Mother Lode of Laughs

updated 01/09/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/09/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN 1986, WHEN JOHN WAGNER FIRST SKETCHED Maxine—the little old lady with blue hair, a dangling cigarette and an attitude problem—he thought he had simply created a new greeting-card character. But the moment his sister Carol Daniels saw Maxine, she saw family: specifically, their mother and maternal grandmother. "She called and said, 'John, this is scary, but I think she looks like Mom and Katie,' " says Wagner, an artist in Hallmark's Shoebox division. "I looked, and I thought, 'Uh oh, you know, she does.' "

If Wagner was worried about repercussions, he can rest easy. "I get a kick out of it," says his mother, Toni, 77, a former assistant professor of physical education at Connecticut College. (Her mother, Katherine Leonard Vaughn, died in 1972.) "Maxine is strong and opinionated. I think she's wonderful."

So do a lot of other people. Hallmark sold more than 7.5 million Maxine cards this year (including the top-selling birthday greeting: "You know you're getting older when...Your boobs have fallen and they can't get up"), plus a host of Maxine memorabilia. Two Maxine humor books have sold almost a half million copies. A Maxine television special is in the works. And beginning this week, the Hallmark-owned character is starring in Crabby Road, a daily comic appearing in 40 U.S. newspapers.

Wagner, 46 and the married father of two, is quick to point out that Maxine's caustic attitude comes not from him, but from her 15-member writing staff. "My mom is a lot nicer," says Wagner, the third of Toni's nine children. (Dad Gil is a retired chemical engineer.) "And she has better taste."

She too enjoys Maxine. "We both cook, go fishing, garden and swim, and I have that same sunflower hat," says Toni. She does maintain, though, that contrary to the opinion of her Mystic, Conn., bridge club, "those skinny legs aren't mine."

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