Michael Maslin, that indefatigable chronicler of all things involving New Yorker cartoons and New Yorker cartoonists, is at it again. This time, he has surveyed his cartoon colleagues in search of the cartoon collection or collections that helped shape their cartoon sensibility in their formative years. He calls these our “Cartoon Bibles.” Take it away, Michael & Co.
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I love New Yorker cartoon collections; my wife, Liza Donnelly, is also a New Yorker cartoonist, and we have a long wall of bookshelves loaded with them:
Not every collection by every New Yorker cartoonist is there, but there’s a high percentage of what’s been published by our colleagues, past and present. Out of all these books, I still think of one as being my Cartoon Bible. The cartoons within it changed my life. (I discovered it some five years before I began at The New Yorker.) The book is James Thurber’s classic “The Thurber Carnival.”
A number of years ago, I asked Lee Lorenz (The New Yorker’s cartoon editor at the time) what was the most important cartoon collection in his early years, and his immediate response was Saul Steinberg’s 1945 collection, “All in Line.”
That threw me for a momentary loop. Based on Lee’s drawing style, I expected he’d mention an Alan Dunn collection,
or Whitney Darrow, Jr.,
But Steinberg? Wow.
Hoping to be just as surprised by other New Yorker cartoonists, I recently posed the question to several of them: What’s your Cartoon Bible, and why?
My Cartoon Bible is “The New Yorker 1955-1965 Album.” Because my father worked in advertising, he and all his colleagues received complimentary subscriptions to The New Yorker and were sent free copies of any books the magazine produced. This is how “The New Yorker 1955-1965 Album” came to be in our house when it was published.
The magazine came and went every week, but this book was a permanent treasure chest of its cartoons. I marvelled at the range of its artwork (all of it wonderful in its own way) and delighted in its range of humor (all of it funny in its own way). And it confirmed my suspicions that adults were silly and the world was a bit askew. These cartoonists, as diverse as they were, understood. I could not spend enough time looking through this book.
Then one day, I found the ‘55-‘65 album in a stack of newspapers and magazines to be put in the trash! How could anyone throw away Charles Saxon’s “The Day the Trains Stopped”? Or James Stevenson’s “Weekend Guests”? I rescued it, and it is one of the few books from my youth that I still have. Every time I look through its pages, it rekindles the joy it always gave me when I was young: the invitation to fun, the permission to look at life in a not-so-serious way, the visual stimulation of enchanting art. I used to want to climb into this book, among all its cartoons, and spend the rest of my life there. In a way, I guess I have.
“Drawn and Quartered,” by Charles Addams.
I grew up watching old black-and-white films, mainly New York noir. My father was a serious film buff. Along with his three brothers (my uncles), the old man owned a graphic-design studio, Studio 5 Graphics, in downtown Rochester, New York. Most nights, at home, we’d watch television, and he’d point out the compositions, lighting, or mood of, say, “The Maltese Falcon,” “Double Indemnity,” or “The Sweet Smell of Success.”
Like most parents in my neighborhood, my parents fought all the time—all the time. So, the alloying of my folks’ toxic resentments with all those Billy Wilder films I was watching made Addams my go-to cartoonist when The New Yorker arrived each week at our house. He’s still my (dead) muse. It’s not just the timeless gags of husbands and wives constructing Rube Goldberg mechanisms to off each other; it’s the care Addams devoted to his lush ink-and-watercolor drawings. Addams paid close attention to all of the details without overworking the art—not easy. Moreover, Addams had an understanding of what all the things in his cartoons looked like: mops, telephones, furnaces, architecture, furniture, rugs, floorboards, outlets, and, of course, guns. It’s dark stuff, but within those darks, there’s subtle beauty!
I started doing magazine cartooning after trying other forms of the art, mostly while living in San Francisco, the hotbed of the underground-comics scene in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. I had a friend who lived close by, who was also an aspiring cartoonist, and also in the thrall of cartooning in general. When we discovered Bernard (Hap) Kliban and Jack Ziegler, our interest was piqued further. We bought all the books. (Kliban had a series of cat-related cartoon books, and Jack, I think, had only had one out at the time, “Hamburger Madness.”)
Both Kliban and Mr. Z had mixed the sensibilities of West Coast underground and traditional magazine cartooning, along with their own skewed view of the cartoon universe and life in general. Kliban’s work was in Playboy, and Jack was the new guy at The New Yorker—both obviously very “above-ground” publications. (I didn’t find out until later that both artists lived within shouting distance of where my friend and I did; in fact, Jack and I had probably at some point passed each other on Ninth Avenue or on Stanyan Street in my old neighborhood without knowing it. Kliban and his wife, M. K. Brown, a gifted cartoonist herself, lived out a ways farther, across the Golden Gate Bridge, in Marin County.) I was a big fan of magazine cartoonists in general, but these two artists were doing new things with the older form, which I loved. I never lost my respect and awe of those who had come before, but Kliban and Jack’s work really grabbed my attention. Jack’s work was especially appealing because it was closer to the magazine-cartooning form with which I was involved. My Bible, at that point, became “Hamburger Madness.”
My friend stopped drawing, opted for other means of survival, moved to L.A., and did well. I kept at it, drawing weekly batches for The New Yorker and finally getting my work accepted after a couple of years. Eventually I met my hero, and all my future heroes, after moving to New York City, where I spent time with all of them, soaking up advice and comparing notes. I learned from everyone.
I kind of miss those hamburgers. “Responsibly-Grown-and-Harvested-Organic-Food Madness” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Still good for a laugh, though.
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Thanks, Michael & Co. For more good laughs and for the good books that inspired other New Yorker cartoonists, read the exciting conclusion of this post at Michael Maslin’s Inkspill blog.