Anatomy of a Cartoon: Robert Leighton on His Escher Cartoon in This Week’s New Yorker


The last time Ink Spill singled out a particular New Yorker cartoon it was Bob Eckstein’s  terrific 3-D Thanksgiving drawing in the issue of November 26,  2012.  There are always a good number of drawings in each issue of the magazine that should be applauded, but every so often one of them deserves a standing ovation.  Robert Leighton’s drawing (above) in the February 4, 2013 issue is one of those.   I’m sure we’ll be seeing it in New Yorker anthologies for years to come.


Robert, whose first New Yorker cartoon appeared in the issue of December 9, 2002,  is a puzzle writer as well as a cartoonist.  He, along with two partners founded the puzzle-writing company, Puzzability, which authored The New Yorker Book of Cartoon Puzzles and Games (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2006) with introductions by Will Shortz, and Bob Mankoff.


I asked Robert if he’d mind telling us about the Escher drawing, as well as giving us an idea of how he came to be a New Yorker cartoonist.  He was kind enough to provide an early rough drawing of the piece as well as the sketch he sent in to the magazine as part of his weekly batch.


So here’s Robert, first on his journey to becoming a New Yorker cartoonist, and then, following the rough sketch (Fig. 1) and submitted drawing (Fig. 2), he talks about how the Escher drawing came to be:


I owe my New Yorker career to Ping-Pong.

I had submitted cartoons in the early 80s, but only got rejection slips—never even an encouraging note. I had no idea what I was doing, and was submitting cartoons about businessmen and cocktails parties that I myself understood only about as well as I understood most of what I saw in The New Yorker.


I might never have even submitted again. But one day 20 years later my phone rang and Bob Mankoff was on the other end. Fortunately he explained who he was—I didn’t know the guy with the dots was the cartoon editor.


Every week, Bob explained, he plays Ping-Pong (I believe it’s technically table tennis) with Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword editor. Will and I go way back to when I was an assistant editor (and resident cartoonist) at Games magazine in the 80s. Now, Bob was thinking it might be nice for the New Yorker’s 2002 Cartoon Issue to have some sort of interactive cartoon-centric puzzle. He mentioned the idea to Will, who said, “You should speak to Robert Leighton—he’s a cartoonist and a puzzle writer.”


So Bob brought me in to talk about puzzles, not cartoons. I showed him a number of relevant puzzles that I had done for Games, including one in which eight captionless gags had their visual “punchlines” removed and placed elsewhere on the page. Bob said “These are good cartoons. Who did them?” I told them I had, and he encouraged me to start submitting regularly. I don’t think I’ve skipped a week since then.


P.S. Some years later my partners and I did an entire book, “The New Yorker Book of Cartoon Puzzles and Games,” in which the drawings, captions, and history of New Yorker cartoons are all turned into puzzles. The introduction is a very interesting conversation between Bob and Will, discussing the juncture of puzzles and cartoons. (The “Aha!” moment and the “Ha!” moment, essentially.)


 (Below: Fig. 1. the rough sketch)



( Below: Fig. 2.  the submitted drawing)


The Escher cartoon just popped into my head all at once–caption and picture. If there was any “inspiration” for it, then it might be because my main job (if you can call it that) is puzzle-writer. So my visual side is as predisposed to optical illusions as my verbal side is to wordplay.


Looking at my first rough sketch of the idea again, the main difference I notice is that if I had submitted it like this, it probably would have been too subtle.  People might not have noticed what was going on. Before I tightened it up to submit it, I lengthened the “trick” beam so that it crossed in front of one of the verticals. Now it’s instantly clear that there’s something wrong. (I like the shouting guy in the rough version a lot better, though—he’s got more energy than the finished version. Although maybe he’s a little too cartoony. I never know with these things.)


I was confident enough of this idea to put it at the top of the batch I submitted that week. They skipped it the first time they saw it but I resubmitted it three months later and that’s when it sold.


I remember debating with myself whether or not to use a ruler when it came time to ink the final version. I prefer my drawings to have a more casual feel, so I often use a ruler when I’m working out the perspective but then I ink over those lines freehand so they have more life. (I’m awful with perspective and struggle to make my drawings feel at all solid.) There are so many long, straight lines in this drawing that I decided if I did the whole thing freehand it would look sloppy by the time I was done. And this had to look solid to give the sense that, yes, he really built it that way.

Danny Shanahan: The Ink Spill Interview

Danny Shanahan,  Rhinebeck, NY,  January 2013  (Photo by Michael Maslin)


This year Danny Shanahan  celebrates the 25th anniversary of his first contribution to The New Yorker (the issue of September 19, 1988). He’s in that small group of the magazine’s cartoonists who’ve done just about everything that can be done in The New Yorker, cartoon-wise: spreads, single panel cartoons, covers,  and illustrations.

I’ve known Danny since he burst on The New Yorker scene in the Fall of 1988 — we met in the grand ballroom of The Pierre Hotel while attending the magazine’s anniversary party. Not too long after that Danny and his new family moved upstate to the town where my wife, Liza Donnelly and I had settled.

Having Danny ten minutes away has makes socializing a cinch;  we meet at a local coffee shop every so often where we discuss what most cartoonists discuss when they get together: work, The New Yorker, other cartoonists, The New Yorker, etc., etc.

On the occasion of his taking over the magazine’s Daily Cartoon I thought it would be fun to meet up with him electronically for a change and so I sent him a few questions to answer.




So how’s the Daily Cartoon assignment going for you?


It’s been going real well. I didn’t realize how much fun it would be

to write and draw with such immediate topicality. It can be a

challenge, especially at this time of year, but I’m enjoying it.




How has it changed your daily routine (assuming you have a daily routine)? Can you talk a little about what it’s like to work on a daily deadline as opposed to the usual weekly New Yorker deadline.


It’s changed my routine quite a bit, but for the better, I think. I try to work at least one weekend day, so I can send in 5 or 6 drawings by Sunday night or Monday morning; that gives me the luxury of responding quickly to breaking news during the week. The only problem has been, at times, the difficulty of deciding whether or not an idea would be better saved for the weekly batch or sent in quickly for a daily.




Looking at your Daily Cartoon work, the first thing that really stands out is that you’re not using wash  but are working in a  Thurber / Gardner Rea / Nurit Karlin school of ink line.   Any particular reason for the different look?


The real reason for no wash is expediency; I can get more pieces done and submitted much quicker. My roughs are quite finished, anyway, and are often published “as is” in other publications. Of course, the pay per cartoon is far less, which is also a consideration.




The Daily Cartoon, though new to The New Yorker’s site, seems to have a format, i.e. it’s tied in to commenting on current events.  Do you feel as if this is something you need to think about when working on ideas for it, or do you just do whatever you want to do?


I feel that I most definitely have to hone in on specific current events, but that there’s also always broader areas: seasons, weather, holidays, sports, etc. They’re also somewhat specific, but nothing different than what I’ve been doing for years.




How’s the cartooning world treating you otherwise?  Any projects to mention?


Don’t have a lot in the pipeline right now, other than the website. I do keep dreaming of some sort of memoir, now that I’ve been with The New Yorker for 25 years. It’s a nice, round number. I see it as a completely fictitious account of my time at the magazine, full of slander, violence, intrigue, and bad blood. And then Tarantino buys the film rights.



I know you’ve been working on your website. How’s that coming along?


The website will launch any day now…..Any day……



Finally, any Daily Cartoon regrets?


Well. maybe it’s a “grass is always greener” thing, but I wouldn’t mind having another shot at the daily cartoon during a different time of year. Maybe a time of Spring, Baseball, and Taxes, or a time of Beaches, Baseball, and Heatwaves. Of course, there’s always Back-to-School, Baseball, and Halloween. Sometimes it just seems like not much happens in January…


A bout with flu has kept Ink Spill out of commission for a number of days, but things should be back to normal soon.  Coming soon: an Ink Spill interview with Danny Shanahan.

New Book: John Updike’s Early Years



Just out from Jack De Bellis, John Updike’s Early Years (Lehigh University Press).  The author is responsible for a number of books on Updike, including a two volume bibliography as well as The John Updike Encyclopedia.  As Updike fans likely know, he was intent on being a cartoonist in his younger days.