Harold Ross’s Last Cartoonist: Dana Fradon

Fradon:Antic

 

 

By the late 1940s, Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s legendary founder and first editor, had assembled either by happy accident or design (depending on which version of the magazine’s history you want to believe) a stable of magazine cartoonists unrivaled in American publishing.  Some have called that era of the magazine’s cartoons its Golden Age.  The guiding forces of the New Yorker‘s art (besides Harold Ross, of course) were Rea Irvin (who is most known for creating The New Yorker’s signature mascot,  the top-hatted Eustace Tilley) and the magazine’s first Art Editor, James Geraghty,  a former gagman who began working  at the magazine in 1939 and retired in 1973.

 

As mentioned on this site this past summer in a profile of Anatol Kovarsky, there are just four surviving New Yorker cartoonists from the Ross era: Frank Modell, James Stevenson, Anatol Kovarsky and Dana Fradon. Mr. Fradon was the last cartoonist contracted by Mr. Ross, who died in December of 1951.

 

Fradon’s first New Yorker cartoon (below), published May 1, 1948, launched a career that spanned half a century; he went on to contribute nearly fourteen hundred more cartoons, placing him in the stratosphere of such other New Yorker artists as William Steig, Alan Dunn, Robert Weber, Warren Miller, Helen Hokinson, Lee Lorenz, Mischa Richter, Robert Day, and the aforementioned, James Stevenson and Frank Modell.

 

Fradon:1st

 

A native of Chicago, Fradon studied at the Art Institute there, and later, following service in the army during WWII, he studied at The Art Students League in New York. Fellow classmates included future New Yorker colleagues, Joseph Mirachi, Herbert Goldberg, and James Mulligan.

 

In a recent phone and email conversation with Mr. Fradon, who is now 91, we covered a lot of territory, from his beginnings at the New Yorker all the way up to today and whether he’s still thinking up ideas for cartoons.

 

Beginning our conversation, I asked Mr. Fradon if he had any thoughts as to why the Art Students League turned out so many New Yorker cartoonists.

 

“It’s a great school, it’s in New York, it’s cheap, and there were no marks given or attendance taken; a future cartoonists paradise.”

 

Michael Maslin: What brought you to The New Yorker—was it that that was the place to go?

 

Dana Fradon: No, I didn’t know anything about The New Yorker.  My sister married Albert Hubbell and then I heard about The New Yorker [Mr. Hubbell was a jack-of-almost-all trades at The New Yorker, contributing fiction as well as pieces for the Talk of The Town.  He was, briefly, The New Yorker’s Art Editor during WWII when James Geraghty left for service.  He was also a cover artist and contributor of “spot” drawings as well as an in-house idea man, creating captions for cartoonists, including, among others, Mary Petty] I admired Albert and I admired some of the things he pointed out [in the magazine]. I decided that’s where I would channel my work.

 

I did the first cartoon that Geraghty took notice of when I was still in the service. Apparently, when Geraghty showed my work to Ross, he threw Geraghty out of the office.  Geraghty said to me later, with that nice little grin he had that he [Geraghty] didn’t think what I sent in was that bad. It was a panel gag—I still remember it—it was rejected,  but nevertheless Geraghty said, “Keep coming.”

 

MM: I noticed that your first five cartoons in the magazine were captionless—was that happenstance, or was that something you were doing a lot of?

 

DF: I guess that’s what I thought Geraghty thought was funny. In the beginning I had the idea that he was buying only stuff of mine that was rather topical. And I thought that was a restriction—that I could not do the ordinary funny gag—that they were just going to want politically topical stuff. And I thought that would limit me. I didn’t know that it would become, in a sense, my hallmark. I thought at first it was a sign of failure—that I couldn’t do the straight old cartoon. But of course I did end up doing those kinds of cartoons as well.

 

MM: In the beginning you had almost two different styles. You had a heavier style and a looser style.

 

DF: I think the thicker lines came after about five years, ten years—that was still early in a career that spanned 50 years. I went to a felt tip marker that was heavier; I look back at those drawings and I really like them better than some of the thinner line drawings I did later in life. It was not a conscious change—it was a change in paper, and what kind of pen I used.

 

MM: You were trying to find your way?

 

DF: Absolutely. I was trying to find my way for about thirty years.

 

MM: Let’s talk about Geraghty. Obviously he was a huge part of your career.

 

DF: He was a huge part of The New Yorker magazine.  His taste was what guided the magazine—in cartooning and in those days, all the artwork. He bought the spots and the covers. He’s best described by something which has become reasonably common knowledge. He said it to me originally about making a drawing beautiful. He said, “Make it beautiful, Dana. Make it beautiful.”  And very often he would OK a drawing—the final OK would either be Ross’s or Shawn’s—or he would bring to their attention cartoons which were borderline funny but would make magnificent drawings.

 

It was Geraghty’s belief that New Yorker cartoons provoked a chuckle (not laughter) and, of course, much thought. He once went through an act with me imitating a commuter on the New Haven R.R., city bound, opening and skimming through his recently arrived New Yorker. I can imitate every one of Jim’s marvelous gestures and soft grunts (chuckles) to a tee.

 

MM: And the “magnificent drawings” bought—would they be tinkered with?

 

DF: Towards the end under Lee [Lee Lorenz, James Geraghty’s successor as Art Editor], maybe because I was more experienced, there was not much tinkering. But yes, in the beginning there was tinkering down to the last finger. You couldn’t even distinguish where the fingers were [on] my early rough drawings.

 

MM: Did you ever meet Harold Ross?

 

DF: Never met Ross, but nodded to him dozens of times. My only close experience with Ross was at one of the first huge parties the New Yorker threw at the old Ritz-Carleton. Geraghty gave my then wife [the cartoonist, Ramona Fradon] and I an invitation. My wife said, “Fasten your eyes at the guy at the next table.” It was Ross.  So I fastened my eyes on him, and he looked at me like I was a freeloader or something. Everything I know about Ross I heard from Albert [Hubbell]. Albert was the be-all and end-all if you wanted a connection with Ross—he had it and he had total recall.

 

I can’t tell you much about Ross except that I accepted from the beginning that he had impeccable taste.  That was the greatest period of drawing, if not ideas: Arno, and those other guys—Whitney Darrow, Robert Day—all brilliant.

 

MM: I have a list of names I want to run by you, but first, before I forget, I want to ask you if you ever provided ideas for Peter Arno, or anyone else?

 

DF: Yes, Arno, one or two, and for Charlie Addams, half a dozen to a dozen—he was another wonderful artist. You might say Geraghty would look at me and say, “This needs a better artist.” But then it got to where he would give me a trade. He’d say “This would be better if George Price did it.” And he’d give me a simple idea. [Mr. Fradon recalled one idea given to Addams, of Martians coming to the door on Halloween.  It ran in The New Yorker November 1, 1952]

 

MM: When I was researching the Arno biography at the New York Public Library, and looking through The New Yorker’s archives there, I found a lot of interaction, a lot of back and forth—idea-wise—between artists.

 

Fradon:Modell kids

 

DF: When I first started working there—it might’ve been about the tenth cartoon I did—it was a couple of kids watching television, a close-up on the kids. Geraghty didn’t like the faces on the kids.  I couldn’t do kids; now I can, but then I couldn’t at least not on the New Yorker level. Frank did one of the faces on one of my drawings on one of my kids. He [Frank] was sitting out there in the office and Geraghty said, “Just a second” and took the drawing out and Frank did the face and they bought it [the cartoon appears above].

 

MM: We do that around here sometimes.  Liza [Donnelly] will ask me for some help on perspective and I’ll ask her to help me with cats. We have cats here, but that doesn’t help me—I still can’t draw them.

 

DF: Well, certain poses, they’re [cats] hard to draw. You know, Ramona used to do all my horses. It wasn’t until I started doing kids books, and I was divorced, that I learned to do my version of the horse, which is more like a merry-go-round horse. I learned to draw them out of necessity because Ramona wasn’t there to draw them for me. There are a couple of my New Yorker cartoons with horses in them, and she drew the horses.

 

MM: There’s one I have here on my desk…you have an invading army…

 

DF: Is it “Beware of dogs?”

 

 

MM: Yes, yes.

 

DF: She didn’t do the finish, I inked them—but she drew the horses.

 

MM: As long as we’re talking about specific drawings, there’s one I thought would make a good title and cover drawing for a collection: “The gods are antic tonight.”

 

DF: That drawing has a story behind it. Lee put the word “antic” in there. I had the “gods are something-or-other” and I believe he changed it to antic. He asked me, of course, if it was ok.  I didn’t get the fine difference between what I had and he had, but apparently the antic thing was pretty cute, and he knew what he was doing.  “Antic” was not in my vocabulary.

 

 

MM: Can you list for me some of the cartoonists you knew back in those early days. Let’s begin with Arno.

 

DF: Never met Arno, never saw Arno but always felt his presence. Knew fairly well: Sam Cobean, the magazine’s other genius; Charlie Addams, Richard Decker, Frank Modell, Whitney Darrow, Mischa Richter, Bill Steig, Dick Taylor, Barney Tobey and many more. I met, casually, Saul Steinberg (I suppose he’s another genius), Robert Day, Chon Day, Alan Dunn and Mary Petty.

 

MM: Did you know Stan Hunt?

 

DF: A nice gentle soul.

 

MM: James Mulligan?

 

DF: He was left-handed, but because of several car accidents, had to learn to draw with his right hand. His last few hundred cartoons were drawn with his right hand.

 

MM: Rea Irvin?

 

DF: Rea Irvin lived in Newtown [Connecticut] for several years. A really sweet guy. Worked with drawing board held in his lap in a, literally, closet-size studio in a large, beautiful colonial. Actually, HE is the genius of The New Yorker. Did the first cover, designed its typeface, and designed the headings, I think, of the various regular columns. Based on his drawing and the variety and depth of his drawing…he’s the number one guy that everyone always forgets about. Rea just seemed like Major Hoople…“woof woof woof”  while he talked, to clear his throat.

 

MM: Speaking of covers…I couldn’t help but notice there was never a Fradon New Yorker cover.

 

DF: I submitted one cover and after about the tenth time of correcting it and fixing it, I gave it up and went back to doing something I knew better: doing cartoons and ideas. I was doing well on the cartoons and beginning to move into kid’s books, where I got all that color out of my system. I never pursued it. The one I did try lent itself mostly to design—there was nothing funny about it.

 

MM: What about Richard Taylor—you mentioned you knew him.

 

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DF: Dick Taylor was a lovely man, and sort of a comic on his own.  He had a unique way of drawing. There’ve been Whitney Darrow look-alikes and Bob Weber look-alikes, and dozens of Cobean look-alikes, and Arno look-alikes; when I say look-alikes, they’re not as good—there was a guy who did a lot of ads—nothing but ads—he was a pale version of Arno. I’ve never even seen a pale version of Dick Taylor.

 

MM: His work—his people were too different weren’t they?  With those giant eyes…

 

DF: And the way he did his washes too. Layers and layers before he got the tone, without it going dead. Whereas most of us…I strive to splash it on as best I can.

 

MM: I loved watching the progression of your drawings from the very first ones to where they became very loose. The energy there—your heads would almost be disconnected from the bodies. I could see you were having a really great time doing these.

 

DF: That, and a little bit of writing is the only thing that absorbed me. And playing baseball.

 

MM: How did you work? Did you go to your desk in the morning, five days a week?

 

DF: Yeah, five or six days a week, I made it a point. The first thing I’d do—the first three hours in the morning, when you’re freshest—is think of ideas. I’d just think of ideas five days a week and come up with twenty or twenty-five of them and then let Geraghty comb through and pick out what he thought was funny.

 

The routine for thinking of ideas—you may feel the same way—I have no formula for thinking of an idea. It’s more of free association. You start out with a subject, and you may not end up with that subject.

 

MM: And you write everything down, right, because these things can float away.

 

DF: I had a big pad of paper, 14” x 17” bond paper; I’d make little notes and sketches and see where they’d lead me. Once, when I was giving a talk I said the important thing of thinking of ideas is knowing when to pounce. You kick ideas around in your subconscious and then this one is a straggler and you pounce on it because it seems funny.  And that’s the one you draw up. I drew up a lot of rejections too of course [laughing].

 

Geraghty used to tell new cartoonists—and some of the established ones as well—about how he’d be at a party and someone would tell him a funny story and then say, “Why don’t you make a cartoon out of it?”  He’d turn to them and say, “That’s not a cartoon, that’s a short story.” There’s a hell of a big difference.  You know, they’ll start by saying, “There’re ten thousand people in a living room…” Well, who the hell is going to draw ten thousand people in a living room!?

 

MM: One of the things that fascinated me about Arno’s life was that his career spanned enough time at the magazine, 1925 through 1968 to see a change in the use of ideamen. He began using his own ideas but then shifted into using ideamen in the 1930s and beyond.  Many of his contemporaries used ideamen as well (not all of them did, but a majority). By the time your era came along, late 1940s, early 1950s, your crowd, or most of you, were doing your own ideas. That just sort of happened? Or did someone encourage you?

 

DF: Yeah, it just sort of happened, but it’s also something I think subconsciously that Geraghty was striving for. He probably thought it was taking too much time or thought or energy putting cartoonists together with ideas. If you could do it in one step, that was helpful…it became a real badge of courage to do your own ideas, your own drawings.

 

DF: One person who did his own ideas—I don’t know if you remember him, was Herbert Goldberg.

 

MM: I know his work from the albums, The New Yorker anniversary albums. I’m a sucker for those collections.

 

DF: You live in the world of cartoons.

 

MM: Yes.

 

DF: Well that’s one thing I’ve never have done and I’ve always been sorry for it. I’m not really a cartoonist.  I’m a misplaced baseball player or something like that. But I look at [cartoonist] Orlando Busino and I’m just so envious of people who can get into that. When I drew I was in the world, but I wasn’t really there. I wish I could’ve appreciated who I was.

 

MM: Do you still take a crack at cartoons every once in awhile?

 

DF: For a time, when I thought of a good idea that I thought would go in today’s New Yorker, I stifled it. And then I said to myself: well don’t do that anymore, write ‘em down—so I write them down on a scrap of paper and throw them into a pile.

 

 

Dana Fradon’s books include:

Breaking the Laugh Barrier (Dell, 1961)

My Son the Medicine Man (Avon, 1964)

Insincerely Yours (Dutton, 1978)

Sir Dana: A Knight, As Told by His Trusty Armor (Dutton, 1988)

Harold the Herald (Dutton, 1990)

The King’s Fool: A Book About Medieval and Renaissance Fools (Dutton, 1993)

To see some of Dana Fradon’s New Yorker work, link here to the New Yorker’s Cartoon Bank.

 

 

Astaire Cartoonists vrs Kelly Cartoonists

 

Astaire feetKelly feet

 

 

 

 

 

Someone once said that the greatest difference between Fred Astaire’s dancing and Gene Kelly’s dancing is that you could see Gene Kelly’s sweat.  Pauline Kael, writing in The New Yorker in 1972 said, “Kelly isn’t a winged dancer; he’s a hoofer and more earthbound” which she compared to “Astaire’s grasshopper lightness.” Here are some other words you’ll run into when reading about Astaire’s dancing: effortless, graceful, floating on air.  And for Kelly: muscular, dynamic, down-to-earth.

 

I pose this simple question: is it possible to divide New Yorker cartoonists into two distinct camps: Astaire Cartoonists and Kelly Cartoonists? Are there some cartoonists whose work seems effortless, like Astaire’s?  Do others show the sweat, and muscularity of Kelly’s performances?  Well of course I think the answer is yes.  I’m not saying Astaire’s dancing was better than Kelly’s or vice-versa – I’m just saying they were different.

 

This has everything to do with what cartoons look like on the printed page or glowing screen and how a cartoonist’s work appears to the reader’s eye. Is the reader aware of the mechanics of the drawing (do you see the sweat?) or does the cartoon seem effortless?

 

I’m reminded of the story James Thurber told of the day he was sitting in his driveway in Connecticut drawing his car head on.  Al Freuh, the great New Yorker artist happened by, and seeing Thurber struggling with crosshatching and perspective, said, “Don’t bother drawing like that – if you ever got good at it, you’d be mediocre.”  (I’d put Frueh in the Astaire camp).

 

As an example of what I’m talking about, here’s my short-list of Astaire cartoonists and Kelly cartoonists:

Robert Weber definitely in Astaire camp.  Mischa Richter in the Kelly school. Thurber, Astaire; Gluyas Williams, Astaire.  Mary Petty, Kelly; and her husband, Alan Dunn: Kelly. George Price, Kelly. William Steig, Astaire. Richard Taylor, Kelly. Charles Barsotti, Astaire; Whitney Darrow, Jr., Kelly. Helen Hokinson, Astaire. Steinberg, Kelly & Astaire (yes, there are hybrids!).

 

I invite Ink Spill visitors to offer their lists; I fully expect some will completely disagree with mine – so let me have it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BBC: Bert & Ernie New Yorker Cover & The Power of Cartoons: Bob Mankoff on Favorite Cartoons, Pt.2; Book of Interest: American Cornball

BBC Bert:Ernie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From BBC News Magazine, July 19, 2013, “A Point of View: Bert, Ernie and the power of cartoons”

 

 

 

 

 

 

And…

 

robert_mankoff_banner_n

 

 

From New Yorker Cartoon Editor, Bob Mankoff’s newyorker.com blog, here’s part 2 of his look into favorite cartoons.  This time Mr. Mankoff begins to roll out favorites as suggested by visitors to the site.  Work shown includes cartoons by George Price, Peter Arno, Shel Silverstein (whose work never appeared in The New Yorker), and Charles Addams.

 

And…

 

 

 

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Now here’s a book worth waiting for: American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny (Harper, 2014) by Christopher Miller.  Originally slated to be out now, it’s been rescheduled for February of next year.  I asked Mr. Miller to describe the book:

 

It is an encyclopedia of old humor, with roughly 200 entries on things that used to strike people as funny–things like anvils, back-seat drivers, castor oil, dish-washing husbands, efficiency experts, flappers, gold diggers, hangovers, icemen, just-marrieds, kissing booths, ladies’ clubs, mothers-in-law, next-door neighbors, old maids, pie fights, rolling pins, stenographers, traveling salesmen, ulcers, women drivers, and yes men.

The focus is American humor in the first 2/3 of the 20th century, as expressed in books, movies, cartoons, comic strips, sit-coms, radio programs, etc. I talk a lot about New Yorker cartoonists like Charles Addams (especially in the entry on Spouse-Killing), Helen Hokinson (Ladies’ Clubs), Peter Arno (Gold diggers), and Richard Taylor (Drunks and Drunkenness).

 

Note: Mr. Miller has a Facebook page devoted to the book, with a number of images posted, including work by Charles Addams, Syd Hoff, and Sam Cobean

 

 

Collaborating Cartoonists; Video: Charles Addams

 

 

 

 

 

Collaborating cartoonists have been on my mind recently. Who are they, why do they do it?  Does it double the fun?  A spate of collaborations in The New Yorker within the past year caused me to dig into the subject and ask a few questions.

 

To begin with, here’re a few words on the subject, written sixty years ago by Peter Arno :

 

The ideal collaboration – and I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in several – consists of sitting down together, with lots of paper and pencils, and digging; staring into the microscope from all angles, till suddenly the elusive germ is spotted. And sometimes that is only the beginning.

 

And here’s how James Reid Parker, the New Yorker writer who doubled as Helen Hokinson’s collaborator for 18 years, described how they worked together:

 

We set aside Friday afternoons and evenings as definite work periods, during which we examined each other’s files, outlined future work for Helen, and studied rejections to see how they might be made acceptable.

 

Hokinson brought her drawings to these Friday meetings –- she seemingly sketched endlessly through the week.  Parker brought slips of paper containing stray thoughts or overheard remarks.

 

I’m not sure there’s since been a collaboration quite like what Hokinson enjoyed with Parker.  There were gag writers, like Herb Valen, who tried to “think like” Arno or George Price or whoever, but they didn’t meet with the artists to work out completed ideas. The king of ideamen (and a cartoonist himself), Richard McCallister, sent his work to the cartoonists (George Price and Arno among them).

 

One could argue that there was weekly collaboration from 1925 through 1950, the years the magazine’s founder, Harold Ross edited the magazine. Drawings were discussed and often “improved” by committee (see Ink Spill’s February 18, 2012 post, The Art Meeting). After suggested changes were made by the artists, the work was brought back to the the Art Meeting, for further evaluation. The process, for just one drawing,  could sometimes repeat itself a number of times.  James Geraghty, the Art Editor from 1939 through 1973, might explain to an artist how he envisioned a  particular drawing. In James Stevenson’s  new book The Life, Loves and Laughs of Frank Modell, Geraghty is quoted instructing a cartoonist: “Make it more …beautiful.” Ideas were sometimes generated in the art office and passed on to the artists ( these are often labeled “Office Idea” in the magazine’s archives, with no one person receiving credit).

 

This variety of interaction gave way in 1973 when Lee Lorenz assumed the title of Art Editor. The cartoonists Lorenz brought into the fold showed up with the idea, the caption and the art.  This was an organic shift, tied into the times that were a-changin’, similar to the emergence of the singer-songwriter in popular music.

 

The influx of cartoonists with their own ideas was not the death of collaboration — collaboration continued on — but the notion that a cartoonist would regularly use outside help came to be seen, by cartoonists themselves, as somewhat unthinkable (Roz Chast likened it to “cheating”).

 

Throughout The New Yorker’s history, no ideaman’s/collaborator’s  name appeared on the work alongside the artist’s name.  When the magazine  opened up its Table Of Contents in the issue of March 22, 1969, listing its writers & artists, readers did not see ideamen co-credited with the artists.  Mischa Richter, for instance, continued to work closely with his long-time ideaman, Harald Bakken, but only Richter’s name appeared in the magazine’s Table Of Contents. Although a small handful of cartoonists continued collaborating,  collaborations weren’t noted on The Table of Contents until 1994, when Liza Donnelly and this cartoonist collaborated for a color strip about a visit to “Beatlefest” in the New Jersey Meadowlands.  Another married cartoonist couple, Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky Crumb received co-credit the following year for the first of a handful of pieces (color spreads) they contributed.

 

In June of 2010, Sam Means & Kate Beaton  began a New Yorker collaboration (it turned out to be a trio of appearances). Although they signed their joint efforts “Beans” their respective names appeared in the Table of Contents.

 

Very recently, a slew of collaborations have been published in the magazine, or in one case, on the magazine’s website. In all but one case, the collaborations have been acknowledged on the New Yorker’s Table of Contents.  Bob Mankoff’s assistant, Marc Philippe Eskenazi, who so far has had one cartoon published under his own name, collaborated with cartoonist Ben Schwartz.  Mr. Schwartz also collaborated with cartoonist Liam Walsh on a color piece for newyorker.com.  Cartoonist Bob Eckstein worked with comedian Adam Corolla for a drawing published in the magazine, and also with the actor/comedian, Len Belzer (in this case, uncredited in the Table of Contents).

 

Realizing that magazine was suddenly awash in public collaboration, I asked Liam Walsh, Ben Schwartz, Bob Eckstein, and Marc Philippe Eskenazi about their collaborations, beginning with the obvious, “Why collaborate?”  (I offhandedly asked Liza Donnelly if she could remember why she and I collaborated on the Beatlefest piece and she replied, “Because we wanted to.”).

 

Michael Maslin: Why collaborate?

 

Liam Walsh: I didn’t think about this very much beforehand, although it’s a very interesting question. (And one that I’m thinking about in relation to whether it’s something I want to do in the future.) I think the obvious reason would be if each person brought a different strength to the table but that doesn’t really apply to Ben and me. I think there is some benefit in the pressure of not wanting to let the other partner down. I’ve found the weekly deadlines for New Yorker cartoons to be really valuable because a lot of times if I’m writing or creating something speculatively I find that productivity suffers from my not being a strict enough taskmaster. Marc and Ben and I have been experimenting a little bit with using each other to help us make and keep productivity goals. There is probably a teensy element of fear in my desire to collaborate at this early point in my career, in the same way I might like to have a friend by my side when I walk past the graveyard at night. I also think that, at its best, collaborating can take you to places, creatively, you might not have gone on your own. My mind has certain tracks that it tends to stay in and working with another person can force me to venture outside of my usual thought patterns.

 

Ben Schwartz: The best answer is probably the simplest: it’s fun.  Collaboration allows me to get out of my comfort zone, explore new ideas, and gain insight into the creative process of others.  Having an engaged partner to share the workload keeps the pressure down and the enthusiasm up, all while creating a sense of accountability that ensures what we started actually gets finished.

 

Bob Eckstein: There have been a few reasons I’ve collaborated with different people in the past, some good, some embarrassing. I thought of the six last people I worked with and came up with: friendship, writer’s block, fun, to learn from, being star-stuck and an ice-breaker to date someone.

 

 

Marc Philippe EskenaziIn our case [“our” being Liam Walsh & Ben Schwartz- ed.], I cannot draw very proficiently, and don’t really have the patience to tidy up a drawing the way I would develop and refine a piece of music or writing.  But looking through thousands of cartoons each week, I couldn’t help but develop a few ideas here and there.  So I’d sketch them out in a notebook I had since high school.

 

MM: “How did the collaboration begin..,i.e., who made the first move and why?”

 

Eskenazi: Ben, Liam Walsh, and I often went to get coffee or lunch, and we would help develop each other’s ideas, theirs for cartoons, mine for stand-up.  Eventually I showed them my terrible drawings, and they liked some of the jokes.  Ben and I sold two, and Liam and I have sold one which may run around Halloween next year if it survives the harsh Summer.

Walsh: Tom Toro’s piece for the Culture Desk was a big inspiration to me to try some sort of longer-form piece. The Kurtzman exhibition seemed a promising subject and since we were both interested and spend a fair amount of time together anyway it seemed natural to do it together. Ben and I have been talking about working together for a long time. We are both big fans of comics, which are massive collaborations of writers, editors, pencilers, inkers, letters, etc so we might have had a different attitude toward the idea than someone who was a novelist or a “fine art” painter.

Eckstein: I’ll focus on two that specifically resulted in being published in the New Yorker. Len Belzer and I became best friends partly from trying to make each other laugh. We both came from a comedy background and he hosted one of the most important radio comedy shows in the ’80s, interviewing the biggest comics like Carlin, Cosby, Seinfeld, Robin Williams, etc.  I was also very close to his recently deceased wife and all of us sometimes critiqued the cartoons in the New Yorker. We also occasionally read our writing to each other, anything we might be performing or publishing. One piece of Len’s was about a poet’s reading. I thought it was pretty good and suggested he call it “Hecklers on Poetry Night.” I then commented that it would make a neat NYer cartoon. So we worked on the heckles and I did a drawing of our friend (artist John Kascht on stage).

  I recently did a cartoon with comedian Adam Carolla. I listen to his podcast and he once said something which I thought was possibly a good cartoon idea. Normally I consider that simply a dead idea since it was someone else’s  but  my caption idea was different enough that I figured why not do a cartoon with him. I forgot how I was able to contact him but I know a few people from the show…I’m in touch with comic Larry Miller…I know Adam’s assistant….I used to work for his co-host Alison Rosen from my days at TimeOut NY. (yeah, I know, it is all who you know. But having an opportunity to collaborate is a perk from many, many years of working at many places). Anyhoo, he was like, “sure” and that was it. We met in New York City but the cartoon was already done by then.

Schwartz: With Liam: He got the ball rolling, having been inspired by a Tom Toro piece for the Culture Desk blog.  We had recently viewed the Harvey Kurtzman exhibit at the Society of Illustrators together, and he felt that we could turn that experience into a comic for the blog.  I agreed, and we went from there.

With Marc: Marc had been generating gag ideas on his own for a while, but he didn’t think he was yet ready as an illustrator to take them any further.  I don’t actually remember if he asked me to draw some up or if I volunteered.

The larger context that applies to both cases, though, is that Marc, Liam and I are all friends with broadly similar creative sensibilities, and we often gather to workshop our individual projects and ideas.  Collaboration seemed like a natural next step.

 

MM: How did you decide who drew the work?(this question didn’t apply to Bob Eckstein as he was working with non-cartoonists)

 

Walsh: That was a little complicated. We considered a few different possibilities, but since drawing is our mutual strong suit it was clear that we both wanted to be very involved in that part. I did some early sketches, then together we worked out the final sketches, then I penciled the piece and inked my character before passing it over to Ben to ink everything else and do the colors.

Schwartz: Liam had a few specific layout ideas that he sketched up and I immediately embraced, so that gave us our start. From there, we considered having him fully finish the drawings for the sake of efficiency, but we eventually decided that it would be fun to see both our styles merge on the page.  He ended up doing full pencils plus the finished inks for his avatar, while I inked the rest and provided colors.  Inking another artist’s work was a real treat, and something I had long wanted to do.

With Marc, our roles were pretty clear from the start—he was the writer and I was the artist.

Eskenazi: My contribution was only the idea, and the general layout of the image.  For our Oscars cartoon, I described the image and gave the wording of the caption.  For our caption contest, which Mayor Bloomberg purchased, I had drawn the image in the style of a third-grade

 

MM: Did you actually sit down across from each other and work things out, or was it done over the phone, or via the internet?

 

Eskenazi: I gave Ben my sketchbook, and he drew up a few, but the only ones that sold were from scans or emails.

Schwartz: Liam and I started by exchanging several emails discussing ideas and themes.  This was valuable, but we didn’t have a concrete plan until we sat down in person and mapped out our page together.

Marc and I worked together in a more assembly-line fashion.  He generated his ideas earlier, then passed them off to me.  He didn’t see the results until I was fully finished with the art.

Eckstein: With Len, I might show him what I’m working on when we get together. We play chess, we have lunch and sometimes we stop and he will help me with my sketches, throwing out a suggestion or two. Sometimes he’ll just come out with a great new caption I would have never thought of. We’ve been published in a few places. We[recently] had a cartoon in the Wall Street Journal and he called me with new cartoon idea he had which I’ll draw up and show him. Then we will decide what works and doesn’t work and I’ll make those changes before showing them to Bob at the NYer.

Walsh: We did some initial emailing, but it didn’t come together until we committed to sitting down and not leaving until it was done. We wound up writing every single word together.

 

MM: Any problems working together (decision-making; disagreements over what works, what doesn’t) or was it smooth sailing?

Walsh: Smooth sailing for us. We seemed to move pretty steadily forward–that is to say, each time one of us had an idea the other seemed to think it was an improvement over what we had so far. I’m sure this is not always the case. I can easily imagine having a great idea that I can’t live without and really having that bring things to a standstill; but it’s not like there is only one possible successful outcome and everything else is shit and you need to get there or fail. There are a million ways we could have done that piece and some are better, some are worse, and lots are probably pretty similar. If either of us had insanely brilliant ideas that didn’t make it into the piece I’m sure they will be put to use in some future project.

Schwartz: In both cases, it was nothing but a great experience.  With Marc, things were particularly easy because our roles were so well defined and we each allowed the other full control of his part.  Since Liam and I shared nearly every step of the process, we had more opportunities for disagreement, but it was never an issue.  I think we each had to give up a couple of ideas that we liked, but only because we believed that the other’s take was even stronger.

Eskenazi: I felt very detached and excited.

Eckstein: All the people I’ve been lucky to work with are very accomplished and very talented. I collaborate with Len so I can get better and learn how to be funnier. Our only problems (as far as I’m aware of!) are when one of us doesn’t get a reference the other is making but we just enjoy getting together whatever the circumstances.

 

MM: Did it turn out that one of you was stronger in the word department, the other in the drawing department?  By that I mean:  did either of you guide the text more than the art, and the art more than the text?”

Eckstein: In a perfect world I’d like to only do the writing and wish someone else would draw up the ideas.

Walsh: I’m not supremely confident about my writing skills so it was great to have an editor sitting right across from me. It was a true collaboration, 50/50, and I think we both agree that what came out of it was not something we would have come up with on our own.

Schwartz: I feel like Liam and I equally contributed to both the words and pictures of our piece, to the point where even I have trouble remembering which elements were his and which were mine.

Again, Marc had full control over the text for his gag, and I had full control over the visuals (though, of course, I had his text in hand to guide me).

Eskenazi: No we’re both equal on both fronts.  He[Ben Scwhartz] gets more credit as being a better artist, but it is very subjective.  I could draw as well as him if I wanted to, but I really just don’t care enough.  I could easily, though.  Easily.

MM: Are there plans to collaborate again?

Eskenazi: I hope so, I need the money.

Schwartz: I would love to do more collaboration with Marc and with Liam, and with Marc and Liam.  We’ve been tossing around ideas, so hopefully we’ll have something to show for it soon.

Walsh: I suspect so. Ben and I are working on something with Marc right now (because a two-person collaboration wasn’t complicated enough!) and I’m sure we’ll work together again in the future.

Eckstein: The pay a cartoonist makes does not make collaborating practical. Ideally I’d love to collaborate with some of the comedians who I was influenced by growing up but even a-one-time-thing — that’s problematic… I’d like to see more cross-over of people who love comics and people who love cartoons. I’d like to see Demetri Martin cartooning for the New Yorker.

I was [recently] talking to [comedian] Larry Miller with hopes of collaborating on a cartoon and we exchanged jokes and captions to try to come up with something.

 

 

 This piece began with a dip into New Yorker history, so why not end with it too.  It’s instructive to remember that  collaboration likely brought the art of James Thurber to The New Yorker.  Had Thurber not contributed his art to Is Sex Necessary, his collaboration with E.B. White, it’s possible Harold Ross may never have thought twice about allowing Thurber’s “goddam seal drawing” into the magazine.

 

And…

This twelve minute video, “You Rang, Mr. Addams”

(Thanks to Mike Lynch for mentioning this on FB)

James Stevenson’s Secret Job at The New Yorker

 

 

 

 

 

If you pick up a copy of veteran New Yorker cartoonist, cover artist, and Talk of the Town contributor James Stevenson’s latest book, The Life, Loves and Laughs of Frank Modell, you’ll find a section wherein Mr. Stevenson recounts his “summer office boy” job at The New Yorker back in 1947, and mentions as well his beginnings at the magazine, nine years later, once he was hired full time.

In a  New York Times op-ed piece from January of 2011 (“New Yorker Confidential”) Stevenson recounted how James Geraghty, then The New Yorker’s Art Editor turned to him after the hiring handshake and said, “You must not tell anybody at the office or anywhere else what you do.” Only Geraghty and the magazine’s editor, William Shawn knew what he was up to all day long at the magazine. What he was up to was creating ideas for some of the established cartoonists.

The subject of idea men (or the less appealing term “gagmen”) is  of great interest to me –-  my unpublished biography of Peter Arno goes into the subject in detail as Arno, though prolific in his earliest years, came to rely more and more on outside help as the years wore on.  I plan on going into the subject here on Ink Spill sometime in the future.

Curious about the secrecy of Stevenson’s job, and many other things concerning his time at The New Yorker,  I called him up the other day to talk shop. Among other things, I learned that Stevenson was among the chosen (Frank Modell was another) to guide a nearly blind James Thurber around the office. According to Stevenson, this was the time-period “back when he [Thurber] was working on the soap opera series” [“Soapland” was a five part series running from the issue of May 15, 1948 thru July 24, 1948].   Here’s a snippet of our conversation:

 

Michael Maslin: Why all the secrecy?

James Stevenson: I have a very clear vision of meeting Geraghty. I was working for Life magazine –- and I’d been selling ideas [to the New Yorker] — and he said come and have a cup of coffee.  He described a career having an office at the New Yorker, and thinking up jokes, but I couldn’t tell anybody – it was a secret. And now it’s possible, but I doubt it, that he was just testing me. He liked to test people.

MM: The crowd of cartoonists that arrived at The New Yorker around the same time as you: Warren Miller, Lee Lorenz, etc.. seemed to arrive complete – you didn’t need to rely on idea men like so many of the previous generation; Helen Hokinson, Whitney Darrow, Jr.,  and  George Price to name a few.  Why was that?

JS: I think originally the  New Yorker artists –- a lot of them -– might’ve come thru the Art Student’s League or something like that and they had a background in  how to draw and how to do this and how to do that, and they would do handsome drawings but they might not be funny.

MM: I have a copy of the March 10, 1956, New Yorker in front of me – it contains your first cartoon published in The New Yorker.  Going through the list of cartoonists in that issue, it’s an amazing group: Alain, Steinberg, Steig, Perry Barlow, Barney Tobey, Hoff, Kovarsky, Richter, and on and on.  You must’ve rubbed elbows with many of them while you were there.

JS: Actually no, because I had this hidden career. I had an office for awhile across the hall from Geraghty. I didn’t much want to go into the [Art] office because pretty soon someone would ask questions. I was maybe more comfortable with people who were  Talk reporters because they wouldn’t ask me anything related to what I actually did.

MM: In your new book about Frank Modell, you mention bringing a package up to Peter Arno’s apartment on Park Avenue at around three in the afternoon and that he met you at the door still in his dressing gown.  You said that on the way home you decided you wanted to be Peter Arno.  Did you start drawing like him?

JS: No, I just liked the life style.

 

 

 

 

Peter De Vries, Cartoon Doctor

 

 

 

Occasionally, Ink Spill takes a look at New Yorker contributors who weren’t cartoonists but whose work at the magazine was so intertwined with cartoons and/or cartoonists that it would be just plain silly not to look at them.  Peter De Vries,  a New Yorker staffer from 1944 through 1986, fits the bill perfectly.

 

De Vries, who died in 1993, moved from his hometown, Chicago, to the east coast and The New Yorker via James Thurber, who highly recommended De Vries to the magazine’s founder and editor, Harold Ross.

 

Hired to work part-time in the magazine’s poetry department, De Vries wrote for Notes and Comment, as well as contributing fiction.  After asking the magazine’s Art Editor, James Geraghty if there was anything he could do in the Art Department, De Vries was taken in as a “cartoon doctor” in 1947,  fixing captions, helping to develop ideas, and sometimes coming up with his own. Unless my computations are wrong, no other New Yorker editor had as  long an association with the magazine’s cartoons as De Vries: thirty-nine years.

 

In various interviews over the years, he seemed reticent to discuss his duties concerning cartoons. Ben Yagoda, who interviewed him for The New York Times in 1983, reported that De Vries couldn’t recall any original cartoon ideas he came up with, except one: a drawing by Richard Decker that appeared in July 21, 1945. Yagoda surmised that “DeVries  hesitancy to discuss his work in the Art Department may spring from a desire to uphold the myth that cartoonists’ works are never altered.”  That myth is worth exploring at another time, but perhaps it was less an allegiance to the myth and more of a De Vries personality trait. Former New Yorker Art/Cartoon Editor, Lee Lorenz, who was recently interviewed for this piece, described De Vries as “very quiet – sort of shy.” In a 1956 interview with The New York Times, De Vries described himself as “‘utility man in the Art Deaprtment,’ while others around the place describe him as a force in the Bull Pen.”

 

Frank Modell, now age 95, and the New Yorker’s eldest cartoonist,  was good friends with De Vries,  interacting with him weekly at the magazine’s office during the time Modell was Geraghty’s assistant in the 1940s.  Modell told me recently, “De Vries was an amazingly good humored guy.” Distilling De Vries’ work with cartoons, Modell said,  “he made [captions] a little more clear.”

 

When Lorenz succeeded James Geraghty as Art Editor in 1973, a sea-change was underway at the Art Department.  Idea men (there were no idea women) who had supplied some of the great New Yorker cartoonists with a steady stream of excellent work, were facing a new wave of cartoonists who were in the mold of Thurber – an artist who wrote all of his own ideas  — and not George Price, a cartoonist who relied completely on ideamen.

Lorenz, reflecting on that time, and the waning of idea men:

Of course there was a long tradition there of people who just did the ideas and the artists who just did the drawings, but we’d gotten past that by that point. Artists did their own stuff. If he [De Vries] came up with a good one I’d certainly take it  back to the artist, and they’d have the final word –- it was their caption.

 I’ve thought about it a lot — there’s a big difference between writing humor and captioning a cartoon. There’s a special skill to writing captions.  He was a funny writer, but when he tried to change a caption, it got longer, it got more convoluted.”

 Asked to describe his working relationship with De Vries, Lorenz said:

“We were friendly, but I hardly ever saw him. He kept pretty much to himself there.  The stuff [sheets of paper bearing copies of approved cartoons for that week] would be shipped out to his office at some point during the week and he’d go through it.   He didn’t come to the art department.  All this stuff would be passed around in a box – a regular wooden box. It would go down to his office and he would go through it and make notes and eventually it would come back to me. But I don’t remember we discussed much of this face to face.  We weren’t avoiding each other —  that was just the kind of relationship we had.

If cartoon aficionados have one reason to hold De Vries in high regard it would certainly be for the part he played in developing one of Charles Addams most enduring cartoons (and a captionless one at that). In the fall of 1946, James Geraghty, in need of a Christmas cover, invited  De Vries over to his Connecticut home to sit out on the front lawn and brainstorm. The result was the classic Addams  cartoon that appeared in the December 21, 1946 New Yorker:  three members of the so-called Addams Family, four stories up, about to pour boiling oil on the carolers below. Although Geraghty and De Vries conceived of it as a cover, Harold Ross nixed the idea and ran it inside as a full page cartoon.

De Vries, a prolific novelist, did not shy away from using his New Yorker Art Department experience in his popular 1954 book, The Tunnel of Love.  It’s the story, in a nutshell, of a fellow named Dick, who is Cartoon Editor of  The Townsman, a New Yorker-like magazine,  and  another fellow, Augie, who’s a third-rate cartoonist and first rate idea man.

Below:  De Vries first book, published in 1940, cover by Charles Addams

 

Special thanks to Lee Lorenz and Frank Modell for their assistance with this piece. Lee Lorenz interviewed April 9, 2013; Frank Modell interviewed April 11, 2013