Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule

Maud Newton puts the noble in Barnes & Noble in this terrific interview with Alison Bechdel. Here’s an intriguing pair of passages about Bechdel’s use of a digital font (made with Fontographer, as I recall from a recent event with the cartoonist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) instead of hand-lettering for her graphic novels:
BNR: …Apart from all your second-guessing of your writing itself, I’ve noticed that you’re really hard on yourself for using a font based on your handwriting to letter your frames.

AB: I do feel guilty about it, like it’s somehow cheating to use a digital font, and to not actually hand-letter my work. But at the same time, I have these lengthy passages of quotations from [Donald] Winnicott or from Virginia Woolf that I have obsessively hand-lettered.


From a recent A.V. Club interview about Kate Beaton’s essential new book, Hark! A Vagrant. The as-close-to-universally-beloved-as-it’s-possible-to-get-without-being-a-baby-panda Beaton and cartoonist Sam Means had a cartoon in the June 28 issue of the magazine (as “Beans,” which is a great combi-name). Are more forthcoming? Only Bob Mankoff knows for sure.
AVC: How did you get involved with The New Yorker? Did they come to you, or did you go to them?

KB: No, you have to submit to them. You give them packages. The New Yorker doesn’t come to anybody, not even the people who’ve been published there for 20 years. You have to submit, and you just keep doing it until they buy one.

AVC: What’s it like doing comics for them? (continued)

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.


Pollux writes:

Funny men aren’t necessarily happy men.

People who invited P.G. Wodehouse to dinner parties, expecting him to spout witticisms and throw bread rolls at the waitstaff, found him to be a very shy and very quiet man.

And the waggish S. J. Perelman was, according to his biographer Dorothy Herrmann, a “contained,” “testy, easily depressed man.” As the poet Hartley Coleridge once wrote, “And laughter oft is but an art / To drown the outcry of the heart.”

In this Harper’s Magazine article, John R. MacArthur sees a gloomy side to James Thurber as well. Thurber’s lugubriousness is confirmed by testimony from Charles Van Doren, who recounts that Thurber once wept because he felt that he had been struck by blindness as punishment for lampooning “poor, weak people.” Hardly the person you want to liven up your cocktail party.

MacArthur considers Charles Addams, a man whom most associate with gloom and doom, a credible rival to Thurber as one of America’s foremost funnymen. Addams’ work was not oppressed by bitterness and coldness.

Upon visiting the Charles Addams Foundation, in Sagaponack, Long Island, MacArthur remarks that “Addams’s cartoons, displayed throughout the house among other memorabilia, were simply laugh-out-loud funny. And—odd for such overtly sinister humor—I didn’t feel bad, or mean-spirited, after I’d laughed.”

MacArthur finds more warmth in the macabre relationship between Morticia and Gomez than that between Thurber’s Mr. and Mrs. Mitty.

Indeed, Addams is underappreciated while the bitterness to Thurber’s humor has been underestimated. While Addams had his cartoon men and women exchanging potshots on relatively equal terms, Thurber’s humor is predictable in the sense that his women are always menacing, domineering figures.

I channeled this frigidity between the sexes when I created a lost Thurber cartoon on April Fool’s Day. I depicted a large, mean-looking woman about to attach horseshoes to her milquetoast spouse’s feet, which I felt represented a classic Thurber cartoon.

Do I find Addams funny? Absolutely. Like Rea Irvin, he deserves to be remembered for the full body of his work rather than only for a component of it.

Do I find Thurber funny? Yes, and he continues to inspire me and many others in different ways. I speculated, for example, if Thurber would have used an iPhone to draw his unhappy couples. What would these drawings have looked like? If I ever get an iPhone, perhaps I’ll try my hand at creating more pseudo-Thurberian work.

Our culture owes a debt of gratitude to both men. In the hallways of that eternal pantheon of American humorists, whether these hallways ring laughter or with tears, there is plenty of room for both Addams and Thurber, and room for many more humorists of the present and future.


ThurbersiPhone-Pollux-Pmorris-July 2009.png

Pollux writes:

If you’re an art collector on the go, Christie’s iPhone application allows you to browse over their auctions in various categories. Christie’s may also soon be adding a live-bidding functionality to this iPhone app, according to this article. So if you’ve got an iPhone and a taste for fine art, then your needs will soon be met.

But what if you’re an artist on the go? Back in May, Jorge Colombo showed us the possibilities of the iPhone’s Brushes app and how it could be used to create a new form of digital art.

Colombo didn’t invent the format, but certainly provided a stimulus to those who want to create fine art but don’t want to be lugging easels or sketchpads around. The iPhone Art Flickr group now has more than 5,000 individual art pieces. The New Yorker, keeping its sharp ears close to the ground, has now created a regular blog featuring Colombo’s iPhone-generated finger paintings, which include images of the Apollo Theatre, limo drivers, storefronts, and a musical performance.

This art isn’t just viewable on an iPhone or only online. The Flickr artists are working on the challenges of printing out their artwork. And, if you’d like to buy one of Jorge Colombo’s iPhone prints, you can find them for sale at Jen Bekman’s gallery.

If only the iPhone had been around fifty years ago! I’ve been working on a time machine whose main function will simply be to drop iPhones from the sky onto the desks and drafting tables of New Yorker artists Thurber, Steinberg, Arno, and Covarrubias.

I know this will cause severe alterations in our timeline, like leaving a Mentos wrapper at the scene of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC or a machine gun at the Battle of Gaugamela, but let’s assume that there exists what I’ve dubbed the Emdashes Traversable Wormhole. This shortcut through space and time will allow us to imagine some beautiful digital art created by artists from a non-digital age.

James Thurber with an iPhone: one wonders if he would have enjoyed using it. His failing eyesight would have certainly presented a problem, but the thought of creating art by means of an electric telephone would have tickled his fancy. Thurber’s intimidating female figures would have thundered their way onto the LCD screen and his dogs would have sniffled sadly as the lines of their bodies were summoned to life by means of Thurber’s trembling finger.

Saul Steinberg would have employed his iPhone Dropped from the Sky to create illustrations perhaps on the scale of his Gogol II sketch rather than on the scale of his famous, detailed View of the World from 9th Avenue cover. Perhaps while waiting outside the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1966, Steinberg may have created on his iPhone a quick sketch like his Two Women illustration.

In any case, I think Steinberg would have taken to the iPhone immediately. He used a wide variety of media with which to create his art, from rubber stamps to paper bags, and his art, as the Saul Steinberg Foundation states, “is about the ways artists make art. Steinberg did not represent what he saw; rather, he depicted people, places, and even numbers or words in styles borrowed from other art, high and low, past and present.”

Colombo’s iPhone-generated New Yorker cover was less a literal depiction than an artist’s impression of city life. In the same way, Steinberg would have used his iPhone as a peripatetic periscope with which to interpret either himself as an artist, the city in which he lived in, or the way in which we communicate.

Peter Arno is the New Yorker artist whom I consider most likely to have used his iPhone to depict city scenes about him. Like Colombo, he would have sketched, perhaps in the application’s Rough Bristly Brush (the other options are Smooth Brush and Fine Bristly Brush), the limo and cab drivers, the automobiles and airplanes, the socialites and the New York policemen. You can check out his opus here.

An explosion of color and geometry would have occurred once Miguel Covarrubias would have grabbed the phone I would have tossed at him from my time machine (my time machine looks exactly like a Reliant Regal Supervan III). The Brushes User’s Guide provides the following tip: “When you start a painting, choose your palette of colors and paint a little blob on the canvas for each one. You can then quickly choose colors from your palette by tapping and holding on the blobs.”

I can picture Covarrubias now, quickly tapping away to create caricatures such as his Al Capone & Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes; Clark Gable & Edward, Prince of Wales;
and Dr. Samuel Johnson & Alexander Woolcott.

A 1948 article on Covarrubias writes of him that “the cold shape of Death was not a familiar in his pictures and he was not weighed down with the shackles of propaganda.” Covarrubias’ iPhone would have become warm with activity and color, unshackled by skulls and unadorned by hammers and sickles.

It’s colorful and interesting, this hypothetical time period of mine. In an alternate history of art and applications for the iPhone, we can see the possibilities of the future through the prism of a fictional past. My next project will involve getting Benjamin Franklin and Gandhi to sign up on Twitter.


2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree