I met Frank Cotham just once, in 1997 at a photo shoot organized during the Tina Brown era at the magazine. Forty-one cartoonists showed up to pose for Arnold Newman (the group photo was published in the very first Cartoon Issue of The New Yorker). After saying hello to each other that day, sixteen years passed before we connected again.
(photo: Frank at the shoot, top center, in the pointed party hat. On the left, hatless, Dean Vietor; on the right,in top hat, Mick Stevens. Lower left, Lee Lorenz, lower right, Mike Twohy).
Michael Maslin : You know, it’s funny, but I realized this evening while looking up your work on The New Yorker‘s database that tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of your first appearance in the magazine, the issue dated December 13, 1993.
What was that moment like for you, selling that first drawing, and then seeing it in the magazine?
Frank Cotham: Total disbelief when I sold one to The New Yorker. I had been sending a batch to them every week for fifteen years – the first twelve years or so were a little discouraging, but I was glad I kept with it.
MM: According to a bio in the New Yorker, up until 1986 you were “a staff artist in the production department of a television station”–so what transpired professionally in those seven years after you left the staff artist position and broke into The New Yorker?
FC: I kept sending work to The New Yorker of course, and getting rejected, but I did do a lot of work for other magazines, mostly Penthouse. They pretty much kept me in business. There were quite a few “features,” which meant short deadlines and working through the night. I don’t think I could do that anymore.
MM: Since you’re down in Tennessee we don’t see much of you up here in the Northeast — you’re kind’ve a mystery man.
FC: I like the sound of that, being a mystery man.
MM: With some cartoonists, you can see the influences or influence. Your work is a bit of a puzzle. Can you talk about what brought you into the cartoon world, your influences.
FC: The New Yorker and its cartoons caught my attention when I was in junior high school – Charles Saxon was one of my favorites, and Robert Weber. A friend of mine at the TV station suggested that I send some of my cartoons to magazines, and after a couple of years, I sold one to Saturday Review – My friend and I were both very surprised.
MM: Regarding Saxon and Weber: now that you’ve mentioned them as favorites I can see a lineage there — it’s odd I never saw it before. I had thought you more in the Addams school with a dash of Richard Taylor. Did either of those artists influence you?
FC: Yes, very much so. Addams certainly. I always loved the somber grays in their work. In my mind, I thought that’s what a New Yorker cartoon was supposed to look like.
MM: What’s a typical work day for you — if there is such a thing as typical? For instance, Jack Ziegler writes first, then eventually heads on over to his desk to draw. I don’t read anything first — I just sit down with a cup of coffee and wait. How does it begin for you?
FC: My day usually begins by sitting down, after I’ve fed the dog and cat, with a book for about half an hour. I have my orange juice, cereal, and coffee while reading the local paper, check Facebook for essential news on my iPad, and then sit at my drawing table and stare out the window.
MM: When I think about your work there’s a certain cartoon environment that comes to mind. It’s different from say a George Booth environment or a Mick Stevens environment — it’s so very much your own. Can you describe it?
FC: I’m not sure I know what you mean. I’ve noticed that two country people sitting on the front porch of a rundown house figure prominently in my cartoons in the last few years, I’m not sure why that is. It’s not really something that I see often around here, but my dog and I do mull things over on the back porch. [Frank sent a drawing of his dog for this piece — it appears above: “I’ve attached a sketch of my dog, but she can’t really sit up like that.”]
MM: I’m going to ask you a question similar to the one I asked Roz Chast: has anything changed for you regarding your work…the way you work, I mean. What’s it like for you now in 2013, going on 2014 when you sit at your drawing board? Is it any different than what it was like in say, 1994 or 1999 or 2007?
FC: I work pretty much like I have from the very beginning – still use the same drawing table, still use watercolor crayons, a dip pen, and a bottle of ink. But I have moved my office downstairs – I don’t have trouble going up the stairs, but when I’m ready to come down I feel that I need to call the fire department.
MM: Is there anything, cartoon-wise, you’re working on other than your weekly NYer batch that you’d care to tell us about?
FC: I’m not working on anything else – fretting and coming up with a batch decent enough to send in to The New Yorker pretty much occupy all my time.
MM: You were living near Memphis when we met back in the late 90s — you’re still there?
FC: I still live in a Memphis suburb, and have lived here since forever.
MM: I’ve got to ask: Have you ever been to Graceland?
FC: I’ve never been to Graceland. It’s not like I’m anti-Elvis or anything, it’s just that I’ve never been an Elvis fan. Janice [Frank’s wife] and I just happened to be returning from a brief vacation in Florida the day Elvis died, and we stopped in a Waffle House late that night. The waitress asked where we were going and we told her Memphis, and she said, “Oh, Elvis.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we weren’t headed to the candlelight vigil.