In 1982, Tom Armstrong and his wife were expecting their second child. He was a struggling cartoonist, who was trying to come up with an idea for a comic strip. After a stack of overdue bills arrived in the mail, Armstrong had an epiphany. He thought, “I’ll draw a cartoon about a big fat baby!” And the idea for MARVIN, the first comic strip told from the viewpoint of a baby, was born.
MARVIN first appeared in newspaper comics pages on August 1, 1982. Since that day, the comic strip has revolved around the life and times of a precocious baby boy named Marvin, his father and mother Jeff and Jenny Miller, and their dog Bitsy. Other characters have been introduced through the years, including Megan, Marvin’s super-smart cousin; Janet, who is Megan’s mother and Jenny’s divorced sister; Ming Ming, Janet’s adopted daughter from China; and Bea and Roy, Marvin’s doting grandparents, and their tiny dog “Junior,” an angry toy schnauzer with a pit bull complex.
We thought readers would be interested in learning more about Tom’s start in cartooning and how he reached this important milestone in his career.
Q: Marvin and company are still delivering laughs day in and day out after 30 years. How have you managed to stay inspired?
Tom: Necessity bills keep turning up in my mailbox.
Q: How do you stay on top of baby trends to keep MARVIN (ahem) fresh?
Tom: I read baby magazines to keep up on the latest parenting theories and I watch babies and toddler’s behavior when I’m in restaurants and malls. While babies pretty much stay the same, all of their “stuff” changes … strollers, highchairs, etc. Just the other day I saw a baby girl with a pacifier that had flashing lights. I’m going to have to use that somewhere.
Q: In the current MARVIN series, readers will get a glimpse of what Marvin will be like when he is 30 years old. For those readers who haven’t seen the series yet, can you give them a little teaser?
Tom: He’s a college graduate working in a coffee shop because of a recession in 2042. The bad job market has forced him, his wife and Marvin, Jr. to move in with his parents, Jeff and Jenny.
Q: What is your favorite piece of fan mail or the greatest compliment you have received about MARVIN?
Tom: When people tell me they grew up reading MARVIN and now have little “Marvin’s” of their own. It’s those times when I really get a feeling for what it means to draw a comic strip for thirty years. It also makes me feel REALLY old.
Q: What has been your favorite storyline(s) through the years?
Tom: I think the dream strips where Marvin becomes Batman and Harry Potter. I also enjoy it when I parody popular personalities, like recent strips featuring The Food Channel’s Guy Fieri and the two guys from “American Pickers.”
Q: Describe your drawing routine and creative process. How long does it take to create a daily strip versus a Sunday strip?
Tom: Dailies take anywhere from two to four hours, Sundays a whole day. Of course, the gag comes first. Coming up with fresh ideas about the same small cast of characters is by far the hardest part of the job … and after 30 years, it gets harder and harder. That’s where necessity steps in. Another trip to the mailbox, another stack of fresh bills.
Q: Did you ever consider giving MARVIN a sibling? Or did you always plan to have him be the Millers’ only child?
Tom: I’d LOVE to add a baby brother or sister to the mix, but members of my family feel like it would be getting too far away from the original theme. Of course they’re not the ones who have to keep up with new material 365 days a year!
Q: Marvin has clearly lost some baby weight from 1982 to today. How did he do it? Cardio or did he just switch from whole milk to skim milk?
Tom: Marvin slimmed up the minute he started walking, proof that it’s a good form of exercise for both the heart and the waistline.
Q: Did you base MARVIN on either or both of your two grown children?
Tom: Marvin was inspired by my son Jonathan who’s now 34. Marvin’s distinctive, wild mop top came from Jonathan. He has five cowlicks and no matter how hard we tried when he was little, his mother Glenda and I could never get his hair to stay combed. My daughter, Jennifer, is 30. She was actually the reason I created MARVIN. Again, it was a case of necessity. Our son was four when we found out that we were going to be parents again. While overjoyed at the news, our bank account at the time didn’t share our enthusiasm. I was drawing another comic strip at the time called JOHN DARLING. It was written by Tom Batiuk, the creator of the popular comic strip FUNKY WINKERBEAN and I supplied the artwork. Unfortunately, with a 50/50 split, JOHN DARLING was not generating enough income to pay for the impending arrival of Jennifer. So following the advice of my wife Glenda, I sat down to create another comic strip. Jennifer made her debut in April followed closely by Marvin’s birth in more than 150 newspapers in August, and our bank account bank was happy now.
Q: Do you look forward to the day when you and your wife may become grandparents?
Tom: While we’re not in any big hurry to be grandparents, having little ones running through my studio would certainly be good for inspiring new material.
Q: What would you like to say to all your loyal fans who have enjoyed MARVIN all these years?
Tom: I want to thank them all for staying with me for all these years, for overlooking the days when I write bad gags, and for their patience with my constant experimenting with the way I draw Marvin. See you in the funny papers!
Check out the first week of comics here: