Michael Shaw has been contributing cartoons to The New Yorker since 1999. He is, other than Charles Barsotti, Danny Shanahan and Liza Donnelly, the most James Thurberiest person I’ve come to know in the ranks of New Yorker cartoonists. Just have a look at his website.
Realizing there were two Thurber anniversaries heading our way (November 2, the anniversary of Thurber’s death in 1961, and December 8th, his birth in 1894), I asked Michael if he’d care to do something for Ink Spill to mark one of the occasions. He chose November 2nd, and sent the following piece for us to settle into and enjoy.
Is Thurber Necessary?
Or, Why I Draw the Way I Do.
My name is Michael Shaw and I am living with Thurberitis.
Michael Maslin has asked me to gather a few thoughts on coping as a cartoonist with this affliction on the occasion of Mr. Thurber’s death. In full disclosure, I asked him. But only seven times.
For nearly a century, two distinct tensions continue to impact society. For obvious reasons I’m excluding the relentless desire to improve the French fry. The first tension is twerking. The second far more subtle and insidious tension is the continuing impact of a virus known only as “The Thurb.”
It’s an affliction rarely spoken of, even in gaglines. And on this day, nearly a half-century after James Thurber sprang off that mortal coil with the immortal final words “God bless…God damn,” cartoonists continue twerking and Thurbing with no cure in sight.
Now don’t act so surprised. A quick dive into Wiki-WTF? reveals that twerking and Thurbering, in fact, do have quite a bit in common. OK, try this at home. Just give yourself plenty of room.
Twerking: Assume a squat position. Pop your booty outward. Shake your booty back and forth. Music is optional.
Thurbering: Acquire yellow legal pad, preferably some one else’s. Dash off mindless doodle—dogs, cats, hats, men, women. Repeat ad-infinitely on note pads, menus, walls, wherever. Talent is definitely optional.
If you have hands, as most of us do, pirates may dip their hooks in ink if needed; and a booty, even the flat cowpoke variety, can both twerk and Thurb. Probably not at the same time, but if you can, that would make a pretty sweet Vine.
You may rightfully ask why, decades after the final fresh Thurber cartoon appeared in The New Yorker—The famous April 5, 1948 issue that also featured the third and final installment of A.J. Liebling’s epic essays on the world’s great fritters*—would the Thurb still torment cartoonists. Why not contract Barsotti’s Syndrome? Fewer lines and cuter puppies. If only that easy.
Curing the Thurb leaves few treatment options other than a weekly regime of submission—ten dubiously drawn cartoons inscrutably gag lined, predestined for failure. Thurberitis also spawns other similar opportunistic symptoms, perhaps the most insidious being Thurberesqueness. The symptoms? Asymptomatic. But, like obscenity, you’ll know a Thurberesque cartoon when you see it. And the best advice is just to look away.
The first cartoonist I truly admired was Stan Drake. Or more accurately, his rendering of Eve Jones, in his comic strip, The Heart of Juliet Jones.
She stole my heart. Ay, caramba! How could anyone make ink do that? Part of me wanted to be in that comic strip, stealing Eve’s heart, unleashing a cascade of consequences taking weeks to resolve.
Then came Jack “King” Kirby’s sensually charged renditions of Sue “The Invisible Girl” Storm’s massively alluring forehead. I even grew to grudgingly respect Reed Richards for this calm leadership and professorial manner. Were we really that different?
These reactions had nothing to do with my own nascent cartooning urges, but chemical reactions of my eight-year-old stormy brain fed a regular diet of Marvel Comics and the comics section of The St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Which leads me to revisit my first exposure to that most inscrutable of scribblers and a life-long struggle with the Thurb: a copy of Thurber & Company mysteriously appeared one Christmas morning. It certainly wasn’t the Daisy B.B. gun I had lusted and prayed for…I had no idea who Thurber was. I was just appalled and/or amazed these inscrutable scrawls were considered not only “real” drawings but warranted the printed page.
And the women! If you could call them that. Huge neckless, fingerless changelings—no wrists, only meat paws, chasing tiny mannish figures devoid of detail: a bow tie or fedora signaled clothing, a butt-crack nakedness. I was flummoxed!
Was I missing something? These flailing-armed harpies with Shemp Howard haircuts were women you ran from. I should have closed the book then and returned to Fantastic Four or The Heart of Juliet Jones. But too late. Some images refuse to be unseen or forgotten. The Thurb virus settled somewhere in my ganglia, lying dormant until that opportunistic moment of suppressed aesthetic awareness presented itself.
But if I am to be completely honest, trouble with women didn’t throw me into Thurber’s arms. Trouble drawing women did. As much as I wanted to be a Stan Drake or a Jack Kirby, what I managed to put on paper evidenced otherwise. But, by whatever burning force, which now I recognize as the Thurb virus, I willed my way into art school where eventually an actually naked female confronted me. My task? To draw her. A more productive use of my time would have been to attempt to remove her appendix with the vine charcoal I clutched in my trembling hand.
What I drew could not be characterized as being all that feminine—or human. But luckily, this was college, and I was a fine arts major and could seek shelter from my lack of real drawing talent by adopting new influences.
When what I next created was my homage to Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning drawing redrawn in the de Thurber manner; I knew it was time to face the truth. “Hello, my name is Michael and I’m a Thurberphile.”
Today, with a hundred and so New Yorker cartoons in the can, where does Thurber actually fit in my own personal cartoon schema? It’s hard to say, but easy to perceive. By the time I made my first New Yorker sale, Thurberitis had reflared to the point that my roughs were returned with the simple instructions to “draw better.” Or comments like “that desk looks like it’s made out of cheese.” “We like the humor, but your drawing is too catty-wampus.” Now that I think about it, I do believe that a catty-wampus may reside in Thurber’s bestiary.
So there was only one solution—have no style. In other words, to try to not draw a cartoon when I am drawing a cartoon. It’s not easy. The Thurb still courses through my aesthetic and splenic system, but the drawing stays as neutral as possible. Deadpan, functional, Newhart-like. No visual winking allowed.
These days viewing the world from C-level, as a C-level cartoonist, and having long steeped in Mr. Thurber’s life and works, my mere cartoonist’s infatuation with Thurber pales to the mania of academic biographers and Keith Olbermann. I can absorb Thurber’s influences without being sloppy about it, except in drawing.
There have been sloppy moments. A circa 1998 weekend at The Algonquin Hotel spent searching for the room where Thurber tossed his dirty shirts into Christo-like piles didn’t summon the spirit of the Thurb, just the hotel dick. Then, a decade later, one night locked-up in the infamous attic of the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio, induced the thrilling dream of being bit in the ass by Rex, the ghost terrier, but little other paranormal activity. In the morning, they gave me a nice cap.
* The issue referred to is a near complete fabrication by the author solely for amusement. Use this information at your own risk.
[Thurber's last captioned cartoon appeared in The New Yorker, March 23, 1946. His last drawing (the last that was not a reprint or re-captioned or graphically rearranged) appeared as part of his series, Olden Times, in the issue of January 18, 1947] — MM