When I started out as a cartoonist I absorbed as much literature about the art of cartooning as I could - I still do. But the most invaluable information I’ve found, to date, is talking to other cartoonists who are working now.
Regarding gag cartoons, some of the most consistently helpful advice many have offered is “let the reader arrive at the punchline/joke themselves”. So, ‘don’t spoon-feed the joke to the reader and condescend.’
If they get it, they get it. If they don’t, they don’t. Sometimes it needs to be re-written or re-drawn, other times it just isn’t their cup of tea, or the reference doesn’t resonate with them, or a thousand other reasons (including “it’s just not that funny”). But never make it too obvious what the joke is right off the bat. Let the reader have to at least figure out what you’re trying to say.
I still work very hard at tryin to make good cartoons that fall in that sweet spot between ‘this is too obscure’ and ‘this is too hand-holdy’. My friend and writing-partner Scott has a term that we use for when everything is literally labelled for the reader, like a giant steamship labelled the ‘S.S. Economy’ heading towards a big iceberg labelled ‘recession‘ or some other similarly obvious metaphor, like a politician holding a briefcase with their name on it. When we get to that point in having to make a joke work, we abandon it saying, “That’s a bit S.S”
If you’re interested in this kind of thing, you can hear more baffling musings like this in our weekly podcast called “Is There Something In This?” wherever you listen to podcasts.
FOOTNOTE: In defence of our dear editorial cartoonists, sometimes it’s essential to have to label things if the cartoons are being widely syndicated and in some cases, translated into different languages and cultures. Sometimes it’s even necessary to have a newspaper blowing in the composition somewhere with a headline relating to the story the cartoon is about, in case the newspaper running the cartoon hasn’t run that particular story… This could be alleviated by newspapers hiring more localised cartoonists to do cartoons about the area the newspaper services, but those days have sadly passed.
I haven’t really done many book recommendations on the blog, but there are many I’d recommend for anyone interested in humor, writing or cartooning.
The best book I ever read on comedy wasn’t a ‘how-to’ or a compendium of interviews with comedians, it was an autobiography of someone who found something truly unique at a time when nobody else was doing what he was doing.
The book is Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up". It charts his life from early childhood through to his perseverance as a magician, parlaying his skills into live stand-up comedy at a time when nobody else was able to parody what the newly formed ‘norms’ of comedy were.
It’s hear-breaking, funny, riveting, and one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read. I had absolutely no idea Steve Martin started as a magician, much less a touring comedian, when I was coming up as a comic in Australia. I just though he was a goofy rom-com movie actor who did silly films about being the Dad at weddings.
The absurd story of him being forced to perform to no audience so that people might look into the window and ‘see that something’s happening and might come in’ is only topped by the story of his audience that refused to leave, so he took them all outside into an empty swimming pool for an encore.
Interestingly, (and I think about this a lot), When Jerry Seinfeld asked Steve whether he would be successful if he did his act now, he said, “No.” and continued “It was of a time and a place, and that time has passed.”
I would highly recommend watching The Jerk before reading this book. —and if you have any inclination whatsoever to delve into the life of stand-up comedy, read this book before any other book. (You can take his Masterclass over on masterclass.com, too, but that’s a different story.)
Anyway. You can find the book here.
I often get asked what the process is of submitting cartoons to the New Yorker. So, I thought I would write it for you to enjoy. And, let’s be honest, for me to copy and past when someone asks me again.
You may have already read my 3-part account of my first day submitting cartoons to the New Yorker 4 years ago, resulting in my first sale in 2017 . (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) Part of this process is in there, but the part I’ll cover today is the very beginning of the process right through to the very end.
1. The ideas stage
This is arguably the most important stage of the entire process. (Apart from the part where you get to pay your rent on time.)
The ideas stage is an elusive, bizarre process, whereby you somehow generate a number of ideas that might make a good cartoon, seemingly out of thin air.
The truth of it is, much like finding your soulmate, they don’t appear when you’re looking for them. They pop up in the moment between swiping your Metcard and getting to the bottom of the stairs as the F-train is arriving. (And you’d better have a notepad ready when it comes.) They pop up between the moment you’re washing your hair and rinsing out the conditioner. So, you’d better have some Aquanotes ready when that genius joke about a praying mantis at a bar materialises.
I write tags/captions, concepts, draw compositions, facial expressions, whatever the idea needs to get it going I scribble it down with wrinkly fingers.
My shower wall often looks like this of a morning. My wife is a very patient person.
2. The writing / idea development stage
This stage varies wildly from cartoonist-to-cartoonist. I personally like to work on my ideas throughout the week alone, then bring it to my writing partner, Scott, and have a writers meeting. He always has great ideas too, so we mull them over and try and punch them up before pitching them.
We used to just meet at a pub and do this on a Monday night, but one day Scott had the bright idea of turning the writers meeting into a podcast. I told him it was a terrible idea. “Nobody wants to listen to the ins-and-outs of two idiots dissecting the frog for an hour every week. It’s a visual medium, you nincompoop!”
I was wrong. Very, very wrong, in fact. The podcast now has thousands of listeners every week and we’re doing a *plug alert* live show on April 9 in New York and May 17 in California. *This is the end of your plug alert. Thank you for your attention.*
Needless to say, we walk out of the podcast with a batch of ideas to pitch to the editor, and agonise over for the ensuing week.
Once I have the ideas in sort of ‘pitchable’ form, I go back and agonise over the wording, the punctuation, the execution and of course, the drawing.
3. The agonising and crying into your drink stage
Once I’ve essentially muddled through a few different executions, I sit at my desk with pencil and
coffee scotch, and try to draw up the batch of ideas. It can be excruciating when something isn’t flying off the page, jiving, hitting the mark , working.
4. The pencils stage
The pencils are done using a regular old pacer-style click pencil that you can pick up at your local CVS (or steal from a co-worker). I’ll often erase a facial expression to get it just right, or sketch out a few poses on a separate sheet of paper to try and get the right position. Someone whose work I really admire for pose is Will McPhail. He McSucceeds to nail every single pose in his cartoons to illustrate the expressions perfectly. [shakes fist in direction of Will McPhaill]
This particular idea is one Scott pitched on the podcast — in fact if I recall, it was Scott’s OSPOTW (Outback Steakhouse Pick-of-the-week®, in which, if the idea gets sold and runs, I have to take Scott to Outback Steakhouse for a steak and martini dinner, to my great chagrin. (I fucking hate Outback Steakhouse. I know because I’ve never been.))
5. The inking stage.
Once the pencils have left me with only a patch of hair on the left side of my scalp, I move on to the ‘inking’ stage.
There are two kinds of inking stage in the life of a cartoon— one is for the ‘rough’ that is pitched to the magazine. And the other is for the ‘final’ or ‘finishes’. The rough is the basic idea of the cartoon, drawn to the level of execution that makes it clear what the cartoon would look like. Once in a while, it’s worth just submitting a finish to give as clear an idea as possible. This isn’t always practical, but most of the cartoons I’ve sold to the New Yorker were from finishes.
For the inks on this one, I used a Uniball vision fine, along with a Japanese Kuretake Fude Brush Pen in Retail Package, Fudegokochi, Fine Point (LS4-10S). For the chess pieces, I used a super-fine brush pen I found in an art shop in Paris (ooer) called Magasin Sennelier. I have no idea what it’s called.
6. The erasing pencils, scanning and cleaning-up stage
Once the inks are pretty much done, I let them dry properly before erasing pencil lines and adding any final details. For this particular one, I wanted to mimic a chess game my friend Ethan and I had just played in Madison Square Park that afternoon, where he whipped the pants off me in under 10 minutes. I changed just a few of the pieces just to screw with him when he sees it in print.
I scan the piece in using one of two methods, depending on the level of detail in the cartoon. If it’s pretty basic, I use “CamScanner” on my smartphone. If it’s a bit more detailed like this one, I use my glass flatbed scanner unit on my printer and upload it to Photoshop for…
7: Wash and Finishes stage
Depending on the cartoon (and the amount of time I have to turn it in) I will either use a hand-made watercolour wash (below) or a digital wash on Photoshop, using a Wacom tablet. I have pretty much replicated my ‘by hand’ tools in my photoshop brush presets, which helps keep things looking consistent.
Stage 7 Addendum: Digital Finishes
For this one, I used the Cintiq Pro 16” (my review here) to do the final washes and touch-ups on the cartoon at 600dpi, while watching Seinfeld in the corner to calm my shaky nerves. Also pictured: Me wearing a glove that stops me sweating all over the screen.
Here are the various stages the cartoon goes through once scanned in:
I add the caption last, which saves me agonising over it too much while I’m drawing. I already agonised in Stage 3. Stage 6 is too late for that malarkey.
Then it’s time to print it out, email a PDF of the batch to the cartoon editor, call an Uber and crawl down the FDR to pitch the cartoon in person.
Some days if I’m organised, I take the subway down to the World Trade Center stop and walk through the Oculus to calm my nerves… then I come to remember it’s a shopping mall and my anxiety returns.
The New Yorker moved from 4 Times Square downtown to the new world trade center in 2015 along with Vogue, Vanity Fair, Wired, and a slew of other Condé Nast businesses. It’s certainly more pointy.
8. The Pitching to the Cartoon Editor stage
I check in with security at the desk, then get a pass to zip through 38 floors in record time whilst trying to pretend to be comfortable that the numbers are on the outside of the elevator.
This is also the only other time we get to bump into other New Yorker cartoonists and trade anxieties and air our kvechables. We don’t have permanent passes, so we often have to wait at the glass doors for someone to walk past and let us in before we can get to the sign-in list. Sometimes it can take a while. Sometimes smart people like Sofia Warren (below) call someone’s extension which I should totally learn how to do.
We then round the corner to the cartoon department and put our names on the sign-up list. This one is from the last day of the previous cartoon editor. It’s a veritable who’s who of who’s here.
The Cartoon Editor sees cartoonists in the order of the list.
While we wait our turn, the cartoonists sit in the makeshift Cartoon Lounge (whatever board room is free) and talk shop, or avoid eye contact. I make a habit of going and getting coffee to see what books might be available in the kitchen… also, to wake me up before I have to speak to humans.
I always dip into the side office and pick up that week’s issue, flip to the contents page and see if anything of mine ran in that issue (yes, that is how we find out) and, if not, enjoy what else made it in to those elusive 16 slots for cartoons.
One morning I flipped open to see my name in print, pitching a terrible joke to Gus Van Sant (name drop complete) and making a general tit of myself. (Nothing unusual, really.)
While I wait, I like to re-order my batch in the vain hope that it’ll make some kind of difference as to whether I’ll sell something this week. I try to make it like a W-shape, like a comedy set: open strong, dip a bit, hit them in the middle with something big, then dip right before the big closer. I have absolutely no evidence that this does anything at all, but I insist on doing it every week.
Every now and then the giants of the New Yorker cartooning world like to stop by and just sit around as if they’re not demigods. Like George Booth (below) or Sam Gross (above), or, once in a while, Mort Gerberg (below).
Once my name is called, I sit with the cartoon editor, Emma Allen, and go over the batch with her. She offers some great advice on how to make something work better, or will tell me if she’s seen something similar previously, or if she likes something enough to put in her ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ pile. Those piles go through to a meeting with the Editor in Chief, who gets the final yes/no on what gets bought that week.
You don’t have to submit in person each week, but I like to do it to keep me to a routine and get the feedback on each cartoon so I can keep improving. Also, I live less than 10 minutes away and even my laziness has its limits.
Then I head down to the cafeteria area, sit with a coffee and look towards Battery Park and try to come up with more ideas for the next batch…
There used to be a regular weekly lunch at Pergola Des Artistes uptown with a selection of New Yorker cartoonists, but these days it’s pretty rare. The closest thing is a bunch of us going down to the cafeteria to get an overpriced salad.
9. The agonisingly waiting, drinking, hand-wringing for the rest of the week stage.
If a cartoon is sold, we get an ‘OK’ via email by around 5pm on Friday. Considering the pitch meeting / submission deadline is Tuesday midday, that means 3.5 days of second guessing every choice you made in the previous week. Whether, if you tied your right shoe first before the left the morning you went in, if it would have made a difference. It’s Hell.
Then, once in a blue moon, you open your email on Friday afternoon, and through clasped fingers peek at the screen to see…
9.5. The celebratory drink stage.
If we sell one, I call scott and we go out for beers.
If we don’t sell one… I call Scott and we go out for beers.
For those of you wondering, YES, I will have to take Scott out to Outback Steakhouse for a martini dinner because this one sold. We have not set a time or a date yet, but just know that it has really taken all the joy out of making a sale.
10. The 'Wait sometimes years until it runs’ stage.
Some people think we sell a cartoon and it runs in the magazine that next week. That is very, very rare. It does happen, but the usual routine is that the artist either goes back and draws up the cartoon into a ‘finish’ (see stage 6) and sends in a 600dpi TIFF file, gets paid, then waits for anywhere from a number of weeks to a number of years for the cartoon to show up in the magazine.
I still have a handful that have been sold that haven’t been run in the magazine, but it does keep me anxiously peeking into that side office every Tuesday to flick to the contents page and see if it has surfaced from the cobwebbed drawer it’s been hiding in.
Here’s how the cartoon turned out (It’s in the magazine this week, 4th April 2019):
11. (See Stage 1.)
Scott and I are doing a live podcast coming up with New Yorker cartoons this Tuesday night (4/9) live on stage with a very special guest — we’d love you to come!
For details and tickets, click here.
Get your head in the game, son!
A great trick I’ve learned for getting into the right mode is to psychologically ‘pregame’ before beginning any kind of creative work.
If I was to sit down and write an essay, then before typing a single word I would spend at least 15 minutes buried in some of the most inspiring and well-written essays ever written. Or, at least, writing from someone I enjoy reading.
If I was about to sit down to draw a cartoon, I would flip through the New Yorker and take a look at this week’s 16 or so cartoons that just ran, or flip through a cartoon collection book. It gets your mind well-and-truly in the mindset of that art form.
If I’m about to go out and do a series of comedy spots at night, I’ll switch gears by putting on a comedy special on the Netflix app on my phone, or looking at late night spots on Youtube.
Look at art that inspires you before you paint. Read writing that inspires you before you write. Watch comedy that inspires you before you perform. It sounds like simple advice, but it really is profoundly effective when you’re having trouble getting in the ‘mood’ to be creative.
I have to create every single day, whether I feel like it or not. Since I was 15 years old, I’ve always clipped out art that inspires me, or sparks off an idea or a mindset, and stuck it on my wall (or in my childhood days’, my wardrobe doors.) I used to think I would subconsciously absorb some of the great artists’ styles, but I’m not so sure about that.
These days I have art all around me in my studio (see above). If I’m about to draw up a rough for MAD, I’ll flip through the MAD 60 book, or a Sergio Aragonés or Don Martin collection. If I’m about to ink a New Yorker cartoon I might flip through some old Thurber, Addams or George Booth collections— or google other artists I’m enjoying right now and scroll through their work on Pinterest. My studio wall looks like a serial killer’s den, sure, and the art is now about 9 layers deep, but it does help kick my brain into gear every morning when it’s time to start work.
Try it out and let me know how it works for you.
Only bring exactly what you need, not what you might want.
I like to work away from the studio as much as possible. It gets me out of any creative rut and in New York, there are countless places to plonk yourself down and get stuck into a job without distraction.
The only problem is, to work remotely, you need to pack a bag with not just things you’ll need for the job that needs doing, but things you MIGHT need just in case. You know, like that book you’ve been meaning to read, and that magazine you saw the article in, and your iPad, Oh, and the legal documents you’ve been meaning to read through. Yes, maybe now will be the time you get the time and focus to read those. OH! And make sure you bring a whole range of pens, pencils, brushes and watercolours just in case you need all of them. You never know. OH! And make sure you pack that digital drawing tablet. And the charging cable. And the cables for the laptop to connect to the tablet. Oh, and the different kinds of stylus. Just in case.
Packing everything for every possible contingency of what your brain might feel like doing is not recommended. In fact, even having a bag/tote/backpack can interfere with completing your task.
By having everything in your backpack, it means you could do an infinite number of different things you’ve been meaning to get to, just in case you feel in the mood. With endless choice comes crippling uncertainty, and inevitably, you, hanging out in Starbucks, scrolling through your Instagram feed, liking photos of pugs holding bottles of wine… I mean… procrastinating.
Simplicity breeds productivity.
If the job really only requires you to bring a sketchbook, a pen and a phone (to scan it in.) then just bring a sketchbook, a pen and a phone. That’s it. Don’t even bring a bag. Carry the things so they’re the only thing you’ll be doing while you’re out. It helps you focus, and it stops you from potentially returning home frustrated that you wasted another day and got nothing done.
Back in 2010, there was a trend in the minimalism community of photographing the contents of your bag from above, all perfectly knolled to show how efficient you were at packing. I’m not going to lie, I had a Pinterest board of them… they were organisation porn. But many of them had way too much stuff — plus, they never showed an aerial photo of the owner of the backpack crippled with anxiety over what item they should take out next to get shit done.
Try it at home, too.
The same principle applies when you’re not working remotely. If you work from home and do all your work from the one spot, try switching it up.
Maybe if you have laptop work to do, get it done while sitting on the bed with no other distractions around you. If you have drawing work to do, do it at a drawing desk with nothing but drawing equipment around you. If you really want to read that book, find a chair and sit with just the book. No phone, no tablet, no laptop. Just the book. Preferably in a room separate from the one where you usually do your work.
We live in a time where the attention economy saps all our focus. The least we can try and do is limit the amount of willpower we spend making decisions on what we’re going to do where, and when.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever read, from everyone from Larry David to Bill Watterson, was if you want to have great ideas, always carry a notepad.
I’ve been carrying a small notepad in my back pocket for over 15 years and it hasn’t failed me yet. Ideas don’t come when you sit down to write. They come at that moment between swiping your Metcard on the subway and walking down the steps, so you’d better have a pen and a notepad to catch it at the bottom of those steps.
That way, when you get home and sit to write out ideas, you have a whole notepad full of sparks to work from. You aren’t tapping your pencil against your chin wondering how the hell to make up a funny idea.
It’s the number one answer to the number one question that myself and every other cartoonist gets asked: Where do you get your ideas?
It also helps if you’re learning to draw, or just want to get better at spontaneous doodling. I always had trouble drawing hands and mouths, so every time I had an idle moment I’d opt against fiddling with my phone (a miracle) for the only thing I enjoy more, which is filling notebooks with all kinds of mouths and hands in all kinds of positions and angles.
Want to advance to master-level note-taking? Get your best ideas in the shower?
Do what I do — grab yourself some waterproof Aqua Notes. A comedian friend of mine recommended them to me a couple of years ago and they’ve been amazing for capturing those soapy ideas before they circle the drain. The time between turning on the shower tap and drying yourself off is the number one best time to get creative ideas. Make sure you don’t play music or listen to podcasts during this time. It’s critical!
You can grab yourself some Aquanotes at Amazon.
Product: Platinum Carbon Fountain PenRead More
As much as I love making art by hand, I’ve been using Wacom products for over 15 years and am always excited when the release a new line of products. They listen to artist feedback and take it all into account when improving their designs. Are they expensive? Yes. Are they the best at what they do? Also yes.
I just received the new Wacom Cintiq Pro (16” model) and within 24 hours it has far exceeded its predecessor. The response-rate is faster (On 2017 Macbook pro 13”), the pen tip accuracy is better, it’s lighter than the Mobilestudio Pro (!) and it’s the perfect size for me.
I immediately switched out the plastic tip with the felt tip nib, which has 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity. One of the first things you notice about it is the accuracy of the pen tip. It’s more accurate than any cintiq product before it. I’ve been using it for a number of different projects this week and it hasn’t bugged out on me once.
At the moment, I have it plugged into my laptop using a dongle (Macbook only has 2 x USB-C ports, so one of them is plugged into power, and the other into a dongle). The plugs are USB and HDMI.
I’ve also used the Cintiq Pro 24” which has that beautiful big 4K etched glass screen, but I live in a Manhattan apartment, so part of it stretches into my neighbour’s bathroom…
You can see me talking about the new range over on Wacom’s Youtube Channel, or below:
Disclaimer: I have been reviewing and using products for Wacom (unpaid) since 2004. I frequently demo them at comic con and similar events. I was paid for the above video, which I wholeheartedly endorse!
Today’s question comes from Mel Wilson. Mel writes:
How do you label and store all your cartoons? Also how to you keep track of them all? Do you have flat files, or do you scan them and have a digital inventory?
Thanks for the question, Mel. The answer is: It depends!
For digital cartoons, I store them according to date and topic, sometimes caption.
For example, I date each cartoon according to: year/month/date (space)-(space)topic/caption
So a cartoon about space monkeys would be 20190122 - Space Monkeys Hiccup.jpg
I save all the high res jpg files in a folder called “Cartoons” with a folder for each year (2017, 2018 etc.) My entire hard drive is synced to Dropbox.
I also have another folder called xPSD where all the high res 600dpi PSD files are kept, and that, too, is synced to dropbox, but using Dropbox Smart Sync, it is only ever in the cloud to save hard disk space. When I need them, I download them individually.
For hard copy drawings, I have various labelled drawers. For sketches that might be something, I store them in “sketches”, for finished artwork that has been published, (and is for sale on the store) I put it in “Published”. I also have one just for my New Yorker cartoons.
How are they organised? …well. They aren’t. I just pick up the pile and shuffle through until I find the one I’m looking for. It’s not a fool-proof system, but it works for this fool.