Category Archives: Illustration

Interview: Artist Robert Sikoryak

TERMS AND CONDITIONS

Robert Sikoryak, aka R. Sikoryak, is an artist that I’ve always admired. You have probably seen his work grace the cover of issues of The New Yorker or maybe you know him from one of his comics adaptations of literature classics. He’s best known for featuring his virtuoso adaptation of masters in the comics medium in the service of a satirical work, like Masterpiece Comics. Another great example is the recent Terms and Conditions, an ambitious and hilarious comics adaptation of the iTunes contract we all must agree to but never bother to read.

NEW YORKER COVER

Robert Sikoryak was formerly an associate editor and contributor to RAW, the groundbreaking 1980s comic anthology. He has also drawn for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Onion, and Nickelodeon. During a recent visit to New York, I got a chance to interview Mr. Sikoryak about a number of things, including his ongoing Carousel, a revue, going back to 1997, that features a number of notable cartoonists such as Lauren Weinstein, Michael Kupperman, and Jason Little who present their work as part of a slide show performance. It is my pleasure to present to you the following interview. A video portion is also available and you can access that below too.

Illustration for The Nation by R. Sikoryak

Read the interview below and do make sure to go to the video as well which covers different aspects, specifically Mr. Sikoryak’s early career. All in all, as I said to him, his 30+ year career adds up to such an impressive professional life. I like to bring out the term, “legend,” but Sikoryak would not hear of it! He’s very modest, indeed. And quite generous in sharing insights. I’ve done numerous interviews and do my level best to respectfully bring out the best in those individuals I have the privilege to interview because, for me, it’s a sacred trust that I’ve entered into. And it’s an added bonus when you get to engage with someone who is just as passionate about sharing information with the reader. For instance, I asked Sikoryak about starting out as a cartoonist and he was very careful to explain how, even as a child, he was intrigued with creating parodies, which is a linchpin to his career.

MASTERPIECE COMICS

Let’s turn our attention to the self-published indie comics known as, “mini-comics.” A lot of cartoonists find that, once they’ve created a mini-comic, it gets in their blood and they’re hooked. Tell us about your experience with mini-comics.
I’d say it has gotten more into my blood lately. I had done a few mini-comics when I was younger but it was only after I’d started working with Kriota Willberg, and going to comics festivals, that I got the bug to do more minis. She was doing them as well and so we did them together. It’s like I was saying earlier, sometimes it’s easier to get rolling if you have a community to work with even if you’re doing it yourself. If you’re working on a project together that can sometimes spur you to action a little faster. We also started doing 24-hour comics and that helped me break out of some of my habits of working. When I was doing Masterpiece Comics, I was spending a lot of time refining the story and the art and honing it all done to exactly what I wanted. That approach was very specific and time-consuming unlike my commercial work where I need to turn around the artwork a lot faster. So, I could get caught up tweaking my own work when there wasn’t an imminent deadline. That said, 24-hour comics helped me think of ways to try to work faster. And that approach helped inspire how I worked on Terms and Conditions.

Steve Jobs and Silver Surfer!

Share with us how you used the 24-hour comics working methods in Terms and Conditions.
For 24-hour comics, I wanted to work with a text that was already written. So, the first ones that I did were poetry comics. I did one with Walt Whitman and another one with Edgar Allan Poe. I took existing poems of theirs and illustrated them. The Walt Whitman poem was a Jack Kirby monster comic. The Edgar Allan Poe one was done in the style of Richie Rich. Those were fun and I thought of them as rough drafts towards making comics with text. This was around 2014. I started thinking about how comics had evolved in the last twenty years since I’d graduated from school. I wanted to do a graphic novel. I’d only done short works up until then. What could I do in a long form? I was looking for something new to adapt and then I thought about the iTunes contract. The big joke about it is that it’s long. I’m always looking for an absurd angle for making comics. To quote Apple, I was looking for a way “to make things different.”

From Terms and Conditions

One of the best things about it is that you don’t have an emotional connection to the iTunes contract. There’s not a visual component to them. There’s no plot, no characters. Some people might argue that there’s some kind of narrative. But there’s not the drive that you’d find in a traditional story. The images could reflect anything and even go beyond the text. The images could refer to anything. I wasn’t going to be literal with a character just reading the text. I was going to bring in other images. I took pre-existing comics pages and modified them. I created a main character from Steve Jobs since he already had a specific uniform. Zuckerberg and Bezos have a look: the glasses, turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers. But Jobs had an actual costume he wore. I didn’t have to make any of the comics characters look exactly like Steve Jobs since people recognize what that costume signifies. Every page of the book is drawn in a different style with the main character dressed in the Steve Jobs outfit. The Jobs costume is as iconic as the Charlie Brown zig zag so that’s perfect. Once I had all this set up, it became easy to start the comic.

From Terms and Conditions

For the 24-hour comics first draft to Terms and Conditions, I did ten pages and they were very specific choices. I had Little Lulu, Rex Morgan, Astro Boy, the Dark Knight, X-Men, Peanuts, Sandman, Dilbert, Spider-Man, and The Walking Dead. All with the Steve Jobs main character running throughout these pre-existing pages from all these landmark comics. After I drew them, then I inserted the iTunes contract text into them. I wasn’t drawing them anticipating the text. For the most part, I didn’t know what the text would say in relation to the drawings. Some pages ended up getting shuffled around. I moved the Rex Morgan page to the beginning because I wanted something banal, very basic and straightforward, to start off with. Something grounded in reality before moving on to something more fantastical. I ended up putting out the first 30 pages as a mini-comic. I was only selling it at some comic shops and online. I drew it in chunks of ten or twelve pages. At some point, the iTunes contract got longer! I had to add 25 more pages. It actually allowed me more pages to play with and include more people I like Allie Brosh, Fiona Staples, Raina Telgemeier, and Kate Beaton. People who have a big impact on what’s happening in comics right now. I’d never done that before where I addressed the current generation of people in comics.

Steve Jobs and Kate Beaton!

I also wanted the book to evoke the internet: everything is in this book. Obviously, that’s an illusion on the internet just as it is in the book. I was going for an sense that anything can happen, that you can stumble upon any style of comics. I also wanted it to be international and not just be about my own tastes. My instincts told me that I wanted to represent all that is possible in comics.

From Terms and Conditions

I come from an art background and I can certainly appreciate that you’re working with comics, treating comics, at the level of an art form, which it is.
I was thinking about conceptual art. Kind of the way that John Cage would approach something. Cage would talk about using chance to compose music. Cage would try to get out of his own head when composing, like consulting the I Ching or more elaborate means to take it away from what he might make if he were solely making aesthetic choices. In a sense, Terms and Conditions, tries to get closer to that approach.

Steve Jobs meets Wonder Woman!

I go look at the iTunes store to see what’s popular and there would be Transformers and My Little Pony and that made sense since these are properties that exist in multiple media. That led me to putting in a Transformer page and a My Little Pony page since they are a big part of comics too.
After the mini-comics of Terms and Conditions came out, I asked Françoise Mouly what she thought I might do next. She suggested that I put them on Tumblr. I did it and let friends know about it. I ended up getting a lot of media attention just from the Tumblr. That was crazy. I didn’t yet have the Drawn & Quarterly book. That was still a year away from happening. I hit a nerve that I didn’t realize I would. It became an internet sensation for a second! Which is a long time for me. That was really gratifying and exciting.
That’s the theory, that you create something first on the internet, create some buzz and then approach the publisher. Or, best case scenario, the publisher approaches you.
Yes, I’d worked with Drawn & Quarterly for many years. They’d serialized by Masterpiece Comics in their anthology and then collected them into a book. They knew me. I wanted them to do it. And they said yes, after checking with their lawyers on legal issues. And we have not heard from Apple.

From The Unquotable Trump

Not even a peep from Apple?
I could be wrong but maybe it’s better for them not to say anything. They probably don’t want to encourage people to do this. I think I’ve gotten approval from their silence. I take that as a sign. I know they’ve seen it. I don’t know how they couldn’t. I’m pretty sure that some of the people who interviewed me contacted them for comment. They didn’t respond. I know people within the company and they say it’s great. But no official comment. I can see that if Apple actually said it didn’t like it then that would seem punitive and, if they did the opposite and said they liked it, then that would open the floodgate for others to do their parodies.
People are going to do what they want anyway. Like me, I wasn’t even planning on doing such a book. I was looking for a new way to break from my habits of making comics. I wanted to think of comics in a different way and the work did all that. Having it come out as book was amazing and great but only something you can hope for, not count on.

CAROUSEL Comics Performances and Picture Shows, hosted by R. Sikoryak

Tell us about how Carousel came about.
When I was in college, I was flirting with performance art. I happened to see Roz Chast do a reading of her gag cartoons at an event in the early ’90s. I was really struck by seeing the artist with their work on stage. She was charming. The audience loved it. I thought about how theatrical it was since there’s the charge of being very in the moment in front of a live audience. And I thought I needed to do this with my own comics. I worked a little bit with theater companies and I was already hosting variety shows and that sort of thing. Converting my comics into a slide show, around 1992, was a whole new thing for me. Other people had done it before me but that really worked for me. My strongest material was my comics! So, I started doing my comics as slide shows. Within a few years, I had met other people in the scene from variety shows and other artists who made visual storytelling for theater. Like Brian Dewan who showed the film strip last night. He’s someone who was in my earliest shows. He’s a musician and a visual artist. He makes these idiosyncratic pseudo-educational slide shows dealing with big philosophical issues, which I love.

Carousel photo by Andrea Tsurumi

By the late ’90s, I’d organized my slide shows into what’s become Carousel. In the early shows, I had people like Ben Katchor, David Sandlin, and a lot of other people from the downtown performance scene. By 2001, it had become my main performance habit. So, four to eight times a year, I do these shows where I invite cartoonists and other visual artists. I’d had on people who do live music with projections, people who do drag with projections. Cartoonist Matthew Thurber makes these large scrolls. The drag queen I had on recently is Sasha Velour, who won Rupaul’s Drag Race a couple of seasons back. I met her as a cartoonist. Her current performances still retain a vital visual element.

Carousel

Mine are more like radio plays or podcasts with actors reading lines for the all the different parts with background music. Or, as in the case of some of the other people you saw last night, they will talk about their work or tell stories that are visually supplemented. Or, in one case, Hilary Campbell showed her rejected New Yorker cartoons which is a very straightforward way of doing it and very comedic. I think it’s very excited to be able to see the person with their work. Everybody does it a little differently. It seems like a simple enough idea. I like to have six or seven people in each show. I think the personality of each artist gets to come through. In the best cases, you can really get some insight into what the work is about. I’ve had shows where I go back and reread the comic after having listened to them read. It’s endlessly interesting. It’s a way to bring it to people who might not see it otherwise. Certainly, with the internet, it’s easier to come across this stuff but even so a lot of the people who present don’t necessarily put their work out in that way. Doing it in the theater brings in a different crowd. So, you get to show theater people in a different form.

Carousel

The comics came to life in such an organic way and you just don’t know how people, or the cartoonist, might react.
It reminds me a bit of the commentary track on a DVD. It all depends on the work people make. My work tends to be conceptually tight so I tend to honor it as it is. But it’s great to see how people might explode the format and find other ways of doing it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m working on a new volume of Masterpiece Comics. My latest mini-comics help update folks that there’s more on the way. I do storyboards for an animation studio. I teach at Parsons. I’m doing more book illustrations. I try to keep myself surprised.
Well, we can leave it there. Thank you so much, Bob.
Thank you, Henry

Visit R. Sikoryak right here. For more information, and how to purchase, Terms and Conditions, Masterpiece Comics and The Unquotable Trump, visit Drawn & Quarterly right here. When in New York, check to see if your schedule and the Carousel schedule align right here.

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Filed under Cartoonists, Comics, Illustration, Illustrators, Interviews, New York City, Robert Sikoryak, The New Yorker

SPX 2018: Observations & Recollections

SPX 2018: “Three tickets, please.”

Whenever I go to anything creative, be it a play or a reading or a comics art festival, I do a lot of processing: What have I learned? How does this fit into the world? So, Small Press Expo is no different in that regard. Once you drop into SPX, it is like being inside a giant pinball machine as you’re being thrown in one direction after another. For me, with many years of experience in creating comics and writing about them, I rely on my internal database to make sense of it all.

For this post, I will introduce some pieces of the puzzle that I will discuss further in upcoming posts. I’m as much cartoonist as journalist in the sense that I feel most alive when I’m tackling a project that requires a good bit of deciphering.

It is my strong belief that you can’t study the art of comics inside a comics bubble. I mean, you run a high risk of doing yourself and the reader a disservice if you come to the subject of comics only as a comics enthusiast. I’m digressing here a bit but I’m just trying to say that comics fit into a much bigger picture. You can, as the saying goes, lose the forest for the trees. Where do you begin with such a colossal subject as comics? You look at it, walk away for a while, then refocus–and always keep in mind those outside of comics or just entering the world of comics.

One thing I do know is that people still read. And I’m always pleased when some folks make their way over to my posts. I do my best to provide concise text with a decent sampling of images as needed. Here I will post some creators I will spotlight in some upcoming posts. I think this will result in giving a sense of the wide range of activity and talent at Small Press Expo. Here are some representative talent: Kati Lacker, Luke Foster, and Sophie Goldstein:

Kati Lacker

Luke Foster

Sophie Goldstein

Let’s make a quick detour. I want to share with you a little taste of the comics workshops at SPX put together by Comics Workbook. I had the honor of participating in one led by Dash Shaw. We covered quite a lot of work in one hour! I include a sample in this below video. I even got a chance to participate in the informal Q&A. I wasn’t planning to but then I did.

I put a question to Dash Shaw: “This may sound silly but is the only true work in comics created by one person?” His response was interesting: “It’s great that a work in comics can be created by one person. Not all things can be created by one person. You can’t make a baby with just one person.”

Dash Shaw leading a Comics Workbook session at SPX

I enjoyed that response very much. But it was only the next morning that I thought of a much better way to frame the question–or my own answer back: “It can hold true that, just like the lone painter creating a painting, and we see painting as the act of a singular vision, so too can we see that in the creation of comics, there is a singular vision by one creator.” That is exactly what each student was doing in that session with Shaw: creating one work by one person. So, anyway, that for me was good to think about. Of course, there can be other factors that come in, like hiring a colorist. In the end, comics are about a driving force and that usually means one very determined creator started the ball rolling or kept the ball to themselves.

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Filed under Comics, Illustration, Illustrators, Kati Lacker, Luke Foster, mini comics, mini-comics, Minicomics, Small Press, Small Press Expo, Sophie Goldstein

Illustrator Focus: Devan Fowler

Devan Fowler character design

Comics Grinder has a long history of supporting exciting new talent. In that spirit, welcome to illustrator Devan Fowler! She is a recent graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design.

Devan Fowler character design

What I like about Devan’s work is that it shows a lot of care and dedication. At this early stage in her career, Devan has got a strong foundation to work from. There’s a whimsical quality to her work as well as an overall strength. You believe these characters have lives and can hold their own.

Devan Fowler comics

“As an artist I strive to create cute and relatable characters, while giving them unique and diverse personalities and characteristics.”
— Devan Fowler

Devan Fowler illustration

The future looks bright for Devan Fowler. I think she has great potential as a cartoonist and she certainly shines at character design. She definitely has the skill set. And I’m sure that she will succeed with whatever she puts her mind to accomplishing.

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Filed under Art, Character Design, Comics, Illustration, Illustrators, Savannah College of Art and Design, SCAD

Comics Review: ‘The Little Match-Seller’ by Danilo Del Tufo

“The Little Match-Seller” by Danilo Del Tufo

Danilo Del Tufo is an illustrator in Quarto, Italy. I like his new comic, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen classic tale, “The Little Match-Seller.” You can purchase a copy at LuLu.com right here. And you can find more details right here.

A burning light of hope.

“The Little Match-Seller” or “The Little Match Girl” (Danish: Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne, meaning “The little girl with the matchsticks”) is a short story by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen. The story is about a dying child’s hopes and dreams, and was first published in 1845. Del Tufo does a thoughtful job of evoking the great pathos in this story. This is an excellent example of a wonderful calling card in the form of a comic to showcase an artist’s work. And, of course, it is also a fine comic in its own right.

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Filed under Childhood, Children, Children's Books, Comics, Hans Christian Andersen, Illustration, Italy

Review: ‘Diario de Oaxaca’ by Peter Kuper

“Diario de Oaxaca” by Peter Kuper

Peter Kuper is one of the great cartoonists and any book by him is a treat. In this case, you have a highly creative individual out and about for two years in a most stimulating environment, Mexico, specifically in Oaxaca. What could be better than his sketchbook journal of his two years there? The paperback version of his “Diario de Oaxaca” recently came out from PM Press.

Pages from “Diario de Oaxaca” by Peter Kuper

Kuper follows his heart and stream of thought to deliver page after page of enchanting work. He has a special multi-colored pencil that he uses. The lead in the pencil is made up of various colors. That allows much greater spontaneity as he can instantly shift the pencil to get a different color and then another and so on. He seems to have most fun with creating work that has that look of being on the fly–but can also be a mix of a long day, or night, of contemplation.

The sense of excitement and discovery is palpable. In a similar quick manner, he jots down numerous observations in prose as well. The joie de vivre takes a decidedly sober tone as Kuper finds himself covering a fight between strikers and government troops that left more than 20 people dead, including American journalist Brad Will. The end result is that Kuper manages to capture both the light and the dark of Oaxaca in an extarordinary collection of dispatches.

“Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico” is a 208-page paperback with full color artwork throughout. For more details, visit PM Press right here.

Book Giveaway: Be sure to visit tomorrow when the Comics Grinder Winter Giveaway kicks off. Among the items that will be available will be a copy of “Diario de Oaxaca.”

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Filed under Comics, Illustration, Mexico, Peter Kuper, Travel

What if Movie Characters Had Poor Eyesight? by Wren McDonald

Not a pretty sight for Indiana Jones!

What if your favorite movie character had poor eyesight? Take Indiana Jones, for instance. What if his eyesight failed him right at that crucial moment when he is risking his life to plunder that golden idol? Not a pretty sight! Award-winning illustrator Wren McDonald has created a series of comics for Visian ICL.

Not a pretty sight for Luke Skywalker!

At Visian ICL, they take vision very seriously. Visian ICL believes that everyone deserves to see the world as vividly as possible – whether with glasses, contacts or more the advanced procedures which they offer. To learn more about Visian ICL, and see more Wren McDonald comics, go right here.

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Filed under Comics, Humor, Illustration, Star Wars, Wren McDonald

Review: THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK

THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK

GUM LUCK is the second in the Gumazing Gum Girl series, published by Disney-Hyperion Books, and it is as irreverent and quirky as you may expect. Illustrated by Rhode Montijo, written by Montijo, with Luke Reynolds, this is a perfect book for young readers. This book is hilarious and there is method to all the madness too. Gabby Gomez has quite a conflict to deal with: bubblegum gives Gabby superpowers but her dentist dad is totally against bubblegum. Gabby feels compelled to confess her big gum secret but she can’t risk losing her powers.

Reading GUM GIRL

The script by Montijo and Reynolds provides a fun mix of kid reality and kid fantasy. For example, in one chapter, Gabby is alarmed to see a car skidding its way towards a collision. Instantly, Gabby sets loose her gum powers and brings the car to a sticky, but safe, stop. However, once Gabby arrives at school, she discovers her permission slip to go to the zoo is covered in bubblegum. Without a readable permission slip, Gabby is forced to stay behind in a classroom with other kids who can’t go to the zoo.

Pages from THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK

Montijo’s bold artwork is a real treat and keeps the action moving along. Montijo has managed to channel is own take on the Power Puff Girls. Gabby Gomez and her family are easy to relate to while Gum Girl is whimsical and fun to follow along. Montijo offers up a very pleasant and animated style. It is spare and clear and will be especially appealing to a younger age group of ages 6-8. This book also happens to have a pleasing hint of bubblegum scent!

THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK is a 160-page color hardcover, available as of June 13th. You can find it at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Children's Books, Disney, Education, Illustration, Literacy, Reading

Review: ‘Resurrection Perverts: Hunter’s Point’ by Danny Hellman

Harry’s Comeuppance Over Manhattan

Harry Homburg was a porn magazine mogul. His life was not poetic or refined. But he could always rely upon making money and getting laid. That’s all that seemed to matter. And then the bottom fell out of the traditional porn industry. This is the basis for Danny Hellman’s new book that follows one man’s attempts to claw his way back to the top. I believe Danny Hellman to be one of the hardest working illustrators in the business. He has secured his place in his chosen field of illustration with a singular style and sense of humor. “Resurrection Perverts: Hunter’s Point” is his first long-form work in comics.

Is there more to life than sex and money?

I’ve seen various short comics narratives from Hellman and I’ve always enjoyed them. I do appreciate his often ribald and provocative stuff and this new book about a fading porn publisher fits right in with his jaded big city tough guy brand. The book is set up at one panel per page. The introductory remarks attached to the book state that it is “one scene per page, like a series of smartphone screens.” The premise is that, in order to save his failing Harlot magazine, Harry will do anything–except change with the times. And why should he? As far as he’s concerned, the typical Harlot reader not only is tech clueless but can’t even afford a computer. This comic itself, interestingly enough, mirrors Harry’s cynical view. Like a really goofy skit on SNL, you just roll it and Hellman has the balls and the skill to get away with it.

Almost like father and son.

There’s a moment in the story where Harry Homburg is preparing to have dinner with his elderly business partner. Harry calls over the waiter: “Jimmy, listen. This guy is macrobionic. No menu. Just bring him a bowl of moss.” It’s a sharp and funny little moment. And I could very well see Hellman writing the whole book just to include it. The book really feels like a wiseguy giving everyone the finger and that’s not easy to do well, and with style. If you’re a fan of Howard Stern (and, at this point, who isn’t?) then you’ll relate and rejoice to the humor found here. If you’re looking for the next cutting-edge work in graphic novels, this is not that kind of gem. That said, it is a gem, all the same.

A night out at Papageno.

Much of our story takes place in Lower Manhattan at Restaurant Papageno. There is excitement in the air with the anticipation of Homburg’s publishing exclusive photos of a sex scandal involving a US President. Add Homburg’s struggles with the digital age and it all feels circa 1998. But that’s neither here nor there. Basically, Hellman would tell you, it’s the present–deal with it. And, you know, I can deal with it. If you’re someone who has explored NYC with any depth, you know there is plenty of activity lost in a time warp. This is all fun and gritty stuff that rings true. And, sure, I’d be happy to see people reading this comic on their smartphones. As of this writing, this book is only available as a hardcover. A Kindle version will be available as of June 1, 2017. This is part of a series so I am eager to see how things develop with this project.

“Resurrection Perverts: Hunter’s Point” by Danny Hellman

“Resurrection Perverts: Hunter’s Point” is a 112-page hardcover, in full color, published by Dirty Danny Press. You can find it at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Amazon, Comics, Comics Reviews, Danny Hellman, Illustration, Kindle, New York City

Interview: Edward Sorel and a Grand Career in Illustration

Edward Sorel in his studio.

Edward Sorel in his studio.

Anyone interested in illustration, art, satire, or the specific art of drawing, will know something about the career of Edward Sorel. The work of Edward Sorel covers a wide spectrum resulting in a hefty portrait of the human condition, with a notable eye to speaking truth to power.

My interest in Edward Sorel runs deep. I checked out from my school’s library Sorel’s 1972 collection, “Making the World Safe for Hypocrisy.” It was 1973 and I was a sensitive and highly impressionable lad of 10 years-old. I was filling sketchbooks with portraits of Watergate personalities, both villains and heroes. I tore into that book and marveled over Sorel’s distinctive crosshatching and his lively expressive line work. I was in awe with how he brought to life various dignitaries, politicians, and movie stars. The gold standard had been set in my mind and it hasn’t changed ever since. What really wows me now goes back to my early introduction to the work of Edward Sorel.

Quotes from reviews for Mr. Sorel’s new book, “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936,” published by Liveright/W.W. Norton & Company:

“Life is so unfair. I tore up the old linoleum in a grungy apartment I rented years ago and found under it only schmutz, hardened chewing gum and a torn ticket stub to ‘Moose Murders.’ Ed Sorel tears up the old linoleum in his apartment and finds yellowing newspapers with headlines screaming about a scandal that gave him material for a terrific book. Not only does he then write a terrific book, but he illustrates it with his wonderful caricature drawings. Who would figure that Mary Astor’s life would provide such entertaining reading, but in Sorel’s colloquial, eccentric style, the tale he tells is juicy, funny, and in the end, touching.”
—Woody Allen, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“Rapier-sharp…With a tip of his pen to Daumier, the artist evokes the quaint, febrile glamour of Astor’s Hollywood, and his affectionate, conversational prose gives Mary and her story a kind of valiant dignity never bestowed while she lived.”
—Edward Kosner, Wall Street Journal

“Delightful, colorful, and occasionally cheeky.”
—Allison Sadlier, Entertainment Weekly

From "Mary Astor's Purple Diary" by Edward Sorel

From “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” by Edward Sorel

Edward Sorel (born Edward Schwartz, 26 March 1929, The Bronx) has recently released a book from Liveright/W.W. Norton. The book, entitled “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” is about his lifelong obsession with film star Mary Astor but it’s also a memoir of a sort. You may have read Woody Allen’s review of the book in The New York Times Book Review. Allen had the honor of introducing many new readers to the opening story in the book: It is 1965 and Edward Sorel, newly married and settling into new digs, is left with the task of replacing the old linoleum kitchen tile. Lo and behold, buried underneath is a stash of old newspapers chronicling the scandalous 1936 custody battle of Hollywood star Mary Astor. Well, the rest is history and this most engaging book.

I interviewed Mr. Sorel this last Wednesday, February 8th. I hope you enjoy it.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Turning our attention to Mary Astor, what is intriguing about her is that she had a life where one plus one kept equaling three. Despite a series of bad choices, whether in lovers or career options, Mary Astor managed to persevere. Is that part of the appeal, that she took such an offbeat path?

EDWARD SOREL:
The appeal came when I read her memoir. She was a self-denigrating and witty writer. Very observant. Somewhat cynical about Hollywood. She had an intelligence that appealed to me. Then I started seeing her movies and I was hooked on her. Her bad decisions that you refer to have to do with having had an abused childhood, not in any physical way but in a mental and psychological way.

Her father kept her from having friends because he didn’t want her to see how Americans lived, how Americans treated their children. He wanted to be the dictator of his home. And he succeeded. She was unable to break free from him until quite late in her life. And it kind of ruined her. And God knows she made a lot of terrible mistakes in her life.

Marry Astor and John Barrymore.

Marry Astor and John Barrymore.

I was watching 1924’s “Beau Brummell” and I am intrigued by the relationship Mary Astor developed with her co-star, John Barrymore, of all people. In their case, the twenty year age difference was inappropriate. However, it was what it was. And it was through Barrymore that Mary Astor learned a lot and gained self-confidence.

He did do her a lot of good but not for any altruistic reasons. He was out to nail her. He was on his way to Hollywood on the 20th Century Express. He had just completed the most successful run of “Hamlet” that America had seen. He was acclaimed as America’s greatest actor. He was on his way to the coast to make “Beau Brummell” for Warner Bros. because they were paying him a lot of money. And he picks up a magazine that has a photograph of Mary Astor about the age of 16 and under the photograph it said, “On the Verge of Womanhood.” Barrymore had a particular liking for virgins.

As I pointed out in the book, it was Barrymore who had his way with Evelyn Nesbitt, who later married Harry Kendall Thaw. And it was Thaw who shot Stanford White, America’s great architect, because he thought Stanford White had taken his wife’s virginity–when, in fact, it was Barrymore. That is a sidebar I’m proud of since I pieced together that bit of information.

According to Mary Astor, Barrymore really believed that he was going to marry her. And maybe he did plan to. But when Mary would not break free from her parents, after Barrymore offered her starring roles, because her father forbade it, Barrymore realized that she was just a child. She was completely under the sway of her father. Marrying a woman twenty years younger was one thing but marrying a child was something else. He broke her heart by calling it off.

I think it’s a cartoonist thing, as I’m a cartoonist, that we keep seeking out the offbeat. So, in the spirit of that I throw out a curveball, and ask you about your changing your last name to Sorel. You are referring to Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black.” I loved that book and the main character, Julian Sorel. Is there something interesting going on there with that connection?

I liked to think that I saw myself in Julian Sorel because he was like catnip to women, which I really wasn’t, and he hated the corrupt society of his time, as I hated mine. The first election that I voted in was the one between Eisenhower and Stevenson. I took a dim view of both of them and voted for a third party.

The other thing about Julian Sorel was that he hated his father. God, I certainly hated mine, not only because he tried to discourage me in wanting to be an artist but because he was a mean-spirited ignorant man not kind to my mother, not kind to anyone. And I didn’t want anything to do with him. I was going to be a cartoonist and I didn’t want to sign my name, Schwartz, in the right-hand corner. And I chose the name, Sorel, because of the novel. It seemed as good a name as any.

"Stagecoach." 1980 illustration for Esquire magazine.

“Stagecoach.” 1980 illustration for Esquire magazine.

I think back to myself as a boy wondering about how you created your work. You’ve spoken about “finding lines.” Could you share a little bit about that?

When you work commercially, and you’re taking assignments, you have to show the art director what you plan to do. So, you do sketches of the drawing you plan to do. And, after a while, I began to notice that my sketches had more vitality and life than my finishes did. My finishes were often dead and overworked. And so I tried to emulate the quality that I had in my sketches which meant doing it without tracing. In point of fact, that’s impossible to do if you’re doing very complicated scenes. You can work direct if you’re doing a face, a figure, a still life, or anything relatively simple. You can work direct without tracing and the work has a vitality to it. But when you’re doing complicated scenes, with many different elements, you really do have to know where you’re going. So, I found out that if I just had a light outline of where I wanted the elements to be, and didn’t trace, I could keep this sketchy quality that I think gave my art work some distinction.

"The Goodwood Races," 1939, by Feliks Topolski (1907-1989).

“The Goodwood Races,” 1939, by Feliks Topolski (1907-1989).

That quality of your art has influenced so many artists, whether they realize it or not. And, certainly, there have been other artists who have used an “expressive line.” You have talked about some of your favorites, like Feliks Topolski. There’s a certain sensibility that you both share.

Yes, well, he wasn’t trying to be funny like I always have. But his work has spontaneity, which I value in every artist. Wether its Bemelmans or Topolski. What shocks me now is to find so many artists who enjoy doing art work with a computer. I’ve seen some very nice computer art. You can get that nice flat color and can do all sorts of tricks that you can’t do by hand. But, to me, it doesn’t seem like fun. It seems like working on a machine. I just love the act of drawing. I’m a throwback. Most of the illustrations that you see today in magazines, and God knows you don’t see too many, are computer-generated in some form or another.

One compromise is for the artist to draw some of the illustration by hand, scan it, and do the rest on a computer.

It doesn’t seem fun to me but it must seem fun for them. I don’t cast aspersions on their way of doing it.

I think it boils down to being a time-saver. And, once a routine has set in, that’s the way it’s done and that’s it.

The other thing about computer art is that there’s nothing original, nothing to hang on the wall. You could have a show but it would only be prints. To each his own.

"Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition," 1967, by Edward Sorel

“Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition,” 1967, by Edward Sorel

I wanted to touch on one of the all-time classics, your 1967 anti-war illustration, “Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition.” The real life punchline there is that you were all set to roll out a poster when the focal point of the piece, Cardinal Spellman, passed away rendering your satire unsellable. Now, there’s some divine intervention.

The day it came off the press is the day he died. It never sold in any store in America. It is in a museum in Amsterdam. One store in Chicago tried to sell it and had its window broken. Apparently, Cardinal Spellman had some fans in Chicago. That was a bad break. You get some bad breaks and you get some good ones. I was the recipient of Woody Allen’s praise on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. That was the best break I ever had.

From "Edward Sorel: Nice Work If You Can Get It," 2011, by Leo Sorel.

From “Edward Sorel: Nice Work If You Can Get It,” 2011, by Leo Sorel.

I encourage everyone to check out the short film on you that your son, Leo, did. That is quite informative and a treat. It shows you in your studio. And then the Q&A afterward with illustrator James McMullan is very impressive. Towards the end of that, you talk about the pen you favor, a Speedball B6. I’ve always had a devil of a time with steel point dip pens. But the Speedballs I could manage. And then you flip it backwards to get the crosshatching.

Yes! That was my secret. The Speedball does move and it allows you to be kind of spastic over a piece of paper.

"Nixon and Mao," 2007, The New Yorker.

“Nixon and Mao,” 2007, The New Yorker.

I wanted to ask you about Donald Trump. There was that drawing of him as Medusa you did last year. The big news at the moment is all about Mitch McConnell silencing Elizabeth Warren. I could see that as perhaps triggering an Edward Sorel drawing.

I can’t cope with Donald Trump. I haven’t done political cartooning in a number of years. I can’t deal with him. With all other presidents, you could make fun of their hypocrisy and have fun with them. But Mr. Trump is kind of crazy. And he’s dangerous. He’s cruel. Making fun of him doesn’t seem what’s called for. It’s trivializing him. He shouldn’t be trivialized. He’s really a danger. People are really scared. They wake up with Donald Trump on their mind and they go to bed with him on their mind. He’s a heavy presence in our lives now. I don’t know how to deal with that.

You can’t call him the new Nixon. At least with Nixon, there was a mind at work. It’s being very generous, but there was some sense of integrity compared to Trump. Nixon you could call a president. But, with Trump, he’s president only by title.

He seems unhinged. I think it was Bernie Sanders who called him unhinged. He seems too crazy to be in that office. I don’t know what else to say about him.

Donald Trump illustration, 2016, for Vanity Fair.

Donald Trump illustration, 2016, for Vanity Fair.

Especially living it right now. It is stomach-turning. I won’t talk about him anymore. But I do need to mention Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of Sean Spicer. Have you seen that?

No, tell me about it. I’ve been trying to avoid the news lately.

Well, Melissa McCarthy is a comic genius and she was on Saturday Night Live last weekend. She did a spot on impersonation of Sean Spicer, had the look and mannerisms down.

Oh, wait, I did see that! A friend sent that to me.

I think that has the power of a political cartoon and then some. It captivated everyone. It was an emotional release for everyone to see that.

Yes, I’m sure it was. It was very funny.

It seems to me that every artist needs a hero, someone to play off of. I see your book, weaving your life with Mary’s, as following the artist’s struggle. I think of how Mary evolved. I think of how Mary and Bette Davis were able to rewrite “The Great Lie,” turning that around into a notable film.

She did become a very fine actress. But she also became a little bit like her father, terribly obsessed with money. She twice turned down contracts for starring roles since she believed supporting roles would provide a longer career. She did indeed have a long career. She was in over 100 movies. And she was going strong until about 1959. She didn’t take chances. Maybe she didn’t believe she was a good enough actress. She missed having a chance at great roles and great performances. That was too bad.

My obsession with her has to do with my thinking I wasn’t a great artist because I didn’t have an obsession. So, I was very grateful when people called my interest in Mary Astor an obsession. Yes, it was an obsession and I do think it helped produce my best work.

"Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936" by Edward Sorel

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” by Edward Sorel

Can you tell us about your connection with Boston University?

I was very lucky to have Boston University buy my entire work, my oeuvre, as we say. In March, they’re having a retrospective of all my work and, as a matter of fact, I’m still packing up things to send there.

The Howard Gottlieb Center at Boston University has one of the finest collections from all walks of life. They have the second largest Martin Luther King collection. They have many of America’s great writers. They have Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They have most of the actors and actresses from the golden age of Hollywood. I’m very delighted to be part of this collection.

Mural by Edward Sorel at The Waverly Inn, completed in 2007. From left to right: Eddie Condon, Donald Barthelme, Willa Cather, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Jane Jacobs, John Sloan, and Andy Warhol.

Mural by Edward Sorel at The Waverly Inn, completed in 2007. From left to right: Eddie Condon, Donald Barthelme, Willa Cather, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Jane Jacobs, John Sloan, and Andy Warhol.

I heard a siren in the background. It brings back my visits to New York. You are a lifelong New Yorker and I know how much you love New York. Could you share some of your thoughts on the city?

I do love New York. I don’t love the crowds anymore. I do worry. When you live in a city like New York, you do begin to see a kind of science fiction future: crowds everywhere, lines everywhere. New York is kind of becoming that. They keep building these enormous skyscrapers without thinking about how the city will accommodate it. They’re not building out, like they did in Los Angeles. They’re building up. It used to be that the only crowds were in midtown but now crowds are all over. And you find yourself walking in the gutter because there’s too many people on the sidewalk.

So, yeah, I love New York. The New York that I grew up with, where the museums were free and everyone went to public school, seems to have vanished. Everything is expensive now, including the museums. It’s very difficult for young people. When The New York Times that I used to buy for three cents is now $2.50, The New Yorker which I used to buy for ten cents, is now something like $7, it’s bizarre. And, of course, the wages that young people get are pitiful. So, yeah, I love New York but I don’t like the time particularly.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

I can tell you about my next book. It’s going to be similar in structure to the Mary Astor book. It’s going to be a memoir. It will be about my growing up in New York. And it will be about the thirteen presidents that I’ve lived through.

My point is that every one of these presidents, whether I liked them or not, committed illegal acts, overthrew governments illegally, and did unconstitutional things. Starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who became enamored with Billy Graham. It was through those machinations that they put “In God We Trust” on our currency and inserted “Under God” in our oath of allegiance. Somehow, I regard that point in history as the slope we’ve been sliding ever since.

Now, it’s done so garishly with someone like Trump.

Right. Trump, the great Christian, who apparently was much loved by the Bible Belt. I don’t think there’s anything more derogatory I can say about organized religion than that they were responsible for the election of Donald Trump.

Is part of the new book you’re working on sitting on your drawing board?

Not yet. A little bit is sitting on the computer. Nothing has been drawn yet.

I wish you well on that. It’s been exciting and quite a treat to get a chance to talk with you for a bit.

You’re very kind. Thank you so much.

You can listen to the interview right here.

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” is a 176-page hardcover, with full-color illustrations, published by W.W. Norton & Company. For more details, visit W.W. Norton & Company right here.

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Filed under Art, Cartooning, Cartoonists, Donald Trump, Edward Sorel, Illustration, Interviews, New York City, Political Cartoons, politics, Richard Nixon

Book Review: ‘Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936’ by Edward Sorel

"Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936" by Edward Sorel

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” by Edward Sorel

If you are a fan of glamorous old Hollywood, then I have a book for you. It is a racy and juicy tale told by a masterful storyteller. I’ve always admired Edward Sorel‘s artwork with its caricatures that seem to pierce into his subject’s soul. Edward Sorel has written, and illustrated, a fresh look at Hollywood legend Mary Astor and interlaced her story with his own in “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936,” published by Liveright Publishing Company, a division of W.W. Norton & Company. This is mainly a prose book but it is generously filled with Sorel’s illustrations, over sixty original paintings. The prose is as elegant, urbane, and idiosyncratic as his art.

Mary faints during her first talking picture, 1930's "Ladies Love Brutes."

Mary faints during her first talking picture, 1930’s “Ladies Love Brutes.”

As a writer and cartoonist, I am here to tell you that it is the idiosyncratic person who gets a project like this about the elusive Mary Astor off the ground. That is what sets Edward Sorel apart and makes his work so distinctive. Sorel confides in the reader every step of the way. It was 1965 that Sorel first embarked upon his quest. It all began with lifting old rotting kitchen linoleum from his railroad apartment. Buried at the bottom were newspapers from 1936. The big story was the custody trial of Hollywood star Mary Astor, which included her infamous “purple diary.”

Edward meets Mary!

Edward meets Mary!

Sorel runs out of old newspapers before he can find out the end of the story. But he’s hooked. He vows to investigate further. The end result is this book, which moves at a steady clip as it transports us from Mary’s humble origins on the outskirts of Quincy, Illinois, raised by domineering parents, to Hollywood in the 1920s, Mary a rising child star, still saddled with domineering parents. Poor Mary never seems to figure out how to stand up for herself when it comes to finding a mate either. At one point, Mary turns down a contract with RKO strictly for starring roles. Then she follows that up with a hasty marriage. Sorel shakes his head and raises his fists on the page and the reader can’t help but do the same. Mary’s choices will continue to be bad before they get better. Mary’s ultimate bad choice will entangle none other than the most celebrated man on Broadway, George S. Kaufman.

Edward finds Nancy!

Edward finds Nancy!

Life, in all its glorious absurdity and majesty, is on parade in Sorel’s book. With a combination of the whimsical and the world-weary, Sorel weaves a tale that includes a supernatural meeting between Sorel and Mary from beyond the grave. And, the high point for me, Sorel shares with us how he met Nancy, the love of his life. Throughout, what emerges is the story of the artist’s struggle, both of Edward Sorel and Mary Astor. Both could have used another pat on the back and moral support. Both certainly earned it.

While Mary Astor would be the last to claim to be anyone’s role model, she proved to be more than capable to rise to the occasion. That is clear to see for all time in her role as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Mr. Sorel’s book provides his unique and quirky take on Astor’s life and helps us to better appreciate how she blossomed at pivotal times in her life. If you are looking for a definitive tell-all, this is not that kind of book. This is more of an expanded essay, an intelligent conversation. You can be new to the facts discussed or you can be quite familiar with them already. I dare say, it is just the sort of book, with its dry wit and cosmopolitan flavor, that Mary Astor would approve of.

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” is a 176-page hardcover, with full-color illustrations, published by W.W. Norton & Company. For more details, visit W.W. Norton & Company right here.

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Filed under Biography, Book Reviews, Books, Edward Sorel, Hollywood, Humphrey Bogart, Illustration, Mary Astor, Noir, Old Hollywood, Silent Movies, W. W. Norton & Company