After checking in on today’s Attempted Bloggery post about Barbara Shermund (it features some of Ms. Shermund’s post-New Yorker work — the look she honed in Esquire, among other publications), I began wondering when her style shifted from what it looked like in her peak New Yorker years to the Esquire look.
A quick dig into the New Yorker archives revealed that her Esquire look was barely present as Ms. Shermund’s work ended for the magazine. You can see a little of it developing in the definition of faces, but her command of a scene, of the page, of the drawing is all intact as she ends her run of 600 cartoons (plus 8 covers) with the issue of September 16, 1944. Her last New Yorker cartoon, shown above, may not be the very best example, but it’ll do.
To refresh my recollection of Shermund’s New Yorker career I turned to the obvious source, Liza Donnelly’s Funny Ladies (Prometheus Books, 2005). It is a must-have New Yorker cartoon history book (and I would say that even if we weren’t husband and wife). Ms. Donnelly’s section on Ms. Shermund is fascinating reading. According to Donnelly, Shermund began at the New Yorker doing spot illustrations, but was soon encouraged to “write lines under [her] drawings.” Her first captioned drawing appeared in June of 1925, just five months after the New Yorker began publishing. After a stuttered beginning with her next three drawings (the three appeared over eight months time), her work then exploded in numbers, seemingly appearing every other week and sometimes every week. 600 drawings in less than twenty years is quite a feat — my bad math tells me her work appeared in more than half of all the issues from 1925 through 1944.
Her style shifted over that time as you’d find with most cartoonists styles. She settled into perfection in the 1930s and 1940s, both in her captions (she wrote all of her own captions for the majority of her New Yorker work — “I used to eat and sleep ideas”) and the drawing itself.
Fascinating to me is her relationship to gag-writing. She is quoted in Donnelly’s book as saying she really wanted help after awhile — “I would beg them to give me an idea once in awhile” — because of the editorial demand for her work (shades of Peter Arno there). From the school of careful what you wish for, she had this to say once she began taking ideas from a particular gag-writer:
“Well, my downfall, in respect to ideas — he kept submitting ideas and I thought it was fun not to have to worry about them.”
In the Fall of 1944, the New Yorker suddenly ceased publishing Shermund’s drawings. Esquire, with its editorial needs so different than the New Yorker‘s became her main stage. As Ms. Donnelly notes:
“When [Shermund] got to Esquire, her work became transparently sexual. and her women were transformed to sweet airheads.”
With Esquire, Shermund’s work morphed in full to the kind of drawing style you see in today’s Attempted Bloggery post. It would take access to Esquire’s archives to witness the change. What we see in her last year of New Yorker work are just the faintest hints of what’s to come.
A Reminder: There is currently a Barbara Shermund exhibit up and running at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, “Tell Me A Story Where The Bad Girl Wins: The Life And Art Of Barbara Shermund” — Details here!