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Happy Meal, Funny Papers

There aren’t many working cartoonists in the Mississippi Delta. Nor are there many Penn alumni who can put McDonald’s on their post-graduate resumÈs. Yet Mark Pett C’92 holds both distinctions.

Pett, who lives in Indianola, Mississippi, is the author of a new comic strip, Lucky Cow, which launched nationwide on April 21. The strip centers on a father who manages a Lucky Cow burger joint and his teenaged daughter, who is unhappily employed there. Soon after choosing the greasy cartoon locale, Pett accepted that he’d have to explore that world. “I got a job at McDonald’s. My deal with myself was to work there at least a week,” he says. “I lasted about three weeks. I did everything, from making Big Macs on the line to taking orders.” He made $5.15 an hour—minimum wage.

Pett, who grew up in Salt Lake City, has always wanted to be a cartoonist. “When I was nine years old, I sent off my first comic strip—to The Salt Lake Tribune. They wrote me back and told me they only accepted syndicated material.” Undiscouraged, Pett honed his future craft. “I decided if I was ever going to be a cartoonist, I had to have really good printing,” he says. “So starting in about sixth grade, I only wrote in capital letters because that’s how they wrote in the comics,” he says. “My teachers gradually got used to it.”

Once he got to Penn, however, Pett—a philosophy major—focused on other pursuits. He joined Mask & Wig and sang in the a-cappella group Chord on Blues. Seeking a new experience after graduation, he traveled to Prague with a classmate. In addition to enjoying continental life, Pett taught English part-time. He also found work cartooning for the English-language Prague Post. “I would do editorial cartoons on Czech politics, and I knew nothing about Czech politics. You could say my opinions were a bit colored by my editor.”

Fast Food Cartoonist: Mark Pett C’92

After a year in Prague, Pett figured it was time to go. “I thought I’d break into cartooning in America in New York. And it didn’t go quite like that. I had all these leads in New York, but nobody liked my style. It wasn’t New York enough.” Pett decided to join Teach for America and work with under-resourced kids. “I was up for an adventure,” he says. “If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it somewhere totally different.”

Coming from Manhattan, it doesn’t get much more different than the Mississippi Delta. Pett was assigned to teach in Tunica, a poor town that has turned to casinos for its economic survival. “It’s definitely a slow life, compared to living in Boston, New York, Prague, or even Salt Lake. And it’s brutally hot in the summer,” Pett says. “But it’s a nice place. I loved the Delta, and I loved the people there.”

Pett taught sixth-grade social studies and was too consumed with lesson plans to do much cartooning. Teaching was very hard but satisfying work, he says.

While teaching, Pett also met his future wife, Tiffany Tidwell. After the duo finished their
two-year Teach for America commitment, they moved to Salt Lake City, where Pett freelanced as an editorial cartoonist. “After three years of just doing political cartoons, I wanted to do a comic strip,” he explained. “And I really wanted to do something about my teaching experience in the Delta.”

Those two elements came together in Mr. Lowe, which appeared in 25 papers nationwide at its peak. According to Pett, “A lot of it was autobiographical.” The main character, Mr. Lowe, is a novice, idealistic teacher. “That was me. I was the essence of naivetÈ going into the Delta.”

Pett penned Mr. Lowe from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he and Tidwell moved after getting married. With Tidwell attending graduate school,
Pett was a stay-at-home comic
during the strip’s two-year run.

After Mr. Lowe’s demise and Tidwell’s graduation, the Magnolia State beckoned to the couple. And once they settled in Indianola, Pett struck a development deal with Universal Press Syndicate for Lucky Cow.

He did his research at McDonald’s. “There was one girl there named Sheronda who always had a different name on her dry-erase nametag,” he recalls. “One minute it would say ‘Angie,’ the next it would be ‘Lakeisha.’ She said it was in case someone complained about her. I thought that was hilarious and I used it in a strip.”

Pett also needed photos of the restaurant to use as drawing references. “I knew I’d look pretty suspicious if I walked around snapping pictures,” he says. “So, on my last day, I told my boss I wanted pictures of everyone doing their jobs ‘to remember them.’ I’d only worked there three weeks at that point, so I think she thought I was the sappiest person on the face of the earth. But I was able to take two rolls of film.”u

Jonathan Bloom

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© 2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 02/28/03