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Molarity: a study in a successful Observer comic

Jordan Gamble | Friday, February 18, 2011

Believe it or not, an Observer comic strip can be memorable — and long-running.

Michael Molinelli’s “Molarity” (a chemistry term, but also a play on the combination of his name and “hilarity”) ran for five years in the 1970s and the 1980s. Molinelli said when he started freshman year in 1977, he was surprised that the campus newspaper didn’t have any student-created comics.

“There was nothing in the paper, and I had grown up reading ‘Doonesbury,’ and I just assumed every college had a comic strip, and if it didn’t I’d give it a try,” he said.

The strip was mostly used to fill in gaps, and Molinelli said it wasn’t until a managing editor, Steve Odland — now the CEO of Office Depot — advocated for the comic that “Molarity” began appearing five days a week.

That kind of regularity gave Molinelli the chance to stretch out storylines and develop a core group of characters surrounding his Jim Mole, the campus everyman.

“It was a great opportunity and I wasn’t going to miss it. I never had writer’s block,” he said. “I was prolific enough that I really wasn’t always striving for ideas — I was striving to get better ones.”

Molinelli got paid $2 a strip, which he said became his pocket money during the school year.

Molinelli even kept up with the daily cartoons during the year he spent in Rome as part of the architecture program. Because it was 1979 and mail was the only way to get the comic back to Indiana, he said he would run over to the Vatican to send out the strips because the Holy See had a much more secure postal system than the Italian mail.

The strip was tremendously popular, even after its five-year run. In the early 1980s, three volumes of the comic were stocked in the university’s bookstore, selling between 4,000 and 5,000 copies a piece, according to Notre Dame Magazine.

Though he had an internship in the art department of the Cincinnati Enquirer after graduation and later won several New York Press Association awards for political cartoons, Molinelli said cartooning never became a way to make a living, though not for lack of trying on his part.

“It’s harder to please an editor individually than it is to please a larger group of people,” he said. “It’s a lot like show business or publishing. You produce, you send it out there and people tell you why it won’t be a success … the usual stuff I got was, ‘your stuff is too intellectual for people who read newspapers.'”

After a summer at the Enquirer, Molinelli started work at an architectural firm and has stayed on that track since. He now has his own firm in his hometown of Briar Cliff, N.Y., where he lives with his wife and three young children. The kids have seen “Molarity” and have started to draw on their own.

“Each of them has some talent in that regard, and my hope is when they go to college that Notre Dame will start offering cartooning scholarships,” he joked.

Molinelli has since revisited his characters in “Molarity Redux” for Notre Dame Magazine’s website, with Jim Mole and the gang grown up and now back at Notre Dame as professors or coaches. The production schedule is a lot less hectic — he only submits about one a month, not five a week. Molinelli also uses Adobe Photoshop to color the images, though he still draws out the first draft by hand, just like he did as an undergraduate.

“I think why I like to draw the panels and then compose the strip in Photoshop is that I do all my architecture on computer — both drafting and 3-D modeling, so the chance to put a real pen to paper is refreshing and cathartic,” he said.

Occasionally Molinelli will run into alumni who will recognize his name and almost immediately ask, “Are you that guy who did the comic strip?”

“It is very cool to be engraved in people’s brains like that,” he said.