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Sam Gross: "I don't do things for The New Yorker; I do things for me."

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Emily Gordon writes:

My friend Nathaniel Wice just pointed me to this stellar interview with New Yorker cartoonist Sam Gross at The Comics Journal, by the veteran music critic Richard Gehr. It looks as though this is the first in a series of “Know Your New Yorker Cartoonist” columns, which is great news for all of us who celebrate these hardworking and (literally!) marginalized artists. Here’s an excerpt I especially liked because Gross talks about Charles Addams and other strong influences, but read the whole thing:

GEHR: When did you become a New Yorker contract artist?

GROSS: I didn’t get a contract under William Shawn. I had a special rate under Robert Gottlieb. I got a flat fee but higher than their contract rate. The contract rate started below my special rate and went up incrementally for each five you sold until they would be way ahead of my rate. Then it would go back down again at the beginning of the year. And there was also a signature fee, a quantity bonus, and a pension. None of this do they have now.

GEHR: How has your work changed over the years? Do you get direction from your editors as the magazine’s editorial vision changes?

GROSS: My work hasn’t changed because of The New Yorker. I don’t do things for The New Yorker; I do things for me. I don’t do anything for The New Yorker because I operate on the premise that Bob Mankoff can be there today and gone tomorrow, and the same with David Remnick. Somebody else could come in and have a totally different outlook and I will either fit in or not fit in. If I’ve geared my work toward the people that were there before, I’m basically embedded with these older people and I’m screwed. But I am my own person. You either take me or leave me, simple as that.

GEHR: What cartoonists have influenced you?

GROSS: Charles Addams, Mischa Richter, Saul Steinberg. We all go through these things. Addams still influences me.

GEHR: What did you learn from Addams?

GROSS: I learned how to create a mood and get involved with the characters. I did a Puss in Boots gag some years ago. The cat is wearing these high leather boots with stiletto heels and has a whip. And a guy is looking at the cat and saying something like, “This is not the Puss in Boots I knew as a child.” I could tell there was something wrong with my sketch, however, and it finally dawned on me that the guy I drew never read a book in his life; he looked like he drove a truck or something. I had to draw somebody bookish. I know I have a poor eye. People like Sergio Aragonés, though, he can sit there and just fill up a page and there it is. I shared a studio with Dick Oldden, a penthouse on 78th Street. This guy didn’t own an eraser, Wite-Out, or even a pencil. He had trained himself to start on the upper left-hand corner, finish on the lower right-hand corner, and just sign his name. I thought everybody was like this. Sometimes I have to give a drawing a lot of thought afterward. I may look at it for two weeks if I’m trying to sell it to The New Yorker - or three weeks if it’s really bothering me. There’s no time element involved with most of my work. It can go on forever, and I have drawings that are still pumping money. “Son, your mother’s a remarkable woman,” that drawing with the cow jumping over the moon was done in 1982 and it’s going on and on. And the frogs’ legs cartoon was in the December 1970 issue of the Lampoon.


GEHR: When did you discover that the handicapped possessed so much potential amusement?

GROSS: One of my first big sales when I came back from Europe was a spread of drawings called “Humor of the Handicapped” in Paul Krassner’s Realist. Before the Lampoon there was The Realist, which did some very wild stuff. He got a lot of letters both ways, but handicapped people loved it!

Danny BloomMarch 10, 2011

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