The first time you set eyes on a Tom Chitty cartoon there’s no way you’ll not have some kind of reaction. His is not a cookie cutter cartoon style, but something expressly his own. Like Lars Kenseth, Mr. Chitty has dared to go to some other cartoon dimension — a place with unfamiliar human anatomy. He and Mr. Kenseth are cartoon risk-takers. I’ve been emailing with Mr. Chitty over the winter months, talking about his work, and his life north of the border. Here’s some of what we discussed:
Michael Maslin: The people in your drawings are most unusual. Can you talk about how they came to be? And I tempted to ask (so I will): any particular reason there are no noses?
Tom Chitty: The way my cartoons are drawn today grew out of some advice I got at animation school. My tutor suggested I stop worrying about style, and concentrate more on ideas. So I started working more quickly, scribbling only what was essential to remember a thought. It turns out you don’t necessarily need noses in that context, and you for-sure don’t need Gray’s Anatomy. At a certain point, this way of drawing became normal to me – like handwriting.
My finished New Yorker cartoons are more deliberate than those initial sketch-burps, and my illustrations still more so – but I always start with the loose stuff and keep as much of it as I can.For the record, I describe the noses as ‘implied’, rather than non-existent!
MM: And moving on to another unique Chitty person characteristic: the bowl-legs. Do you have some cowboy in your background? Can you talk about the leg structure?
TC: If you take a look at the drawings I sent you (the ones that have noses), you’ll see that they’ve been drawn into a somewhat pre-defined, rounded-oblong, shape. I drew like this for a while because I read a couple of books about Mayan hieroglyphs and I became briefly (but healthily) obsessed.
Above: Nosed Chitty people
I don’t draw that way so much any longer, but the block-shaped bodies stuck. The legs are positioned quite far apart, it’s true, but I think that’s where they would need to be to hold up such a cumbersome torso. My characters are weird but they fully respect the laws of physics, probably.
No family cowboys that I am aware of, but plenty of odd bods.
MM: I love knowing what influenced cartoonists early on in life. Were you influenced/inspired by television, animated cartoons, comics, something else…a combination of any of those, or none of those?
TC: Asterix books were my first cartoon love, then Calvin and Hobbes (of course). Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl certainly lodged themselves in my brain, and I absorbed a bunch of Moomin that didn’t really understand. I read Dr. Suess’ Did I ever tell you how lucky you are?, over and over. Probably still my favorite book.
I have always been a heavy user of movies, but I’m not sure that was a direct influence on my drawing. I did used to watch Monty Python re-runs with my Dad, whenever they were on, and it’s hard not to be influenced by that, unless you are made of cardboard.
After Python came A bit of Fry and Laurie (Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s sketch show), French and Saunders, Blackadder, and anything Armando Iannucci or Steve Coogan were doing.
MM: I confess I did not know, until moments ago when I looked them up, what the Asterix books were/are. Looking at Asterix himself — and stop me if I’m stretching the comparison at all — I can maybe see just a hint of inspiration there for the way you draw legs. Did not expect the brief Mayan hieroglyphics obsession, but that’s why I asked. You just never know what has directly or indirectly been an influence.
Dr. Suess, Monty Python, Quentin Blake…it’s all beginning to make sense now. Any MAD magazine in your past or present? And what of the New Yorker artists? Anyone, or ones, that were motivators (for lack of a better word)?
TC: It’s very possible I internalized Uderzo’s Asterix legs. It would certainly explain why spindly limbs look quite normal to me. It’s tough to pick out a particular New Yorker artist, but the first books I bought on this subject were collections by William Steig, and Charles Barsotti. I could tell you I love Roz Chast, but that would be as revelatory as admitting I have eyes. In general, I have favourite cartoons rather than cartoonists – favourite ideas.
A high school friend had a subscription to MAD magazine, so I’d flick through his issues while listening to Nirvana and eating sausages. I don’t know it as well as I would like though. MAD was a bit of a mythical creature in my particular English suburb, as was the New Yorker.
MM: Can you talk a little about how you made your way to the New Yorker. When did you begin thinking it might be worth a try; when did you begin submitting; what was the reaction when you first began showing your work?
TC: It wasn’t until I moved to Canada, (in 2009) that I was regularly exposed to the New Yorker. In the U.K. I’d use Private Eye to suck in cartoons – not least because the New Yorker was not well distributed (for obvious reasons).
In Toronto the magazine is easy to get hold of, and so I got to know it. It’s also pretty easy to get to New York City from here – I can go twice a year, instead of twice in my lifetime. That really helped. The idea of submitting started to feel reasonable – plus friends and family were telling me I should (even after they had seen my drawings).
So, I bought a pile of books about New Yorker cartoons and cartoonists, and once I’d read them, I reached out for some guidance on the submission process. Matt Diffee gave me some great advice, that seemed to boil down to this: at the start it’s really about figuring out how you can deliver a batch of ideas every week (forever). If you can do that, you’ll certainly get better at cartooning, and you might have a shot at getting published.
Above: Tom Chitty’s first New Yorker cartoon
I started submitting in the summer of 2014 and I got my first O.K. later that year. The first reaction I endured to that particular cartoon [published October 13, 2014] was a comment on the New Yorker‘s Facebook page. It was words to the effect of, “this drawing is so ugly”. After a little soul wringing, I managed to take that as a compliment.
MM: The Facebook commenter (“this drawing is so ugly”) probably did you a favor by offering up a quick immersion into the kind of stuff one needs to ignore to carry on. Are your days filled with drawing cartoons; are you involved in other projects; do you take time off for very un-cartoony things?
TC: At various times I am also an animator and illustrator – when something juicy comes up – but, most of my working life is spent making cartoons and art prints. I draw neighborhood scenes, mainly of Toronto right now, and also houses on commission – usually that’s an old family home, or in celebration of a new one.
I have always wanted to be a cartoonist, but I probably wanted to be a footballer even more than that (soccer player, for my American friends). I never really imagined that would happen, of course, but I do still spend more time playing and watching sport than is sensible. Here is some ridiculous evidence if you want it.
My one-year-old son is the main distraction right now though. Even football has taken a back seat to that little maniac – though, the cartooning brain is never truly off is it? Every experience has the potential to become a silly drawing.
MM: What is the cartoonist community like in Toronto? Do you ever run into Seth?
TC: Toronto is a great place to be for cartoons and graphic arts in general. It’s the fourth largest city in North America, so you’d expect that, I suppose – but despite it’s size its still very neighborhoody and I think that helps develop communities of all kinds.
The Ontario College of Art and Design is based right next to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which itself runs cartooning workshops. O.C.A.D. has some headline graduates in this field like Michael Cho and Gary Taxali. There’s also Sheridan College, a little out of the City. It’s known for exporting graduates to Pixar, among other things.
The Beguilling is the comic book store I prod people towards when they visit. It serves as something of a cartoonist hub in my experience – it’s run by the same people who organize the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.
There are some very interesting Canadian magazines based here, like Broken Pencil, which showcases indy publications and zines, and Taddle Creek, which is a broad literary mag (including comics) and, like the New Yorker, it features illustrations on the cover.
I haven’t met Seth, but I did say hello to Chester Brown at T.C.A.F. once, so that’s close.
Above: Mr. Chitty with Mr. Dator, in Toronto, July 3, 2017
I also intentionally bumped into Joe Dator here last year, while he was visiting. He told me that Alice Cheng lives in Toronto too. So, if you’re reading this Alice, let’s grab a coffee! She definitely isn’t reading this.