You may have seen these, if you were following the New Yorker’s online Cartoonists blog a couple of years ago. I didn’t post them here because until fairly recently they were readily available at the NYer site. That blog is no more, so now that these are no longer available at Newyorker.com, I decided to re-publish them here.
Pen and the Sword: A Fable
Pen and Sword were walking in the woods together and having the same old argument.
“No offense, Pen,” said Sword, “but I’m obviously the mightier of the two of us. See that tree over there? I could cut that tree in half if I wanted to.” To illustrate his point, Sword took a swipe at the tree, nicking its bark slightly and scaring the hell out of a couple of nearby bushes.
Pen responded by scratching out the “S” from Sword’s name.
Word, having lost his power to physically cut and slice his way through an argument, used his new powers to heap verbal abuse on his old friend and opponent.
“You sorry excuse for a writing and drawing tool that can easily be carried in a pocket or purse!” he ranted. “You ink-dependent, insignificant bit of shaped metal and wood! A curse upon you and all your kind, including Pencil, Brush, and many types of Styli, including the ancient variety, used to scratch letters and symbols on wax-covered tablets, and the newer kind, used primarily in conjunction with electronic devices, such as computers and electronic tablets, to input handwritten text or drawings!”
(Word hadn’t had a chance yet to hone his new skills.)
Pen was about to counter his colleague’s outburst when they were both stopped short by the appearance of two figures coming toward them on the trail. They suddenly recognized the other couple, now approaching them menacingly.
“Run for your life!” Pen screamed. “It’s Eraser and Delete!”
The Naked Cartoonist
For several years, I struggled mightily with the process of getting ideas for cartoons. I tried adjusting the light and temperature of the room, taking various drugs, drinking heavily, working only at night, and self-hypnosis. The results were still meager, and this was reflected in my acceptance rate, which hovered around zero for many years. I took other jobs to keep myself going: Bartending, pumping gas, and neurosurgery, which I wrongly imagined I had a knack for. I thought seriously of giving up on my lifelong dream of becoming a professional cartoonist.
One day in the shower, an idea came to me. I rushed to my drawing board immediately, fearing that the idea would fly away before I got it down on paper. In my haste, I hadn’t taken the time to dress. As I sat at the board, furiously drawing up my idea, I was surprised to find yet another idea forming in my brain. I quickly sketched that one, too. Then, astoundingly, another idea occurred to me, and then another, and so on as the day rushed by. Late in the evening, I became exhausted and flung my bare body onto my bed, where I fell into a deep sleep.
When I awoke the next day, I had twenty-four sketches in my idea box and the beginnings of a serious cold. I took some aspirin, got dressed, and tried to go back to work, but something was wrong. The spell had somehow been broken. No ideas came, and I began to think they never would again.
It was then I realized the connection between being unclothed and my successful output of work.
Since that day, I have always worked naked. My drawings have appeared in many major publications over the years, thanks to my discovery. My constant unclothed state has gotten me into a bit of trouble though, and I was recently forced by the authorities to move to a “gated community” here in upstate New York where I now live and work alongside several other “excentric” types. You should drop by some time, if you’re in the neighborhood. They let me have visitors three times a week. Call first, though. I’ll need time to make myself presentable.
Here I go again, the shaking, the cold sweat, the frantic search for humorous ideas. Damn it! Will I ever beat this thing?
When I was a kid, out on the streets of Lake Oswego, Oregon, I fell in with a bad crowd. It’s the same sad old story. You’ve heard it before: A bunch of kids with not much to do get together. Before long they’re sketching, drawing crude pictures of houses with scribbled smoke coming out of chimneys, twisting up into a barren sky with a few vee-shaped birds and a circle of yellow sun, its rays radiating out over a skewed horizon line.
No regard for the rules of perspective or composition. No care for quality of line or texture.
We were headed down a bad road.
It was just a small step for some of us to start drawing trees, cars, airplanes, animals, naked women.
A lot of kids escaped, sure. They drew for a while, then they put down their pencils and went on to other things. They got interested in sports, reading books, playing video games or guitars.
For some of us, though, it was an insane downward spiral. First drawing classes, then art school, leading eventually to the terrors of freelancing. I saw all the danger signs ahead, but I ignored them, consumed by my habit.
I did it all, greeting cards, comic strips, animation…You name it. I took part-time jobs just long enough to keep me in ink and paper. Then one day I gave in completely to my habit. I no longer even tried working in other professions. I was hooked. I’d been hooked for a long time.
I might eventually get over my addiction. I don’t know. Right now, all I care about is my next cartoon idea.
My name is Mick, and I have a drawing problem.
Hey. One batch at a time.
Don’t Call Me Ishmael
(Though there are some similarities between his story and mine.)
Some years ago, I packed up some drawings and set off from my home village, searching for adventure. I headed for New York City and, when I arrived, found lodging at a local inn. It was in a seedy part of town and to my surprise, I had to share my room with a big Rastafarian dude. He was covered with tattoos and wore a fierce scowl. Like me, he carried a portfolio of his artwork, which seemed to be his only possession other than a bag of herbs. After we became friends, he explained that these herbs grew in abundance in the land from which he came, a mysterious place called “Jamaica.” On occasion, he would extract a pinch or two of the herbs, place them in the bowl of a strange-looking pipe, and light it with a match. He would then lie back and seem to dream, his scowl morphing into a happy smile. I learned his name eventually, something unpronounceable starting with a “Q.” I decided to just call him Q from then on.
We both found work of a sort, trudging each week to the offices of The New Yorker with our weekly batch of drawings, in the hope of selling a few and paying our landlord, who was always on the verge of tossing us out.
On my first trip to the magazine, I encountered a grizzled old fellow who stopped me on the sidewalk. He wore an old sports coat that was spotted with white-out and ink stains. There was a wild look in his eye.
“Do not go there!” he admonished, a bony index finger pointing shakily from his filthy jacket’s sleeve in the direction of Forty-second Street. “The place is cursed! Should you go, you will regret it. There will come a day when you will see checks in the mail where there are no checks in the mail, and, on that day, all will get into hot water, save one!”
Although his warning disturbed me, I went on, thinking the man mad.
Q and I began a series of weekly trips to the magazine. Our finances were in disarray, but we enjoyed the artist’s life and had few complaints. After much perseverance, we were finally admitted to the office of the cartoon editor at the magazine. He was an odd, aloof character, with a peg leg, an iron jaw, and a nasty shaving scar on his cheek. His name was Ahab, and he was consumed by a quest for the perfect cartoon idea. Apparently, he had seen one once and really liked it. The idea had somehow got away from him, and he promised to pay us handsomely if we could reproduce it. Each time we went into his office he would demand, “Have ye seen it? Have ye seen the great idea?” Then, to himself, he would say, “It tasks me. It HEAPS me!!” and we would leave hurriedly, in fear of his famous temper.
One day, an artist showed him what he took to be the Great Cartoon! He jumped up from his chair and grabbed the rough drawing from the artist’s hand. A scuffle ensued. Stacks of drawings tumbled to the floor and pens and pencils flew into the air. Ahab began to yell.
“Watch the birds!’ he screamed. “He breaches! He breaches!!”
Ahab’s tussle with the artist spilled into the room outside. Other fights began breaking out. The entire office erupted in violent action. Even the usually serene Q became embroiled in the insanity, trading blows with a number of other cartoonists.
I alone escaped. I retreated downstairs to a bar on Madison Avenue, where I had a vodka and tonic and tried to puzzle out what had just taken place.
I read several days later that the artists had all scattered when the police arrived. They found Ahab in his office. Somehow he had become entangled in telephone cords and lay strapped uncomfortably to his desk.
Doodle Me Darkly
I was sitting in my office sharpening pencils and wondering where my next batch of cartoon ideas was coming from. The phone hadn’t rung for days. There had been nothing in the mailbox but bills and mortgage scams. I hadn’t had a decent idea in weeks. Outside my grimy window was a bleak view of the city. A dark, ink-wash sky hung over it all. It looked like it might rain. I took a sip of cold, black coffee from the chipped cup on my desk.
Then the door opened and she walked in. More accurately, she floated in, about three feet or so off the floor. I wondered how she did that.
She looked vaguely familiar: Long, flowing blond hair and a face that could start all the stopped clocks in the world ticking again. She was wearing a form-fitting white gown that gave my imagination a thirty-second workout, and she had sandals down there on her feet, right where you’d expect. She was carrying a small golden harp in one delicate white hand and a copy of “The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker” under one arm.
She glided over to my drawing board and hovered there for a while. I tried to stay cool, but noticed out of the corner of my eye that my drawing hand was shaking like a plate of pink jello in an earthquake. She looked me straight in the eye, and then glanced down at the blank piece of paper on my desk. “I’ve got an idea for you, big guy,” she breathed, “if you want it.”
“Maybe I do and maybe I don’t.” I said, trying to steady my right hand by repeatedly jabbing at it with the recently sharpened pencil in my left. She seemed not to notice.
“A woman is awakened by a man washing a Volkswagen in their bedroom,” she began. “The man says, ‘I couldn’t sleep.’”
Then, before I knew it, she had floated out an open window.
I didn’t even have time to tell her that Michael Crawford had already done that idea, back in 1992.
I hope someone reads this note and can rescue me from the fix I’m in.
Here, briefly, is my situation. Unfortunately, I have no idea where I am or how long I’ve been here. I’m on a small mound of sand somewhere in a large body of water. I’m surrounded by fish bones and empty coconut shells. There’s usually a palm tree here, too, but sometimes it disappears for no apparent reason, then returns mysteriously.
It’s the same with people. They appear suddenly, exchange a few words, usually humorous in nature, and then they’re gone. My visitors have included other castaways, sharks, talking animals, insurance salesmen, and, once, a psychiatrist.
The only thing that’s consistent here seems to be the weather. Every day is hot and humid. The sun beats down unmercifully and I’m thankful for the days when my palm tree is there to provide a bit of shade. Somehow, I survive on the occasional fish or coconut. One day, I found myself sitting at a table, complete with a linen tablecloth and a small potted palm. The waiter never came.
This is all pretty maddening, but the worst part is this:
Every sentence spoken here—even every unuttered thought—is followed by ghostly laughter. I don’t know where this laughter comes from. It seems to emanate from some distant, invisible place beyond the sky and sea.
How I would love to get away from here. I dream of being in other places: in an office, for instance, sitting behind a big desk smoking a cigar, or exchanging bon mots with a beautiful woman over Martinis in an upscale bar, or chatting with other people at a cocktail party, or even just sitting somewhere in a big easy chair, staring into space.
Damn! There’s that creepy laughter again.