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.

The Tilley Watch

Last week in this spot I noted and silently wondered about the latest issue of The New Yorker (dated October 29) barely touching on Halloween (other than a witches and broomstick drawing by Seth Fleishman).  This week’s issue, dated November 5, solves the mystery with its trick-or-treating Trumpian cover. I think we’ve now seen enough of him on the cover to expect a New Yorker Book of Trump Covers. I believe his first appearance was on the double issue of Dec. 28, 1992/Jan. 4, 1993. Artist: Robert Risko. 

New Yorker history aficionados will note that what’s inside that issue (produced during Tina Brown’s era as editor) is of great interest: a lengthy piece, “Remembering Mr. Shawn: friends and colleagues recall the years with Shawn” — it’s essential reading, and includes photographs of Shawn taken by James Stevenson. 

Sidenote: the 1992/1993 issue contains the work of 35 cartoonists  It also contains an Artist’s Notebook by Benoit van Innes (full page, color), An Artist At Large spread by Philip Burke (4 1/4 pages, color), another Artist At Large, with Ronald Searle (a full page), an Artist’s Sketchbook by Gerald Scarfe (3 1/2 pages, color), a full page cartoon by Roz Chast and a color column by Danny Shanahan. Most of the single panel cartoons were placed in a space greater than a quarter page, with many running a half-page. There are 22 illustrations, with three full page. One of the things you’ll hear from colleagues who worked at The New Yorker during Tina Brown’s era (I was one of them) was that she knew how to throw a great party (and she did).  I’d like to expand that to: …and she knew how to throw a great graphic party

And now back to the future…

This new issue contains the work of 11 cartoonists (a bump up from last week’s ten) and 21 illustrations ( 6 1/2 pages of those are full pages). Of the 11 cartoons, one, by the wonderful Victoria Roberts, could be said to be nearly exclusively a Halloween drawing. There is another drawing — it features a ghost — but as it’s a telling scary stories around a campfire scenario, it could’ve been published at other times during the year. 

For the record, here are the contributing cartoonists in this issue:

I believe — but could well be mistaken — that the last on the list, Sarah Ransohoff, is making her New Yorker cartoonist debut in this issue. People who know better: please advise if this is incorrect. If this is correct, then Ms. Ransohoff is the 7th new cartoonist this year and the 19th cartoonist overall to be brought in under the cartoon editorship of Emma Allen since she took over in May of 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Personal History: Tearsheets

Quite a while ago (decades, in fact) I began collecting tearsheets of my New Yorker work (and back then, tearsheets from other publications that would have me). The New Yorker drawings  were kept in the black 3-ring binders you see above (non-New Yorker work was placed in 10″ x 13″ envelopes).  The binders seemed like a great idea, as the only record keeping I knew of were the black books the New Yorker kept (and keep) of everyone’s work. Here’s a shot of my black book (book-ended by some recognizable names) in the New Yorker‘s library. 

For a very long time this household received two copies of each issue, making it easy to rip out my work (and/or my wife, Liza Donnelly’s work) from issues and save the other issue.  This practice went on until the early 2000s when I decided that the New Yorker’s Cartoon Bank was, in effect, doing my work for me by running a well-organized easily searchable database.  While it wasn’t ever a complete picture (a hundred or more of my drawings never made it into their database), it was a good source.  Along with that was the publication of several databases: The Complete New Yorker‘s 8 discs, and The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker‘s 2 discs (just 1 disc in a later edition).

As all the work, up that time, was right there, all printable, it seemed silly to continue ripping out pages from the print magazine. The Complete New Yorker‘s discs covered February of 1925 through February of 2005 — with a promise to continue updating the work; The Complete Cartoons covered 1925 thru 2004.

Now some ten years after abandoning the tearsheet practice (the last tearsheet in my black volumes shown above is dated October 20, 2008), I regret not continuing.  There is currently no reliable contemporary archive online or on disc. The magazine’s online search function (available to subscribers) is inadequate.

I’d hoped that any forthcoming celebration of the magazine’s cartoons for The New Yorker‘s 100th birthday in 2025 might update the cartoon database. Heck, update the database for the entire magazine. If you own the aforementioned 8 discs from the Complete New Yorker, you’ll eventually discover that the discs will not work with modern computer systems. Luckily I have an ancient  iBook around and use that to search the database. 

So far, there is no mention in any of the promotional text accompanying the upcoming New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons that it includes a database — its interests seem to be fashioned around cartoon “tropes” — but we’ll see.

Interesting then that it’s back to where it started here: with collecting hard copies.  In my case, I held on to a large number of back issues of the magazine, but not enough issues to fill in these past 8 years. In the last year I’ve started ripping out tearsheets, but they’ve yet to be placed in the binders.  The chronologist in me wants to pick up where I left off, in 2008, and move forward. 

Perhaps I should’ve known better.  Having a binder in front of you, with everything in chronological order is the best way to go. I’ve used these binders as reminders of certain moments tied-in to the drawings (if there was something memorable to record). Here’s an example: a drawing published March 16, 1987.  As you see in the note attached, the drawing includes a nod to William Shawn. 

 

 

 

“A Search For Work ‘Funny, Beautiful, and True'”

In its final issue of 1992 the New Yorker published a remarkable piece, “Remembering Mr. Shawn”; thirty-three contributors recalling the late editor of the New Yorker who had passed away earlier in the month (one of them, Edward Koren, provided a drawing). I’ve read and re-read the piece a number of times and always come away with something by one of the contributors I’d missed before. But one recollection stuck from my first reading. Lee Lorenz, who served as Art Editor of the magazine from 1973 through 1997 (his title morphed to Cartoon Editor in the last five years of that span) wrote, in part, of his weekly art meetings with Mr. Shawn:

In a letter he [Shawn] wrote to me after he left the magazine he referred to these meetings as a search for work that was ‘funny, beautiful, and true.’ By “true” he meant not just true in its perception of the human condition but true to each artist’s vision.

I think Mr. Lorenz framed it perfectly.  When I think of “the New Yorker cartoon” as a distinct subset of American cartooning, and why it’s recognized as such, it’s due to the magazine’s long history of supporting its cartoonists and their work.

Of course there is and always has been disagreement over what is funny, and what is beautiful (and lately, more than ever, what is true).  For the four decades I’ve contributed to the New Yorker I’ve heard it said, at times, all along the way, that the cartoons aren’t as funny, or aren’t as good, as they used to be. I heard it said in the late 1970s, when I began contributing, and I hear it today.  Here’s a snippet from an article that popped up in my Google search just the other week:

Is the New Yorker magazine on the skids, or is it my brain that has lost whatever sharpness it may have had? I re-subscribed to the magazine a few months ago, and I seem to have detected a lower quality in its cartoons, which have always been its main attraction for persons of questionable intelligence, such as me.

What quality is, is also, of course, debatable. For every person who finds a particular New Yorker cartoon awful there’s another who finds it a work of genius (want to see for yourself? Go to the comments under any New Yorker cartoon posted on the magazine’s Facebook page).

Overlooked in all this public qualifying of what is funny, beautiful and true is the simple transaction between the artists and their editors: cartoonists do what we do as well as we can do it and send it to the magazine — the editors buy it or they don’t. The beauty of the New Yorker cartoon world is that cartoonists draw what they want. They are not assigned ideas by the editors. This total freedom allows the readership to see the work the cartoonists believe is funny, beautiful and true (i.e., their vision). It’s the not-so-secret formula for the now 93 year old success of the New Yorker cartoon.

Above: The inaugural issue of The New Yorker, cover by Rea Irvin; William Shawn, the magazine’s second editor; Lee Lorenz.  Photograph of Mr. Shawn by James Stevenson.