This is the second installment in an Ink Spill series of cartoonists talking about the important cartoon connections in their lives. Felipe Galindo wrote about Steinberg last week. This week, Tom Cheney, who began contributing to The New Yorker in 1978 (one of his most famous contributions is above) writes about the late Charles Rodrigues, whose work is perhaps most associated with National Lampoon.
Lessons From Rodrigues
I can’t say that I’ve been influenced by just one or even many cartoonists, because all of my predecessors, as well as my peers, have taught me valuable lessons about this art over the years. There is, however, one cartoonist whom I’ve always regarded as my favorite, and whose work has always inspired me to put forth my best efforts as a cartoonist.
I discovered Charles Rodrigues’ cartoons when I was twelve years old. I was thumbing through a copy of Cracked magazine and found a regular feature he was doing for them entitled “Shut-ups.” I then began following his work in other magazines and discovered how versatile he was in addition to being consistently original. I’ve always been enchanted with the way Charles draws. Take any character out of one of his cartoons, paste it to a plain white background, and you’ve got a complete, ready-made cartoon.
I began reading National Lampoon when I was a freshman in college, and that’s where I saw the unleashed Charles Rodrigues test the subject boundaries of the single panel cartoon and the full page comic strip. Joining him were Sam Gross, and John Caldwell. Sam’s characters, if taken out of context, were nothing short of adorable, but he was an expert at putting them in themes and situations that would make a prison guard blush. His amazing use of cuteness combined with shock was an explosively funny technique. John Caldwell was just beginning to emerge as a cartoonist, but he already had a unique brand of humor that kept me rolling on the floor. For John, the window of weirdness would open up, and he would just walk right in. I regarded them, along with the other ‘Lampoon cartoonists, as explorers. They were walking up to the edge and spitting over the railing. For me, the prospect of being able to draw cartoons like that for a living began to overshadow anything that I might ever accomplish as a psychology major. Consequently, I also took as many art courses as would fit into my schedule.
Shortly after graduating from Potsdam State College in 1976, I made the unfortunate mistake of turning my back on an acutely psychotic patient while I was working the night shift at a psychiatric facility. He seized the opportunity to smash a chair across my back. The following day I decided to become a professional cartoonist. There would be no plan B.
I was discovering the New Yorker cartoonists at this time, and every single one of them had a lesson for me with each of their cartoons that appeared. Charles Addams and George Booth taught me that you can never have too many details in a cartoon, as long as they contribute to its theme. Lee Lorenz still dazzles me with his brilliant handling of bold lines, and how he can make a complex drawing look like it was done with a single brush stroke. His thoughtful editing of my work during my early days at The New Yorker was immeasurably helpful in developing my drawing style. Both Lee and Charles Saxon taught me the power of dynamics and good composition. Arnie Levin and Charles Barsotti taught me the strength of simplicity, and how it’s possible to set off a humor “grenade” with just a few lines. Bob Mankoff, Jack Ziegler, William Hamilton, Al Ross, and Robert Weber taught me how effective it can be to match one’s drawing style to one’s particular brand of humor. All of them were and are ingenious gag writers, and they’ve all taught me that the most important ingredient in every cartoon is a good solid idea.
Freelance cartoonists do not live by one magazine alone, and I found it necessary to keep as many magazines on my submissions list as possible, including The New Yorker. Thus far, it’s been a 37 year journey that’s taken me from the boggy depths of Hustler to the erudite stratosphere of The New Yorker. Along the way, I’ve frequently asked myself, “What would Charles Rodrigues do with this or that subject?” I often relied on the most important lessons I learned from studying his work: Details develop and enhance characters and settings. There’s a way to draw a men’s room that will also make it smell like a men’s room. Secondly, no subject is off limits, and the more stressful or taboo a subject is, the more explosively funny a cartoon about it can be with a carefully engineered gag. Equally, a banal or boring subject can be easily walked out to its extreme with surprising results. Finally, the reader’s imagination is one of the most important tools a cartoonist has, and the ability to grab it and haul it into a cartoon was one of Rodrigues’ special talents.
Often, without depicting nudity nor being the least bit graphic, and without using a single off-color word in the caption, Charles could take us into a hilarious and powerfully suggestive setting. It brings to mind a cartoon he once did for National Lampoon. A couple is entertaining another couple I their living room. The lady of the house says to her husband, “Maurice, show Irene and Joe the funny trick you can do with your colostomy bag.” The phrase, “colostomy bag” placed at the end of the caption was the perfect sucker-punch to an otherwise commonplace setting, and our imaginations can’t help but run with the possibilities of the trick “Maurice” is soon to perform. Charles’ outstanding ability to manipulate the reader’s imagination was what I believe set him apart from many cartoonists. That, in combination with his delightful drawing style and unique ideas always had me in awe of his work. He was so good at what he did that he could go anywhere he wanted, with any subject, to the most extreme degree, and do it with class; simply by grabbing our imaginations and steering them into the right zone. For me, working as a freelancer, maintaining that same versatility has been a matter of survival.
Again, I have to thank all cartoonists for being my teachers, and I especially thank Charles Rodrigues: the cartoonist who brought us stories of a private detective in an iron lung; the story of a man and his dead friend “Joe” who lived with him; Siamese twins who accidentally tore themselves apart, then went through the trouble of having themselves stitched back together (with one of them upside down;) and the story of a blind man who’s little friend, Deidre Callahan, was so ugly that her face was “too hideous for publication” in her own comic strip (again grabbing at our imaginations.) I’m forever grateful to Charles for daring to go to all of those places, and showing us how it could be done. I’m sorry they’ve taken National Lampoon away from us, along with a throng of other magazines that used to publish adventurous cartoons. I’m not certain, but I think Charles might agree with me that the mysterious disappearance of magazine cartoons might have something to do with all of the tattoos we’re seeing on everybody.
– Tom Cheney June 2013
For more information on Tom Cheney and a look at Charles Rodrigues’s work:
Link to Tom Cheney’s work for The New Yorker: The Cartoon Bank
Link to Tom Cheney’s Wikipedia page
Link to a listing of Tom Cheney’s work for Mad Magazine (Doug Gilford’s Mad Cover site)
Link to a site posting work by Charles Rodrigues