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.

Michael Maslin: So it took you 609 attempts at trying to sell a cartoon to The New Yorker? Was that 609 drawings submitted, or 609 weeks of submitting?

Tom Toro: It was 609 individual drawings submitted over the course of three years.  Since I was a newbie, and I had no publishing track record up to that point, I drew finished cartoons, not just pitches.  Painted, touched-up, the whole shebang.  My style is fairly intricate, dare I say artful, so it took an incredible amount of time and energy.  When I reflect on how difficult those years were and how hopeless it felt at times, I have to close my eyes and think of something more pleasant like dying of thirst.  I only know that it took 609 tries because I save scans of every cartoon organized and dated on a hard drive. Immediately after landing my first sale I went back and tallied all the rejects.  Maybe it was masochism.  Or maybe it was a roundabout way of acknowledging those failed ideas that had brought me to this moment of triumph, and to say thank you, losers.   

(Left: Submission #610: Tom Toro’s 1st New Yorker drawing, published August 9, 2010)

MM: This is a busy year for you: two books: Tiny Hands, and a forthcoming memoir; your work appears in The New Yorker as well as in Playboy (and this comes as we were all barely getting used to the idea Playboy would no longer run cartoons). I see you also have a cartoon in the second Resist! Anthology. You seem to be riding a wave.  Do you feel that way or is this just the life of a cartoonist?

TT: Gosh, when you put it like that my career sounds pretty good!  Funny how things look from the outside and how they feel from within.  It’s an endless struggle.  You grow so accustomed to failure as an artist that it can become difficult to appreciate the successes.  I find myself distrustful of boom times.  Because, on balance, rejection is the rule and acceptance is the exception.  Hey, I’ve got a business proposal for you: it’s an amazing new product that only works 1% of the time.  Care to make an investment?  That’s basically what being a cartoonist means; you almost never hit the mark and you only get rewarded for an insanely small fraction of the work you do.  No wonder we take victory with a grain of salt.  There’s a quote from Samuel Beckett, who, by the way, won the Nobel Prize in Literature: “I’ve experienced success and failure in my career, and I’ve always felt more at home in the latter.” (Paraphrasing.)  I’m not as addicted to misery as Beckett, or as brilliant at mining it for gems, but I do share his sentiment. 

You brought up my forthcoming memoir Yes, The Planet Got Destroyed (Or: How I Learned to Cartoon Through Catastrophe), due out from Dock Street Press in 2018.  It deals with my struggle to break into The New Yorker while battling suicidal depression.  I tried to kill myself back in 2007, at what was obviously a very low point in my mid-twenties, but the attempt failed and instead I found myself living back at home, in the same house where I grew up, totally clueless about what to do next.  So like any reasonable person in those circumstances, I started cartooning.  My publisher tells me that for all the juicy details you’ll need to buy the book.  But my point is, I’m manic-depressive.  I go on productive sprees but then I have trouble enjoying the fruits of my labor.  Is this a good year? Sure. Am I happy? Hell no.

MM: You said this life as a cartoonist is, “… an endless struggle” — I bet a lot of our colleagues would agree. I wonder if the struggle is part of the fuel for us. In other words, would working be less interesting if it was all green lights ahead?

TT: We’re all flagellants to a certain degree.  I think the rejection and suffering is a perversely attractive part of the job.  If anything, it forges a community of survivors.  We’re all pushing that boulder up the hill together, shoulder to shoulder, over and over and over again.  Which is why I think it’s important that The New Yorker maintain the most rigorous, virtually unattainable standards of quality.  The title “New Yorker cartoonist” only means something if the cartoons are the absolute best.  However, it’s also necessary for the contributing artists to get cut a little slack now and then.  You simply can’t restart your career at Square One every single week.  It’s unsustainable.  Once you’re in, you’re in.  You’ve proven yourself.  You won’t get lost in the mix of thousands of new submissions that pour into the department.  I will say this: doing the Daily Cartoon, including the Trump ones featured in my new book TINY HANDS (let’s not forget to plug the book!), was no less gratifying because what I drew was guaranteed to be published the next day.  In fact, it was pretty damn liberating.   

MM: Tiny Hands is an interesting collection for many reasons — we’ll try to get to all of them. Had you drawn Trump before your New Yorker Daily Cartoon series began?

TT: I had one Trump cartoon published in The New Yorker prior to my stint on the Daily Cartoon, and toward the end of the campaign when things were really getting nasty I drew a few diatribes to post on social media.  Fight fire with fire, amirite?

MM: I think cartoon aficionados will enjoy the way you have structured Tiny Hands with rough sketches for each drawing shown next to the finished drawing.  What was your thinking behind that?

TT: If I recall correctly, my thinking was something like, I need to pad out this book!  But seriously, I love seeing the creative process.  I believe most people do.  On Instagram I post short videos of the progress of my cartoons from sketch, to pitch, to finish, instead of just showing the published drawing.  Those have been pretty popular.  So that’s what gave me the idea.  But with these Trump cartoons in Tiny Hands there’s an added bonus of getting to see early drafts that were too risky for publication.  For example, the one in which Secret Service agents are pouring over a map marked KGB and saying, “We mapped out the Trump motorcade route to the White House,” the sketch on the facing page shows that my original idea was for the route to spell KKK.  Which is equally valid, in my opinion.  But it’s unlikely to pass editorial muster.  For me that was the trickiest part of lampooning Trump: dialing it down.  Toeing the invective line.  He’s such a revolting human being who does such unforgivable things and provokes such a visceral response — I had to constantly remind myself to go with the cleverest joke, not the cruelest.  In other words, to do what Trump himself is incapable of doing.

MM: Looking through the book I see some instances of more going on in certain faces than what I’ve come to know as the Toro way of handling cartoon characters. The way you draw Trump, for example, with a complex series of lines and folds.  Are we seeing your style changing within this Daily series? 

TT: In political cartoons, the public figures need to be identifiable at a glance, so I had to adjust my drawing style to make a recognizable Trump, Spicer, Bannon, or Elizabeth Warren.  Thank goodness for Google images. The  Daily Cartoon is  unique because it’s a hybrid of political cartoons and, of course, New Yorker cartoons, which means that they’re more topical and pointed than what appears in the magazine but they still hew to the same standards of artistry.  For example, there are no name tags or labels.  You won’t see a “Corporate CEO” stepping on the neck of a “Labor Union.”  Everything has to be communicated through the image in a naturalistic way, as if the scene might actually happen in reality.  Well, sort of.  Could a bowl of mushy oranges and dead canaries resemble Donald Trump, and would his advisor accidentally debrief it in the Oval Office?  Probably not.  But the way I drew it makes the situation believable, if only for a nanosecond, without the aid of explanatory labels.  I also used color to boost the humor, taking advantage of Trump’s clownish orange spray tan and his urine-dyed hairdo.  (That’s why his comb-over is so yellow, right?  It’s saturated in pee-pee?)  Traditionally the magazine doesn’t allow cartoonists to use color, although that’s changed in recent years, and I found it amusing to make Trump stand out like a sore thumb.  He’s a pariah, after all.  Whether this marks a change in my cartooning style, I’m not sure.  My typical character remains a deadpan bystander, cat-like in their lack of facial expression, because it makes the joke funnier.  Readers aren’t told how to interpret the moment by the character reactions. Rather, the readers’ own reactions are imprinted upon the scene.  I do want to continue to evolve as an artist and I’m always on the lookout for techniques to shamelessly rob from the masters of the craft, but it’s always in the service of humor.  Whatever makes the cartoon funnier, I’m all for it.

MM: I agree with you that learning (i.e. “robbing” here and there) from the masters “in the service of humor” is the way to go. Do you find yourself consciously trying to evolve — do you work against routine and formula? 

TT: I should probably be more strategic with how I improve my skills as a cartoonist, but right now it’s left to chance.  Whatever collection I happen to discover in a used bookstore, whoever’s work I stumble across and take a shine to, that sort of thing.  I tend to make alterations when I get bored with my own work.  The same faces, bodies, outfits, living rooms, Medieval dungeons can only stare back at me from the page for so long until I’m desperate for a change.  Then I’ll grab a book of Shel Silverstein’s work, for instance, and pilfer his style of drawing a bare foot.  It’s important to not get stuck in a stylistic rut.  William Steig changed enormously during his time at The New Yorker.  So did Addams, actually; his very first cartoons were pen-and-ink, minus the iconic dark wash.  Now, on the other hand, there is value in having a recognizable brand.  Readers know immediately that they’re looking at a Bruce Eric Kaplan cartoon, or a Roz Chast.  Very few people bother to read the masthead, or even the signatures on the cartoons, and yet they can pick out their favorite artists at a glance.  I want to evolve, but I also want to retain (or rather strive to attain) a consistent presence in the magazine.           

MM: One of our New Yorker colleagues, Danny Shanahan has said to me that doing Trump drawings is like working with a gag writer because he keeps supplying material.  You say essentially the same thing in your Tiny Hands Introduction.  So what was that like: working with the President of the United States?

TT: Well, I did it for two months, so I lasted longer than Michael Flynn. It’s a total horror show.  There’s no way to live in proximity with pure evil and not feel contaminated.  I entered into the job reluctantly, as a matter of fact.  Immediately following the election I went on a media blackout.  No radio, no TV, no news.  I just couldn’t bear to acknowledge that our country is capable of electing a monster.  (Which is another way of saying that I’m a sheltered white dude who hadn’t yet realized that our government has always been populated with racist, sexist monsters.  Wake up, Tom!)  But I knew that burying my head in the sand would eventually cause suffocation, so I decided to emerge and engage. 

I made plans to do an illustrated piece covering the ignoble Inauguration.  But then Bob [Bob Mankoff, who was the New Yorker’s cartoon editor until May of this year] asked if I’d take over the Daily Cartoon.  Since I’d already booked my ticket to DC, I had to draw the first week’s jokes ahead of time.  While I was on the ground in Washington, soaking up the funereal atmosphere, The New Yorker posted my Trump cartoons on social media and they went viral.  I was caught off-guard by how ravenous people were for political satire, especially at that terrible moment with Trump actually taking the oath of office.  It was sobering but also invigorating.  I’d been given a mission.  I could use the Daily Cartoon to hit back at Trump’s reign of terror.  And he certainly never failed to provide ample comedic fodder.  Danny Shanahan is right — drawing Trump is like working with a gag writer.  But a gag writer who comes up with wildly inappropriate material, so your entire job is to take what’s heinous and to make it hilarious.  I think I speak for all political satirists when I say that we’ll be glad when our awful coworker is finally fired.  

MM:  Are you trying to “say something” (political or otherwise) in your cartoons, or are you amusing yourself?  Both? Neither? Something else?

TT: One of the things I learned early on is that trying to say something is the worst way of saying something.  Gag cartoons need a gag.  If the joke doesn’t land then nothing else matters.  Political messages or personal agendas aren’t very amusing, as a rule.  In Tiny Hands, for example (see how I pivoted to the book there?), I couldn’t just have a bunch of cartoons screaming, “Fuck Donald Trump, he’s a lying racist idiot!” even if that’s my underlying point.  I need to invent a clever twist in each panel that earns a laugh, and only then will it be open for further interpretation.  If a gag is solid, it can support a greater meaning.  But everything stems from the gag.  Or as Bob Mankoff put it so well, “If something is worth saying, it’s worth saying funny.”

 MM: One of the drawings felt very Charles Addams-like:

“It’s…it’s…it’s learning to appear vaguely Presidential!”

Were you thinking along the lines of an Addams Family- like world when you came up with this…i.e, “…creepy…kooky, mysterious and spooky…altogether ooky…?”

 

TT: The short answer is no. The long answer is nope. Perhaps Addams was lurking in my subconscious, but it wasn’t intentional.  I’m very flattered by the association!  Charles Addams is my idol and if I can even get close to touching the furthest reaches of his cartoon cosmos I’ll be a happy camper. 

MM: Can you elaborate on why Addams is so important to you? Were there, are there other cartoon idols?

TT: I adore Addams for many reasons. His style, his sense of humor, his success.  Those lush, lavish compositions are the criterion of what great cartoons can be.  And they weren’t just showy; they amplified the jokes.  His Gothic gags demanded those dense, detailed, moody drawings.  Addams is prime example of form following function.  His style is inseparable from his jokes.  One heightens the other.  In that way he crafted a totally unique voice, an entire universe.  The same can be said of Saul Steinberg, for example, who’s on the opposite end of the cartoon spectrum, but I find myself less attracted to minimalists.  I realize this puts me at odds with a majority of cartoonists, including most of the recent additions to the New Yorker ranks who all seem to prefer sketchier drawings.  But personally, I’m impressed by toil.  It shouldn’t obscure the joke or be apparent in the finished artwork, of course.  All fingerprints must be smoothed away.  No one can argue that Addams’ humor is dulled by the richness of his compositions, and yet after the laugh you’re then given an enormous gift: a work of art to gaze into and explore.  It’s marvelous.  Then, of course, there’s Addams’ unparalleled success.  He transcended the world of cartoons to conquer TV, Broadway, cinema.  He must be the most influential cultural figure The New Yorker cartoon department has ever produced.  What’s not to admire about that?  I take inspiration from other cartoonists as well.  Price, Booth, Ziegler, Taylor, Watterson, Larson, Kliban, to name just a few.  I’m swayed by anyone whose collection I’ve read most recently.  I’m a very impressionable lad.      

MM: I want to talk to you briefly about your now seven year long New Yorker career.  Before your work was accepted by the magazine, did you have notions of what it might be like once you were a New Yorker cartoonist?  If so, how does the reality differ than the preconceived notion, or notions?

TT: Before I broke in, I assumed that cartooning for The New Yorker was an actual job that paid commensurate to the cartoons’ importance and prestige within the magazine.  Whoops.

MM: Where did you ever get that idea?

TT: Ha!  Are you really asking me?  Well, I did a lot of Internet stalking when I was trying to break in, and no cartoonist’s bio that I come across had the phrase, “Cartoonist for The New Yorker, and short order chef at Denny’s.”  It was always just New Yorker cartoonist, period.  So the impression was that it’s a career.  A genuine job title.  But only after I broke in did I realize that it’s just one small slice of the freelancer’s income pie.  Which is the second least appetizing pie next to key lime.

MM: Generally speaking, New Yorker cartoonists are uneasy with change at the magazine.  When Bob Mankoff was replaced by Emma Allen as cartoon editor this past Spring, there was a lot of hand-wringing among our colleagues. Were you, are you a hand-wringer? Or are you more a go-with-the-flow kind of person?

TT: Was there a lot of hand-wringing?  That’s understandable.  Being a contributor from the hinterlands of Missouri, I’m not privy to the palace intrigue that goes on at 1 World Trade Center. I owe Bob my career, he gave me my big break (even if it resulted in a healthy dose of disillusionment). He championed my work and lifted me from obscurity in the weekly sales meetings. Thank you, Bob! 

Looking ahead, I’m sure Emma will do a wonderful job.  The importance of having a female editor cannot be overstated.  Cartooning has been a boy’s club for far too long.  I will admit, however, that I’m a little uneasy at my own prospects going forward. Each editor elevates their favorite artists, and reshuffles the roster, and early indications are that I’m not among the preferred group.  But who knows. Things are still in flux.  Besides, plowing ahead in the face of adversity is my favorite pastime.

MM: What led to you to the point where you decided “I want to be a New Yorker cartoonist.”  Were you always attracted to the form, or was it something that came to you while working in other forms (writing, graphic novel, comic books, “fine art”, etc., etc.)?

TT: My decision to pursue cartooning for The New Yorker is very much tied up with my process of coping with depression.  I had just dropped out of NYU Graduate Film School, which I’d gotten into straight out of Yale, and then suddenly, after suffering a nervous breakdown and attempting suicide, I found myself back at home without a single ounce of self-esteem.  Slowly rebuilding myself from the ground up, both as a person and as an artist, became inextricably tied with finding my voice as a cartoonist.  It might sound crazy to say this, knowing what I know now, but cartooning seemed modest.  It seemed achievable.  What can I draw on this 8.5×11 inch piece of paper that communicates something in an amusing way?  I was also trying to excavate my sense of humor, which had been buried under an avalanche of self-doubt.  Luckily I didn’t come to the task totally unprepared.  I’d drawn comics as a kid.  For a while I’d even toyed with the idea of being a Disney animator.  In college I’d contributed cartoons to the weekly paper.  There was precedent.  But The New Yorker hadn’t entered my peripheral vision until I landed back at home.  The magazine was never part of our family culture.  We were very poor for a long time and most of the literature in our household came from what my dad would forage at the local recycling center. But then I encountered an issue of The New Yorker in the waiting room of my therapist’s office, appropriately enough, and seeing the cartoons was a real eye-opener.  In that context they were special, noble, smart.  And very, very funny.  I wanted to be a part of that world.            

MM: I love the story I’ve heard you tell about our late friend and colleague, Jack Ziegler (who passed away in March) browsing with you in a bookstore and finding a Booth collection at the bottom of a stack of books. Heading into your eighth year at the magazine, with over a hundred cartoons published in the magazine, you’re certainly part of the New Yorker cartoonist continuum —  what does that mean to you?

TT: Yes, that story about Jack is true.  We found a Booth collection, “Pussycats Need Love, Too,” on the bottom shelf and we both got down on our hands and knees to extract it.  Jack quipped, “This pretty much describes our relationship to George.”  

 If you’d tapped me on the shoulder a decade ago and said, hey, in ten years you’ll be talking with a New Yorker colleague  about your place in the continuum of New Yorker cartoonists, I’d have said, “You can time travel and THIS is what you chose to do?!”  No, in all seriousness, it means the world to me.  I’m not sure what I’d have done if I hadn’t gotten that first OK from Bob.  Maybe taken up glass blowing, or joined a cult?  Wait… now I’m trying to think really, really hard about what the difference is between New Yorker cartoonists and a cult… I’ll get back to you.  

A Favorite Five from Tom Toro:

Trump Trash Fire: This is a Daily Cartoon from my first week on the job. Its enthusiastic reception, and the biting wit of the visual gag, is what made me realize, “Huh, maybe I’m on to something here.”

 Elizabeth Warren: I’m proud of this one because it tackles two of my weakest points as an artist: caricature and lettering.

Big Lebowski: Whatever else happens in my life, I’ll always have published a joke about The Big Lebowski. Also, I like how this one breaks cartoon conventions by having a character say [Anything]. I’d never seen that done before in The New Yorker.

 

 

Memoir: You’re seeing this cartoon here for the first time! It was killed in cold blood back in 2012 when Non Sequitur did a similar gag before The New Yorker could publish mine.

 

Formalities: Sometimes you just gotta draw the hell out of it. Tip o’ the hat to Addams: lush detail and wash serving to heighten the joke. (The more formalities we see, the funnier it is.) Also, this is a good example of how there’s always one thing about a drawing I regret. I’ll never forgive myself for leaving the king’s crown unpainted.
 

Link here to Tom Toro’s website

Link here to Dock Street Press to read more about (and order) Tiny Hands

 

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