Tom Cheney: Lessons from Charles Rodrigues

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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

 

 

New film on New Yorker Cartoonists: “Very Semi-Serious”

We’ve known that Leah Wolchok has been hard at work on her film about New Yorker cartoonists and thought this was an excellent time to check in with her (Ink Spill will revisit Very Semi-Serious in a matter of weeks).  We asked Leah to describe her film, and give us an idea of who’s in it (so far). Here’s what she had to say:

 

Very Semi-Serious is an offbeat meditation on humor, art and the genius of the single panel.  The film takes an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the 88-year old New Yorker and introduces the cartooning legends and hopefuls who create the iconic cartoons that have inspired, baffled—and occasionally pissed off—all of us for decades.

The film has been a labor of love and obsession for 6 ½ years. The film is supported by Tribeca Film Institute, IFP, the Pacific Pioneer Fund, Women Make Movies and BAVC. We are working closely with cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, and we’ve interviewed a dozen cartoonists, including Roz Chast, Michael Maslin, Liza Donnelly, Sam Gross, Mort Gerberg, Lee Lorenz, Matt Diffee, Drew Dernavich, Zach Kanin, Emily Flake, Liam Walsh and Liana Finck, who recently published her first cartoon in The New Yorker.  Next up is Bruce Eric Kaplan. 

We’ve also filmed scenes with Gahan Wilson, PC Vey, Sidney Harris, David Sipress, Mike Twohy, Joe Dator, Bob Eckstein, Robert Leighton, Farley Katz, Benjamin Schwartz, Carolita Johnson, Felippe Galindo, David Borchardt, Corey Pandolph, Paul Noth and Barbara Smaller.

Jack Ziegler and Andy Friedman both created original artwork for the film.

In a few weeks we are launching our website and trailer, featuring animation, interviews and never-before-seen footage from the New Yorker headquarters, cartoonists’ studios and inside the homes of caption contest devotees.  Plus a killer ping pong match between Bob Mankoff and Puzzlemaster Will Shortz.

Just a Few Words with Jack Ziegler about Breakfast Foods

Jack Ziegler has been sharing his unusual cartoon world with us in the pages of the New Yorker for close to 40 years.  I recently asked him about his current drawing in the magazine.

 

 MM: Your cartoon in this week’s issue of the man sitting on the edge of his bed watching  toast, eggs, and bacon rise over the horizon sent me off to the New Yorker’s Cartoon Bank to search for “toast” – and guess what? Of the 59 cartoons that came up, the largest percentage of them are yours (Peter Mueller is, I think, second runner-up). This probably explains why, when I think of toast and/or toasters, I think “Jack Ziegler” (the same goes for hamburgers, but that’s for another post on another day).  What is it about breakfast foods that keeps you coming back to them (for work, I mean)?

JZ: I’ve done a lot of toast cartoons over the years, many of which found their way into the NYer.  Toast is inherently funny – white toast, basically – it’s the ultimate of bland.  Not rye, whole wheat, pumpernickel, def. not english muffins.  The current cartoon, however, is all about the eggs – sunnyside up.  The toast & bacon are there to make the cartoon more readable & logical.  Breakfast alone isn’t funny, whereas lunch is.  Dinner/supper not funny at all.

 

MM: Are bacon, eggs, and toast funnier than lunch and dinner foods?  Which is funnier: toast, eggs or bacon?  Is orange juice funny?

JZ: See #1 above.  Orange juice?  Not funny.  Tasty & a great way to start the day.

 

MM: This recent drawing of toast, eggs, and bacon rising like the morning sun — you referred to it as “sunnysideuprise” in an earlier email to me — I don’t suppose you recall how the idea came to you?

JZ: It was probably just a doodle of a guy getting up, staring out the window, trying to figure out what the day has in store.  When I doodle, I just keep adding stuff & sometimes I like what I see.  Most doodles, however, wind up in the trash.  Or – sometimes I’ll hold onto one because I like something about the drawing & know there’s eventually going to be something there.

 

MM: I love the monumental toaster drawings you’ve done. Do you have a toaster?  If so, has it inspired you?  If so, how?

JZ: I do have a toaster which I haven’t used in over 3 years now.  It’s there basically for toast-lovin’ guests.  No inspiration there.  When I was a kid, we used to have a toaster like the ones I draw & that’s always my reference.  I like the way a lot of older stuff looks.  Older antenna’d TVs are more fun to look at (in a drawing) than the giant flat screens of today.  I also gravitate towards older parking meters, fire hydrants, cars.  I used to do lots of public phone booths also, but kids these days probably wouldn’t know what they were.  Hey, what can I say?  I’m an old fart.

 

MM: May I ask what you had for breakfast this morning?

JZ: Raisin bran – but only because I ran out of blueberries to put in my corn flakes, which I much prefer.  I only do bacon & eggs on the weekend – & that in a restaurant where someone else can clean up the mess.  Oh, and toast.

National Cartoonists Society Best Gag Cartoonist nominees include Ziegler, Stevens, Chast and Gross

From The Daily Cartoonist“NCS announces 2012 division awards” — Four New Yorker cartoonists are nominated in the Gag Cartoon category: Jack Ziegler, Mick Stevens, Roz Chast and Sam Gross. Barry Blitt, a New Yorker contributor perhaps best known for his covers, is nominated in the category of Magazine Feature/Magazine illustration. Congratulations to all!

And for more on the National Cartoonists Society, link here to their website.

Cats get their due: Big New Yorker Book of Cats out in October; Gehr’s “Know Your New Yorker Cartoonist” interviews collected in book form

Following in the paw prints of The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs is The Big New Yorker Book of Cats (Random House, October 1, 2013). Anthony Lane, Calvin Trillin and M.F.K. Fisher are listed as among the contributors. And of course, there’ll be cartoons.

 

We’ll have to wait a while — til December, to be exact, for Richard Gehr’s “Know Your New Yorker Cartoonist” series of interviews to be in book form. Amazon has recently listed Gehr’s  For A Minute There It Suddenly All Made Sense!: Behind the Scenes with The New Yorker’s Most Brilliantly Twisted Cartoonists.

Published by New Harvest, the book has a pub date of December 3, 2013.  From the publisher’s  promotional material:

Gehr’s book features fascinating biographical profiles of such artists as Gahan Wilson, Sam Gross, Roz Chast, Lee Lorenz, and Edward Koren. Along with a dozen such profiles, Gehr provides a brief history of The New Yorker cartoon itself, touching on the lives and work of earlier illustrating wits—including Charles Addams, James Thurber, and William Steig.