50 Years of Delight and Absurdity

 


By Alex Contratto

As Ed Koren celebrates fifty years of cartooning for The New Yorker, he tells me how he got his start, why a cartoonist should keep his day job and what makes a drawing endure. What follows is a distillation of two phone conversations I had on February 25 and April 2 with Koren, who is seventy-seven and lives in Brookfield, Vt., with his wife, Curtis.

BEGINNINGS

I backed into being a cartoonist. My friend Jules Feiffer wrote a book called Backing Into Forward, and I backed into my own life. Many of us who have made a professional life of cartooning started out like every other kid around. I’m an old guy, so newspaper comics and comic books were our literature—before real literature started to become part of my life, at least. My dad brought the paper home every night, and I grabbed it from him and went right for the comics: Gluyas Williams, Jimmy Hartwell, Tarzan, Superman—the usual menu of superheroes. Gasoline Alley was another good one that I loved. And there was Krazy Kat, by George Herriman. I just feasted on them as a kid—The New 

Yorker, The New York World-Telegram, The Sun. They penetrated my brain and I had a desire to emulate them. And I had a little knack for drawing and painting when I was much smaller.

The Jester at Columbia, from 1954 to 1957, was key to my development. I drew to my heart’s content, and in my junior and senior years I was editor. It was really a teething ring for me—it gave a taste of how sweet it was. I doubt I would be doing this if The Jester did not exist. I owe great thanks to that magazine. When I left Columbia, I bumped around a while, worked for a bit in city planning, thinking that’s what I wanted to do. And then I decided that was not really for me. I was going to go to the Graduate School of Design at Yale, but I deferred that for a year, and then deferred it for another year, and then never went. Instead, I went to Paris for a couple of years and studied printmaking: etching and engraving, strangely enough. All that time, I was trying to be a cartoonist without much effect—without any success at all. So I felt I had to make other plans.

After I came back from Paris, I worked in New York for a while, doing a variety of odd jobs—editorial jobs and working at magazines. I was at Columbia University Press for a couple of years as the assistant advertising manager. And I realized that that life was not something I wanted to pursue. So I went back to graduate school at Pratt. I got my Master of Fine Arts degree and became a teacher at Brown. I started teaching printmaking and drawing and design courses—this was the mid-Sixties—and stayed at Brown for thirteen years.

LIFE AT THE NEW YORKER

I had been contributing to The New Yorker since 1962, but sporadically, with cartoons and drawings. I always wanted to be a cartoonist underneath it all, and I felt that was my calling. At the beginning, it was very uncertain if I would make something of that. As time went on, I was accepted more—both in what I did and then in the sheer number of drawings that were getting accepted by The New Yorker.

I branched into illustrations, and to some degree advertising and editorial illustrations, and book illustrations. So I got busier, and as time went on, I decided I could not do all these things at once; I couldn’t teach and draw well because I couldn’t concentrate on both. So I stopped teaching in 1977 and moved from Providence to New York.

In the old days at The New Yorker—that is, when I was first starting, and with that particular art editor named Jim Geraghty, and then later with his successor, Lee Lorenz—there was a kind of editorial engagement. They might say, “We like this idea, but what if you did this, maybe it would be better if you did that.” It was much more of a collaborative effort during the editorial process. But now there is none of that. It’s all very formalized and somewhat inhuman.

The New Yorker, for which I work pretty much exclusively as far as cartoons are concerned, expects nothing in terms of a deadline, in terms of number of drawings submitted, in terms of regularity. It’s all very much scattershot and unstructured. But I try to do five, six, seven a week, or every other week, depending on inspiration and time and work that I am doing on other things. I would say most of my cartoons are rejected—in fact, almost all. My batting average is pretty low. A lot of cartoonists have pretty much the same experience. The editorial selection is done with great mystery. I liken it to fishing. You have these wonderful things that you put on a hook and throw down into the water—the week’s worth of conceptual brilliance—and you never know if one or another or none are going to be thought of as a delicious-enough morsel to be taken. But there is no rhyme or reason to it. It is an extremely closed and somewhat opaque process that is very frustrating actually. So editorial judgment is very hard to predict after all these years. This is my fiftieth year of contributing to The New Yorker, and I have no more idea now than when I started about what exactly might tickle the fancy of an editor.

I’ve felt sometimes that The New Yorker has its peculiar fix on life and society, more particularly with society. And it’s very different from, say, comic strips or political work. But that view is very catholic, or it especially was in earlier days of cartooning. There were more voices and approaches, and a huge variety of artists with their own styles and ways of thinking through those styles. And mine was just another one of that kind of diversity. I’ve never tailored an idea to a magazine, per se, but I am sure they are tailored inherently. Those fuzzy characters just developed organically, without any particular goal in mind. They all started as some characters that I developed in college and then transformed from there, almost by themselves. I hope they still are evolving.

But I couldn’t survive as a cartoonist, frankly. I illustrate for other magazines, I do books, I make prints, I do things considerably different from The New Yorker drawings with the animals. And I have shown in a couple of galleries. You need a good day job. Cartooning is too difficult to predict, and depends on the whims of editors and all manner of things out of your control. There’s no certainty about it in terms of income whatsoever. Even for someone in my situation, it’s very modest indeed. The rates are just low. I mean, even if you did one cartoon a month—what do they pay, something like $1,200 for a cartoon?—it’s small. You can’t make a living on it. It’s worthwhile, but as you get on in life and want to have a certain kind of stability, you’re not going to get it that way.

WORDS AND IMAGES

I am primarily an artist, I think, and also a writer. And they both vie in my brain for dominance. The writer side of me and the artist side of me just kind of have a cordial relationship. And when they collaborate well, that’s when I’m most pleased. I think the images and the words can’t really be separated. Decades ago, there was a great cartoonist at The New Yorker named Peter Arno, and somebody asked him, “Which came first, the image or the idea?” And he said, “Both come at the same time.” So there is no separation of them and there ought not to be.

At best, a drawing—a visual aspect of it and the literary quality to it—should be one and the same. But the fact is that they are drawings and that they communicate something entirely different through visual means. That’s the difference. It’s between that and someone opining in an editorial, or some op-ed piece, or a blog. That’s the component that makes it unique. Much of what one says is not spelled out, but implied just through the drawing. That’s the difference to me. It’s storytelling, but it’s not sequential—it isn’t like a comic book or graphic novel. It’s all right there in one spot. The story is a frozen moment, to be sure, but there is a story in there, and the viewer becomes almost the playwright or the interpreter of what’s there and sets it in motion. The question is: What happened before that moment in the cartoon, and what will happen after that moment? It’s also a proscenium in that it’s isolated from life in a kind of box where you spend some time pondering it, or ought to. You hopefully do.

A lot of people have said, “How did you know this was our life?” or “How did you know we say these things to each other?” And in truth I never did. But it seemed to have struck a deep chord in the lives of the people who told me this. That’s how I knew I was doing something right. But in fact, it’s an extraordinarily isolated way of being an artist—having a public to view and read your work who you never see, never hear from, only by these little chinks in this opacity that tell you that you really made a difference and a point. Once, in Esquire, I published a cartoon that had to do with Alitalia, the airline, and there was something that some mob group didn’t like. They paid me a visit—a guy rang my doorbell when I was living in the city. There was this little sparkplug of a guy who asked, “You do that cartoon for Alitalia?” And I said yes. “We don’t like it. It doesn’t do too good for the Italians.” I was stunned. I thought: Are you kidding? The cartoon was affectionate, and he didn’t get it. It was very funny. That’s the most dramatic response to anything I’ve done.

What goes on in one year doesn’t necessarily become valid the next year, or the decades after. So when you look at some cartoons that were done many decades ago, sometimes they are incomprehensible. You just don’t know what they refer to. On the other hand, if the drawing is really good, and the human emotional observation is right on, it can endure, like Honoré Daumier, a caricaturist who worked in mid-nineteenth-century France. The human quality of his drawings is so profound, so enduring, that you can appreciate them now as one could then, even though the specifics of the ideas are lost to us now. A lot of what I do is a reaction to things of the moment. But if I can draw them in such a way that the human aspect can be understood without reference to exactly what it means in our moment of history, then I feel I’ve done a little something.

I’m a social historian in a funny way, I guess. Or, looking at it another way, an armchair anthropologist. The aim of satire has always been an interestingly uncertain one. Sometimes it’s described as being a way of tweaking people’s behavior. Alexander Pope, an eighteenth-century poet, said that with satire he hoped “to deter, if not to reform.” So these are lofty aims. What I find funny is the formulaic way in which people go about their lives and the absurd, silly things they do—unreflectively, unthinkingly, intensely, humorlessly. All those things intrigue me. It’s an endless well of delight and absurdity.

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