The past three months we’ve lost three giants in the New Yorker Cartoonists constellation: William Hamilton in April, Frank Modell in May and Anatol Kovarsky in June. Together they contributed just over 2,600 pieces (including covers) to the magazine, but of course it is immeasurable what they really gave in hours, days, months, and years of laying down magic on the cliché blank of piece of paper. I’ve often said that being a cartoonist is obviously not the kind of hard work you see being done by men and women building roads and bridges; cartoonists have their own wearying yet propulsive set of challenges; the thrill of finding just that right interaction of drawing and words to say exactly what you want to say. And along with that thrill is the weekly rejection of much of the work you do. We cartoonists get to live this unusual life of drawing what we want to draw and thinking what we want to think, but all along the way, week after week, we are also reminded that much of what we do is turned down, rejected. No matter — it’s part of the deal, my friend and colleague Jack Ziegler once said, we made with the devil.
The cartoonists we’ve lost this early part of the year were given the gift of lives mostly devoted to humor. Two of the three men, Modell and Kovarsky, published work during the editorship of Harold Ross, the man responsible for inventing The New Yorker. Hamilton arrived in 1965, just a few years shy of (Ross’s successor) William Shawn’s midway point as editor. All three artists worked under the magazine’s first Art Editor, James Geraghty and later under Geraghty’s successor, Lee Lorenz. (Kovarsky and Modell also worked under Rea Irvin, the magazine’s legendary Art Supervisor). Combined, they spent well over a hundred years contributing their work to The New Yorker.
Each of them let us participate in their worlds as played out in ink lines on the pages of the magazine. Hamilton, with his scrappy lines and unabashed use of black space, was a master of dissecting the look, the language, the culture of the wealthy; Kovarsky used his graceful disciplined line to put a sympathetic spotlight on the absurdities of modern living (and oftimes ancient living); Modell placed a giant banana peel underfoot of life’s everyday banalities. His drawings were as friendly as the man himself.
The best cartoonists – and these three were among the best — have an unstoppable gift: not-a-one of them boxed up their creativity once their time at The New Yorker, for whatever reason or reasons, had come to a close. As noted on this site yesterday, Kovarsky, at 97 years old, was still drawing just days before he passed away. Hamilton, taken too soon, was still very much at work before he died. And Modell was painting and drawing well into his upper 90s.
Go out of your way to find collections of work by any of these men, or simply look their work up online. I guarantee you’ll discover evergreens: work that is as fresh today as when it was created; work that will live on as long as there are cartoons. And while you’re laughing as you absorb their humorous worlds, give a thought to these three very fine fellows spending all those years with pens and pencils in hand toiling happily away.
[photos: from top left reading clockwise: William Hamilton, Frank Modell, and Anatol Kovarsky]