Saturday, January 31, 2009

Interview with New Yorker Cartoonist Liza Donnelly: One Half of a Dream Couple

It’s almost Valentine’s Day and I was lucky enough to chat with one half of what has to be one the coolest couples there ever was right behind Bradgelina and Sting & Trudie. Michael Maslin and Liza Donnelly both have their beloved cartoons grace the coolest magazine there is and live under the same roof. If that wasn’t romantic enough they just produced a new book together called Cartoon Marriage: Adventures in Love and Matrimony by The New Yorker’s Cartooning Couple (Random House) that’s out now (tired of giving chocolates?) and is found at

There is probably no one more important female cartoonist today than Liza Donnelly. Aside from the fact she is a New Yorker cartoonist, it was her book Funny Ladies (to a lesser degree her new book Sex and Sensibility: Ten Women Examine the Lunacy of Modern Love) which celebrates and revitalizes the women’s role in the cartooning by documenting it’s history in the context of the only and (sadly) last meaningful venue left in cartooning, The New Yorker.

(I'd like to add also that I am HUGE fans of their work–I have four of their books–and that they are both super nice!)

Bob Eckstein: Do you feel like you carrying the torch for women’s cartooning by being an authority on the subject?
Liza Donnelly: That’s a loaded question. Let me start this whole thing with a caveat: I am not fond of the term women’s cartooning. I am supportive of women who draw cartoons, and am supportive of cartoons that deal with issues that concern women, expose sexism with humor, etc. But I don’t want to ghettoize women, or myself. I am a cartoonist. Not a woman cartoonist. I do want people to notice that women have not been in this business very much, and I would want them to think about that. And not all women are the same, of course, so one has to be careful.

It would be nice to think I am an authority on something! I am perhaps the first person to look critically at the issue of cartoonists that are women at The New Yorker and put it in a book. I became fascinated as to why there are fewer women in cartooning than men, and it led to Funny Ladies. I was one of three women doing cartoons (compared to around a hundred men) at The New Yorker when I started in 1979 (Nurit Karlin, Roz Chast and myself), so I have been aware of the disparity for quite some time. I loved researching Funny Ladies. I spent a year at the New York Public Library immersed in the 20’s, 30’sand 40’s of The New Yorker Archives, reading correspondence between artists and editors. I was also inspired by the work of writer Judith Lee, and her book Defining New Yorker Humor. She has a chapter on cartoonists, and her observations about the women really spurred me on to do the book. I’ve since met her, and have learned that there is a small but growing group of writers who write about women and humor, which I am proud to say includes me now! Another interesting writer is Regina Barecca, who is also a professor at University of Connecticut. It is not a field that has had much attention—humor is rarely taken seriously. Of course Christopher Hitchens wrote a very strange article in Vanity Fair last year about why women aren’t funny. He’s odd. Then Vanity Fair came out with a cover article about funny women several months ago. There are more and more professionally funny women now, but it has been a difficult ride for them, historically. I taught a class on Funny Women at Vassar College last fall. We studied Dorothy Parker, Mae West, Lucille Ball, Lily Tomlin, Zora Neal Hurston, Veronica Geng, to name a few, as well as cartoonists like Helen Hokinson, Barbara Shermund, Nicole Hollander, Jackie Ormes: as well as contemporary mainstream and underground cartoonists. It’s a fascinating field because it really gets at the heart of creativity and personal interactions. Humor is a difficult business, regardless of gender.

BE: You had mentioned to me the name of Trina Robbins, who you consider another leading authority. Could you please share with us a little about her and where we could learn more?
LD: Trina was a practicing a comic artist, and now is a writer about women comic artists. Her specialty is the history of women in comics…comic books, comic strips. She knows a tremendous amount about women who have drawn comics and I’ve used her research and her books to understand that world more fully. Her books are very interesting and informative. One is called, From Girls to Grrzl. Check out Amazon—she has a lot of titles.

The difficult thing about doing books about a group of people—in this case women—is that people then think you are grouping them because they are all alike. When I wrote Funny Ladies, and compiled Sex and Sensibility, my intention was to educate people that there are women who do this, and that their work is not all alike. That said, there is at times a bias in our culture against different types of humor. We tend to laugh at humor that has been “accepted” by the status quo. The status quo traditionally has been male, and women, as different as they all are, can oftentimes draw obliquely. Roz Chast’s work was not universally accepted when she first appeared; now her work is rightfully adored. It took the innovative vision of art editor Lee Lorenz and senior editor William Shawn (who said “How does she know they are cartoons?”) to buy her work. Granted, the number of women actually drawing cartoons is smaller than the number of men, and so the number being bought will naturally be proportionally smaller. Why is it that women haven’t typically gone into cartooning? I think there are a lot of answers to that, not one. The overriding thing is women have not traditionally been encouraged to be funny. That’s changing, but for many years it was not ladylike to crack a joke, and it was not cool to take the spotlight away from a man by being humorous. Humor is powerful. But this is really not so true anymore, and more and more women are going into comedy, cartoons, comics. I think the Internet has a LOT of women cartoonists—I can’t prove it, but I think it’s true. The thing about the Internet is that there are fewer editors, so artists can do what they want. Some of it is not good, but much is.

BE: But I’ve also found that the internet (along with other factors post 9/11) has made the world a sort of open mic. All of a sudden, everyone thinks they’re hilarious. The New Yorker even recognizes this cultural phenomenon running a weekly cartoon caption contest. What are your thoughts on the current comic landscape?
LD: It is a cultural phenomenon, and a lot of people are funny. But as to whether they can translate funny into art, is another matter. The caption contest provides the interactivity so necessary for publishing today, and it allows readers to feel participatory in/with a magazine they feel they “own” because they are long-term subscribers. It also gives them a window into the creative process, and how difficult it can be. These things are good. Where I have concerns is how it is a simplification of an art form; the contest risks making what we do a game, a contest. Rather than a voice from an individual’s perspective. The Internet is important, of course. But I still like magazines, and the somewhat old-fashioned relationship of editor and artist. It's the same thing with writers. The editor is a guide, someone to help the artist reach his or her potential. People who write or draw don't always have someone they can trust to be a sounding board for developing their voice, and that’s where a good editor comes in. Internet publishing is so fast, this sort of relationship is less possible. So we need both set-ups. Of course, I think it is possible on the Internet.

"O.K., everybody, let's eat before the food gets dirty!"

BE: When did you know you wanted to be a cartoonist?
LD: My parents subscribed to The New Yorker, so it was around the house (I have no idea if they read it. Probably not), and my mother loved James Thurber. One day, when I was home sick from school (I was about 8), she gave me a collection of his drawings and a few slips of paper. I traced some of his characters and that was it. I also traced Charles Schultz as a child. Then very soon, I began drawing my own people. It made my mother happy, so I was encouraged to keep drawing funny pictures. The power of mothers! Anyway, my sister was always getting into trouble—real trouble like running-away-from-home trouble—and I wanted to make my mother and father laugh. So the dysfunctional relationship of editor/artist was spawned. I think of my editors as troubled parents (and other cartoonists my delinquent sisters): I’m just trying to get their attention and love.

Seriously, though, I found cartooning great for me because I was a quiet child and loved spending time by myself. I never felt that I totally fit in, and I bet a lot of cartoonists feel that way. We don’t fit in, so we find cartooning to amuse ourselves; and to be a good cartoonist, one has to be able to step outside of society a bit and be an observer. Cartoonists usually are drawn to it as children and never grow out of it (or they never grow up, is another way to put it); the lucky ones get published and can make a living, the unlucky ones probably become axe murderers.

I came of age in Washington DC during Watergate, a rather formative environment for a cartoonist! When I graduated from college, I wanted to be a political cartoonist but didn’t have the acerbic mind then that is necessary for that line of work. Although with age, my mind is becoming acerbic—finally—and I am doing more political cartoons than I did in my earlier years. The New Yorker is a good place where one can be quietly political, and I have sold a number of political cartoons to them over the years. And, happily, I have found a place to regularly publish my political cartoons. It's on the web, They let me do whatever I want.

"So you're a democrat and you're gotten your way. Now what?"

BE: What was it like the first time you got accepted into The New Yorker?
LD: It was terribly exciting. I was working in the art department at The American Museum of Natural History, which was a great place to work for a while, and the first thing I thought about was quitting my job (I didn't right away). I hadn't been submitting very long, but had wanted to be a New Yorker cartoonist for many, many years. At the time, when you sold a cartoon, you felt you were accepted into the fold. It was understood that you may not sell again for quite a while (and I didn't), but that you had potential and the editors wanted you to stick around and keep trying. Also, many cartoonists started at the magazine by selling an idea, a caption, that would then be given to one of the established older cartoonists. This wasn't the case for me, so of course the narcissist in me interpreted that to mean I was really great. It was forever until I sold another, a multi-panel, almost wordless, cartoon. Many of my cartoons were captionless back then. The third one was a political cartoon about Fritz Mondale, remember him?

The day I sold my first cartoon, Lee Lorenz asked to see me, and I had never met him. I was so nervous, I thought my heart would jump out of my body. I was only 24, the youngest cartoonist (and one of three women, parenthetically) and so green in terms of dealing with anyone in authority. But Lee was very nice, and he still is. Back then, the cartoon editor did not see just anyone. You had to be a "regular". Even after I sold cartoons, I was not invited to go back to the offices on a regular basis. The place had a formal way about it, unlike today. The offices were old and mysterious, and there were ghosts of famous cartoonists and writers in the corners. It had a mystique, or rather I gave it one, perhaps. After I spoke to Lee that day, I went home and did about 50 versions of the cartoon before I decided I had one I liked. Frank Model once said, "You have to draw better than you know how." And I believed him. I still try to draw as if it is effortless.

Around that time, I started going to the regular lunches with cartoonists. There was a Tuesday lunch with the older cartoonists, and the Wednesday lunches with the newcomers, like Jack Zeigler, Mick Stevens, Sam Gross, Dick Cline, Roz Chast, myself and, yes, Bob Mankoff! [the current New Yorker cartoon editor] The lunches were a lot of fun. Often, we would spend the afternoon after lunch playing pool in Tin Pan Alley, or go to a Mets game, or go on the Circle Line. Wednesday was the cartoonists' Friday. We tended to imbibe a fair amount.

BE: Your husband is New Yorker cartoonist, Michael Maslin. You may be in one of the most unusual relationships there is, and to a New Yorker reader, one that sounds idyllic. What is something about the dynamics you share that the average person wouldn’t know?
LD: Michael and I met because of The New Yorker. We live and breath cartoons and The New Yorker—I know, it’s sad. We do have children, but sadly, they take a back seat to the magazine (don’t tell them). That’s a joke, of course (in case they read this). We were both New Yorker cartoonists when we met, and have been married 20 years, so far. We share a love for The New Yorker and the art form of cartoons. Our comedic sensibilities are similar, which probably helps keep us together. Actually, I think it’s simply humor that keeps us together. And, we don't share our regular week's batches. It's too risky—what if the other person hesitates before laughing? Or, God forbid, not laugh at all. Or want to change the caption, or ask what it means. It can crush your week's hopes! This business has so much rejection, one has to protect oneself, even from one's spouse. Michael and I have worked on strips together, which is fun. What I have observed about our working styles is that for cartooning, I am more tuned into the news and current trends; whereas Michael is tuned into his inner humor. He can spend hours just drawing, whereas I can't. I seem to need to do cartoons for a "reason"...not that Michael doesn't. But our ways of getting ideas is subtly different.

BE: And I understand you’re publishing a book together this January called Cartoon Marriage: Adventures in Love and Matrimony by The New Yorker’s Cartooning Couple (Random House)…
LD: It’s each of our cartoons about marriage in a general sense, with all it’s ups and downs, as well as graphic narratives about our life together. We wrote and drew the graphic narratives together, which was a very interesting process to say the least. The one we had the most trouble with was on the subject of fighting. We couldn’t agree on how we fight. But we had a riot with the form since it was a departure for us, in terms of drawing and writing as a team that way. I hope to do more, and I think Michael feels the same way. As a kid, I learned to enjoy reading by reading the early graphic novelist, Crockett Johnson. Everything comes full circle.

BE: Did you consciously decide to write books because you were tired or constrained with just cartooning?
LD: I didn’t consciously decide to turn to writing books, it just evolved naturally. That said, however, I do think as one gets older, it is important to diversify. Once you have your voice, or your style of drawing, it is a springboard for other things. You don’t give up your original love, but one can extend it to other forms, whether those forms involve art or not. Plus, I love studying cartoons and culture, I love working with other cartoonists in the books I’ve edited.

BE: Have you found teaching helpful to your own work?
LD: Yes, I think it has. I started teaching knowing that I needed to find an additional way to find meaning in work. I love knowing the students and what they think—I am in regular touch with people of a different generation, and that keeps my cartoons fresh, I think. I teach in two departments, American Culture and Women's studies, which helps me in that I am reading so many interesting books. Keeps me on my toes. I also taught a class (which I hope they offer again) called Cartoon and Comic Art in America—a wonderful cultural look at cartoons and comics as history and insight into American culture. Another teacher and I designed and taught the class together.
"I didn't protest this war, but I'll try to protest the next one."

So you’ve been focused on American cartooning or have you also examined cartooning on the world forum?

LD: Looking at cartoons and comics as an American phenomena is fascinating and sheds a lot of light on our heritage and what has shaped us as a (wonderful but) flawed society. I spent a year of my high school years living abroad with my family, and it gave me a perspective that I might not have otherwise. I grew up loving cartoons from other countries, particularly because they were often captionless and oblique in their tone. This interest continues today, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to be a founding participant in Cartooning for Peace, an initiative that was launched at the UN a few years ago. It was begun by French cartoonist Plantu, and we have a traveling exhibit that has gone all over the world, and we participate in lectures and talks worldwide. Last month I was in France at the International Cartoon Festival in St. Just, and next year hope to travel to the Cartoon Museum in Israel. It’s so interesting to connect with cartoonists from other countries. The world is so interconnected by the Internet, anyway, images—because of the ease of communication via imagery—only help people and countries further the dialogue. That’s what cartoons are about. Humor and dialogue.

BE: Many at The New Yorker seem pained from the process and pressure one endures getting into the magazine. Are you happy?
LD: I’m very happy. The rejection is very hard to take, but I have so much else going on, I can sort of put it in its place. As long as I am published in The New Yorker every so often, I am very happy. And I want to write and edit many more books.

BE: What would you do instead if I took away your pens?
LD: There are days when I don’t use pens at all. But drawing is so integrated into my being, it’s like it’s just another tool for expression—sometimes I utilize it, sometimes it is not what is needed. They have a new technology now for people who are handicapped: a computer reads your mind and spells words. I hope they are working on the same technology for artists: if I think a cartoon, the computer would draw it. If I could no longer draw, I would go through a period of mourning, maybe some depression, heavy drinking, a spending spree, eat a lot of ice cream. And then continue teaching, speaking, writing; and, if you took away my brushes too, do some finger painting.

If you would like to meet the authors and get an autographed copy, Liza Donnelly and Michael Maslin will be appearing;
Feb 8,
1pm Book Cove, Pawling, NY
Feb 14, 4:30pm Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY
Feb 21, 11:00am Merritt Books, Millbrook, NY

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

MY Last Lecture

My Good-bye piiece

The following is an excerpt of my commencement speech made last Friday night at The Hamlin Refrigeration & Air Conditioning Vocational Institute. Although I am NOT terminally ill, in all honesty, I have not been feeling all that great since I would say around the holidays;

“Class of ’09, congratulations on your achievement which each of you proudly hold in your hands. This will be the last time I address you as your teacher, your friend and fellow human being.

We all have childhood dreams, which I think are the lifeblood of one’s character and fortitude. In reexamination I see that mine have long hit the dust, like melons falling off a flatbed truck on life’s bumpy road. I stand before you now a man in a tail end of a emotionally draining midlife crisis. That said, I’d like to share with you what my childhood dreams were. You are welcome to do with you wish with this information. Here they are in no particular order:

1) Start an Art School for Elephants. I came up with this idea first. In first grade I distinctively remember having aspirations and every intention of one day opening a college so that this great land mammal may explore different disciplines of arts, which included not only painting, but music, sculpture, and dance. Now every well-connected, no-talent elephant with some art supplies is on YouTube, hocking clumsy self-portraits. A missed opportunity and one that I plan to stay bitter about for a while.

2) Be the First Beginner to Win the US. Open. What’s interesting about this is I have not missed a single U.S. tennis championship in the past five years. Granted, I’ve attended as only a spectator but I have accumulated invaluable insight into what distinguishes the pretenders from the contenders. This looks like Rafael Nadal’s year but this spring I begin taking tennis lessons.

3) Invent a Time Machine. When I was a kid, it was a dream of mine to go back in time. Again, it looks like I might have raised the bar too high as not only do I have no progress to report on this front but for the past twenty years it hasn’t even been on my radar. I totally forgot about this probably around the time I realized not everything in comic books was real. I have never in my life even taken a physics class or whatever it is I would need to take to start work on a time machine.

4) Revenge. Too bad about that time machine business, because it kind of went hand-in-hand with my childhood dream #3; kicking the you-know-what out of Johann Sebastian Bach. Ever since I was forced to take violin lessons as a little boy against my will I’ve wanted to travel back in time so that I could give the Baroque composer the beating of his life. I could go on, but what’s the point? It’s all self-explanatory and I have never had closure.

5) Have My Own Remote Island Fully Staffed By Domesticated Monkeys. Originally the intent was to have a tropical island overflowing with Amazon women waiting on me hand and foot but ultimately that vision was tweaked after recognizing how funny it would be having servants who flung feces at each other. This revelation notwithstanding, the bigger question now is what insight have I gained from all of this and taking stock of the shortcomings of my childhood dreams.

What lesson I have learned is this: all of these aspirations have one thing in common—aside from the fact that none of them came to fruition—all childhood dreams, mine, yours…the dreams of regular day-to-day people out there…require one thing for them to blossom. Proper funding. None of mine aforementioned schemes got off the ground because I didn’t have a business plan and some serious dough; the art school for elephants, the time machine and the necessary research that was going to be required the discover such a contraption, the expense of the pro tennis tour and employing coaches, advisers, etc., even the island chock-full of monkeys; feeding them, getting them shots or whatever…all projects with expenses which quickly add up.

Fate has brought us all here together in this very special room, the Hamlin Refrigeration & Air Conditioning Vocational Institute Auditorium…a distinction and drive that will catapult us all to realize each of our own special childhood dreams. Let’s stop blaming the economy. There comes a time in everyone’s life when opportunity knocks. For us in the unforgiving refrigeration and air conditioning repair business our ship has finally come in. It’s the mother of all breaks and it’s called the S.S. Global Warming. I am imploring the graduating class of 2009 to answer that door and seize the moment. The dream lives on. Congratulations and good luck making the most of your certificate. Good night.

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