Michael Crawford has two cartoons in The New Yorker’s last issue of the year, but the one above really caught my eye. As I was lingering over and appreciating the drawing, I realized it was high time to check in with Michael and find out what he’s been up to, and if there was anything he’d care to say about that wonderful drawing, and maybe talk a little baseball.
Michael Maslin: Michael, besides it being just a darn good drawing, your just divorced cartoon has an abundant amount of life and play to it. It almost looks like it’s animated. Did it begin less animated? What was going through your mind when you drew it?
Michael Crawford: Thanks for the compliment, Michael. I was thinking of a weekend I spent riding a bike with a friend in San Francisco at the turn of the century.
MM: I’ve spoken with a number of people, cartoonists and non-cartoonists, who wonder about your marker style. Where did that come from? And why markers — why not wash or pencil?
MC: An architect friend of mine gave me a box one birthday. Perfect on copy paper. Wash works better on heavyweight papers which I don’t use for cartoons. I did No.8 pencil sketches for The New Yorker for awhile. I liked it. Kinda smeary. Might go back to it.
MM: You’ve been contributing to The New Yorker since June of 1984 – so you’re heading into your 30th year. What was your journey to the magazine?
MC: Sold the first one in ’81 – Shawn [New Yorker Editor, William Shawn] didn’t get around to running it til ’83. The “journey” involved a lot of baseball, writing English papers for cash for people in college, intermittent dating, valet parking and running errands for a big deal D.C. pollster, an ill-advised “teaching” stint at a derelict Vermont “academy” for Led Zeppelin zealots, A beautiful family with a wife and 2 kids at various encampments in and around Boston and a lot of illustration work for The Washington Post and a ton of Boston area publications. It was fun.
Eventually, started peppering The New Yorker with gags around 1975 and Whoosh! Before you knew it, it was 1981 and I had my first New Yorker check (for a grand 400 clams I think it was). Shawn ran a total of 6 between ’83 and the year he departed. Once Bob Gottlieb [Robert Gottlieb was William Shawn’s successor as editor] took over, the buy rate increased.
MM: Shawn was tough on you.
MC: Shawn had his reasons for glacial, as we all know. Tina [Robert Gottlieb’s successor as New Yorker editor]was relentlessly cordial, encouraging and welcoming of spread ideas.
MM: You mentioned baseball before. When your name comes up in conversation, the subject of baseball is never too far behind.
MC: Baseball was life for me, from the beginning. Never passionate about anything like that as a kid– just playing the game, everyday– catch, pepper, pickup games at the park, monkey in the middle in the street at dusk out in front of the house or wiffle ball in a parking lot, for awhile, bent, crumpled milk cartons serving as wiffle balls. Eventually 3 years in little league, ‘bout the same in Babe Ruth, Made the varsity as a freshman 2d baseman in high school. 4 years against insanely good country boys’ pitching in towns like Altmar, Parish, Pulaski, N.Y.. Did I mention all-consuming!
Whole slew of teammates, fellow players over time, coaches too who became friends. And then poof! My folks nixed my plans of going off to a southern school (Mississippi State, Arizona State, etc.) with great baseball programs. But fortunately, soon enough, I was playing first base for The New Yorker small fry in Central Park in ’85 and have been there ever since. Fantasy League!
A ps: two baseball-related stories:
Edited the first and wrote an intro to the latest edition The New Yorker Book of Baseball Cartoons. A thrill and an honor– a recap of my first exposure thru mom and dad to the game.
The Olympian Roger Angell bought a version of my Bill Buckner’s 1986 World Series error painting at one of The New Yorker Gallery exhibits curated by C.S. Ledbetter in the 1990s.
MM: There are a lot of different paths cartoonists take daily, before getting down to work. For instance, Frank Cotham told me he feeds his dog, reads the local paper, checks Facebook, then sits at his drawing table and stares out the window. What do you do before the magic begins?
MC: Just live. I draw 24/7 wherever I am, just trying to look busy. When I’m not painting, also, I keep notebooks which fill up with stray material from many sources which I play with near my deadline and try to write a dozen lines which might work with a dozen recent sketches for the batch. Pretty arbitrary but amusing process fueled by caffeine and tobacco. Then I pdf to Mr. Mankoff while he’s driving to work in one of those big black cars they give to all the top comedy people.
MM; Some years back you had a gallery exhibit of paintings of mobsters [one of them: “St. Patrick’s Day” is below] . Is that an ongoing subject?
MC: Yes. Mafia ideas never die, so while I am consumed now with map, landscape, nude and Hopper parody paintings, I frequently go after some type of menace in a face or scene.
MM: Did you watch The Sopranos?
MC: Watched Sopranos when I could at buddies homes – didn’t have HBO. Loved watching the show with friends – except for the gruesome night Christopher sat on the dog.
Started my Mob paintings before the series aired. They sprang from a New Yorker assignment [via the magazine’s illustration editor] Chris Curry to sketch Vincent “the Chin” Gigante at the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn. A “sanity” hearing somebody was writing about. Appalled at how shabbily dressed the Chin was. I envisioned a Mob world fastidious in its sartorial bearing – closer to Sicilian wedding day in the 20s and 30s than to everyday New Jersey leisure suits.
MM: You’re one of the few New Yorker cartoonists living with another New Yorker cartoonist. Do you and Carolita [Johnson] ever collaborate? Is there interaction between the two of you concerning your work? Do you look at each other’s batches, discuss work, make suggestions, take suggestions?
MC: We generally take the 5th on those questions. Nuttin’ poisonal. Lurid details may surface in our joint, posthumous memoir.
MM: Who were the cartoonists who really shook you when you were an aspiring cartoonist? Any cartoon heroes (i.e., who inspired you?)
MC: I got a kick out of most cartoons I saw when I was young, indiscriminately. There was no accounting for variations in “funny”. At some point certain artists became “idols” — as in: “I want to be him or her — they have a way with language and or a line I want but it’s been done — forget it” which is where the seed of your own resourcefulness is planted. Or not. Immediately appealing to me visually — cartoonists and painters — were Steinberg, Steig, George Price, Mary Petty, Peter Arno, Perry Barlow, Arthur Getz, and Edward Hopper (who has always been to me — while an astonishing painter — a sort of latent cartoonist who got on the A Train, not the D, and never got off. Thank God).
[Below: Hopper’s Woman in “Hotel Room” (1931) Gets an Upgrade No.1]
Link here to visit Michael Crawford’s website