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.

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.

Bob Eckstein Talks to Ink Spill About His 3-D Thanksgiving Cartoon in this week’s New Yorker

 

 

 

There are two firsts involved in this interview.  This the first Ink Spill interview of a New Yorker cartoonist and it was prompted by what I believe to be the first 3-D cartoon in the magazine’s history.  The cartoon, appearing in this week’s issue, dated November 26, 2012, is by Bob Eckstein.  Bob has graciously consented to my prodding him with a few questions about himself, and the cartoon.

 

 Bob, would you give us a mini-history of how and when you came to be a New Yorker cartoonist?

 

 In 2007, for my birthday, Sam Gross invited me to the cartoon Tuesday lunch.  I had befriended him, and the Cartoonbank staff, as I bought a bunch of cartoons for the Intermission section of my book The History of the Snowman.  I was a fan of Sam’s (I wrote for National Lampoon while he was there), Charles Addams, and Danny Shanahan,  who all appear twice in my book, but I didn’t know about the lunch nor was I a cartoonist, per se.  I did occasionally come up with cartoons for the Village Voice, SPY and other magazines but only where I wrote humor columns and only because I would never allow outsiders to illustrate my work.  It was a condition I started at Newsday back in 1980s when I realized I needed both incomes to make enough to live on.  But I had no interest to cartoon until that lunch and at this point I did not read the NYer except when I needed a filling at the dentist.  I did enter the caption contest once, which at the time was once a year (It was a Danny Shanahan with Quasimodo as a doctor.  My, “The name rings a bell.” got runner-up.).  Only after I ran out of money to spend on the book, which probably exceeded $25,000+ in reprint and quote permission fees, did I fill two empty spaces with two of my own snowman cartoons for my “Intermission” on the nudging of my editor.

 

So, anyhoo, I enjoyed the lunch, and in retrospect being there the week that Gahan Wilson happened to show up was significant. I grew up laughing to his cartoon collections and meeting him was a big deal.  At the end of the fancy exciting lunch I asked Sam about coming back and how to get in on this “thing.”  He just said, “Come back next week with 10 sketches.” 

 

Well, I didn’t return. First, I found it too difficult to come up with that many ideas in one week.  I didn’t know what I was doing and I decided to call Danny Shanahan, who was and still is a favorite of mine and I spoken to a couple of times before but strictly for business.  I (incorrectly) felt after sending some money his way it made it somehow okay.  I told him I was contemplating gag cartooning and now looking back, I just wanted him to say, “Oh, how wonderful, you’re going to do great, welcome aboard, etc.”  Instead he basically said forgot it, it’s a very difficult profession.  That was the extent of my pep talk. 

 

Despite that warning I went in on the second week since the lunch, going into Bob Mankoff’s (the magazine’s Cartoon Editor) office after Sam, who I assume put in a good word for me to Bob.  Bob explained it wasn’t necessary to write in big letters “SKETCH” on each drawing.  Nor did the captions need to be typeset.  Each sketch had a cover sheet like they were finals ready to go to print!  Most of them were moronic and too current-eventsy to be useful, like one with a cat on American Idol. 

 

That Thursday Bob left a message on my machine to tell me which one they bought.  I told my wife the New Yorker only bought one, sorry.  When I returned the next week with the final, I apologized for the others in the first batch being so bad–I assumed that everyone every Tuesday sold a few and I was a big loser.  I simply had no idea how difficult it was to get in or how many people submitted, I just didn’t know.  I assumed they bought most cartoons, paying like $50 or so a cartoon.  But I figured things will pick up and the following week I’d sell two or three, like everyone else.  It took a couple of weeks to quickly figure things out…and that my first sale was a fluke, beginner’s luck.  It would be almost a year of coming in every week with a batch before I sold my second cartoon.  During that time I devoured every book on cartooning and went back and looked at all the NYer issues.  My style had totally changed from that first effort which now looks inept.  I was also rethinking Shanahan’s warning, kicking myself for not taking it to heart and wondering if I was throwing away my illustration and writing career (I was. I did.).

 

Your drawing, titled The First 3-D Thanksgiving, is, I believe, the first 3-D cartoon in the magazine’s history (if anyone out there finds another, please bring it to my attention).  Is it actually 3-D?  If I was wearing 3-D glasses right now, and looking at your drawing, would it be appear three-dimensional?

 

It works, but not as well as it could, but that is by design.  When I showed it to Bob Mankoff, he asked if it worked but then quickly said, “that’s not the point” as we agreed that it was more important for the joke that it was inferred it was 3-D (after Bob shot down my suggestion of placing 3-D glasses in each issue).  It is 3-D but we reeled it back.  Knowing the reader wouldn’t have glasses, I went for the most readable degree of 3-Ding the cartoon so it still looked like a cartoon and not this heavy ominous image on the page which would have distracted from the joke.

 

How did the drawing come about? Do you have a special interest in 3-D drawings, movies, etc.?

 

I do not appear regularly as a cartoonist in the magazine (something I HAVE brought up with Bob), so I try to catch Bob’s attention with ideas that get away from the usual format and Bob has been supportive and receptive to me and my experimenting; I’ve done a lot of  cartoons with spot color, cartoons that have no punch-line. I’ve shown him captions that use the F-bomb, cartoons about The New Yorker, captions in Spanish, scratch ‘n’ sniff cartoons…and this 3-D was just one I gave a try.  Bob has called my stuff “loopy” which I think is code around the office for “nice try but doesn’t work.”  I do want to get in “regular” cartoons and not become the “Weird Al” Yankovic of the NYer cartoonist pool.

 

I had done 3-D illustrations for Vibe magazine and Sport magazine over twenty years ago so it was on my radar.  I don’t have 3-D glasses in my home, which I could have used because I just saw Hugo on Netflix.  I do recommend wearing 3-D glasses to get through a family Thanksgiving dinner — you eat less with them on (“I can’t eat all that!”).

 

We should probably give a shout-out to Norman Rockwell, whose famous 1942 Saturday Evening Post “Freedom From Want”  piece is obviously referenced in your drawing.  Did you have Rockwell’s work in front of you when you were working on your finished piece?

 

I had it in front of me, and underneath me, as I did trace most of the guy in the back and then glanced over to draw the rest of the set-up.  My initial sketch had the whole family shocked at the dancing turkey but it looked too forced and too different from the Rockwell iconic piece.  I realized Rockwell had it right the first time except he forgot the glasses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s a little something extra as concerns a New Yorker cartoonist and  dimensional cartoons:

 

After seeing Bob’s 3-D drawing, I was reminded of a terrific Otto Soglow book from 1932, Everything’s Rosy.  Somewhat “naughty”  – the inside flap text suggests the book is “probably not suitable for Sunday School use…” —  it came with a “red filter” attached to the front inside cover and the following Notice and Instructions:

 

Notice

The envelope in the front of the book contains one red filter to bring out the double exposure of each picture in Everything’s Rosy….

 

Instructions For Use of Filter

Hold book in good light.

Look at each picture first with the naked eye. Then lay filter flat on page over picture and look again.