Tom Toro: The Ink Spill Interview

New Yorker cartoonist, Tom Toro and I’ve been emailing now and then over the seven years he’s been contributing cartoons to the magazine, but it wasn’t until a month ago, when he came east from Kansas for Jack Ziegler’s memorial, that we finally met in person and were able to chat for awhile. The idea for an interview had been batted around by us earlier in the year; I like to think it began in earnest right there and then in a restaurant on Manhattan’s upper east side. With Dock Street Press’s release of Tom’s first book, Tiny Hands, a collection of the political work he did for The New Yorker’s Daily Cartoon slot, it seemed like the perfect time to turn our conversation into something more organized. Following the interview I asked Tom to select and comment on five favorites of his own work — you’ll see those at the end of this post.
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Saul Steinberg Blows Into the Windy City

Earlier this year when I ran into my New Yorker cartoonist colleague, Ken Krimstein, one of the first things we talked about was the Steinberg exhibit that had opened in Ken’s hometown, Chicago.   I thought it would be interesting to hear what a New Yorker cartoonist thought of the show and Ken graciously agreed to review the exhibit for the Spill.  I received his fascinating take yesterday and am pleased to share it here.

 

Saul Steinberg Blows Into the Windy City

by Ken Krimstein

At least among my generation of cartoonists, three masters seem to be the entry level drug into making the stuff. Charles Addams, Don Martin, and Saul Steinberg. The precise balance of the three varies, but be sure, one of them is in there.

When you’re a young cartoonist, trying to peel yourself away from Rugrats or Marmaduke or Dick Tracy (not that there’s anything wrong with any of them), the coolness, line, precision, puzzling delight of Steinberg is catnip. Cartoons can do that? Weird, fun, challenging pictures that ignite something in your reptilian cartoonist brain and connect in a way, that at least for me, said, “holy crap, I’ve got to try to do that too!”

So you draw, and you read, and you devour everything you can about this quirky Romanian via Italian architecture school immigrant/refugee who was able to bamboozle the U.S. Army into making him an officer in WWII and who “owned” first chair at the New Yorker from the 40’s to the 80’s. I remember hearing Roger Angell, who ought to know, saying in his almost 70 years at The New Yorker he only marked two bona-fide geniuses. One was Nabokov. You can guess the other.

As I approached the modestly placed show, in a couple of side galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/along-lines-selected-drawings-saul-steinberg, “Along The Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg,” I wondered what the effect would be on me? Would my guru still be singing his siren song? Or would his work seem like some tattered mid-century modern furniture at a second-hand shop? Would there be discoveries? Would there be some gags (a discipline which he quickly mastered and just as quickly seemed to abandon for his ‘thought drawings?’) How securely fastened were these pieces to the wall, and could I manage to escape with one?

But when I turned the corner into the gallery, my doubts were erased. Five of his paper bag masks stared, glared, grinned, cajoled, taunted right into my face. THE PAPER BAG MASKS!!! I had seen them so many times in photographs, but never in person. So amazing, so “breaking the fourth wall,” so tribal/modern, so right there, in front of me. I was disarmed.

The show is comprised of 54 “drawings” gifted to the Art Institute by the Saul Steinberg Foundation in 2013. Since I moved to Chicago from New York several years ago, I’d been longing to go into the print library and examine them. But here they were. And, in total, I’d have to say it is rare that any gallery show has as high a batting average of “holy-crap I wish I’d done that” worthy work as this one. True there was only one pure “gag,” and not incidentally it graces the cover of the catalog (a man laying on bar stools as if they’re a bed), not one of Steinberg’s greatest but still.

Aside from the wit, the “think,” it was the “ink” (or pencil, paint, chalk, foil, rubber stamp etc.) that blew me away. His ideas are fascinating, but his craft was a complete revelation. Up close and personal, his pen lines squeak, his colored pencils whisper, his paints sigh. The creamy paper, left open in large swathes, was as important as his markings. You don’t look at Saul Steinberg originals, you watch them!

I always knew Steinberg as a mind, now I could appreciate him as an eye. So when, in the second image, a crowd of Steinberg people (and a dog) stared up into space, into my eyes, at my eye level, I felt the cagey Romanian’s hands pulling me into the page. I started leaning in as close as the guards would allow, searching for hints of pencil lines, erasing? The layout of the pages, the fantasy, the filigree — more and more seductive. I was in his head, withered cowboys, wrinkled matrons, the full ghastly glory of 1950’s road trips across American in the enormous Cadillac (I know, because he had a drawing of himself driving it.)

As if to say, “take this printers!,” Steinberg takes that horrible phrase “mixed-media” and makes it noble. (Nobel?) In person, watercolors, colored pencils, wax pencils, and lamp-black ink ignite each other in a way that can’t be reproduced. It made me want to seek out “Ivory Wove Paper” whatever and wherever that stuff exists, and corner the market on it.

There were concepts galore, of course. Covers that were large and creamy and delightful. (Delight, in fact, is the refrain of this show.)

Steinberg took delight in letters, in weird words (KONAK), in clouds, in color, in splotches and feathery lines. My favorite piece? Ebbets field in Brooklyn, the brave lights, perched on crooked, patched together poles, pump their wan luminosity over the field, grim, street lamp-lit Brooklyn spreading around it like delightful human fungus. Or something like that. I loved it. Maybe because I once tried to visit Ebbets field and now it’s just a plaque on some housing project.

My other favorite (in Steinberg’s world you are allowed to have two favorites) is a breakfast still life, all light pencils and water color washes and sunlight and a slight hangover and you can feel the sun glowing and smell the coffee, thank God!

So, does he hold up? Oh, yes. But, he’s different to me now. Maybe because I’m different. My take-away, besides all that delight? He drew buildings like they were people and he drew people like they were buildings.

What did I learn from that? Nothing. And everything.

 

Along the Lines: Selected Drawing of Saul Steinberg, runs at the Art Institute of Chicago through October 29, 2017. http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/along-lines-selected-drawings-saul-steinberg

(Steinberg Mask above copyrighted by the artist)

 

About Ken Krimstein (pictured left, behind the Steinbergian mask. Photo: Bob Eckstein):

Born, Chicago, Illinois. Raised in Deerfield Illinois. Began drawing at age one. Graduated from Grinnel College and Northwestern University. His work has appeared in “Punch,” “The National Lampoon,” “Narrativemagazine.com,” several cartoon anthologies edited by Sam Gross and in others assembled by King Features “New Breed.” As a writer, he has published in mcsweeneys.net, “The New York Observer,” and has read work as part of “Trumpet Fiction” at KGB bar in New York. Krimstein lives with his wife and three children in Chicago.  New Yorker work: August 7, 2000 – . Clarkson Potter published a cartoon collection, Kvetch As Kvetch Can, in October of 2010.  Website: http://www.kenkrimstein.com/

Objet D’art of Interest: A Thurber Bobblehead

Well here it is: the ultimate (?) gift for a Thurberite.  I’m not sure if any other New Yorker artist has been so honored.  A quick search for an Addams bobblehead and a Steinberg bobblehead turned up nada (I would love to see a Steinberg bobblehead).  

As you can see on the packaging, the bobblehead was issued as part of Columbus Ohio’s bicentennial.

The only similar object I’ve ever seen was a small painted plaster Eustace Tilley figurine. Neither the Tilley nor the Thurber objets d’art are in the Spill‘s archives, but one can dream.

The Thurber bobblehead can be found on Ebay for a song.

 

 

50 Years Ago in The New Yorker

Every so often I like to take a look at a random issue of The New Yorker from well before my time there, or well before my time, period. This issue, of April 29, 1967 is solidly in the former category. The New Yorker was not yet on my mind —  I was in fact, just about to begin transitioning out of comic books, and into underground comics. My last (non-underground) comic book bought at the time of its release was this one, Superman and The Flash, December 1970 (yes, I still have it — I don’t throw much away).

 

 

Flipping through this Spring-time issue of The New Yorker, the first thing I noticed, besides the lovely Abe Birnbaum cover, was the  very simple Table of Contents, when the magazine seemed intent on just offering up a few clues as to what was inside. No listing of artists or writers, just column headings such as “The Air” and “Current Cinema”  — we’ve come a very long way since then.

Of the seventeen cartoonists represented in this issue, not one was a woman. This was a time when only one veteran female cartoonist was still on the scene, the great Mary Petty.  But her run at the magazine had ended a year before in the issue of March 19, 1966 (she died in 1976). The next female cartoonist to show up was Nurit Karlin, and she wouldn’t begin publishing until 1974. 

These are the seventeen  cartoonists in this issue: Charles Saxon, Warren Miller, Lee Lorenz, William Hamilton, James Mulligan, Dana Fradon, William O’Brien, Edward Koren, Ton Smits, James Stevenson, Robert Kraus, Donald Reilly, J. B. “Bud” Handelsman, Carl Rose, Barney Tobey, Robert Weber, and William Steig. Many of these names will ring a bell with New Yorker cartoon aficionados, and some names will ring a very large bell.  Edward Koren and Lee Lorenz are still contributing to the magazine.  Dana Fradon and Warren Miller are still hail and hearty.  James Stevenson, Robert Weber, and William Hamilton  were among the recently departed slew of New Yorker cartoonists this past year. 

For me, the most surprising cartoonist to see  in the issue was Carl Rose (“surprising” because I unfairly tend to place his work more in the 1920s – 1940s). Mr. Rose contributed his very first cartoon to The New Yorker in the Halloween issue of 1925, when the magazine was about nine months old; his last cartoon appeared in the summer of 1971. (Below: Mr. Rose’s April ’67 drawing)

Though he had  a great run in the New Yorker,  he only published one collection, One Dozen Roses — but what a collection.

 And here, for a little more on One Dozen Roses and other noteworthy New Yorker cartoon moments in Mr. Rose’s career, I’m going to lift some of the info from his entry on the Spill‘s  “New Yorker Cartoonist A-Z” section: 

this collection contains essays by Rose on cartoon themes. Especially of interest is his essay concerning Harold Ross, “An Artist’s Best Friend is His Editor”. Carl Rose will forever be linked to E.B. White for the December 8, 1928 New Yorker cartoon of the mother saying to her child, “It’s broccoli, dear.” and the child responding, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.” The drawing was by Rose, the caption was adapted by White from Rose’s original idea (for a slighty expanded explanation go here). Rose also had a Thurber connection. In 1932, Rose submitted a drawing captioned, “Touche!” of two fencers, one of whom has just cut off the head of the other. Harold Ross ( according to Thurber in The Years With Ross) thinking the Rose version “too bloody” suggested Thurber do the drawing because “Thurber’s people have no blood. You can put their heads back on and they’re as good as new.” The drawing appeared December 3, 1932.

One last thing about Carl Rose: there aren’t a lot of photographs of him around but when Irving Penn (whose work is now being celebrated at New York’s  Metropolitan Museum), photographed a number of The New Yorker‘s artists in 1947 for a spread in Vogue, an unassuming looking Carl Rose was right up there on the top-most platform with Otto Soglow and Alajalov, seated just behind Charles Addams. Among the others in the photo: Steinberg, Steig, Helen Hokinson, George Price, Richard Taylor, Perry Barlow, Barney Tobey,  Barbara Shermund and Whitney Darrow, Jr. —  an array, if ever there was one, of New Yorker cartoonist royalty. 

Getting back to Mr. Rose’s colleagues work appearing in the April issue, the magazine was, in 1967, still laying-out the cartoons with the graphic gusto it always had: a beautiful full page by O’Brien , an equally beautiful half-page Warren Miller drawing;  other drawings were run in various shapes and sizes.  The subject matter seemed to be bridging the older New Yorker art with the new: businessmen and housewives appear, as do people dealing with obviously modern cultural keystones such as  long-haired men and  hip young woman;  personal computers courtesy of Donald Reilly and  politics via Lee Lorenz, whose drawing depicts Robert Kennedy photo bombing a couples vacation picture. Dana Fradon’s drawing, about recharging electric cars,  could’ve run in modern times.  Needless to say (so why am I saying it?) that the issue was a blast to look through.  The cartoonists were in top form, providing us with a lot, a whole lot, to look at. As Jack Ziegler told me in an interview last year:  “…it’s always nice when cartoonists know how to draw so that they can give us something pleasant and fun to look at.”

 

 

 

Cartoonist Photos via Mike Lynch

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a fun way to end the week: browsing through all 14 of the Cartoonist Photo links on  Mike Lynch’s blog.  Part 14 is up today, with links to the other 13 parts following the post. There are a small number of New Yorker cartoonists throughout — here are just three:  left to right: William Steig, Sid Harris, and Steinberg.