Tag Archives: The New Yorker

On Black Cartoonists and Black Humor: Rethinking the Racist Narrative

A Charles Johnson self-portrait. If you know who R. Crumb is, then you really need to know who Charles Johnson is!

IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT, cover designed by Kerry James Marshall

Chicago is one of the great cities for comics with a rich history dating back to the dawn of the comic strip supported by world-class newspapers. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago honors this tradition with Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now (June 19-October 3, 2021), curated by  Dan Nadel. In the process, Nadel also edited a book that focuses on Black cartoonists entitled, It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940 – 1980, published by New York Review Comics. The title of the book comes from a gag panel cartoon by the cartoonist, and National Book Award-winning novelist, Charles Johnson. And the actual cartoon dates back to a collection of Charles Johnson cartoons, Black Humor, published in 1970, when Johnson was only 22 years-old. The two books document where Black cartoonists have been and point to a persistent struggle to rise upward. Discussion of the facts can only help to chart a course for the future—and it’s essential to look at all sides.

Black Humor cover, 1970.

The key narrative in It’s Life As I See It, is Black cartoonists reacting to being excluded from mainstream media, the white magazines and newspapers of the time. Dan Nadel asserts: “…neither Black cartoonists nor The Chicago Defender had a reach comparable to Chester Gould and the Chicago Tribune. Moreover, the Tribune and other primarily white outlets were notoriously uninterested in either Black cartoonists or Black subject matter.” And Johnson asserts: “…in The New Yorker, which at the time had a notorious history of not using the work of black cartoonists. In 1996, The New Yorker published a special “Black in America” double issue, which featured the work of thirteen “gag artists,” only one of whom was black; eight black people who submitted work were rejected, and the magazine’s cartoon editor, Lee Lorenz, admitted that The New Yorker‘s stable of cartoonists at the time was still entirely white.” However, when I spoke with former New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff, he had a generous history lesson to provide that can’t be overlooked.

From the pages of Black Humor by Charles Johnson

First of all, it is very difficult to get a cartoon published in The New Yorker to begin with. Bob Mankoff explains: “Historically it’s been very hard for anyone, regardless of race, gender or anything else to get published in The New Yorker. I submitted 2,000 cartoons to the magazine before I sold one. Even after I became a regular in the magazine, I sometimes went for many weeks at a time having all my cartoons rejected. To break into The New Yorker was an arduous process and basically anonymous. You just mailed in your batch of cartoons in a self-addressed stamped envelope and then got back a rejection slip or if you were lucky, eventually a sale. The Cartoon Editor, at that time, Lee Lorenz would not have known if you were black or white or really anything else about you. In looking over a thousand cartoons a week what was important to Lee, who I knew quite well, was the cartoon itself.”

1934 New Yorker cartoon by E. Simms Campbell. Archival sample.

Mankoff goes on to provide some historical perspective: “The reason there were traditionally few black cartoonists published in The New Yorker and relatively few women cartoonists compared to white male cartoonists, is primarily due to the fact that historically there were many more white male cartoonists in the field and submitting to The New Yorker than either black cartoonists or women cartoonists. That said, there were a number of women cartoonists, many more than black cartoonists of which, I believe there were only two, E. Simms Campbell and Robert Minter. E. Simms Campbell had quite a few cartoons published in The New Yorker in the ’30s before he moved to Esquire later in that decade to do Playboy-styled cartoons before there was Playboy.”

Esquire mascot, Esky, created by E. Simms Campbell

It was E. Simms Campbell, a Black man, who created Esky, the dandy with a top hat mascot for Esquire back in 1934. Esky is a whimsical character, albeit a rich white man too. In 1939, Campbell became the first African American to have his work syndicated nationwide. King Features published his comic strip, Cuties, a humorous series featuring pin-up girls, in more than 140 newspapers around the country. The Society of Illustrators includes in its Campbell profile: “E. Simms Campbell worked at the time racial segregation was the norm in the United States. Because his work was primarily about the life of wealth and pleasure enjoyed by white people, and it appeared in mainstream publications, most of his admirers were unaware that Campbell was African American. Economic reality was the most likely motivation for the absence of African Americans in his art, until after the Civil Rights Movement, most American publications were not willing to feature non-stereotypical minority characters regularly.”

1971 New Yorker cartoon by Robert Minter. Archival sample.

What’s really interesting in the case of the other known Black cartoonist at The New Yorker, Robert Minter, is that he was active right at the time that Charles Johnson’s Black Humor was published in 1970. You can do an internet search and see that Robert Minter was a regular contributor from 1968 to 1979. His gags are elegant, succinct, and definitely funny.

 

Moving right along to more recent times, Mankoff goes on: “When I became Cartoon Editor in 1997, I originally operated under the same criteria that Lee Lorenz employed. My focus was on the cartoon and on the cartoonist only to the extent that they could continue, week after week, year after year, to produce good original work based on the evolving tradition of The New Yorker cartoon in which the jokes are benign, and when not outright gags, a kind of comedy of manners gently tweaking the foibles and pretensions of the demographic of people who read the magazine, not punching up or punching down but elbowing to the side.

 

When David Remnick became editor-in-chief he realized that we needed to add diversity to our criteria. As a first step, the most obvious thing was not to make the default cartoon character white. If you look through any issue of the magazine nowadays you see people of color in all the situations and positions (doctors, lawyers, etc.,) that previously were occupied by white men. And there has been an effort to seek out more women cartoonists and people of color which has led to about half the published cartoons now being done by women. More diversity has been added by cartoonists with an Asian-American background such as Amy Hwang, Jeremy Nguyen, and Hartley Lin but for the most part, their cartoons do not playoff whatever has been unique about that background. In terms of black cartoonists, the outreach has been less promising. I did reach out to both Rob Armstrong and Darrin Bell and both had a few cartoons published but frankly, as they were both already successful, the rejection to acceptance ratio combined with not all that much money for a cartoon wasn’t worth the effort.

 

Since I left The New Yorker in 2017, many new cartoonists have appeared and I believe the effort for more diversity has been more concerted and urgent and is having more success with some black cartoonists such as E.S. Glenn, who I know, appearing in the magazine.”

Excerpt from Black Humor

So, theoretically, a cartoonist of the caliber of Charles Johnson could have continued submitting work to The New Yorker and have ultimately been accepted. However, it would not have been from the pages in Black Humor from 1970. As a young college student, Johnson was enthralled by a talk given by the Black activist poet Amiri Baraka where he urged Black people to give back to their community. Again, quoting from the same introduction, Johnson states: “I remember walking back to my dormitory in the rain from Baraka’s reading, dazed by what he’d said. I sat down before my drawing board, my inkwell, my pens. I started to sketch. I worked furiously for a solid week, cutting my classes. The more I drew and took notes for gag lines, the faster the ideas came. After seven intense days of creative outpouring, I had a book, Black Humor.” In less than a year, that book was published by Johnson Publishing Company, Chicago publisher of Ebony and Jet. The fact is that this kind of pointed humor, whether Black or not, is not part of The New Yorker sensibility. It would not have fit into what The New Yorker published then or publishes today.

From Black Humor, 1970, by Charles Johnson.

And so, if you’re a young Black cartoonist, circa 1970, fueled by hearty rebellion, what sort of cartoons are you going to create? The answer to that in Black Humor is a collection of biting satire pushing everything as far to the limits as possible. However, what may surprise some, is that the jokes that Johnson lets fly don’t take sides, often poking fun at Black protestors and poseurs alike as when a Black couple contemplate a date for the next riot. And perhaps only a Black cartoonist could strike the right chord when it came to lampooning white supremacy, often depicted in full Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. One joke has a mixed-race couple confronting a visit from mother, donning a hood and looking quite perturbed. Are these jokes unfair in their crassness? During an interview I conducted with Johnson, he pointed out that all’s fair when it comes to satire. And, while some of the cartoons may come off as utterly surreal, it is that very incongruity that makes them most effective. One example is when a Black man adamantly complains that, without discrimination, there won’t be anything left to complain about. Overall, these are cartoons by an accomplished young cartoonist eager to make some unflinching observations. And it’s no overstatement to say that Johnson, at an early age, was already an accomplished cartoonist having won more awards and produced more work than some professionals.

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

Looking back at the early work of Charles Johnson is rewarding on many levels, especially when you consider where his creative pursuits would take him. Johnson would develop into a highly insightful writer of Black America, racism and slavery. To look back at some of Johnson’s cartoons is to view prescient fragments of the novels that were to come. Perhaps the most striking cartoon of that era is a Johnson cartoon from a 1976 collection of cartoons for Player (a Black version of Playboy), a joke that depicts the sexual fantasy of a Klansman as he gazes upon an attractive young Black woman. In the thought balloon, the Klansman’s deepest desire is for the woman to be stripped and lynched. This is a cartoon so dark, and outrageous, as to court its own deletion from history. But it is this very image, in its sophisticated morbidity, that needs to be seen. It is so distinctive that it could easily be a featured piece all to itself at any museum. Show it enough times, and it would grow to the strength of an iconic image. Keep it hidden, and it remains obscure. In contrast to Johnson, controversial work by R. Crumb has gained iconic status from repeated exposure over the years. Arguments continue to be made that R. Crumb’s blatantly racist comics, at the height of the underground comix movement of the sixties, are actually telling us something about the American psyche. However, Crumb has never adequately, if at all, explained his intent. In comparison to Crumb, Johnson’s work is clear, and, while sometimes blunt, retains its integrity without question.

If you know R. Crumb comics, then consider a Charles Johnson cartoon taking it to the edge.

The following cartoon is part of this paperback collection and no need to have it lost to history.

Cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote an essay in The Comics Journal in 2010 discussing Johnson’s early work. In that essay, he opens with a description of the Klansman cartoon in Player. Kreider cites the work of anthropologist Eli Sagan, his 1974 book, Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form which “discusses at length the deep human ambivalence between affection and aggression evident in many cultures: the eating of deceased family members or honored warriors, the psychic power imputed to human trophies like bones and heads; the reverence displayed toward the victims of ritual sacrifice. (And lynching is, among other things, a form of ritual sacrifice.) Johnson’s thesis is borne out by three centuries’ history of the rape of slaves by their owners.” Of course, what stands out most today about the work in Black Humor is how direct it is, not pulling any punches. Kreider observes that the more blunt and honest humor was a product of its times, circa 1970, a time when Don Rickles could get away with jokes about “The blacks, the Jews, the Puerto Ricans—mostly the blacks.” But this kind of humor isn’t all from some bygone era. All you need to do is look at Dave Chappelle, circa 2003, and even today! It is a figure like Chappelle who demonstrates how issues about race don’t fit neatly into little boxes. Yes, Dave Chappelle is alive and well, continuing to make outrageous comedy, and yet he can seem to be hiding in plain sight when certain segments of the public won’t acknowledge him.

Krazy Kat comic strip, 1941.

Another prominent Black figure hiding in plain sight was the pioneering comic strip artist George Herriman (1880-1944). It wasn’t until 1971 that a birth certificate revealed that Herriman was Black. During his career, he chose to “pass for white,” a choice many Blacks made not only to hopefully advance in life but maybe even to save their lives. Herriman’s comic strip, Krazy Kat, (1913-1944) is known for its many coded passages. I asked Johnson if he thought some Blacks had figured out that Herriman was Black by reading between the lines of the comic strip. He thought that was possible. I then asked him if he’d ever read of Krazy Kat lamenting over being Black and wondering about being white. To that, Johnson wasn’t ready to accept those comics existed. I had to check back but these comics are documented in Michael Tisserand’s 2016 biography, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White. In fact, I can cite for you here an example, circa 1925, “as when Krazy Kat showers in a bottle of bleach, saying, ‘This smex of a change among the kimplexion of things.’ That strip ends with Krazy turning completely white except for a black tail.” I checked in with Michael Tisserand and he responded with some samples and a reply: “There are many strips that deal with color and Krazy turning white. This “study in black and white” strip from 1931 is a pretty famous one and I’m sure I mentioned it in the book. There are also some beauty parlor gags in which Krazy turns white, one from 1941.”

Excerpt from Your Black Friend, 2016, by Ben Passmore.

In another comic strip from around 1925, Krazy describes this particular anxiety as one about an “inferiority complexion.” It’s a struggle that still haunts some Black cartoonists to this very day. If you take a look at Ben Passmore’s 2016 comic, Your Black Friend, there is a passage that depicts the cartoonist as a young boy smoothing out his curly hair and sucking in his lips to make them look thin like Leonardo Dicaprio. “The TV taught your black friend what beautiful was and it didn’t look anything like him.” On that same page, in another panel, Passmore glorifies hurting an innocent person. “One day your black friend heard about some cops killing a young black boy. That night your black friend threw a brick at a cop’s face.” This comic, which presents itself as a Black guidebook for white people, went on to be named on NPR’s Top 100 Comics list along with various comics industry accolades like, ironically enough, winning an Ignatz Award, which is basically a brick. Passmore takes a very obvious militant stance. Some people will find his work can be toxic while others will celebrate it without question.

You either cry–or you find a way to laugh. From Integration Is a Bitch!  by Tom Floyd.

And so that brings us back to 2021 and to the book, It’s Life As I See It, part of a bigger show focusing on Chicago cartoonists. One question worth asking is, How useful is it to set apart one segment of the cartoonist community? In this case, some questions would never get a chance to be asked otherwise and some aspects of history would remain in the shadows. Issues of self-worth are very complex and hard to resolve so, for that reason alone, a book focusing on Black cartoonists is valuable. But it’s all that history needing to be presented within context that pretty much steals the show. If not for this book, so many readers would probably never have become acquainted with such significant trailblazing cartoonists as Tom Floyd and his 1969 cartoon collection, Integration Is a Bitch! This is Floyd’s hilarious account of entering, and exiting, the white-collar workforce. A typical cartoon features two white executives looking over The Civil Rights Act of 1964. One declares to the other, “Hire some Negroes…Quick!” To have such a document of the times available was downright revolutionary. Such a book, along with Black Humor, was great motivation when it was clear there would be no easy wins and many battles ahead. Black cartoonists would need to rely upon themselves, create their own media for their own community, and keep fighting.

From Morrie Turner’s Dinky Fellas, 1965.

Black cartoonists found homes for their work in Black media, like The Chicago Defender. As Dan Nadel noted in his introduction to It’s Life As I See It: “The great tradition of Chicago comics as it’s most often taught—that of Frank King, Chester Gould, and Harold Gray—is brilliant, but it was never the full story. More than any other city in the country, Chicago had a vibrant yet utterly separate Black publishing industry that encompassed multiple comic strip genres in the Defender newspaper and a raft of panel cartoons about Black life in the locally published magazines, including Jet and Negro Digest.” It was this yin yang of responding to exclusion and aspiring to inclusion that reverberated throughout the Black creative process. There was room for wonderfully satirical comic strips like Jay Jackson’s Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos, a science fiction parody where the white race is subservient, published in the 1940s in The Chicago Defender. And there was also room for Morrie Turner’s Dinky Fellas, a comic strip that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz encouraged Turner to create. Dinky Fellas was launched in the Defender in 1964 as a Black version of Peanuts. It would later be renamed Wee Pals and be syndicated in five newspapers. But it was after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, with newspapers urgently seeking new Black voices, that Wee Pals was picked up by scores of papers and continued up to its creator’s death in 2014. A comic strip that came to life as a segregated version of the mainstream had managed to break through and to flourish.

Black anger, or is it simply human anger at injustice?

Charles Johnson was a young man, pounding the pavement in Manhattan in hopes of a big break from the great establishment media of the day—and never got it. All the answers as to why not are now painful to acknowledge. However you look at it, it was a long process. As a final aside, Johnson noted to me in an email that it wasn’t until The New York Times ran a review of It’s Life As I See It that a Charles Johnson cartoon was finally published in the pages of the great establishment media. A little late to say the least; but published nonetheless.

Quote from MIDDLE PASSAGE by Charles Johnson

Oh, one last thing, are you wondering what the cartoon alter ego for Charles Johnson is typing in the opening cartoon? Well, it’s not just mock type. Nope. In fact, it’s a quote from his National Book Award winning novel, Middle Passage. Just a nice FYI. There’s part of the quote right above.

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Filed under Black cartoonists, Comics, Essays, The New Yorker

Review: PENNY: A GRAPHIC MEMOIR

PENNY!

Penny: A Graphic Memoir. by Karl Stevens. Chronicle Books. 2021, 152pp. $19.95

As a cartoonist myself, and a longtime observer of the comics scene, I am utterly delighted to read this new book by Karl Stevens. It strikes all the right notes. And it will definitely do the same for you as a fan or newcomer to his work. Some of us in comics may indulge in hand-wringing over where graphic novels stand today as compared with the great boom in alt-comics nearly twenty years ago. But I say that things are evolving nicely in many ways. This book is a perfectly fine example of that. In fact, the audience for a good indie-spiked words ‘n’ pictures book is always going to be around and ready for the next worthwhile book. I think, in regards to Karl, he’s one of these very special talents who has found, over time, just the right set of factors to get to where he is now as an artist. This particular collection spans a good chunk of time as it was one of the last great comic strips to enjoy being published within the grand ole alt-weekly format (The Village Voice, The Boston Phoenix) that simply doesn’t exist anymore. This book is, in a sense, a testament to some glory days for comics. It’s certainly not lost on me that it is dedicated to the memory of Tom Spurgeon, one of the great advocates for the comics medium. Here you will find a sort of cat version of Little Nemo: an in depth exploration of the philosophical observations of a former alley cat-turned-house pet. Penny is one part enigma; one part uncanny entity; and one part one of us!

Born into a world she did not create.

I am going to push a little further on the notion of there being any of us cartoonists, or aspiring cartoonists, who might feel entitled to having their graphic novel project eventually picked up by a publisher. It’s best not to worry about such hypotheticals and just keep on truckin’. It dedication to the art of creating good comics that will have to rule the day. I look at all these pages of our hero, Penny, pondering existence, and it’s breathtaking, joyful, and inspiring. It’s a very beautiful feeling to be able to see your work all together, creating a whole. You don’t get there by bitchin’ and moanin’ that you’re entitled to anything because you’re not. And, sure, I suppose even folks who have never drawn any comics at all might fancy they’ll someday create a graphic novel. Well, it takes a special skill and a special drive to create something truly compelling and of lasting value. That’s why this book is special.

What dwells inside a cat’s head?

You start down a road of creating comics about a philosophical cat and you must get into this zone. I think, at some point, you lock onto the next page of bristol board, get to penciling, and, as if in a fever dream, you end up knocking out another completed page. And then, as another deadline looms, you do it again. And then again. Maybe, only after a while, you’re a little startled to find your main character has, by all counts, come to life. Arguably, still a work of fiction, without a need for sleep or being fed, but still alive: full of quirks, impulses, and contradictions. How does one, upon reflection, explain how Penny can be so relaxed and friendly towards a mouse one day only to revel in a good and bloody mouse kill the next? How does Penny justify being so jaded about cat toys one day only to be utterly mesmerized by cat toys the next? And, perhaps most chilling of all, how does Penny know how much her cat food costs? Yes, you start down a road and you find yourself sometimes with far more questions than answers!

Forced into an uneasy bargain tolerating humans.

Karl’s intricate drawing style is a perfect breeding ground for his droll humor. Most of us cartoonists are attracted to the droll like a cat to catnip. Within those lean deadpan lines and low-key watercolor washes lurks a cartoonist with a hearty appetite for the macabre and the obscure. It is the sort of humor that co-workers at some day job never understand or, more likely, only pretend not to understand. I am drawn to it and take the bait. I wonder about Penny. How can such a troubled soul be so easily baffled by mere shadows and yet comprehend the deepest levels of existential angst? With a flourish, as if flicking a mouse from one paw to another, Penny grieves over while also mocks all human activity and ostentation. Ah, mere mortals. Is the universe playing out within the skull of a house pet? That–and even more. This isn’t just a bunch of pithy wry jokes. This cat gets shit done. Penny even escapes her tender trap for a while. And who knows exactly what transpires when she finally responds to that portal and does enter another dimension.

Hold the phone, here’s the real Penny!

Is it a good idea to take Penny too seriously? It’s not like we haven’t done this to ourselves before. Sometimes, you just can’t help but want to overanalyze and who can really say if some things are just too precious not to give that added level of neurosis? The Marx Brothers. Krazy Kat. Why not Penny? So, yes, to Penny and yes, to Karl Stevens. Few cartoonists are in the same league as he is.

Can’t get enough of Karl Stevens? Then check out his work at The New Yorker. Find him on Instagram. And get your copy of Penny, published by Chronicle Books, and available as of May 4, 2021.

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Filed under Cats, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews

Interview: Jerome Charyn on J.D. Salinger, History and Heartbreak

Jerome and Henry discuss writing, history, and J.D. Salinger.

Just about any reader has an opinion about J.D. Salinger. In his latest novel, Sergeant Salinger, Jerome Charyn takes that most celebrated and enigmatic of writers and crafts a story about history and heartbreak. It is about history nearly lost. It is about history relived. It is about heartbreak of the most sorrowful. In the end, this is a dazzling work that will take you on trip that will give you a more vivid sense of World War II and the journey that led J.D. Salinger right to the precipice. Was J.D. Salinger a great writer. Yes, he had that magic touch, that artistic vision. What does Jerome Charyn do with this story? As Jerome was adamant to tell me, this is not a story seeking to find out who J.D. Salinger was in any conventional sense. This is, after all, a work of art, a work of fiction.

Slapton Sands was a debacle that was almost covered up and lost to history.

For me, I just want to share with you a marvelous novel. There’s so much to enjoy in the way of masterful writing. I cite one example here where J.D. Salinger finds himself levitating up and flying over Central Park on his way to Belvedere Castle. He is transformed back into a boy along with his sister, Doris, becoming a young girl again. They confront a sinister figure, a witch, who is actually Salinger’s estranged wife, Sylvia. Doris is puzzled when the witch invites Doris to a lesson she can’t learn in any school. What could that be? asks Doris. “What can you teach me?” The witch looks at Doris and replies, “How not to exist.” I know this is out of context but I trust you feel a chill from this.

J.D. Salinger was there for D-Day on Utah Beach.

Another reason you may enjoy my conversation with Jerome Charyn is the historic ground that we cover. We do talk some about literary theory and such. But, I think, a lot of you will find more than just interesting a brief overview of World War II. Yeah, in short order, we end up covering a lot of ground. But it couldn’t be helped. J.D. Salinger covered an enormous amount of ground during his service in the war. Salinger witnessed more combat than some of our most celebrated writers on World War II. Salinger was there to observe the calamitous Exercise Tiger, the D-Day landing at Utah Beach, and the liberation of the first Nazi concentration camp. Salinger saw so much, too much. And it sort of broke him. But not so much as to keep him from going on the complete a small but significant body of work, which includes, of course, The Catcher in the Rye.

J.D. Salinger was also there for Hitler’s last stand at the Battle of the Bulge.

Given our conversation, and my continuous searching to understand, Charyn summed it up nicely towards the end of our talk. “As for meaning, I don’t know what the ‘meaning’ is. I know what the music is. The music becomes the meaning. I’m not a philosopher.” Yeah! Kick-ass writing without apologies. For Jerome, the war, J.D. Salinger, New York City from a certain era, all of this Jerome lived and breathed himself. So, creating fiction from it came easy to him. “History is a very strange kiss that lands on you and invigorates and destroys. It is the past that I’m most interested in. It is the past that I try to summon up in my own way.” J.D. Salinger wasn’t a person to dissect and create a profile from. For Jerome Charyn, J.D. Salinger was a haunted house which he moved into and built some solid fiction from. Bring your A-game reading to this one!

And J.D. Salinger was among the first Americans to witness the liberation of the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau.

Be sure to view is conversation. I kid you not, you’ll be glad to did. And, if you have a moment, your comments are always welcome.

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Interview: Bob Eckstein and EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Everyone’s a Critic by Bob Eckstein

Bob Eckstein is an award-winning writer, New Yorker cartoonist, cartoon editor, and author of The New York Times bestseller Footnotes From the World’s Greatest Bookstores. His cartoons, OpEds, and short stories appear regularly in The New York Times, New York Daily News, MAD magazine, Barron’s, Readers Digest, The Spectator, Prospect, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Atlas Obscura, LitHub, among many others. He was a columnist for The Village Voice, New York Newsday, and TimeOut New York. He has been interviewed in over 100 TV, radio and magazine spots including Good Morning America and People magazine. He was selected Erma Bombeck Humorist of the Month. It was a pleasure to get to chat with Bob about his “series of happy accidents” that have led him to such a multi-faceted career.

New Yorker cartoon by Bob Eckstein

Becoming a regular contributing cartoonist to The New Yorker was a fluke at first. It all began while Bob was in the process of gathering up New Yorker cartoons having to do with snowmen for his book, The History of the Snowman (2007). This led to having lunch with legendary New Yorker cartoonist Sam Gross. At the lunch, Sam encouraged Bob to visit the office and submit a batch of ten cartoons for Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff to look over. At first, Bob was hesitant but he finally warmed up to the idea. As it turned out, one of his cartoons was accepted. It was something of a miracle, beginner’s luck, and it would take many months before another cartoon was accepted but the die was cast. Bob Eckstein had embarked upon a career as a gag cartoonist at a time when there were still plenty of magazines accepting gag cartoons.

New Yorker cartoon by Bob Eckstein

Fast-forward a few more years, Bob Eckstein has moved on to creating books. In recent years, he has created Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores (2016), The Illustrated History of the Snowman (2018), The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons (2019), and Everyone’s a Critic: The Ultimate Cartoon Book by the World’s Greatest Cartoonists (2019).

The Illustrated History of the Snowman by Bob Eckstein

Postcards inspired from the book, Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores.

From Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores by Bob Eckstein

Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores by Bob Eckstein

Bob Eckstein spent seven years traveling the world researching and attempting to answer the age-old question, Who made the first snowman? and is the world’s leading snowman expert. He has spoken publicly on the subject at many venues like The Grolier Club, Milford Theater and the Cooperage Theater.

Bob Eckstein

It’s no surprise that a quest to understand the snowman would take a circuitous path. In Bob’s case, it somehow led him to becoming a cartoonist for The New Yorker! And then there’s Bob’s love of independent bookstores. That journey led him to not only create a New York Times bestseller, Footnotes From the World’s Greatest Bookstores, but it also led to him editing what has become a series of New Yorker cartoon books. As Bob told me, the idea behind both The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons and Everyone’s a Critic: The Ultimate Cartoon Book is to present the very best cartoonists. Themes are important but, in the end, it’s all about the quality, the artistry, and a certain sensibility. Mr. Eckstein has done a wonderful job of showcasing that magical blend of talent.

You can listen to part of our conversation by clicking the link below:

Be sure to visit Bob at his website right here.

Follow Bob on Twitter at @BobEckstein, Facebook Bob Eckstein and Instagram at bob_eckstein.

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Gahan Wilson: 1930-2019

Gahan Wilson

Gahan Wilson was, in many respects, the ideal cartoonist for distinctive, wild and funny cartoons in the leading magazines of the day, National Lampoon, Playboy, and The New Yorker. I just got news of his passing. I had donated to a GoFundMe campaign for his care and received updates from his son, Paul Winters. The announcement begins: “The world has lost a legend. One of the very best cartoonists to ever pick up a pen and paper has passed on. He went peacefully – surrounded by those who loved him. ” Since I do my best to travel in various relevant circles, I did end up having the pleasure of meeting Gahan Wilson. I was in that famous green room that The New Yorker kept as a holding pen for cartoonists awaiting to see the legendary cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, back when The New Yorker was located in rather cramped, but thoroughly charming, offices in Times Square. So, I kept putting off going in to see Bob since I wanted to soak up the atmosphere. I got a chance to chat a bit with old-timers and new emerging talent. As an artist-writer-cartoonist, I was there with a legitimate batch of cartoons but I was mostly there just to be there since a visit to New York wasn’t something I did regularly. Anyway, there was Gahan Wilson. He was quietly seated on one of the big sofas. This was circa 2005. Gahan smiled and asked to see my cartoons. He nodded and picked out the ones he liked. “Good luck, kid,” he said. It was shortly after those words of encouragement that another cartoonist suggested I should go in before I missed my chance. For some reason, there was no list. You just went in. Very informal. So, I went in and Bob was Bob. In other words, he batted me around like a piñataBefore I knew it, I was done. In the end, Bob offered words of encouragement too. After that, I took one last look over to the green room. Gahan was there, smiling, very quiet, observing as a good cartoonist does, probably thinking up his next deliciously diabolical and weird cartoon. Oh, I had signed a waiver when I had first arrived. Apparently, I had picked the day that a documentary on Gahan Wilson was being filmed. It was released in 2013, Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird. And, if you happen to see it, you’ll see me in Bob’s office getting a thrashing, all in good fun, but a thrashing none the less. Funny thing is that I didn’t mind it at all, which is what a good cartoonist does. And how can one complain when in the presence of such greats as Bob Mankoff and Gahan Wilson? You just don’t. You’re grateful for the moment in this fleeting life. Rest in peace, Gahan.

Gahan Wilson cartoon

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Legendary Cartoonist Gahan Wilson in Need of Memory Care Facility

Gahan Wilson

Gahan Wilson. You know that name. Only a few cartoonists rank as high as Mr. Wilson. His distinctive quirky cartoons graced the pages of Playboy for over 50 years. He was also a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The National Lampoon, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and many other publications. Gahan Wilson is in urgent need of a memory care facility. This is a very challenging time for his family. Please consider making a donation to a GoFundMe campaign you can visit right here.

Gahan Wilson Needs Your Help

From Gahan Wilson’s stepson, Paul Winters:

Gahan is suffering from severe dementia. We have helped him through the stages of the disease and he is currently not doing very well.

My mother, and his wife of fifty-three years, Nancy Winters, passed away on March 2, 2019. She was his rock. His guide through the world. While we all helped with his care, it was my mother who grounded him. He is currently distraught and out of sorts with the world.

Memory care is needed immediately. Gahan and my mother had been residing in an assisted living facility in Arizona. With my mother’s passing, the facility is about to discharge him. We must find him a memory care facility immediately. Memory care is wildly expensive. More so than assisted living. If we could cover the cost ourselves, we would. We can’t, and Gahan and my mother did not save for anything like this. We are asking his fans to help us, help Gahan.

Visit GoFundMe and help one of our great cartoonists find his way: Help with Cartoonist Gahan Wilson’s Memory Care at GoFundMe.

 

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Filed under Aging, Cartoonists, Cartoons, Dementia, Family, Gahan Wilson, GoFundMe, Playboy, The New Yorker

Review: ‘The Best American Comics 2016,’ Editor, Roz Chast; Series Editor, Bill Kartalopoulos

Reading "Best American Comics 2016" on the train.

Reading “Best American Comics 2016” on the train.

I read this year’s Best American Comics on the train and I loved it all the more for doing so–but more on that later. Bill Kartalopoulos is the series editor and this year’s editor is Roz Chast. Even if you think you don’t know enough about the contemporary American comics scene, you probably know Roz Chast’s work in The New Yorker. So nothing to worry about, even Roz Chast doesn’t think of herself as exceptionally knowledgable about the current comics scene. However, Bill Kartalopoulos knew right away that, no matter how splintered the comics scene may be, here was a legendary cartoonist, with a wealth of experience, insight, and a very special kind of irreverence. This book is a guide through the best of American comics from someone with just the right sensibility to add to the journey. And what a journey it will be kicked off by the artwork of Marc Bell on the cover, as well as within the pages!

From "Stroppy" by Marc Bell

From “Stroppy” by Marc Bell

The path begins with a forward by Kartalopoulos which explains how we got here from there and what sort of comics we are focusing upon. For the most part, the focus is on comics that have come to be known as alternative comics, or alt-comics. These are comics that fall well within comics as an art form. While genre comics occasionally rise to the level of art, that is not their main purpose. So, as I have maintained, it is useful to be able to separate comics within two main groups: genre and the alternative to genre. There is crossover (which is great when it happens and can be quite interesting), but, in general, art comics are on one side and superhero and various other genre comics are on the other side. So, while it is possible, you will usually not see the likes of Batman or Spider-Man in Best American Comics–even if that just doesn’t seem right somehow.

Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine's "Killing and Dying."

Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine’s “Killing and Dying.”

Roz Chast’s introduction provides some clues as to what comics would appeal to her. Considering what she chose to include in the book, she is mostly intrigued by wry humor and in-depth autobiographical work. She says she’s not a prude but that if work gets misogynistic, that makes her sad. And she’s open to just about anything, even willing to go back to a comic that she wasn’t sure about at first. Chast does not categorize her selections. You just start reading. First up, is an excerpt from Adrian Tomine’s celebrated collection, “Killing and Dying.” In this excerpt from the title story, I can only imagine Chast’s love for zany humor telling her this is the piece to set the tone for the rest of the book: a story about a father struggling with his daughter’s sudden desire to be a stand-up comic.

Misfits band together in Chris Ware's "The Last Saturday."

Misfits band together in Chris Ware’s “The Last Saturday.”

Along with Adrian Tomine there are other clear choices to include: Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, among others. But the treat is that they are set within the context of choices that Chast came to make. That fact adds another layer to one’s enjoyment of a story about struggling misfits by Chris Ware. And, it is quite true, there are so many comics out there that you cannot keep up with all of them. It does seem best to find a way to hook in and make some sense of things using different approaches each year. To that end, series editor, Bill Kartalopoulos has settled into taking a long view of things. Ideally, you don’t just read one Best American Comics annual but you keep up with it each year to find out what has made an impression and how it may fit into the current wave. What novelist Johnathan Lethem did as editor last year is different from what comics historian Scott McCloud did the year before.

Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry's "Syllabus."

Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus.”

By the time I reached Lynda Barry’s story about coming to terms with a cartoonist’s goals and how to impart that wisdom unto students, I had a good sense of what Chast was going for. It provided me with a way to hook into everything else. And it was about that time that the rocking motion of the train added more resonance, especially as I patiently followed along lines of Barry’s handwritten writing reproduced from a notebook page. Both the train and the handwriting asked me to take my time. Earlier in my reading, I had been picking up on the fact that there is so much going on around you while riding in a train and how that is true for comics.

Barry brings up a challenging question: Just how long does it take to draw something? Well, it all depends. In the end, a good cartoonist develops a keen sense for this. It’s a variation of the old saw, When is a painting finished? So many art students have suffered from callous professors who dismiss work as simply unfinished. But, on the other hand, so many art professors have suffered from callow and impatient students who demand a checklist for assignment requirements. You cannot create anything, especially art, from a checklist! Time. It all takes time. So, in “Syllabus,” Barry sums it all up with, “Rushing it is missing it!” It is that standard that is maintained by all the cartoonists included here.

From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward

From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward

Cartoonists of this caliber are meticulous note-takers and obsessive in the best sense of the word. Among these type of cartoonists included in this book is an excerpt from “Adults Only” by Lance Ward. Ward states that he works directly on pre-made panels, without preliminary drawings, so that he can best attack his work. This runs counter to the Barry dictum of measured craftsmanship. However, Ward’s obsessive quality wins out. This is in the same spirit as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Ward has gotten to the point where he has hit enough marks to know, on an intuitive level, where the marks will end up. The work has a spare and energetic look to it. Ward is recounting his misadventures working in a porn shop. That is the point of departure for his delving into struggles with his sexuality. A more free-form style could not have been invented for him. A cartoonist can try to minimize or maximize their style but, usually a certain way of doing things falls into place.

"Bike Fast" by Sophia Zdon

“Bike Fast” by Sophia Zdon

Ward, along with other rising talents included here such as Sophia Zdon, has found what works. Zdon, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in 2015, provides heartfelt observations as if out of dreams.

From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie" by Casanova Frankenstein

From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie” by Casanova Frankenstein

One of the most raw and honest expressions in comics comes from Casanova Frankenstein. In an excerpt from “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie,” he confides in the reader about a tumultuous life.

Panel excerpt from "Fatherland" by Nina Bunjevac

Panel excerpt from “Fatherland” by Nina Bunjevac

An excerpt from “Fatherland,” by Nina Bunjevac, published by W.W. Norton, provides insights into a peculiar and dangerous life in Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War II.

From "Fashion Cats" by Alex Schubert

From “Fashion Cats” by Alex Schubert

Alex Schubert‘s “Fashion Cat” is a hilarious look at the misadventures of a feline hipster, originally published in Blobby Boys 2 by Koyama Press.

From "El Deafo" by Cece Bell

From “El Deafo” by Cece Bell

Cece Bell‘s “El Deafo,” published by Abrams, is quite a captivating story about a little girl coming to terms with being deaf and how to navigate the world. The story is given an added lift by the nicely modulated coloring by David Lasky.

"Don't Leave Me Alone" by GG

“Don’t Leave Me Alone” by GG

“Don’t Leave Me Alone,” by GG, is a dream-like compilation of growing up with fear and uncertainty in an intolerant and hostile world.

From "Blanket Portraits" by Geneviève Castrée Elverum

From “Blanket Portraits” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum

And then there are those comics that are simply transcendent–and can best inform us on the integrity and purpose of the comics medium. “Blanket Portraits,” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum, is a visual essay on a lifetime’s appreciation for blankets, their beauty and comfort, and what they symbolize. Geneviève passed away on July 9, 2016 from pancreatic cancer. As Bill Kartalopoulos states in a postscript, what made her comics unique was that they were “entirely expressive of who she was.”

The Best American Comics 2016

The Best American Comics 2016

“The Best American Comics 2016” includes the work of 30 cartoonists. It is a full-color hardcover, available as of October 4, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Best American Comics proves to be an essential and inspiring guidebook. As I say, Bill Kartalopoulos has taken the long view. You’ll definitely want to read this year’s edition and make it a habit to keep up with this most distinctive collection.

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Slanderous Comment? ‘Microwaves Take All The Nutrition Out Of Our Food’

I don’t think you can sue a fictional character for having said something that came from her fictional mind in a work that is fiction. Can you? Well, Paul Brodeur is going to take a stab at it. Actually, he’s targeted some deep pockets that are everything but fictional. Paul Brodeur is a science journalist who was a staff writer at The New Yorker for nearly 40 years. In the film, “American Hustle,” the character Roslyn (played by Jennifer Lawrence) tells her husband, Irving (played by Christian Bale) that “microwaves take the nutrition out of food.” “That’s bullshit,” Irving replies, and his wife shows him a magazine and says, “It’s not bullshitt. I read it in an article. Look, by Paul Brodeur.”

Brodeur claims that this exchange between fictional characters, in a work of fiction, has damaged his career since he’s never actually stated that “microwaves take the nutrition out of food.” The solution, of course, is to sue the companies that produced and distributed the film, Columbia Pictures, Atlas Entertainment and Annapurna Pictures.

Good luck with that, Mr. Brodeur. Personally, I tend to think that microwaves do take the nutrition out of food. So, sue me.

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Review: ‘I Don’t Get It’ by Shannon Wheeler

I-Dont-Get-It-Shannon-Wheeler

Shannon Wheeler has been for many years the much beloved alternative cartoonist, famous for his over-caffeinated comics, “Too Much Coffee Man.” And then he went where many cartoonists have attempted to go before but only a smidgen have been heard from since…The New Yorker!

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Book Review: ‘How About Never–Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons’ by Bob Mankoff

Bob Mankoff, a cartoonist at work, circa 1974

Bob Mankoff, a cartoonist at work, circa 1974

“How About Never–Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons” is a very long title but it does two important things. It’s funny and it’s memorable. Just what you would expect from Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker.

Paradoxically, we all know a New Yorker cartoon when we see one but there really isn’t a typical New Yorker cartoon. It takes someone like, Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, to explain that one. And why settle for someone like Bob Mankoff when you can have the real thing in his latest book.

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