In the Fall of 1980, a restless design student named Karl Zorowski struggled to develop an idea for a comic strip to run in the North Carolina State University student newspaper. While walking from Harrelson Hall to the Student Union to attend a screening of the 1950s Russian film, “The Cranes Are Flying,” he tossed an empty cup into a trash can only to have the cup thrown back out of the receptacle. He picked it up, returned it to the trash can, and watched as the cup slowly rose upward and fell to the ground. Zorowski stared at the trash can and found himself face to face with the biggest, ugliest rat he had ever seen in his life. The proverbial light bulb went off over the designo’s head, and a new comic strip character was born.
Joe Rat appeared weekly in the NCSU student paper from October 1980-May 1982.
The strip received a strong following among the student body. Joe became famous for his cynical view of campus life, and his digs against the fraternities. Zorowski and the strip were often the subject of letters to the editor of the paper either asking for his removal from the staff or showing support for the comic.
Fan mail from some flounder???
During the “Who Shot JR?” craze on “Dallas,” Joe himself was shot in the strip and a “whodunit” followed in the pages of the paper, including the characters in the other strips claiming they did it.
Agromeck photo by Simon Griffiths
Joe Rat must have been considered a success, because the University included a six page feature on the cynical rodent and his creator in the 1982 “Agromeck,” the school yearbook.
In early 2001, Zorowski attempted to syndicate “Rat Race”, a comic strip that grew out his college strip and featured Joe Rat as the main character.
After receiving a stack of rejection letters from the syndicates, he began the arduous task of coming up with an idea for another comic strip. It seemed as if all the “good ideas” were already taken: cavemen, children, dogs, cats, teenagers, sports, single life, married life… even vikings.
He was coming up with nothing. His motivation was shot. He began to think about abandoning his lifelong dream of being a cartoonist.
Then, in the Fall of 2001, his best friend of thirty years, David Bass, called one morning and suggested Zorowski do a Christian comic strip. Bass said the idea just came to him during his prayertime that morning. Zorowski argued with him over the fact that there were no Christian comic strips in the mass media, and there was no way it would work…
Bass responded, “God gave you a gift, this might be how He wants you to use it. After all, church is a funny thing sometimes.”
After many argumentative hours spent on his knees over a period of several weeks, Zorowski humbled himself and told God he was willing to do whatever it is He wanted him to do.
Within hours after that prayer, the ideas for cartoons began coming to him, the characters slowly taking shape on scraps of drawing paper. Thus was born the comic strip “Church Mice,” and unbeknownst to the cartoonist, from a drawing table in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina, God began a worldwide cartoon ministry.
Bass and Zorowski, the men behind the Mice, c. 2011