Personal History: Ink Never Sleeps

The cartoonist working in the wee hours. 1978, New York City

There are probably as many different work habits among New Yorker cartoonists as there are New Yorker cartoonists. I’ve heard of colleagues who are nine-to-fivers, and those who’ve worked the night shift. There was even a rumor of a colleague, now long gone, who did his batch of cartoons on the train as he headed down from Connecticut to see the New Yorker‘s art editor. As there’s no clock to punch, we are left to working out/on our own schedule. Joe Dator‘s hysterical “How We Do It” published in The New Yorker Cartoon Issue of 2012 (September 24th to be exact) is the last word on the idealized life of cartoonists working for the magazine.

My own work habits migrated with the years, from childhood, passing the hours drawing in front of the television, to working during high school study halls (yes, that’s right, instead of studying) to working at any convenient time in college between all those required courses, to post-college when staying up all night resulted in a whole lot of drawing but few usable ideas. Post-college, living in Manhattan, inspired perhaps by my perceived notion of the work habits of my downstairs neighbor, the writer Donald Barthelme, I began an attempt at regular hours — vaguely bracketed by late morning and late afternoon. Years later, out of the city and with a family, the unthinkable happened: working very early in the morning for a defined amount of time (my wife and I split our work days: I worked in the morning while she was with our kids, and she worked in the afternoon while I was with the kids). Once the kids grew up and flew the nest, the entire day was wide open again, but the morning hours remained (and remain) as the best use of time. In the past decade, the mid-to-late afternoon around 4 o’clock — what William Shawn called the hour of hope — has become an opportune time to wait for the cartoon gods to toss me an idea or two.

Through all this time shifting, from childhood home through the home where our kids grew up, from working defined times to undefined, from working through the night to working early in the day to working whenever, there has remained a constant: making myself available, Rapidograph and paper at the ready, with the intention that something might happen.

My tool of choice from high school to the present: the Rapidograph.

Not That Kind Of Boxing Day

    It being Boxing Day, I thought it would be fun to post an ancient New Yorker boxing drawing of mine. Then I looked up the meaning(s) of Boxing Day. A major surprise (to me) that “boxing” in this case has nothing to do with fisticuffs.

Well I’m going to post the drawing anyway, despite it having zero connection to this day. I’ve always been fond of it as it reminds me of my late step-father, a first-generation Italian who fought professionally, pre-WWII under the name Al Murphy.  After leaving the boxing trade he opened up a bar in Newark, New Jersey.

The bar was still functioning in the late 1960s when my family entered Al’s scene. A fascinating place for a little kid to visit. One of Al’s bartenders patiently taught me to play pool at the single table at the back of the bar.

I saw my first go-go girl there. She danced on a high small stage covered in tin foil. A revolving multi-colored light pointed at the stage really heightened the experience. 

Here’s Al behind the bar of his Hollywood Gardens. Judging by the decorations, it’s around Halloween (appears as if he’s just served his sharp-looking customer a glass of beer). Al was a barrel-chested Cadillac-driving tough guy with a cauliflower nose who, to quote Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne character in The Bourne Identitity, “knew how to take care of himself.”

As for the cartoon, there’s no doubt I was thinking of Al when I drew the boxers (he was, as I said, barrel-chested). It’s a multi-panel drawing — something you don’t see too often in the New Yorker anymore.  Back when this was published, in the issue of February 3, 1986, multi-panels were common (I think I did five of them). 

And here’s how it appeared in the magazine:


Drawings That Went Nowhere

 I thought it might make for a nice end of week break to look at some drawings of mine from this past week that went nowhere. Every cartoonist works on drawings that go nowhere. We do it every day of every week.  It’s how we get to the drawings that do work.

Initially, with each of these shown, I had some hope they’d go someplace — it’s how every drawing begins for me — with some hope, and a lot of curiosity. I think I had in mind some vague memory of the acrobats who performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. Wouldn’t it be funny, I thought, to have a cat involved in that kind of showbiz routine?  The drawing above was fun to do, but I realized, as I was drawing the cactus plants, that it wasn’t a drawing I wanted to spend any more time on.  Usually I recognize within a few moments after the initial drawing (or caption, if the caption starts things off), whether I want to move along with that particular idea. Often that drawing dies right then and there (it’s put in my “collection” of all the other work that hasn’t worked over the years. Why I save these is a mystery to me).

The only one of these four that went beyond what you see here is the one below of the octopus being sworn in. I was briefly amused by the idea of the octopus not having a designated right hand to raise while being sworn in. Still, with a few attempts at an improved drawing (the bailiff has two neckties, with one floating off on its own), and a caption around that idea, it didn’t feel like it was going anywhere (and it wasn’t).

The drawing below is a good example of an idea based on the thinnest sliver of an idea: what would/could happen if the 3 Pigs sat down with the 3 Stooges (the soldier off to the left had nothing to do with this idea). Again, as with the cat drawing above, my curiosity waned.  As I wrote “oink oink oink” above the first pig, I realized that this was as amused as I was going to be with this situation;  there was nothing else left here of interest, so I moved on.

Below is a drawing of the sort I did in high school and college. As I drew the little guy coming out of top of the bust, the drawing seemed creepy, so I abandoned it.

So there’s a sampler of what happens on the way to a coming up with a drawing that does work — the kind that ends up being finished and submitted to The New Yorker. The ones that don’t work vastly outnumber the ones that do. And of the ones that do work — that I think work — the number of those rejected vastly outnumber the ones accepted.  Nutty right? But that’s the life.

Sidenote: these four drawings might seem to say that the drawing comes first (for me) when coming up with ideas. That’s not the case.  Words are probably the better instigators of ideas. More frequently than the drawings or words leading to an idea are just vague impulses not yet on paper that suddenly suggest I draw whatever. That’s where the fun begins.

Another Two Pages From the New Yorker Ency of Cartoons; Podcast of Interest: Liza Donnelly

Another Two Pages From the New Yorker Ency of Cartoons

Back on June 19th, The Spill had this to say about the upcoming New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons:

Stylish packaging…can’t wait to see what more is inside. Especially curious to see how the two volumes incorporate the advertised 3000 cartoons (or “classic images” as the publisher calls them). Actually, since we now can see 3 classic images, curious to see how the other 2997 are incorporated. 

Well , the publisher, Blackdog & Leventhal, has just eeked out two more pages showing 4 more cartoons (by myself, Charles Barsotti, Danny Shanahan, and Gahan Wilson), These are, as you’ll see, under the “Clowns” heading (the encyclopedia is organized around subjects):

Alrighty then.  Now we’ve seen 7 of the 3000 images promised. Only 2,993 to go!


Podcast of Interest: Liza Donnelly

While live-drawing in Dublin last week (I’ve shown a few of her Dublin drawings here), Liza Donnelly sat for an interview with Roisin Ingle of The Irish Times.

Link to the Irish Times podcast.