination would be awful! If there's no one beside or ahead of you, who are you going to learn from? No, I like it just the way it is, fighting and scrapping and enjoying the occasional victory and then getting right back into the fray.

jamie confesses to owning about eight bikes - can you top that?

Close. I share a tandem with my wife. I have a mountain bike, a triathlon/TT bike, a track bike set up for the road, and three road bikes. But two of those road bikes are on semi-permanent loan to people I'm trying to get hooked on the sport. I'm a bit of a cycling evangelist.

which is your favourite?

I suppose whichever one I'm riding at the time.

shimano, campag or sram?

Shimano, but that's nothing against the other two. It's just what happened to be on my first bike, and then you tend to stay with the same line out of habit and compatibility.

money no object, which bicycle/frame do you buy?


My tri bike and my main road bike are both Cervelos I'm a big fan. They're superbly made bikes, and they fit me and my style of riding perfectly. If I had to choose between the dream tri bike and the dream road bike, I guess I'd agonize over it a bit and go with a tri bike, because that's where I compete. But it's almost a moot question, because I kind of already have those dream bikes.

are you a competent spanner wielder, or is it the local bike shop every time?

I'll do the routine maintenance and minor repairs, but if it's anything at all major, I go straight to the shop. I get my joy out of riding bikes, not tinkering with them. Also, I'm clumsy.

is there a frazz/jef mallett website? See you there!

for uk readers, two books of frazz cartoons are available from, with a third due in august 2008.

posted on saturday 3rd may

top of page.