Al Ross: 1911 – 2012

 

The New York Times has reported that New Yorker cartoonist Al Ross has died.    Al, who was 100, easily held the title of most senior member of this cadre. He contributed over six hundred drawings to the magazine, from November 27, 1937 through February 18, 2002.

 

There were a number of veteran cartoonists who warmly welcomed me when I first began at The New Yorker.  Al Ross was one of them.  For a kid (I was 24) who suddenly found himself socializing with the magazine’s legendary cartoonists, Al’s upbeat vibe and amused expression was the perfect tonic for freshman insecurity. Al didn’t wear his seniority on his sleeve –- his warmth was inclusive, uncomplicated, and genuine.

 

If it wasn’t enough that Al was a great guy, he was also a superb cartoonist with a style to die for.  His fluid line, and the humor it incorporated seemed effortless.  Many cartoonists resemble their work and Al was no exception; he carried himself as his characters carried themselves on paper; he, and they, seemed always in motion (heck, even his signature seemed in a hurry).

 

The first time I met him, at a party following a gallery exhibit of New Yorker cartoons, I was leaving, heading into an elevator and he was coming out, about to throw himself into the throng. He paused to shake hands, and delivered what I’d see again and again whenever we ran into each other: a welcoming smile.

 

I interviewed Al back in 1999 as part of my research for the Peter Arno biography I’d just begun.  He told me, with much amusement, that he’d once been in room full of cartoonists, and overheard Arno say to colleague, “Where do half these guys get off calling themselves cartoonists?”   The last time I saw Al, at an exhibit of New Yorker cartoons, I was arriving and he was leaving. As he headed out the door, he paused and turned back to the room. Smiling broadly, he said with an air of mock sincerity, “‘Where do half these guys get off calling themselves cartoonists?”

 

 

Making a Splash at Esquire

 

 

 

 

I found something I was looking for the other day: a log of cartoons I kept in my nascent years of cartooning.  Looking through I realized that the only drawings I sold in the Fall of 1977 — right after breaking into The New Yorker — were to Esquire. During that year Esquire was being retooled by its new owner, Clay Felker, whose long career in magazine publishing included founding New York magazine.

Following the purchase of five of my cartoons, I was summoned uptown to Esquire’s offices to meet Clay Felker and Milton Glaser, who was redesigning the magazine. I don’t know why I was called in –- my memory is that it was a meet and greet and not really a meeting about cartoons. The old Esquire had a long history of publishing cartoons; the current thinking must’ve been that they’d continue the tradition.

Sometime after my meeting, I received, via mail, the bought cartoons.  The legendary Harvey Kurtzman ( their cartoon editor, I suppose – it wasn’t made clear to me) included notes for me to follow as I did finishes for what the editors assumed were rough drawings (I thought they were already finished).   Harvey had taped tracing paper over the drawings with his penciled edit instructions pointing to the required changes.  He also told me I needed to put overlays on my work and add some kind of ink as wash (he was precise about the ink, I just don’t remember what it was called).  I’d never heard of overlays, but my local art supply store was more than happy to sell me some. I was in the process of learning what to do with these overlays and the inky substance when word came to me that Esquire had decided not to use cartoons after all. Although there was the following in the notification: “We will continue to run cartoon material, such as strips and an occasional feature…” the Esquire single panel cartoon was history.

I must’ve sent some of my overlay attempts back to Esquire — only one remains in my files. I include it here, with and without the overlay. I’m still not sure what that red inky stuff is that I splashed all over the overlay. Whatever it was, it was more than I could handle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bad Batch

 

 

In a recent exchange of emails with a couple of fellow cartoonists the subject of the weekly batch of drawings came up.  It’s not an unusual topic between cartoonists, as the batch is what binds us all together, weekly.  The batch — “the batch” referring to the drawings you come up with and then submit to the New Yorker — is your grab for the golden ring, or, when things don’t go well, your ball and chain.  Without the batch you have no shot at The New Yorker (you gotta be in it to win it!), and sadly, sometimes (or most times) even with the batch, you still don’t have much of a shot.

Every cartoonist has their own system of approaching Tuesdays, when the batch is sent in, or brought in to the magazine’s offices.  On Tuesday mornings I take a long hard look at the work I’ve done all week and decide which of the new drawings are worthy to submit. Usually a few –- or on really bad days, more than a few — don’t make the cut.  Either a drawing suddenly seems nonsensical, or not quite “there” or just plain awful.  How could it be that a drawing that seemed so promising one day appears so worthless the next?  I don’t know –- all I know is that it happens on a regular basis.

The awful drawings are never submitted.  Instead they’re  placed into a folder I’ve labeled  “Bad Batch” – it’s my cartoon Siberia, or perhaps, cartoon Hell.  I’ve rarely looked through that folder, but when I have, I’ve found myself saying, “And you call yourself a cartoonist!”

Perhaps, for me, the most interesting thing about this folder is why it exists. If a piano falls on me tomorrow, do I really want my children seeing these?

It may be that the Bad Batch exists as a reminder.  The drawings within are the very bottom of my barrel full of monkeys (sorry, couldn’t resist). They are the product of muse-less days. I don’t need to look at these awful drawings -– just knowing they’re there is inspiration enough.

 

 

The Last Man Sitting

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sixty-six years ago this month James Thurber’s last original cartoon appeared in The New Yorker (the issue of March 23, 1946). Now before I get sympathetic emails telling me I’m woefully misinformed, and that Thurber’s drawings were appearing in the magazine well into the late 1950s, let me explain:

By the late 1940s Thurber had lost nearly all of his sight (he told Harvey Breit in a New York Times Magazine interview in 1949 that it had been a couple of years since he’d drawn and that he’d “practically given it up”).  Facing the sad prospect that there’d be no more Thurber cartoons appearing in The New Yorker, Thurber friend and New Yorker writer, Peter DeVries, suggested to Harold Ross that a great way to continue publishing Thurber drawings would be to take some of his already published drawings and add new captions (supplied, of course, by Thurber).  Ross loved this idea, and began running these hybrids with the September 11, 1948 issue.  The freshly captioned drawings ran until February 12, 1949 (and that last was a composite of two previously run Thurber drawings). Spot drawings, often edited from their original appearance, continued to appear until December 13, 1958.  The very last original Thurber drawing to appear in the magazine was a spot  of two men boxing (November 1, 1947).

That brings me back to the March 23, 1946 drawing/cartoon (whichever you prefer).  A man and a woman are sitting on a couch and the woman says, “Your faith is really more disturbing than my atheism.” By happenstance — or was it planned? — the man in this very last original cartoon is undoubtedly a self portrait.  Thurber had drawn himself many times before (and would draw himself one last time for publication – that appeared on the cover of Time in July of 1951), but how serendipitous that the last Thurber man standing (in this case sitting) in his last wholly original published  New Yorker cartoon would be Thurber himself.

 

Sources:

Bowden, Edwin T., James Thurber: A Bibliography, Ohio State University Press, 1968.

Breit, Harvey, The New York Times, “Mr. Thurber observes a serene birthday,”  December 4, 1949.

Kinney, Harrison, Thurber: His Life and Times,  Henry Holt, pages 898 -902.