Collaborating cartoonists have been on my mind recently. Who are they, why do they do it? Does it double the fun? A spate of collaborations in The New Yorker within the past year caused me to dig into the subject and ask a few questions.
To begin with, here’re a few words on the subject, written sixty years ago by Peter Arno :
The ideal collaboration – and I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in several – consists of sitting down together, with lots of paper and pencils, and digging; staring into the microscope from all angles, till suddenly the elusive germ is spotted. And sometimes that is only the beginning.
And here’s how James Reid Parker, the New Yorker writer who doubled as Helen Hokinson’s collaborator for 18 years, described how they worked together:
We set aside Friday afternoons and evenings as definite work periods, during which we examined each other’s files, outlined future work for Helen, and studied rejections to see how they might be made acceptable.
Hokinson brought her drawings to these Friday meetings –- she seemingly sketched endlessly through the week. Parker brought slips of paper containing stray thoughts or overheard remarks.
I’m not sure there’s since been a collaboration quite like what Hokinson enjoyed with Parker. There were gag writers, like Herb Valen, who tried to “think like” Arno or George Price or whoever, but they didn’t meet with the artists to work out completed ideas. The king of ideamen (and a cartoonist himself), Richard McCallister, sent his work to the cartoonists (George Price and Arno among them).
One could argue that there was weekly collaboration from 1925 through 1950, the years the magazine’s founder, Harold Ross edited the magazine. Drawings were discussed and often “improved” by committee (see Ink Spill’s February 18, 2012 post, The Art Meeting). After suggested changes were made by the artists, the work was brought back to the the Art Meeting, for further evaluation. The process, for just one drawing, could sometimes repeat itself a number of times. James Geraghty, the Art Editor from 1939 through 1973, might explain to an artist how he envisioned a particular drawing. In James Stevenson’s new book The Life, Loves and Laughs of Frank Modell, Geraghty is quoted instructing a cartoonist: “Make it more …beautiful.” Ideas were sometimes generated in the art office and passed on to the artists ( these are often labeled “Office Idea” in the magazine’s archives, with no one person receiving credit).
This variety of interaction gave way in 1973 when Lee Lorenz assumed the title of Art Editor. The cartoonists Lorenz brought into the fold showed up with the idea, the caption and the art. This was an organic shift, tied into the times that were a-changin’, similar to the emergence of the singer-songwriter in popular music.
The influx of cartoonists with their own ideas was not the death of collaboration — collaboration continued on — but the notion that a cartoonist would regularly use outside help came to be seen, by cartoonists themselves, as somewhat unthinkable (Roz Chast likened it to “cheating”).
Throughout The New Yorker’s history, no ideaman’s/collaborator’s name appeared on the work alongside the artist’s name. When the magazine opened up its Table Of Contents in the issue of March 22, 1969, listing its writers & artists, readers did not see ideamen co-credited with the artists. Mischa Richter, for instance, continued to work closely with his long-time ideaman, Harald Bakken, but only Richter’s name appeared in the magazine’s Table Of Contents. Although a small handful of cartoonists continued collaborating, collaborations weren’t noted on The Table of Contents until 1994, when Liza Donnelly and this cartoonist collaborated for a color strip about a visit to “Beatlefest” in the New Jersey Meadowlands. Another married cartoonist couple, Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky Crumb received co-credit the following year for the first of a handful of pieces (color spreads) they contributed.
In June of 2010, Sam Means & Kate Beaton began a New Yorker collaboration (it turned out to be a trio of appearances). Although they signed their joint efforts “Beans” their respective names appeared in the Table of Contents.
Very recently, a slew of collaborations have been published in the magazine, or in one case, on the magazine’s website. In all but one case, the collaborations have been acknowledged on the New Yorker’s Table of Contents. Bob Mankoff’s assistant, Marc Philippe Eskenazi, who so far has had one cartoon published under his own name, collaborated with cartoonist Ben Schwartz. Mr. Schwartz also collaborated with cartoonist Liam Walsh on a color piece for newyorker.com. Cartoonist Bob Eckstein worked with comedian Adam Corolla for a drawing published in the magazine, and also with the actor/comedian, Len Belzer (in this case, uncredited in the Table of Contents).
Realizing that magazine was suddenly awash in public collaboration, I asked Liam Walsh, Ben Schwartz, Bob Eckstein, and Marc Philippe Eskenazi about their collaborations, beginning with the obvious, “Why collaborate?” (I offhandedly asked Liza Donnelly if she could remember why she and I collaborated on the Beatlefest piece and she replied, “Because we wanted to.”).
Michael Maslin: Why collaborate?
Liam Walsh: I didn’t think about this very much beforehand, although it’s a very interesting question. (And one that I’m thinking about in relation to whether it’s something I want to do in the future.) I think the obvious reason would be if each person brought a different strength to the table but that doesn’t really apply to Ben and me. I think there is some benefit in the pressure of not wanting to let the other partner down. I’ve found the weekly deadlines for New Yorker cartoons to be really valuable because a lot of times if I’m writing or creating something speculatively I find that productivity suffers from my not being a strict enough taskmaster. Marc and Ben and I have been experimenting a little bit with using each other to help us make and keep productivity goals. There is probably a teensy element of fear in my desire to collaborate at this early point in my career, in the same way I might like to have a friend by my side when I walk past the graveyard at night. I also think that, at its best, collaborating can take you to places, creatively, you might not have gone on your own. My mind has certain tracks that it tends to stay in and working with another person can force me to venture outside of my usual thought patterns.
Ben Schwartz: The best answer is probably the simplest: it’s fun. Collaboration allows me to get out of my comfort zone, explore new ideas, and gain insight into the creative process of others. Having an engaged partner to share the workload keeps the pressure down and the enthusiasm up, all while creating a sense of accountability that ensures what we started actually gets finished.
Bob Eckstein: There have been a few reasons I’ve collaborated with different people in the past, some good, some embarrassing. I thought of the six last people I worked with and came up with: friendship, writer’s block, fun, to learn from, being star-stuck and an ice-breaker to date someone.
Marc Philippe Eskenazi: In our case [“our” being Liam Walsh & Ben Schwartz- ed.], I cannot draw very proficiently, and don’t really have the patience to tidy up a drawing the way I would develop and refine a piece of music or writing. But looking through thousands of cartoons each week, I couldn’t help but develop a few ideas here and there. So I’d sketch them out in a notebook I had since high school.
MM: “How did the collaboration begin..,i.e., who made the first move and why?”
Eskenazi: Ben, Liam Walsh, and I often went to get coffee or lunch, and we would help develop each other’s ideas, theirs for cartoons, mine for stand-up. Eventually I showed them my terrible drawings, and they liked some of the jokes. Ben and I sold two, and Liam and I have sold one which may run around Halloween next year if it survives the harsh Summer.
Walsh: Tom Toro’s piece for the Culture Desk was a big inspiration to me to try some sort of longer-form piece. The Kurtzman exhibition seemed a promising subject and since we were both interested and spend a fair amount of time together anyway it seemed natural to do it together. Ben and I have been talking about working together for a long time. We are both big fans of comics, which are massive collaborations of writers, editors, pencilers, inkers, letters, etc so we might have had a different attitude toward the idea than someone who was a novelist or a “fine art” painter.
Eckstein: I’ll focus on two that specifically resulted in being published in the New Yorker. Len Belzer and I became best friends partly from trying to make each other laugh. We both came from a comedy background and he hosted one of the most important radio comedy shows in the ’80s, interviewing the biggest comics like Carlin, Cosby, Seinfeld, Robin Williams, etc. I was also very close to his recently deceased wife and all of us sometimes critiqued the cartoons in the New Yorker. We also occasionally read our writing to each other, anything we might be performing or publishing. One piece of Len’s was about a poet’s reading. I thought it was pretty good and suggested he call it “Hecklers on Poetry Night.” I then commented that it would make a neat NYer cartoon. So we worked on the heckles and I did a drawing of our friend (artist John Kascht on stage).
I recently did a cartoon with comedian Adam Carolla. I listen to his podcast and he once said something which I thought was possibly a good cartoon idea. Normally I consider that simply a dead idea since it was someone else’s but my caption idea was different enough that I figured why not do a cartoon with him. I forgot how I was able to contact him but I know a few people from the show…I’m in touch with comic Larry Miller…I know Adam’s assistant….I used to work for his co-host Alison Rosen from my days at TimeOut NY. (yeah, I know, it is all who you know. But having an opportunity to collaborate is a perk from many, many years of working at many places). Anyhoo, he was like, “sure” and that was it. We met in New York City but the cartoon was already done by then.
Schwartz: With Liam: He got the ball rolling, having been inspired by a Tom Toro piece for the Culture Desk blog. We had recently viewed the Harvey Kurtzman exhibit at the Society of Illustrators together, and he felt that we could turn that experience into a comic for the blog. I agreed, and we went from there.
With Marc: Marc had been generating gag ideas on his own for a while, but he didn’t think he was yet ready as an illustrator to take them any further. I don’t actually remember if he asked me to draw some up or if I volunteered.
The larger context that applies to both cases, though, is that Marc, Liam and I are all friends with broadly similar creative sensibilities, and we often gather to workshop our individual projects and ideas. Collaboration seemed like a natural next step.
MM: How did you decide who drew the work?(this question didn’t apply to Bob Eckstein as he was working with non-cartoonists)
Walsh: That was a little complicated. We considered a few different possibilities, but since drawing is our mutual strong suit it was clear that we both wanted to be very involved in that part. I did some early sketches, then together we worked out the final sketches, then I penciled the piece and inked my character before passing it over to Ben to ink everything else and do the colors.
Schwartz: Liam had a few specific layout ideas that he sketched up and I immediately embraced, so that gave us our start. From there, we considered having him fully finish the drawings for the sake of efficiency, but we eventually decided that it would be fun to see both our styles merge on the page. He ended up doing full pencils plus the finished inks for his avatar, while I inked the rest and provided colors. Inking another artist’s work was a real treat, and something I had long wanted to do.
With Marc, our roles were pretty clear from the start—he was the writer and I was the artist.
Eskenazi: My contribution was only the idea, and the general layout of the image. For our Oscars cartoon, I described the image and gave the wording of the caption. For our caption contest, which Mayor Bloomberg purchased, I had drawn the image in the style of a third-grade
MM: Did you actually sit down across from each other and work things out, or was it done over the phone, or via the internet?
Eskenazi: I gave Ben my sketchbook, and he drew up a few, but the only ones that sold were from scans or emails.
Schwartz: Liam and I started by exchanging several emails discussing ideas and themes. This was valuable, but we didn’t have a concrete plan until we sat down in person and mapped out our page together.
Marc and I worked together in a more assembly-line fashion. He generated his ideas earlier, then passed them off to me. He didn’t see the results until I was fully finished with the art.
Eckstein: With Len, I might show him what I’m working on when we get together. We play chess, we have lunch and sometimes we stop and he will help me with my sketches, throwing out a suggestion or two. Sometimes he’ll just come out with a great new caption I would have never thought of. We’ve been published in a few places. We[recently] had a cartoon in the Wall Street Journal and he called me with new cartoon idea he had which I’ll draw up and show him. Then we will decide what works and doesn’t work and I’ll make those changes before showing them to Bob at the NYer.
Walsh: We did some initial emailing, but it didn’t come together until we committed to sitting down and not leaving until it was done. We wound up writing every single word together.
MM: Any problems working together (decision-making; disagreements over what works, what doesn’t) or was it smooth sailing?
Walsh: Smooth sailing for us. We seemed to move pretty steadily forward–that is to say, each time one of us had an idea the other seemed to think it was an improvement over what we had so far. I’m sure this is not always the case. I can easily imagine having a great idea that I can’t live without and really having that bring things to a standstill; but it’s not like there is only one possible successful outcome and everything else is shit and you need to get there or fail. There are a million ways we could have done that piece and some are better, some are worse, and lots are probably pretty similar. If either of us had insanely brilliant ideas that didn’t make it into the piece I’m sure they will be put to use in some future project.
Schwartz: In both cases, it was nothing but a great experience. With Marc, things were particularly easy because our roles were so well defined and we each allowed the other full control of his part. Since Liam and I shared nearly every step of the process, we had more opportunities for disagreement, but it was never an issue. I think we each had to give up a couple of ideas that we liked, but only because we believed that the other’s take was even stronger.
Eskenazi: I felt very detached and excited.
Eckstein: All the people I’ve been lucky to work with are very accomplished and very talented. I collaborate with Len so I can get better and learn how to be funnier. Our only problems (as far as I’m aware of!) are when one of us doesn’t get a reference the other is making but we just enjoy getting together whatever the circumstances.
MM: Did it turn out that one of you was stronger in the word department, the other in the drawing department? By that I mean: did either of you guide the text more than the art, and the art more than the text?”
Eckstein: In a perfect world I’d like to only do the writing and wish someone else would draw up the ideas.
Walsh: I’m not supremely confident about my writing skills so it was great to have an editor sitting right across from me. It was a true collaboration, 50/50, and I think we both agree that what came out of it was not something we would have come up with on our own.
Schwartz: I feel like Liam and I equally contributed to both the words and pictures of our piece, to the point where even I have trouble remembering which elements were his and which were mine.
Again, Marc had full control over the text for his gag, and I had full control over the visuals (though, of course, I had his text in hand to guide me).
Eskenazi: No we’re both equal on both fronts. He[Ben Scwhartz] gets more credit as being a better artist, but it is very subjective. I could draw as well as him if I wanted to, but I really just don’t care enough. I could easily, though. Easily.
MM: Are there plans to collaborate again?
Eskenazi: I hope so, I need the money.
Schwartz: I would love to do more collaboration with Marc and with Liam, and with Marc and Liam. We’ve been tossing around ideas, so hopefully we’ll have something to show for it soon.
Walsh: I suspect so. Ben and I are working on something with Marc right now (because a two-person collaboration wasn’t complicated enough!) and I’m sure we’ll work together again in the future.
Eckstein: The pay a cartoonist makes does not make collaborating practical. Ideally I’d love to collaborate with some of the comedians who I was influenced by growing up but even a-one-time-thing — that’s problematic… I’d like to see more cross-over of people who love comics and people who love cartoons. I’d like to see Demetri Martin cartooning for the New Yorker.
I was [recently] talking to [comedian] Larry Miller with hopes of collaborating on a cartoon and we exchanged jokes and captions to try to come up with something.
This piece began with a dip into New Yorker history, so why not end with it too. It’s instructive to remember that collaboration likely brought the art of James Thurber to The New Yorker. Had Thurber not contributed his art to Is Sex Necessary, his collaboration with E.B. White, it’s possible Harold Ross may never have thought twice about allowing Thurber’s “goddam seal drawing” into the magazine.
This twelve minute video, “You Rang, Mr. Addams”
(Thanks to Mike Lynch for mentioning this on FB)