Here are some responses to my request for First OK stories, along with some self-portraits. Not surprisingly, the stories have some similarities. I also notice some differences: For instance, in Gahan Wilson’s description, the anteroom at the old New Yorker offices had a different color scheme than it did in my story and the receptionist sat behind a Wisonesque barred window instead of a glass one. Interesting how differently we all see and remember things.
Despite the fact that I had sold lots of cartoons to many papers and magazines over the years, I waited a long time before sending stuff to The New Yorker, prevented, I think, by a peculiar form of cartoonist stage fright. I would sit down, purposefully intent on working up a batch of New Yorker ideas, and then immediately go blank. Eventually, however, I put together what I believed to be a proper group of drawings to submit, but only after after destroying enough paper to re-forest a suburb in Amazonia.
I courageously mailed the envelope to Lee Lorenz, who promptly returned it along with a signed rejection note. Signed! That the note was signed meant that he had actually looked at the drawings, and that was all the encouragement I needed. So I dug in for the long haul and sent another hundred or so batches, first to Lorenz and later to Bob, and in August of 1998 Emily called with my first OK.
That’s when one illness ended and another began. I mean, of course it was an earthshaking, mind-altering life-moment and all that to have a cartoon accepted by The New Yorker, but with it came the unalterable truth that if one CAN sell a cartoon to the New Yorker, one MUST sell ANOTHER. And many long, bitter months went by before I sold a second cartoon, thereby validating my validation. You can see where this all leads.
I believe I have sold another fifty or so to the magazine since my first OK, and for me, as well as many other cartoonists, happiness is usually a fleeting, evanescent thing, like a favorite new sock or a fresh pile of gold bars. I still do the frantic little happy-dance when Farley calls on a Thursday afternoon, though, and I still chase the cats around the house after I’m off the phone with him, but now it takes less time for me to settle down and get back to the business of destroying more paper.
My first sale to the NYer came in the form of a fax from Emily Vortruba. Needless to say, after twenty-five years of submitting, I was stunned and amazed. After a call to Emily to confirm that it wasn’t a mistake or a dream or a joke, my wife and I went out to celebrate. The next day I went to work on the finish. After several hours of failed attempts to do the perfect drawing, I realized that my original rough was the best I was ever going to do, and I sent it in.
This was in October–October 16, 1997, to be exact. From then on, like an idiot, I opened the magazine expecting to see my cartoon. As the weeks and months went by, I became more and more convinced it had all been a mistake or dream or a joke. Some of my friends began to suspect that I’d made the whole thing up. Then, in July, 1998, my cartoon finally appeared. I was overjoyed. I also realized at that moment that being a New Yorker cartoonist was going to involve an endless, ever-changing series of exquisite tortures.
On the other hand, every time I gaze at my framed, very faded 1997 fax from Emily Vortruba, I remember how great it was to sell that first one, and remind myself that it’s still a thrill every time I get an ok.
I used to work for a photographer who worked with TNY, and I’d always have to call TNY to try to wangle a higher budget (or at least coffee money for the client). Once you’ve dealt with a magazine at that level, the awe passes, and I wasn’t particularly full of trepidation when I began submitting. I totally and calmly doubted I’d sell, and was just of the opinion that it wouldn’t hurt me to meet a deadline once a week while I got my drawing skills back up to par after years of inactivity.
It was almost too soon for me when they bought a few cartoons — the first six cartoons they bought are in a totally different style.
(They have not run.). It wasn’t till I changed my style that I
started having cartoons run in the magazine. And for that I was
grateful, because I wasn’t happy with my drawing yet at the time. I was afraid I’d be stuck with that style forever. I was actually more thrilled with the first published cartoon than the first sale. Nobody believed me when I told them I sold one, till they saw a published cartoon, anyway!
I came to cartooning late. I remember very clearly coming home around 7 pm, hearing my phone while I fumbled with the key. I’d been submitting weekly for two months, while working as a theatrical set carpenter, and coming in early that Thursday, because of a power failure on the site. I knew about the odds and knew tenacity would be half the battle. The rejections didn’t bother me; I’d already determined I’d submit for a year, before stopping if nothing happened. To avoid being bummed out by camparisons that might lessen my resolve I stopped looking at the magazine a couple of months before submitting a first batch. And I still impose a lot of resolve and discipline on my work habits, although I’m a lot more accepting of my own limitations and my own way of seeing things.
I’m still only an occasional cartoonist in the NY’er, still a ten a week submitter, and still tidkled by that first OK call.
I had just started drawing cartoons again after a decade or so of doing other things and had sent a couple batches to the NYer as part of my practice of getting back into the discipline of it all. I was driving to Dairy Queen with the kids and checked my messages from the car and there was a message from Emily V
otruba. She said she was the assistant cartoon editor from the New Yorker and she’d like to talk to me about my cartoons. I thought it was a cartoonist friend of mine playing a joke on me, or if it was really the New Yorker that maybe they wanted to buy a gag for a regular or something. I called the number when I got home and Emily told me that they wanted to buy TWO of my cartoons. I actually called my friend after we hung up to make sure it wasn’t a cruel cruel joke, even though I knew that only the New Yorker knew which cartoons I had sent in. The paranoia has not lessened since.
My first contact at the NYer took place in 1976. One of my roughs was purchased solely for its idea which was then given to Charles Addams to produce as a finish for publication. After that, several more of my roughs were purchased for Charles Addams over the next couple of years. Finally, in 1978, an envelope bearing the NYer logo appeared in my mailbox, and in it was a request for a finished drawing. I had done it. I had become a New Yorker cartoonist. It was like getting my MBA in cartooning. Wisely, Lee had selected a drawing that he was sure I could handle with my fledgling drawing style. It depicted a multi-segmented Caterpillar climbing up a steep hill, with a thought balloon over his head showing him as being only one segment long. Strangely, the idea arrived while I was changing the oil in my car. I still haven’t found that six degrees of separation between caterpillars and oil filter wrenches.
In 1979, I had been submitting to the magazine for about a year. Back then, us newcomers who lived in town would bring our precious manila envelope to the 20th floor of the old funky building and hand it over to the barely-alive receptionist through the little glass slot in the window.of her cubicle (it was always a woman, I think I remember). She would hand back your envelope from the previous week. Inside, there would be one of those form rejection slips. SOMETIMES, Lee Lorenz would write a little scrawled “Holding 1” on a pink slip of paper, clipped to the drawings, which meant, literally, they were holding a cartoon another week for consideration. My heart was always pounding when I entered the building each Wednesday morning. A slip like that made it race.
This one time in 1979–I think it was in the fall–I went to receive my envelope, and the receptionist couldn’t find it. She made a call
back to the office, and reported that Lee wanted to see me. My heart lept into my throat. I went in, and immediately made a right turn into the Ladies’ room to compose myself, brush my hair, calm my nerves (an impossible task). I finally went back to the office. Lee greeted me and asked where I had been. I mumbled something about the bathroom. He said they wanted to buy one and showed it to me. I think I asked him some questions about when and what style I should use, who knows. It was a strange captionless drawing that involved Cezanne’s three elements–the cone the sphere and the cube. He said “Isn’t it the cone, the ball and the cube?” I said I didn’t think so, but I would check. Turns out I was right, and had to tell him he was wrong later, over the phone. I didn’t sell for another year or so. And this particular drawing didn’t run for a few years. My second sale, a sequential, ran first–in 1982. I felt I had arrived as a cartoonist, but it was an excruciating two years of waiting for my work to appear.
I date back to the days of the original building where cartoonists who had
not sold any cartoons to the magazine never got further into the premises than a bleak reception room which was painted a dismal green and contained only a wooden bench and a couple of unpadded chairs. There was also a never-opened door painted with the same paint and a small, barred window looking in on a tiny roomcontaining the receptionist. You would enter the room, cross over to the window in order to pass your cartoon roughs through to the receptionist and you would leave and a few days later you would get your cartoons back with a rejection slip.
After a long time of going through all of this over and over I got the usual
reception slip but it had a little note at the bottom asking me to call and
make an appointment which I did and when I arrived I saw the door open for the very first time and none other than Frank Modell ushered me down a narrow, dark corridor to his small office and he very gently gave me instructions on how to do the finish on a pirate cartoon I had drawn. The joke is I cannot remember what the pirate gag was which may indicate it wasn’t really all that strong a cartoon. Anyhow that was how it all went.
I started sending cartoons to the New Yorker in 1978 or thereabouts. The New Yorker bought the very first cartoon I submitted and then every single cartoon I ever sent in after that. In fact, I couldn’t come up with enough ideas, so they eventually paid Charles Addams to come up with ideas for me. It was Charles Addams who actually came up with the internet dogs idea. “I hope this works, sir,” I remember him saying. I could never get him to stop calling me sir.
If you’re a cartoonist and have a story about your first sale at the New Yorker, send it along with a self-caricature to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll include it here.