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John Wagner, Creator of Hallmark's Maxine
Sep 19, 2003 - © Susanna McLeod, Suite101.com
With her drooping, grayish exterior and sour spirit to match, one particular cartoon character has made a big impression. She seems to peer through dark glasses directly at readers, scrutinizing and examining. Then the scrawny old woman utters a humdinger of a crabby comment from, of all places, the inside of a greeting card. That's Maxine, speaking out for the older generation and making a lot of smiles in the process.
As an artist with Hallmark since 1970, John Wagner created Maxine in 1986 as a new character line for the Shoebox Greetings card division. He created a brazen older woman with a stooped back, a mop of curly gray hair and abrasive personality. Wagner's mom, grandmother and unmarried aunts provided inspiration for the comic creation. Maxine took on an individuality of her own, taking sheer delight in making high-spirited, crabby remarks about almost everything. Though she was truly funny, the character had the staff at Hallmark concerned.
Spokeswoman for Hallmark, Rachel Bolton noted in a 1997 article on the "my.com" website that, "When she first came out, we were so worried that older people might be offended. It turns out to be just the opposite. People loved her."
Maxine takes on any issue fearlessly, from family and aging, to work and driving. "I can't use a cell phone in the car. I have to keep my hands free for making gestures," and, "I'm willing to put in longer hours at work. As long as they're lunch hours," and "Caffeine is for people who feel they aren't irritable enough on their own," are a few examples of John Wagner's clever sense of humour through Maxine.
Of course, such an outspoken character is bound to have her detractors. "I think that she feeds into both negative stereotypes about aging and about women," said Elizabeth W. Markson, associate director of the Gerontology Center of Boston University. Ms. Markson seems to be in the minority.
The petulant character was so popular with card-buying customers and recipients that Maxine bounded from greeting cards into comics syndication in the 1990s through Universal Press Syndicate, a first in cartooning. It's usually the other way around, the comic first and then the greeting card. Entitled "Crabby Road," the strip was published in over 100 newspapers across the United States. It was withdrawn sometime in 2002 and is no longer under syndication, but fans can still chuckle at the character's acerbic wit: five books of cartoons are available through Hallmark stores.
According to the Hallmark website, the Maxine card line is a big seller. Since the 1986 debut, over 220 million Maxine cards have been purchased and sales have increased by 50% in the last two years. Along with the cards, Maxine appears on all sorts of licenced merchandise ranging from sleepshirts and aprons, cookie jars, calendars, book ends, clocks, picture frames, fridge magnets and much more. There are several versions of figurines and talking dolls plus items that include Floyd, Maxine's high-spirited dog.
John Wagner was a cartoonist at heart, even as a young child. He was encouraged by his mother and grandmother to be artistic - his grandmother bought him art lessons when his skills developed beyond grade school art classes. Later, he attended the Vesper George School of Art in Boston, Massachusetts and began work as part of a new Hallmark artists' group following graduation. (The Vesper George School of Art closed in 1983.)
Proud of his hugely-popular Maxine creation, Wagner told "my.com," that, "It's kind of humbled me. She's been a voice for a silent group of women that are glad that this cranky old woman is finally saying what she wants." Like almost all cartoonists, Wagner is out to make people happy. "If Maxine can get a laugh out of someone who feels lonely or someone who is getting older and hates the thought of another birthday, or if she can make someone chuckle about stressful interpersonal relationships, then I'm happy. Putting a smile on someone's face is what it's all about," he said on the Hallmark website.
Through John Wagner's profound understanding of his fans and his vast artistic talents, Maxine has reached the pinnacle of popularity for a cartoon: she has her own Fan Club with 17,000 members and counting. Maxine is a star. A crabby star, but still, a star.