Something funny bites again

Author: John Monczunski


It was a noontime ritual virtually everyone engaged in during the late 1970s and early ’80s at Notre Dame. Whether you were a student, professor, administrator or janitor, it’s likely the first thing you did at lunch each weekday was flip through The Observer to find out what Jim Mole and his buddies were up to.

Mole was the angst-ridden ND undergraduate everyman “star” of Molarity, the first and, many would argue, best comic strip ever to run in the student newspaper. He also is the alter ego of Michael Molinelli ’82, the clever architecture student who created Molarity. The cartoonist explains that the strip’s strange name refers to a concept in chemistry and synthesizes the first three letters of his last name with the word hilarity. Why chemistry? “Why not?” he says.

For five years, from 1977 to ’82, the student from Briarcliff Manor, New York, satirized daily life at Notre Dame in a Doonesbury-esque comic. “Something funny that bites” is how this magazine characterized the strip in a 1978 news story.

Molarity chronicled the adventures/misadventures of Mole and his friends who, among others, include: Mitch, a bench-riding football player with star attitude; Chuck Mason, a throwback campus radical; and Cheryl, Mitch’s superior-in-every-way girlfriend.

“After taking Psych 101 freshman year, I realized that with Jim, Chuck and Mitch, I had divided my own psyche into id, ego and superego,” Molinelli says. “Jim was my superego. He was worried about how he’s perceived, whether he’s good enough, doing enough. Mitch, on the other hand, is the ego. He’s convinced he’s right and no one else matters. While Chuck is pure id. He just goes off wildly doing whatever he wants to do. And Cheryl is the girl I always wanted to date. She’s sharp, funny, smart. Maybe a little overly preoccupied with her mission in the world, which is to succeed as a woman.”

Molarity wasn’t an instant success. At first the strip appeared irregularly just to fill holes in the layout. Molinelli credits Steve Odland ’80 — then The Observer’s managing editor and now the CEO of Office Depot — with the break that planted the comic strip in the campus psyche. “Steve had this outrageous concept of ‘why don’t we run these Molarity cartoons every day?’” Despite a fair amount of skepticism among editorial board members, the comic began appearing daily in March 1978 and quickly gained a loyal following.

Molinelli realized people were paying attention when he heard students at lunch discuss a strip he did on the Great Blizzard of ’78, which shut down campus for the first time in memory. In the strip, Jim and Chuck are walking across campus and look across the way to see a figure in the snow. Jim says, “Who’s that girl in the gold coat?” To which Chuck replies, “Does Mary, the mother of God, mean anything to you?”

The five-year run of Molarity eventually was collected and published in three volumes. The first two books were done by Juniper Press as part of a book publishing course taught by American Studies Professor Elizabeth Christman. Molinelli published the final volume. As of 1983, the books, which sold between 4,000 to 5,000 copies apiece, were said to be the best sellers in bookstore history, with the exception of required text books.

Life after Molarity has been good, Molinelli says, though not what he or others envisioned. “This is where I’m a severe disappointment for anyone who bought a book. They were all expecting me to be a famous cartoonist. It didn’t happen. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.”

Molinelli spent the summer after graduation as an intern in the art department of the Cincinnati Enquirer, where he developed a comic featuring Jim Mole, TV news cameraman. Unfortunately, the paper chose not to go forward with the strip. The architect-turned-cartoonist turned back to architecture, where he’s had a successful career designing award-winning commercial and residential buildings.

He admits the cartooning itch never totally left him. Over the years he’s pitched ideas to syndicates and magazines and did some political cartooning on the side, winning a number of first-place awards from the New York State Press Association before getting fired from his hometown paper. “I guess my political views didn’t sync with the newspaper’s,” he muses.

In a Summer 2000 Notre Dame Magazine feature, Molinelli reprised his Molarity characters with Jim Mole returning to Notre Dame as a professor. Currently a rumor has been swirling around campus that Professor Mole and his colleagues will continue their adventures in the online version of Notre Dame Magazine.

It’s true.

We’re happy Molinelli is scratching the cartoon itch again, and we think you’ll be happy, too.

Come back to the magazine home page on Jan 14 to see the what the gang is up to on campus these days.