LAKEWOOD RANCH, Fla. — They’ve been very happily married 36 years, raised two happy kids, have two cars, a schnauzer named Shadow and a brand-new house in Lakewood Ranch, Fla.
Tom and Glenda Armstrong, who repeatedly say they are blessed, credit it all to their strong faith and a fat red-headed baby.
The faith gets nurtured at Covenant Life Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, but the fat baby paying their bills requires lots of work for Tom and lots of creative support from Glenda.
The Armstrong’s baby is “Marvin,” the first daily and Sunday comic strip told from the point of view of a 2-year-old. The strip appears in 300 newspapers.
Marvin celebrated his 30th birthday in syndication Sunday which means that Tom Armstrong has been breathing life into the chubby, precocious, baby, with his wife’s help, since 1982, when they were a struggling couple living in Indiana.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years,” Tom Armstrong said Sunday, while sitting in the cozy living room of the home that he and Glenda just moved into several weeks ago after giving up their previous larger Lakewood Ranch home. “There are only 200 people in the world who make a living producing syndicated daily cartoon strips. What’s really unbelievable to me is that I am one of those 200, am doing what I love and it’s paying the bills.”
In 30 years, little Marvin has become famous world-wide. He achieved a kind of cartoon immortality recently when he became a character in Universal Studios’ Toon Lagoon in Orlando, Fla., swinging out over the water near a statue of his mutt dog, Bitsy.
But producing the daily strip is not easy.
“People think they get done the night before in 10 minutes before we go to bed,” Armstrong said of himself and his fellow cartoonists.
Actually, Armstrong works on Marvin continuously, 24-7, writing and rewriting, polishing gags, trying out facial expressions, trying to get the jokes just right.
“Is Marvin raising his eyebrows or looking bored or what?” Tom Armstrong said. “Every facial expression conveys a different idea.”
Tom always takes these ideas to Glenda.
“I know when he nails it,” Glenda said.
“And she lets me know when I don’t,” Tom said with a grin.
Tom draws the daily strip six weeks ahead and the Sunday strip two months ahead.
“I am amazed by some of the things that come out of his brain,” Glenda says of Tom. “Ideas just pour out. But that’s who he is. I think that’s one of the reasons the strip has lasted so long. Tom is always trying to get it perfect.”
“It’s like when we are driving, she will look over at me and say, ‘Where are you, Tom,’” Armstrong said. “She knows I’m in Marvin-land.”
“I started off feeling like Marvin’s dad and now I feel like Marvin’s grandpa,” said Armstrong, who is 62.
In honor of Marvin’s 30 years and as a thank you to Marvin’s fans, Armstrong has created a special short run series in which Marvin meets his 30-year-old adult self. This series began Sunday and will run daily until Aug. 12.
“I decided to show Marvin at 30 because people continually ask me if Marvin is ever going to grow up,” Armstrong said with a smile. “So, I wanted to do it just for awhile. I think he looks pretty handsome. But after the series he will go back to being age 2.”
Marvin, who was inspired by the Armstrong’s real life son, Jonathan, now 34, probably would not exist if Tom Armstrong had not worked up the nerve to knock on the door of Glenda Arnold, who was from Owensboro, Ky., and had just moved to Evansville, Ind. when they were both 20-somethings in 1975.
She was just out of college and had got her first job as a nurse in Evansville and got her first apartment. He was a University of Evansville graduate working as an illustrator in advertising. At first, she would only talk to him through the closed door of her apartment, but after a while, she opened the door and kept the chain on.
“He had long hair and was kind of a hippie,” Glenda said of Tom.
“We were totally opposite,” Tom said. “I was this artist-type and she was totally organized and rational.”
But, somehow, after their first date, which was the movie, “Tommy,” inspired by The Who, Glenda felt something for this long-haired guy.
“I just knew he was the one,” Glenda said. “I feel God put us together.”
By 1982, they were married, had baby Jonathan, and Glenda was pregnant with Jennifer, who is now 30.
“She actually ordered me into my spare bedroom studio,” Tom said, laughing.
“I did,” Glenda said. “We needed the money. I told him, ‘Go in there and create another strip.”
Tom Armstrong was surviving on his work with Tom Batiuk on the “John Darling” strip. But the Armstrongs needed more.
Sitting in his studio, Tom noticed a Time Magazine cover of Jacqueline Smith from Charlie’s Angels and her baby-tummy.
“It was the time in our nation when career women were dealing with the issue of their biological clocks,” Tom said. “The magazine said a ‘baby-boomlet’ was upon us. That gave me an idea. I drew a baby. I gave him a big nose and made him fat. He was not your typical Gerber baby.”
Tom ran down to Glenda who is his touchstone on all of his ideas. Tom wondered if she would like it or, like sometimes, blurt out, ‘It doesn’t work for me.”
“Now, this is a face only a mother could love,” Glenda told her husband.
Distributed by MCT Information Services