A New Yorker Cartoonist Explains How to Draw Literary Cartoons

“I enjoy pok­ing fun at any­thing edu­cat­ed peo­ple do and civ­i­lized soci­ety per­pet­u­ates that is odd, frus­trat­ing, wacky, or hyp­o­crit­i­cal,” car­toon­ist Amy Kurzweil, above, recent­ly told the New York Pub­lic Library’s Mar­go Moore.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, she’s been get­ting pub­lished in The New York­er a lot of late.

The process for get­ting car­toons accept­ed there is the stuff of leg­end, though report­ed­ly less gru­el­ing since Emma Allen, the magazine’s youngest and first-ever female car­toon edi­tor, took over. Allen has made a point of seek­ing out fresh voic­es, and work­ing with them to help mold their sub­mis­sions into some­thing in The New York­er vein, rather than “this end­less game of pre­sent­ing work and then hear­ing ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

Kurzweil has a fond­ness for lit­er­ary themes (and the same brand of pen­cils that John Stein­beck, Tru­man Capote, and Vladimir Nabokov pre­ferred—Black­wings—whether in her hand or, con­vers­ing with Allen on Zoom, above, in her ears.)

Get­ting the joke of a New York­er car­toon often depends on get­ting the ref­er­ence, and while both women seem tick­led at the first exam­ple, Kurzweil’s mash-up of Proust’s Remem­brance of Things Past and the pic­ture book If You Give a Mouse a Cook­ie, it may go over many read­ers’ heads.

The thing that holds it all togeth­er?

Madeleines, of course, though out­side France, not every Proust lover is able to iden­ti­fy an inked rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this evoca­tive cook­ie by shape.

Kurzweil states that she has nev­er actu­al­ly read the children’s book that sup­plies half the con­text.

(It’s okay. Like the idea that mem­o­ries can be trig­gered by cer­tain nos­tal­gic scents, its con­cept is pret­ty easy to grasp.)

Nor has she read philoso­pher Derek Parfit’s whop­ping 1,928-page On What Mat­ters. Her inspi­ra­tion for using it in a car­toon is her per­son­al con­nec­tion to the mas­sive, unread three-vol­ume set in her family’s library. Because both the size and the title are part of the joke, she directs the viewer’s eye to the unwieldy tome with a light water­col­or wash.

She also has a good tip for any­one draw­ing a library scene—go fig­u­ra­tive, rather than lit­er­al, vary­ing sizes and shapes until the eye is tricked into see­ing what is mere­ly sug­gest­ed.

A all-too-true lit­er­ary expe­ri­ence informs her sec­ond exam­ple at the 4:30 mark—that of a lit­tle known author giv­ing a read­ing in a book­store. Despite a pref­er­ence for draw­ing “fleshy things like peo­ple and ani­mals” she for­goes depict­ing the author or those in atten­dance, giv­ing the punch­line instead to the event posters in the store’s win­dow.

As she told the NYPL’s Moore:

A car­toon is always an oppor­tu­ni­ty to show­case a con­tem­po­rary phe­nom­e­non by exag­ger­at­ing it or plac­ing it in a dif­fer­ent con­text.

Over the last year, a huge num­ber of New York­er car­toons have con­cerned them­selves with the domes­tic dull­ness of the pan­dem­ic, but when Allen asked if she has a favorite New York­er car­toon cliché, Kurzweil went with “the Moby Dick trope, because whales are easy to draw, and I like a good metaphor for the unat­tain­able.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New York­er Car­toon Edi­tor Bob Mankoff Reveals the Secret of a Suc­cess­ful New York­er Car­toon

The Not York­er: A Col­lec­tion of Reject­ed & Late Cov­er Sub­mis­sions to The New York­er

Down­load a Com­plete, Cov­er-to-Cov­er Par­o­dy of The New York­er: 80 Pages of Fine Satire

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She most recent­ly appeared as a French Cana­di­an bear who trav­els to New York City in search of food and mean­ing in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.