Tom Armstrong, Creator of Marvin

23 August 2002

   Having a career as a cartoonist can be a wonderfully rewarding, creative life. The artist has the opportunity to devise original plots and characters, draw what he feels is a funny, or important, message and craft the comic to spring to life. The cartoon brings laughter and a perhaps a shared understanding to the readers. That is, until someone thinks the message has gone over the line. Then the cartoonist could find himself in a legal tangle.

    The creator of the popular Marvin comic strip, Tom Armstrong, used his characters to openly express his displeasure at service he was given by a local car dealership. In 1998, Armstrong used a series of strips to imply the dealer and his son were less than honest. “After complaining to [the dealer], Armstrong published six strips depicting the main character, Marvin talking to another baby named Chad who wants to run his father’s car dealership when he grows up. In one strip, the Chad character said, ‘I like to fib,’ and in another strip, he said he fabricated a charge during a sale.” (4/23/98) The car dealer saw the cartoons and filed a $1 million lawsuit against Tom Armstrong for libel. *(1)

Marvin

    The case made its way to court. It was thrown out by circuit court judge Lee Haworth in Sarasota, Florida. He said that comic strips are protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right of free speech. Case closed. The outcome was no doubt a relief for all cartoonists. Before taking up cartooning as his work, Tom Armstrong earned a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Evansville, Indiana. He received awards for his efforts while in school: for oil painting, he was given the Helen Morris Outstanding Senior Award, the Indiana Collegiate Association’s award for Best Editorial Cartooning and the Medal of Merit for significant contributions to collegiate journalism.

   Tom Armstrong worked with advertising agencies, creating cartoons, television spots and advertising. He also worked as a freelance illustrator, selling his work to The National Review and the Saturday Evening Post, among other publications. He received the Golden Circle Award three times for “the highest standards of advertising and selling excellence in worldwide competition.” *(2)

    Teaming up with Tom Batiuk in 1979, Armstrong co-created “John Darling,” a spoof on tv talk show hosts. He won recognition for his skilled hilarious caricatures of well-known personalities. Armstrong used his varied talents to create his own comic strip, and passed on the drawing of John Darling to another cartoonist.

    The Marvin comic strip made its introduction into newspapers in August, 1982 and caught on right away with readers. Under the King Features Syndicate, the comic strip has reached almost 400 newspapers. From his view from the floor, precocious baby Marvin Miller philosophizes about life and the Miller family members who find him absolutely adorable. Though Marvin cannot talk, Bitsy (the dog) and other babies are able to read his complex thoughts and share theirs with him. It makes for an interesting outlook on the world.

    In 1982, the Northern California Cartoon and Humor Association gave Armstrong and Marvin the Best Comic Strip Award. The strip earned the prestigious Elzie Segar Award from the National Cartoonists Society in 1992 for “extraordinary achievement and contributions to the field of cartoon art.” The Muscular Dystrophy Association named Tom Armstrong the Honorary Chairman of their 1981 Labour Day Telethon. He also participated as a member of the Board of Directors for the Tri-State MDA and as spokesman for the area Red Cross.

    Marvin is not only a saucy star in the newspapers. The cartoon character has appeared on CBS television in “Marvin: Baby of the Year” in 1989. He and the Miller clan can be found in several paperback books, such as “All I Needed to Know I Learned While Still in Diapers,” by Morrow, William and Co.(published 1991.)

    Taking illustration and cartooning another step, Armstrong constructed a flourishing licensing company in 1995, based on products he named Face Offs: Expressions to Fit Your Mood ®. Large, expressive cartoon eyes and silly faces in conjunction with humourous captions are available for companies to use on their merchandise, from mugs and clothing to bubble gum and toys. Coca Cola in Spain and Burger King in Australia and New Zealand have licensed the cartoonist’s creations for their premiums in recent years, along with dozens of other companies. Have a look at posters of the faces on Poster-Paradise.

    Tom, wife Glenda and their two kids, Jonathan and Jennifer make their home in the state of Florida, where Free Speech is the rule. And if some day that doesn't work, Satire is still covered.

The Brechner Report story of Armstrong’s day in court:
*(1)http://www.jou.ufl.edu/brechner/reports/1998/rpt9806.htm

Marvin’s home base:
*(2)http://www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/marvin/about.htm

© Susanna McLeod 2002
TheCartoonists.ca  
   
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)