Illustration by Hannah Robinson
Last March, Professor Michelle Keown from the department of English Literature invited the New Yorker cartoonist, author and memoirist, Paul Karasik, to give a public lecture on graphic novels and cartooning entitled “Under the Influence”. On his last day, he took a couple of hours to answer a few questions, and we talked about solitude, inspiration, social media, Chopin, Armstrong, politics, and diversity.
Trying to capture the man facing me, I started by asking him questions about life as a cartoonist. I learnt every cartoonist’s life is different, but usually revolves around “many hours at the drawing board, without social interaction”. In short, it’s a solitary occupation. He jokingly added “I’ve spoken more in the last week than I’ve spoken in the last couple of months put together”. His studio, a bedroom, has a bed that’s often covered in papers, preventing him from taking a nap there; his drawing board fits perfectly halfway inside an open closet space. When “thinking, working and constructing”, the “seductive attraction” of social media – with his laptop always at hand – is a distraction he tries to avoid: “checking my emails every few minutes, or my Facebook, or my Instagram, or something like that”. However, when he’s rendering, he enjoys listening to podcasts or music: “pop music of the 1930s, Chopin […] easy music to listen to, half working, disrespectful to the music, but I find it kind of soothing”.
My love for the New Yorker comes from my grandmother who always had them lying around. I would sneak out a few copies to take the covers and hang them up in my room; I loved their edgy humour. Yet there was also that feeling that they were saying something more, something about us, socially and politically, that always fascinated me. For Karasik, a gag cartoon does not necessarily have to be subversive, although he says he does appreciate it. Drawn to it himself, he insists that satire is not necessarily subversion, but that it is about revealing the truth. To him, it would be a stretch to say that slapstick humour is “the destruction of a social norm”, though the Marx Brothers “thumbing their nose, actively at society and political institutions” were subversive.
For me, the obvious question was, how do you get published by the New Yorker? He explained: “back in the day you could make a living as a New Yorker cartoonist, you know, even up until the 70s, because there were so many magazines that printed gag cartoons. So, if you were a gag cartoonist, you would start with trying to peddle your cartoons to the New Yorker, because that’s always been sort of the Cadillac of cartoonists”. However, submitting your work is not an easy task, and you have to be ready to face many refusals: “So I submitted work, maybe for a year and a half, two years to the New Yorker before they accepted one of my cartoons”. Karasik adds that the best New Yorker cartoonists have a very distinct style and point of view; they create their own world. Finally, he reveals: “this morning I submitted I think eight cartoons to the magazine, half of which I’ve drawn over the last five days, over my free time. In the last month I’ve sold two cartoons to the New Yorker. So that’s kind of a record for me”. Addressing the New Yorker’s audience, “mostly college educated and privileged”, there’s some kind of insider knowledge. For instance: “my cartoon with two guys in business suits in a metal mouse-wheel on a street corner, one saying to the other ‘can you remind me of the difference between a simile and a metaphor’? That’s a joke for someone who’s gone to university”.
We all appreciate a bit of comic relief in those times of political “covfefe”, where nearly every news report comes with at least one reaffirmation that, yes, there is such a thing as “The Truth”. When asked if he thought being politically engaged in his work was important, there was a moment of silence, of reflection; carefully choosing his words, he answered: “it’s essential. These are grim times, and there’s so much cruelty and injustice, caused by greed, and avarice, that to roll over and ignore it is to do yourself and the world an injustice”. About Trump more specifically, Karasik explained it was tricky to find a balance between satire and the point where you just give him a voice he does not deserve: “occasionally I get a little closer, it’s funny, but it’s just not far enough. Donald Trump is beyond satire. He keeps being so ridiculous that it’s hard to make it more ridiculous”. A cartoon he submitted that morning shows a young boy holding up a report card to his mother. The report says: “Report Card: DT”, “Maths: F, Geography: F, Social Studies: F, etc”. The mother is looking at the report card and the little boy says, with a big smile on his face, “See mom, I’ve been exonerated”.
Karasik also touched upon the changes he witnessed during his career, to the medium, the topics. He considers Kurtzman the inspiration for most underground comic cartoonists: “he’s the one coming with the really subversive ideas about the real issues: consumer culture, war, sex, and he’s hiding them in humour”. He treated comics as a construct and manipulated them, as a reaction against normalcy, genres and repetition. On the future of cartooning and graphic novels, Karasik noted the rise in female cartoonists and graphic novelists: “there’s more female creators and now the next wave is gender neutral creators – LGBTQ+ creators. It’s not about to happen, it’s totally happening”.
To conclude the interview, I asked him to list a few of his “cultural remedies”. He told me about a German Expressionist wood-cut exhibition he saw at Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum: “it made me feel so good, I enjoyed that so much, it’s a beautiful graphic work, and really raw, there’s something about the wood-cuts that’s particularly hands-on. I walked away with my brains oozing out of my ears. It was just a fabulous experience”. Most importantly however, he had one last thing to say about cartooning, in the style of Rainer Maria Rilke: “do it if you can’t do anything else, if you have no other choice and it’s just what you’re compelled to do”.