Amos is the cerebral one. He prefers to score points with his teachers.
Matzah is the casual one. He would rather score points with his video games.
Matt Zalen hopes both characters score points with readers of The Sunday Gazette. Beginning this weekend, Amos, Matzah and the rest of the cartoon family of “Back 2 Basics” take color positions in the newspaper’s comics section.
The strip will be the Sunday edition’s 24th funny. None are being dropped to make room for Zalen’s crew.
“It’s a strip I’ve been creating for a lifetime,” said Zalen, 31, who was born and raised in the Albany suburb of Delmar and now lives in Israel. “The name captures the strip on multiple levels, and the cast itself was initially conceived through the multiple characters I’ve created since I first started being passionate about cartoons in middle school. I’ve always sketched, always filled notebook after notebook with ideas.”
Some of those sketches took place during Zalen’s days at Bethlehem Middle School. He graduated from Bethlehem High School in 1996, and still has family in the Capital Region. Father Stanley and mother Valerie Zalen still live in Delmar. Parts of his youth growing up with brother Josh, who now lives in Saratoga Springs, and sister Dania, now in New York City, have become part of “Back 2 Basics.”
“They’re different parts of me,” Zalen said of the cartoon brothers. “I like me a lot and they represent how weird I am and how level-headed I am. Just the interaction between them really seems to work. They play off of each other when I draw them and write them. They sometimes seem to write themselves, and that hasn’t happened with any of my characters before.”
Here’s an example: Amos wants to play outside, but can’t tear Matzah away from his video game controls. “This is a driving game, and I’m playing it five years before I’m allowed to drive,” Matzah explains. “That means I have a five-year head start on everybody!”
Amos is more realistic. “Tell that to the ten people you just ran over,” he says.
In addition to 11-year-olds Amos and Matzah, the strip’s regular cast includes a mother, father and grandfather. The boys got the names; the adults did not — other than “Mother,” “Father” and “Grandpop.” All the characters have received large, goggle eyes, and that’s a nod to one of Zalen’s favorite strips.
“I never took an art class in my life. I learned to draw just by reading the comics,” he said. “I would say the two biggest inspirations came from ‘Garfield’ and Mad magazine. I think you’ll find a lot of influence there.”
Zalen believes cartoon eyes, even drawings as simple as large circles with dots, create personality. “If you don’t have the eyes right, the strip doesn’t work,” he said. “I learned that from Jim Davis,” creator of “Garfield.”
Other influences have come from Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” and Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.” Zalen figures if Watterson didn’t think it was necessary to name enfant terrible Calvin’s parents, he could get away with the same gag.
One more influence: son Yonatan, 11⁄2, entertains Zalen and his wife, Eva. His antics will find their way into “Back 2 Basics.”
“I think you’ll see in the course of the next few months strips having to do with babies in and out of the womb and pregnancy,” Zalen said. “That all comes from him.”
Drawings aside, words will often show relatives in the process of relating.
“It’s about a family in a local community and it’s about daily life,” Zalen said. “I want it to be that way because I want it to appeal to the largest possible group.”
Like other cartoonists, Zalen enjoys days when bursts of strip ideas pop into his head and other times when creativity does not percolate. He has another burden — unlike other cartoonists, Zalen is self-syndicated. He has lined up the 30 newspapers that carry his strip.
“I hate the selling part,” he said. “There’s nothing fun about pushing something you’ve poured your blood and sweat into.”
Zalen hopes he can interest a syndicate soon. He hopes to interest readers in Schenectady first.
“I would say the people who are the most likely to really get the strip are people between the ages of 15 and 45, to be honest,” he said. “Then, there are people younger than 15 who love the strip for reasons never intended.”
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: Life and Arts