POSTED NOTES: free-wheeling thoughts on New Yorker Cartoons and Cartoonists.
Also: The New Yorker's website (link appears below) contains twenty-nine archived posts that appeared on the magazine's blog, "Cartoonist of the Month" in February 2008. Link:www.newyorker.com/magazine/bios/michael_maslin/search
The holiday season reminds me of the Algonquin Hotel, and once reminded I only have to look across my desk to the snowglobe pictured above. It was given to me years ago by friends who stayed at the hotel for a day or two.
I threw together the little scene above for Ink Spillers. The snowglobe sits atop Margaret Case Harriman’s Vicious Circle: The Story of The Algonquin Roundtable (Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1951. Illustrated by the late great Al Hirschfeld). Behind the globe is Frank Case’s Tales Of A Wayward Inn (Garden City Publishing, Inc., 1941. With seven illustrations, including one by James Thurber and another by Covarrubias ). My thanks to Jack Ziegler for adding Wayward Inn to our collection many moons ago. The Empire State Building and Chrysler Building are Times Square souvenirs. I found the tin Yellow Cab someplace years ago. There’s a sign on the trunk: “Always Be Careful Crossing Streets” — excellent advice then and now.
The mention of the Algonquin brings to mind a flood some of the biggest and brightest names associated with the earliest and earlier years of The New Yorker: Harold Ross, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, Benchley, E.B. White, and Thurber, who made the place his second home when he wasn’t at his “great good place” in Connecticut. It was in the Algonquin lobby that Thurber and another of the magazine’s giants, Peter Arno, met for the last time just before Thurber’s death. And of course it was where William Shawn went for his cereal and orange juice lunch every week day during his long tenure as editor.
For those wanting much more on the Algonguin and its part in The New Yorker’s story, there are the books in the photo (Frank Case owned the Algonguin), as well as Thomas Kunkel’s terrific biography of Harold Ross, Genius in Disguise (Random House, 1995). There are plenty of other books with tales of the Algonquin — too many to mention at the moment. I will however note a few more books that go right to the heart of the matter:
Wit’s End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table by James R. Gaines (Booksurge Publishing, 2007)
The Algonquin Wits Edited by Robert E. Drennan (The Citadel Press, 1985)
The Lost Algonquin Round Table Edited by Nat Benchley and Kevin C. Fitzpatrick (iUniverse, Inc., 2009)
-- posted November 27, 2012
"Funny Drawings Beautifully Drawn: An Ink Spill Interview with Bill Woodman"
-- Posted in News, September 19, 2016. Link to it here.
"New Yorker Cartoonist Michael Crawford: An Ink Spill Appreciation"
Posted in News, July 13, 2016. Link to it here.
"George Booth: An Ink Spill Appreciation"
Posted in News, July 1, 2016. Link to it here.
"Evergreens" (an Ink Spill Appreciation of three recently departed New Yorker colleagues: William Hamilton, Frank Modell and Anatol Kovarsky)
Posted in News, June 10, 2016. Link to it here.
"New Yorker Cartoonists' Elder Statesman Frank Modell Has Died at 98"
Posted in News, May 28, 2016. Link to it here.
"The Lull in Traffic That Saved The New Yorker"
Posted in News, May 7, 2016. Link to it here.
In a recent exchange of emails with a couple of fellow cartoonists the subject of the weekly batch of drawings came up. It’s not an unusual topic between cartoonists, as the batch is what binds us all together, weekly. The batch — “the batch” referring to the drawings you come up with and then submit to the New Yorker — is your grab for the golden ring, or, when things don’t go well, your ball and chain. Without the batch you have no shot at The New Yorker (you gotta be in it to win it!), and sadly, sometimes (or most times) even with the batch, you still don’t have much of a shot.
Every cartoonist has their own system of approaching Tuesdays, when the batch is sent in, or brought in to the magazine’s offices. On Tuesday mornings I take a long hard look at the work I’ve done all week and decide which of the new drawings are worthy to submit. Usually a few –- or on really bad days, more than a few — don’t make the cut. Either a drawing suddenly seems nonsensical, or not quite “there” or just plain awful. How could it be that a drawing that seemed so promising one day appears so worthless the next? I don’t know –- all I know is that it happens on a regular basis.
The awful drawings are never submitted. Instead they’re placed into a folder I’ve labeled “Bad Batch” – it’s my cartoon Siberia, or perhaps, cartoon Hell. I’ve rarely looked through that folder, but when I have, I’ve found myself saying, “And you call yourself a cartoonist!”
Perhaps, for me, the most interesting thing about this folder is why it exists. If a piano falls on me tomorrow, do I really want my children seeing these?
It may be that the Bad Batch exists as a reminder. The drawings within are the very bottom of my barrel full of monkeys (sorry, couldn’t resist). They are the product of muse-less days. I don’t need to look at these awful drawings -– just knowing they’re there is inspiration enough.
Sixty-six years ago this month James Thurber’s last original cartoon appeared in The New Yorker (the issue of March 23, 1946). Now before I get sympathetic emails telling me I’m woefully misinformed, and that Thurber’s drawings were appearing in the magazine well into the late 1950s, let me explain:
By the late 1940s Thurber had lost nearly all of his sight (he told Harvey Breit in a New York Times Magazine interview in 1949 that it had been a couple of years since he’d drawn and that he’d “practically given it up”). Facing the sad prospect that there’d be no more Thurber cartoons appearing in The New Yorker, Thurber friend and New Yorker writer, Peter DeVries, suggested to Harold Ross that a great way to continue publishing Thurber drawings would be to take some of his already published drawings and add new captions (supplied, of course, by Thurber). Ross loved this idea, and began running these hybrids with the September 11, 1948 issue. The freshly captioned drawings ran until February 12, 1949 (and that last was a composite of two previously run Thurber drawings). Spot drawings, often edited from their original appearance, continued to appear until December 13, 1958. The very last original Thurber drawing to appear in the magazine was a spot of two men boxing (November 1, 1947).
That brings me back to the March 23, 1946 drawing/cartoon (whichever you prefer). A man and a woman are sitting on a couch and the woman says, “Your faith is really more disturbing than my atheism.” By happenstance — or was it planned? — the man in this very last original cartoon is undoubtedly a self portrait. Thurber had drawn himself many times before (and would draw himself one last time for publication – that appeared on the cover of Time in July of 1951), but how serendipitous that the last Thurber man standing (in this case sitting) in his last wholly original published New Yorker cartoon would be Thurber himself.
Bowden, Edwin T., James Thurber: A Bibliography, Ohio State University Press, 1968.
Breit, Harvey, The New York Times, “Mr. Thurber observes a serene birthday,” December 4, 1949.
Kinney, Harrison, Thurber: His Life and Times, Henry Holt, pages 898 -902.
I’ve had my share of rejection letters from magazine and book publishers. My absolute favorite came from the now defunct magazine, Punch, back in June of 1978.
At that time I was reaching out to just about every publication I could find that ran cartoons (UFOlogy and Medical Economics were among the many magazines that rejected my work).
The New Yorker had just begun publishing my cartoons and I’d learned that a small handful of New Yorker cartoonists (including veterans like J.B.“Bud” Handelsman and Ed Fisher) were being published in Punch. I decided to try my luck, even though it meant there’d be a lot of time involved awaiting word from overseas.
I sent one batch of drawings to Punch and after some weeks, an envelope from them arrived in the mail. It contained the letter shown above, and highlighted below:
Dear Mr. Maslin,
Sorry to return these drawings, but I think they are just missing that elusive something. The zany joke has to have its own mad logic but on most of these the drawing is just too ‘throw away’. Hopeless to try to explain humour, as you can see, so therefore I have marked the three which were nearest for us.
I’m still grateful to the fellow who took a stab –- or was it more like a quick jab? — at explaining humor to me. I think he was probably wise to abandon the task, and let me continue out into the publishing world, mostly unschooled.
It’s tempting to believe that the structure of The New Yorker’s Art Department arrived fully formed in 1924 when Harold Ross, with his wife Jane Grant began pulling together his dream magazine. But of course, such was not the case.
What we know for certain is that once the first issue was out, Ross and several of his newly hired employees began meeting every Tuesday afternoon to discuss the incoming art submissions. The very first art meetings consisted of Ross, his Art Director, Rea Irvin, Ross’s secretary, Helen Mears, and Philip Wylie, the magazine’s first utility man. In no short order, Ralph Ingersoll, hired in June of ’25 joined the art meeting, and later still, Katharine White (then Katharine Angell), hired in August of ’25, began sitting in.
From James Thurber’s account in The Years With Ross we get a good idea of what took place at the meeting, which began right after lunch and ended at 6 pm:
In the center of a long table in the art meeting room a drawing board was set up to display the week’s submissions…Ross sat on the edge of a chair several feet away from the table, leaning forward, the fingers of his left hand spread upon his chest, his right hand holding a white knitting needle which he used for a pointer…Ross rarely laughed outright at anything. His face would light up, or his torso would undergo a spasm of amusement, but he was not at the art meeting for pleasure.
William Maxwell, who joined The New Yorker’s staff in 1936, told the Paris Review in its Fall 1982 issue:
Occasionally Mrs. White would say that the picture might be saved if it had a better caption, and it would be returned to the artist or sent to E. B. White, who was a whiz at this… Rea Irvin smoked a cigar and was interested only when a drawing by Gluyas Williams appeared on the stand.
And from Dale Kramer’s Ross and The New Yorker:
When a picture amused him Irvin’s eyes brightened, he chuckled, and often, because none of the others understood art techniques, gave a little lecture. There would be a discussion and a decision. If the decision was to buy, a price was settled on. When a picture failed by a narrow margin the artist was given a chance to make changes and resubmit it. Irvin suggested improvements that might be made, and Wylie passed them on to the artists.
In a letter to Thurber biographer, Harrison Kinney, Rogers Whitaker, a New Yorker contributor from 1926 – 1981, described the scene in the magazine’s offices once the art meeting ended:
The place was especially a mess after the weekly art meeting. The artists, who waited for the verdicts, scrambled for desk space where they could retouch their cartoons and spots according to what Wylie, or Katharine Angell, told them Ross wanted done.
Wylie was one of many artist “hand-holders” – the bridge between the editors and the artists. Some others who held this position were Thurber (briefly, in 1927), Wolcott Gibbs, Scudder Middleton, and William Maxwell. According to Maxwell, Katharine White’s hand-holding duties were eventually narrowed to just Hokinson and Peter Arno, the magazine’s prized artists.
Lee Lorenz wrote in his Art of The New Yorker that, in the earliest years, the look of the magazine:
had been accomplished without either an art editor in the usual sense or the support of anything one could reasonably call an art department.
That changed in 1939 when former gagman, James Geraghty was hired. As with so much distant New Yorker history, there’s some fuzziness concerning exactly what Geraghty was hired to do. Geraghty, in his unpublished memoir, wrote that he took the job “without any inkling” of what was required of him. There’ve been suggestions in numerous accounts of New Yorker history, that Geraghty was hired as yet another in the lengthening line of artist hand-holders, in this case, succeeding William Maxwell, who was increasingly pre-occupied with his own writing as well as his editorial duties under Katharine White.
Geraghty, in his memoir, recalled his first art meeting and the awkwardness of sitting next to Rea Irvin: two men seemingly sharing one (as yet unofficial, unnamed) position: Art Editor. While E.B. White and others continued to “tinker” with captions, Geraghty began spending one day a week working exclusively on captions. He also adopted the idea that he was the Artists’ “representative” at meetings, following Ross’s assurance that Geraghty was being paid “to keep the damned artists happy.”
With these new components, the art meeting committee model stayed in place until the death of Ross in December of 1951. When William Shawn officially succeeded Ross in January of 1952, he pared the meeting to two participants: Shawn, and Geraghty.
With Geraghty’s retirement in 1973, and Lee Lorenz’s appointment as Art Editor, the art meetings continued with Lorenz and Shawn. Shawn’s successor, Robert Gottlieb and then Tina Brown, subdivided the Art Department, creating a Cartoon Editor, an Art Editor (for covers) and an Illustration Editor. Lorenz, who was in the midst of these modern day changes, lays them out in detail in his Art of The New Yorker.
Today, the Shawn model Art Meeting continues, with the current Editor, David Remnick, and the current Cartoon Editor, Bob Mankoff (and with a third editor occasionally joining the meeting) sitting down one day a week to look through the pile of drawings Mankoff has distilled from the mountain submitted to the magazine. The cartoonists no longer wait outside the Art Meeting’s door for the verdict on their work, but I assure you: wherever they are on Thursday or Friday afternoon: they’re waiting.
Of all the duties Wolcott Gibbs attended to during his thirty-one years at The New Yorker (and his duties were many: editor, writer, theater critic), his relationship to the magazine’s cartoonists (or “artists” as the magazine calls them) is probably the least examined.
When Gibbs began at The New Yorker, working under Katharine Angell (later, after marrying E.B. White, Katharine White), one of his duties was “seeing artists” — that is, he acted as the buffer between the editors and the artists, delivering the bad news or good news to cartoonists about work submitted; if the news was good, Gibbs would relay instructions, if any, from the editors as to how to make the bought work work for publication in The New Yorker.
As his stock rose at the magazine, Gibbs went on to sit side-by-side in the weekly Tuesday afternoon Art Meetings with Katharine White, Harold Ross, and Rea Irvin. Gibbs’ affinity with the magazine’s art went public in 1935 when he contributed a rebuttal, of sorts, to New Yorker Art Critic, Lewis Mumford, who had issues with the work presented in the New Yorker’s Seventh Album. Here’s how Gibbs, in his piece titled “Fresh Flowers” responded to Mumford’s quibble that the Album contained too much work that came out of “that special kind of temporary madness that springs out of a tough day at the office and three rapid Martinis.” :
This apparently refers to the work of a few artists characters whose characters belong to no particular land or time, and are held to the world itself only lightly, by the pull of a tempered gravity. They are the wilder shadows in the same wonderland that Lewis Carroll first explored, and are valuable to this collection as lesser examples of the same universal and timeless quality.
While continuing at the Art Meetings as an editor, Gibbs eventually passed his “seeing artists” job to a new-comer, William Maxwell, who told The Paris Review in 1985:
A great deal of what was put before the art meeting was extremely unfunny. Gibbs was repelled by the whole idea of grown men using their minds in this way and seldom said anything.
Sitting in the Art Meetings, examining thousands upon thousands of “extremely unfunny” cartoons is one thing, but enjoying the work of masters of the form is very much another. It comes as no surprise then that for a quartet of New Yorker cartoonists, Gibbs was the go-to man for introducing collections of their work to the public. He wrote the Foreward to William Steig’s 1942 collection, The Lonely Ones; the Foreward to George Price’s 1943 collection, Who’s In Charge Here?, and the Preface to Alan Dunn’s 1956 collection, Should It Gurgle?
In the Foreward to Charles Addams’ 1947 collection, Addams & Evil, Gibbs wrote of the two camps of cartoons thriving in the magazine’s pages:
New Yorker cartoons can be roughly divided into two classifications, which, back in the days when I was the most insanely miscast of an almost endless procession of art editors, were conveniently designated as “straight” and “nutty.”
Addams in turn provided three covers for Gibbs’ own work:
More in Sorrow (1958), Season in the Sun (1946), and Season in the Sun (the Play, in 1950).
And way back in 1937, Rea Irvin, who, we can’t be reminded enough, shaped and guided the magazine’s art in its infancy, provided the cover and illustrations for Gibbs’ first collection of his New Yorker pieces, Bed of Neuroses.
With The New Yorker’s 87th birthday just around the corner (the very first issue was dated February 21, 1925) I thought it would be fun to muse about the magazine’s present cartoon universe.
What New Yorker cartoonists do so well and have done so well over eight decades is knee-jerk to their time. The New Yorker’s hands-off system, begun by its founder, Harold Ross, of encouraging contributing cartoonists to explore their creative bent, wherever it may lead them, remains very much in place to this day. This was a spectacular editorial decision, providing a home for those (of us) who have trouble taking direction, but no trouble at all staring into space or messing around on paper awaiting the pulsating light bulb of inspiration to strike. It’s a freedom that’s produced tens of thousands of great cartoons and scores of great cartoonists, from Addams to Ziegler. I’d venture to say — without the research to back it up — that the magazine’s current crop of cartoonists, more than any in the past, has taken this freedom and run like hell with it, graphically and otherwise.
Part of the genius of Harold Ross, was his decision to encourage his artists to run amuck creatively, insuring that the magazine does not hand the readership formula. As each issue arrives (either in our mailbox or electronically), I, like many of the magazine’s million other readers, look at the cartoons first. The 87th anniversary issue, now in hand, with its fuzzy “loading” Eustace Tilley cover, was no exception; the excitement of flipping through looking at the cartoons came not from what was expected, but, as always, from the unexpected.
A family member texted me this morning and asked if I was “going to write something about Updike today?” I wrote back, asking if it was his birthday, and while waiting for her answer, Googled “Updike.”
John Hoyer Updike (March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009)
I’m slowly making my way through Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism. Slowly, because in the back of my mind I know that once I finish the book then…what? It’s tough to lose a favorite writer, to know the addiction (but not the love) must come to an end. There’ll be more books; the second volume of his collected short stories must surely be in the pipeline. And there’s a biography reportedly in the works – that’ll help.
With someone like Updike, who published so much, it might seem selfish for a reader to want more, but still, it’s difficult to accept that he’s not typing away at his desk in Massachusetts at this very moment.
"An Arno on My Desk"
Posted January 8, 2012
Above: "And now you must meet my bosom friend." (rough version of the drawing published in The New Yorker, October 10, 1931)
Not too long ago I took an original Peter Arno drawing we own, popped it out of its frame, and placed it on my desk. My thinking was that the drawing, unadorned by glass and metal, might bring me somehow closer to Arno.
His work up close is even more graphically powerful than it appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, and that’s saying something. No one commanded the magazine’s pages like Arno: not Steinberg, not Gluyas Williams, not Addams. While Steinberg’s work played and soared and amazed, it never got right up in your face like Arno’s. Williams’ full pages were delights of subtle construction, and Addams’ draftsmanship ominously hilarious (as the veteran New Yorker cartoonist, Henry Martin, might say, “he drew funny.”) but Arno's work overpowered, and demanded attention.
Arno drew large in a fairly small space. The 10” x 15” Bainbridge board holding this particular drawing seems barely big enough to hold his patented swooping brushstrokes. Like the man himself, the work presents itself all at once, and not, as Frank Sinatra once sang, “in a shy way.”
Obviously not pleased with the rough, Arno went on to do god-knows-how-many-more versions before deciding on the piece eventually published. The major change (improvement?) is that the two central women have become bustier, playing more obviously on the word “bosom’ in the caption. (In The New Yorker’s archives I found this drawing’s caption on a list of “Ideas which Have Been Assigned to Peter Arno.” Unfortunately, the person who wrote the caption is not identified).
Looking very close at the rough version, the pencil lines can be seen cutting beneath the brushstrokes. Arno’s brushstrokes are deceptive; they look as if he brushed with abandon; it was anything but. Each stroke was plotted in advance. And yet, we know that as he worked, he sometimes sang and tapped his feet to a personal rhythm. A man who knew exactly what he wanted to do on the page, and who had a hell of a time doing it.
For now, the 81 year old Arno drawing remains on my desk. There’s definitely a vibe surrounding it –- especially today, on what would’ve been his 108th birthday.
"Leo Cullum: 1942 -2010"
Posted October 25, 2010)
Ink Spill has learned the sad news that Leo Cullum has died. Leo's work first appeared in The New Yorker January 3, 1977 ( his most recent drawing appeared in the issue of October 25, 2010). In Leo's very first New Yorker cartoon a man in a bath robe sits at a kitchen counter that is crowded with live chickens -- there's even a chicken on the man's head. The caption: "No, you're not disturbing me, Herb. I'm up with the chickens this morning." You could say that Leo came out of the box swinging, for he stayed true to this wacky sensibility for his thirty-three years at The New Yorker, contributing over eight hundred drawings to the magazine.
The New Yorker cartoon world was in a period of transition when Leo's work began to appear in its pages. Although there had always been a number of cartoonists who wrote their own captions, The New Yorker had from its very beginnings a system in place of gag writers providing cartoonists with ideas. This new wave of cartoonists -- including Jack Ziegler, Roz Chast and the current Cartoon Editor, Bob Mankoff -- eschewed the gag writer arrangement, preferring to write their own. Citing Don Martin as an early influence, Leo fit right in with the new cartoonists, many of them weaned on Mad and comic books. His subject matter roamed far and wide, but if you take a close look at his New Yorker work you'll notice he seemed to favor moments captured at the local bar, or at the office.
In person, Leo was unfailingly upbeat and polite to the core -- a gentleman cartoonist. Cartoonists knew Leo was different than most: he had a "real" job -- he was a commercial pilot for thirty-four years. He worked on his cartoons between flights and on his days off ( when I first met Leo, his already wide smile grew wider when he learned that my wife and I lived in Rhinebeck, New York, less than ten minutes from the Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a fifty-year old ongoing museum dedicated to antique aircraft).
One of Leo's cartoons -- one of his very best -- appeared immediately post 9/11 in the October 1, 2001 issue of The New Yorker -- a time when when most of us couldn't laugh or didn't know if we should. In Leo's cartoon, a man wearing an unattractive patchwork jacket sits next to a woman. The woman says to the man, "I thought I'd never laugh again. Then I saw your jacket." This was a particularly generous gift from Leo, but of course there were many more before that, and plenty more to come.
"Bernie Schoenbaum and The Age of Innocence"
Posted May 20, 2010
The passing of Bernie Schoenbaum this past week has led me to think about his time at The New Yorker. I only met Bernie once -- it was a memorable ride in a van from mid-town Manhattan south to the Chelsea Pier studios on the lower west side. Tina Brown (then The New Yorker's editor) had oganized an Arnold Newman photo shoot to celebrate the magazine's first Cartoon Issue. A small fleet of vans ferried cartoonists from their mid-town hotel to the shoot. My wife, Liza Donnelly, and I were directed to a van occupied by Sam Gross, Ed Fisher, Bernie Schoenbaum and his wife. It was a rollicking ride -- the cartoonists couldn't resist making fun of my need to sit in the front seat and stare straight ahead lest I become carsick. I took a chance and looked back just once only to catch a glimpse of Bernie bouncing with the ride, one arm raised, holding onto a strap. He was smiling.
The New Yorker began publishing Bernie in 1974, the same year Jack Ziegler began his career there. William Shawn was editor, and Lee Lorenz had just succeeded James Geraghty as Art Editor. Bernie and Jack's work seemed to come from two different universes: Bernie's from our own and Jack's from some place far far away. Jack's work opened up the New Yorker to a zanier humor -- he was our Groucho Marx, arriving at the scene armed with absurdities. Bernie's work picked up on the zeitgeist Donald Reilly, Frank Modell, and Lee Lorenz (to name but a few) had established some years earlier; a northeastern knowingness - not smug or smarmy; a world of guys in tweed sports jackets, soft plaid hats, and bad haircuts. There was a like-ability to Bernie's work. His soft lines and washes were easy on the eyes. He had his absurd moments as well. In a memorable drawing of his in the New Yorker (January 28, 1978) a man sitting idly in front of his television set in a book-lined room is startled by a book that's hopped off a shelf. The book says to the man, "Read me."
His earliest New Yorker work was mostly captionless ( this is something I learned recently when going through his body of work for the magazine). It's no easy thing to do captionless cartoons -- only a few of the magazine's cartoonists made it a large part of their worlds. Otto Soglow, most famously with his Little King, Steinberg in his own Steinbergian way, Charles Addams (who told Dick Cavett in 1978 that he preferred doing captionless cartoons), Nurit Karlin, and most recently, John O'Brien. After a couple of years Bernie moved mostly to captioned work but he continued to sprinkle captionless drawings throughout the rest of his thirty years at The New Yorker.
Bernie's subject matter was the fodder of his peers: businessmen, married couples, (city) street life, guys at bars at the end of a workday, people coping with modern conveniences. If you go back and look at Bernie's work you get a feel for a slice of the times, a particular era before snark and Gawker ( Bernie's obit made it to Gawker). Along with his peers, Bernie provided us with a portrait of what now seems an age of cartoon innocence.
"Thurber's Unbaked Cookies"
Twenty something years ago when my wife and I moved into our home, I tacked James Thurber's New York Times obituary on my office wall, just to the left of where I work. During creative lulls my gaze sometimes drifts over to the obit, scanning the headline, "James Thurber is Dead at 66; Writer Was Also a Comic Artist."
"Writer Was Also a Comic Artist" ( italics mine). How wonderful that the Times recognized Thurber's art, right there in the headline. Though Thurber may be most remembered as a writer ( "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") his art was no less a gift to us than Charles Addams' work or Steinberg's or Hokinson's or Peter Arno's or Steig's or ________'s (you fill in the blank).
Unlike those other giants of the field, Thurber took a lot of heat for his art; his drawing style appeared less finished than the work of his peers. It looked as if it was done in a hurry. Shadows and shading weren't part of his cartoon world, nor was there a dutiful representation of human anatomy. Thurber's people had limbs that flowed in graceful lines from shoulder to hand without the hint of an elbow, and from hip to foot without suggestion of a knee. His people's eyes were accomplished with a dot and a slash, similar to the style a child uses when he or she first learns to draw.
New Yorker historians remember that Harold Ross, the magazine's founder and first editor, initially didn't care for Thurber's drawings. When Thurber first submitted them to The New Yorker, Ross said to him, "How the hell did you get the idea you could draw?" It wasn't until Thurber and his friend and colleague E.B. White had a hit on their hands with their 1929 publication, Is Sex Necessary? that Ross caved, demanding to see a previously rejected Thurber cartoon: "Where's that goddamn seal drawing, Thurber?"
Once Ross became a reluctant believer, Thurber's drawings became a fixture in the magazine ( but sadly, much less a fixture on the cover, with just a half-dozen to his credit). As readers today speak of a Booth dog, back then it was ( and for some, still is) the Thurber dog they pictured in their mind's eye. There was also the Thurber woman, glowering and towering over the Thurber man, the meekest sort of fellow, beleagured, and misunderstood.
While Peter Arno's couples were, most times, in sly cahoots with eachother, Thurber's were conflicted. Thurber, mining the humor found in the battle of the sexes, made the cartoon personal ( it's important to remember that he, unlike many of his colleagues, wrote his own captions). Those "unbaked cookies" as Dorothy Parker so famously described Thurber's people, were knee-deep in angst, just like the rest of us.
Like the very best cartoonists working for The New Yorker ( then and now), Thurber brought the personal to his work; he wasn't churning out gag cartoons ( i.e., illustrating comic drawings with joke captions) -- he brought some of himself onto the page. Looking at any Thurber drawing, I "see" Thurber in it -- I'd go as far as saying I can feel his humor as well. Addams' work has the same effect on me, as does Arno's, Steinberg's and Ziegler's ( to name but a few).
With Thurber's 115th birthday near -- he was born December 8th, 1894 -- it's time to pull The Last Flower off the shelf as well as The Thurber Carnival (if you don't have a copy, no worries! They're both still in print). Behold, once again, or perhaps for the first time, his comic genius.
Suggested reading, viewing:
Thurber's New Yorker work can be found at The New Yorker's Cartoon Bank: www.cartoonbank. com
On Youtube: a 1953 animated version of "The Unicorn in the Garden" : www.youtube.com/watch
Books (all of Thurber's books can be found online):
There are a number of Thurber biographies. Two favorites, both still available wherever new & used books are sold online:
Thurber: A Biography ( Dodd, Mead, 1975) by Burton Berstein
Thurber: His Life and Hard Times ( Henry Holt & Co, 1995) by Harrison Kinney
A Thurber bibliography: James Thurber: A Bibliography by James T. Bowden ( Ohio State University Press, 1968)
Adam Van Doren's documentary film, released in 2000, Thurber, The Life and Hard Times is well worth searching for.
The Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio is a must -visit for Thurberphiles: www.thurberhouse.org/
-- November 29, 2009
A while back, on The New Yorker’s website, I wrote about and posted photographs of my office -- the desk I use, and the stuff that surrounds the desk ( www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/cartoonists/2008/02/the-madhouse.html ). What I failed to mention in the piece was that I have an alternate work space ( actually two alternates, but that’s for another post). When summer arrives, just before it’s too hot and humid to turn on the air conditioning, my office becomes a less inviting place to be. The painted plywood floor becomes sticky, and the walls packed with books, records and whathaveyou really do seem to close in on me.
That’s just about the time I pack up my essential work materials (a rapidograph, a thin stack of copy paper to draw on, and an old hardcover Hammond Atlas I’ve had since I was eleven years old) and take them about twenty feet away to our living room where I settle into one of the armchairs near the room’s front windows. I place the Hammond Atlas on my lap, and the blank paper on the atlas. Instant office.
It is in almost everyway different than my usual office space. There’s no privacy – it’s the living room after all. Dogs and cats wander through, as do family members. There are numerous windows ( my office has just one, and it’s behind me); the lighting is from an old standing lamp instead of a desk lamp, there’s no music, and when I look up from what I’m working on I see open space before me, instead of a window-less wall three feet from my face.
Being in the middle of everything raises the distraction level into the danger zone. It shouldn’t work well at all – it should be a disaster, but somehow it doesn’t mess up whatever it is that helps me progress from a blank piece of paper to a page filled with (I hope) promising scribbles. In this case, for a few weeks in early summer, change is good.
-- July 18, 2009
In my last posted note, back in late April, I mentioned that I didn’t have an early copy of Thurber’s Fables For Our Time. This past Sunday, while browsing in the dollar annex of my favorite used bookstore I spied the words “James Thurber” on an otherwise obliterated spine. Pulling the book down off the shelf I realized it was a copy of Fables – not a first edition, but the Blue Ribbon Books edition that came out three years after Harper’s originally published the book in 1940. The only oddity connected with this edition, according to Bowden’s Thurber Bibliography, is “The page number of p.5 accidentally deleted.” – and so it is on my copy.
What made this Sunday afternoon find particularly fun was discovering a sheaf of newspaper clippings tucked inside the book. I’ve come across clippings before -- usually a New York Times book review – but judging by this pile of clippings the book’s previous owner was clearly heavily invested in Thurber.
A clipper myself, I sometimes eye the cases of filed clippings in my office and wonder what it’s all for, especially in this computer era where so much is archived. This Thurber clip cache reminded me that while so much material is archived and easily accessible on the computer, so much more is not. Especially old newspaper articles.
Here’s a list of some of the clippings found inside the book:
From The San Francisco Chronicle, “James Thurber Confesses to ‘Boring From Within’”, July 25, 1954. Thurber responds to a negative review of The Male Animal.
From The San Francisco Chronicle, “An Interview with James Thurber”, August 3, 1958.
From The Royal Gazette (I’m assuming this was published in Bermuda), “Amongst The Personalities”, April 5, 1957.
From The Denver Post, “Incomparable James Thurber Writes of Old Friends, Times” , June 22, 1952.
From The Denver Post, “Thurber the Leprechaun”, October 5, 1952.
The obligatory New York Times review: in this case it's of The Wonderful O, “Hw It Wuld Be Withut It”, May 26, 1957.
Also from The New York Times, “State of Humor in States” by Thurber, Sept. 4, 1960 in which Thurber poses the question: “Is there a national sense of humor…?
Additionally, the pile included:
A program from Central City, Colorado’s “Central City Festival” where A Thurber Carnival played in 1960 ( with original cast members, Paul Ford and Peggy Cass).
And lastly, two cut-out drawings, each from Thurber collections: the central drawing featured on the front cover of The Thurber Carnival and the central drawing featured on the cover of Alarms & Diversions.
Pictured below: the book and some of the clippings
June 2, 2009
Home At Last: Thurber & Nugent’s Male Animal
The collection of Thurber books in this home has been incomplete on many levels for many years. It’s a patchwork collection: some first editions, some with dust jackets, some signed, some later printings, a lot of paperbacks. The biggest hole in the collection, until a few days ago, was the absence of an early copy of The Male Animal, Thurber’s 1940 collaboration with his friend, the actor, director and writer, Elliot Nugent. I say “early copy” because we long ago purchased a copy of the standard soft cover playbook, but it doesn’t contain the Thurber drawings appearing in the Random House hardcover, nor does it sport the Thurber drawing of a dancing couple found on the hardcover’s dust jacket .
So why, until recently, wasn’t this volume on our Thurber shelf with its team mates? The quick answer is that I’m fond of stumbling across books in used books stores. Nothing beats scanning a humor section and discovering a long sought after -- or even better; an unfamiliar title. I do have my limits though – in this case I waited thirty-nine years to intersect with a copy of The Male Animal. It took all of a few seconds to order a reasonably priced copy online.
Until our Male Animal arrived this week, I’d seen just one hard cover copy of the book: in an exhibit of Thurber drawings in Cornwall, Connecticut, where Thurber permanently set down roots in 1945.
The book, laying flat on a shelf in a glass case, looked, to me, like the odd bird it was. Odd, because it was a collaboration – his second and last ( his first was the legendary 1929 effort with E.B. White, Is Sex Necessary?). Also strange was the cover design, which, to be honest, looks a bit uninspired, compared to all other Thurber cover designs. It resembles a flyer for a play more than anything else, and as The Male Animal is a play, perhaps the cover suits.
Flipping through the book, my first thought was ‘if only the illustrations had captions” – they seem as if they were headed that way as most of the drawings have an character with an open mouth ( in the cartoon universe it is gospel that the open mouth indicates who’s speaking in a cartoon) Still, the illustrations have a great deal of energy, drawn in the deceptively off-handed Thurber way that caused some to dismiss his work, and caused others to consider him the cartoon world’s Matisse.
As is my habit when I get a new used Thurber book I go to Edwin Bowden’s wonderful James Thurber: A Bibliography (Ohio State University Press, 1968) and look up the book. Usually I’m looking to see how many first edition copies were printed ( 3000 – 4000 in this case) as well as how it fits in chronologically with Thurber’s other books. The Male Animal was preceeded by one of his very best books, The Last Flower and followed by Fables for Our Time. Seeing the latter title, I suddenly realized we didn't have an early edition. We have paperback editions, and a handsome later hardcover edition, but not one copy of the slightly oversized first edition from 1940. And so, the hunt begins -- but I'm not going to wait thirty-nine years.
April 23, 2009
Sweating the Details: That Was the Cartoon That Wasn't
The most talked about New Yorker "cartoon" of 2008 wasn't a cartoon, it was Barry Blitt's now infamous July 21st New Yorker fist-bump Obama cover. Such is the confusion out there that the Blitt cover is now routinely labeled a cartoon. I know: it's a small thing to worry over, but hey -- when there are so many difficult and complex problems in the world to fret over, explore, and ( ideally) resolve, why not get something this simple right?
So, taking the enormous personal risk of being seen as having way too much time on my hands, here's the skinny: A New Yorker cover is a New Yorker cover, it's not a cartoon. A New Yorker cartoon is a New Yorker cartoon -- it's not a cover, unless the Editor decides to buy a cartoon and run it as a cover. At that point it is no longer a cartoon ( and the reverse is true; the Editor may buy a cover idea to run as a cartoon, in which case the cover idea is no longer a cover idea, it's a cartoon). My New Year's resolution, if I had one ( and I don't) is -- as the cops say on TV -- to try to make this right.
January 1, 2009
On a Bench with Steinberg
In the fall of 1978 I was fresh out of college, living in a two room walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village just a few doors west of Ray’s Pizza. I’d recently moved to the city with the dream of becoming a New Yorker cartoonist. After receiving an avalanche of rejection slips my work was finally accepted, and by November of 1978 the magazine had published four of my cartoons.
My apartment was in a four story building loaded with talented neighbors: writers, an editor, a graphic designer, an artist, an historian. Among this crowd was the celebrated New Yorker writer, Donald Barthelme; he lived just below me, on the second floor. The day I moved into the building, Donald was the first person I ran into. At the time I’d no idea who he was, and that he wrote for The New Yorker ( my focus then was mainly on the magazine’s artists ). All I remember from our meeting was that Donald’s last name seemed oddly fascinating. Bar- thel - may – it rolled off the tongue.
On a Fall afternoon – I believe it was a Sunday – I was in my apartment when I heard Donald yelling up to me from the building’s courtyard. I raised one of the large old windows overlooking the garden below, stuck my head outside, and looked down. Donald was looking up. “Michael, Steinberg is coming over for dinner tonight – would you like to join us for drinks afterward?”
“Steinberg” was, of course, Saul Steinberg, the legendary New Yorker artist. A retrospective of his work had just completed its run at The Whitney Museum. In April of that year, he was the subject of a Time cover story – this was certainly one of, if not the most celebrated years of Steinberg’s career. He was now 65, into his thirty-seventh year at The New Yorker. The idea of meeting Steinberg was at once impossibly unsettling and electrifying. Although I’d been taking my weekly batch of cartoons to the magazine’s offices in mid-town for nearly a year, I’d never run into any of The New Yorker’s cartoonists: Steinberg would be my first.
Evening came, and from my apartment I could hear the sounds of dinner conversation in the courtyard. Eventually I made my way down to the garden apartment belonging to my ground floor neighbors, the Sales ( Faith, the editor, and Kirk, the historian and biographer).
Steinberg was out in the courtyard, sitting on a bench at an old wooden picnic table. Donald made the introductions, and directed me to sit next to Steinberg. Steinberg spoke “ with his hands” – a lot of arm movement, his hands fairly drawing in the air. It wasn’t difficult to imagine his drawings floating all around us, like bubbles.
After some time, he turned to me and asked what I did. I told him I was a cartoonist, for The New Yorker. “My latest drawing appears right before yours in this week’s issue.” (my drawing was on page 50, his illustration for The Sporting Scene was on page 51). Hearing this, he fell silent for a moment. I couldn’t tell if he was pleased, annoyed, or just didn’t care. It was, well, awkward.
Soon he was back to where he’d left off before speaking to me. He held the spotlight the rest of the evening. I admit I can’t recall a single thing he said that evening, other than his asking what I did. In truth, I don’t think anyone in his company really wanted to do anything but listen, and watch. Sitting to his side for those few hours, turned slightly to my right, seeing his profile, watching him draw in the air, was like watching the sun rise over and over and over again.
September 11, 2008
What's become perfectly clear is that the public has settled in with The New Yorker's Cartoon Caption Contest. In the last few weeks, in a number of conversations about cartoons and The New Yorker, the subject of the contest has never failed to surface. It has nearly replaced the standard questions asked of cartoonists, such as "You can make a living outta doing that?" and "Do you do the drawing and the caption?" Lately, the first question is: "What do you think of the Cartoon Contest?" Once we're past that, the questions concern the mechanics of the contest itself.
The readership is stirred up, and involved...in cartoons. I was asked the other day what advice I could give to a fellow who wanted to submit ideas -- all I could think to say was what I sometimes think to myself when I begin working: "Good luck."
April 21, 2008
Occasionally, bordering on never, I think about all the elements -- the cartoon elements -- that moved me to draw the way I draw. It's tempting, but inaccurate, to say it's all because of James Thurber. Seeing his work did make a huge difference in the path I took, but before Thurber there were many many influences -- probably some I don't even remember.
Nearly every modern cartoonist's biography includes MAD magazine as an early inspiration, and nearly every bio mentions comic strips and comic books. Well before I first saw The New Yorker I'd spent perhaps a dozen years with my nose stuck in MAD and in comic books. What interests me is the force with which The New Yorker single panel -- and this is where Thurber comes in -- yanked me away from comic strips and comic books.
The New Yorker cartoon -- at its best -- delivers an entire story at once -- there's never a wait. As I read more and more contemporary "comix" I realize that the jolt of the single panel ( as executed by Thurber) is what initially attracted me to The New Yorker cartoon. This isn't to say the single panel form is better or worse than contemporary comix -- it's just different. My kind of different.
April 13, 2008
For awhile now I've been aware that there was a very special group of New Yorker cartoonists: those whose work appeared just once in the magazine. There must be as many reasons for the solo shot as there are contributors. As a cartoonist who was once a solo contributor ( until I sold my next drawing) I can relate somewhat to the mixed feelings following that first sale. I'm fascinated by the idea of what stood ( stands?) in the way of the that second sale.
A couple of days ago I began studying The Complete New Yorker discs from Disc #1, giving all my attention to the cartoonists. In 1925 alone, I counted eleven solo contributors ( one of those, Bertrand Zadig, also contributed one cover -- his only cover for the magazine). Until coming across these cartoonists I'd always thought there were perhaps no more than half a dozen solo appearance cartoonists in the history of the magazine. Finding nearly a dozen in the magazine's first year was an eye-opener.
Here's a list of those whose work appeared in 1925, and never appeared in The New Yorker again:
Kenneth Bird ( Fougasse), Oscar Cesare, D' Egville, W. E. Heitland, Robert Keith, C. F. Peters, M. Towie, Arthur Watts, Wilton Williams, Lawson Wood, and the aforementioned Bertrand Zadig
March 31, 2008
The New Yorker Book of ______ Cartoons
A semi-completist could -- and might -- be driven to distraction by the explosion of varied titles in The New Yorker Book of _____ Cartoons series ( fill in the blank with almost anything: dogs, slippers, tractors, chinchillas, etc.).
Thinking I’d try to keep up with the titles, I once asked the Cartoon Bank if they’d send me a copy of each new release. I was told, politely, “it’s just not practical” -- I didn’t know it at the time, but there were already 70 titles in print; only the Cartoon Bank knows how many there are now.
At last count I’ve managed to gather 24 different collections; such a long way to go til I rest.
March 13, 2008
The Jersey Connection
I’m guessing that the state of New York has more home grown New Yorker cartoonists than any other, but it may surprise some that the runner-up is The Garden State, New Jersey. Besides producing its share of musicians ( Sinatra, Springsteen), and actors (Nicholson, Travolta), nearly a dozen New Yorker cartoonists, including this cartoonist, were born and raised there.
They grew up in towns like Chatham, Princeton, Belmar, Newark, Bloomfield, Hackensack, Elizabeth, Hampton, River Edge, and Coytesville.
I’ve a theory that being in the position of forever playing second banana to New York, brings out the wise guy, and girl in Jerseyites. It’s just a theory.
Here’s a list of those born in the state just west of Manhattan (I’m betting there’re more):
Whitney Darrow, Jr.
Marisa Acocella Marchetto
March 12, 2008