Thursday, July 9, 2009

20 Questions with Tom Cheney

Tom Cheney is one of America’s premiere gag cartoonists.

Let’s see what Wikipedia says about Tom:

“His work has appeared in over 500 publications in the United States and other countries, including National Lampoon, The Harvard Business Review, Mad Magazine, Hustler, Penthouse, The Wall Street Journal, Punch, Barron’s Magazine, and the “Commies From Mars” comic book series. He was the 1985 winner of the Charles M. Schulz Outstanding Cartoonist Award for his work in magazine cartooning, and his work has been spotlighted on ABC Nightline, CNN, and NBC News. Tom is presently living with a harem of nubile young women on an uncharted isle.”

Apparently that last line was added by some prankster. Damn that peer-edited site.

You can check out Tom’s hilarious New Yorker cartoons here.

20 Questions with Tom Cheney

1. When you were a kid, did you want to be a cartoonist? Did you draw?

Now that I think about it, I've probably always been a cartoonist. I've been drawing ever since I can remember, and it's been a deeply ingrained pastime my whole life. Some days, after I'm done drawing for a living, I draw to relax. I'd spend hours as a kid, filing my drawing tablets with stick figure characters doing unspeakable things to each other.

2. What was your first paying cartoon job?

First cartoon sale was to Easy Riders Magazine, back in 1976. I didn't expect to find a check in my batch of rejects, and I nearly fainted when I saw it. I was expecting a rejection slip.

3. You’ve done cartoons for magazines, greeting cards, books. How did you get into the gag cartoon field?

I like all forms of cartooning, but the gag cartoon presents the biggest challenge for me. Also, there was a hot market for the gag cartoon when I was breaking into the business, and that's where some of the big money was, especially with the men's magazines. The cartoonists who inspired me the most at that time were gag cartoonists, and I felt it was something I could do well.

4. Why is the single panel gag superior to the comic strip?

The single panel gag cartoon is a bomb that goes off in your face. There's no set-up or warning, as with a comic strip. A comic strip gives the reader time to take cover. A gag cartoon sucker punches you, and it takes a lot of wit and cleverness to do that.

5. You’re incredibly prolific. How many cartoons do you draw on an average day?

These days I try for 10 really strong cartoons per week, but I used to create 7 per day; 3 per day if I was doing full page color gags for the men’s magazines. Keeping the same pace now that I did as a younger cartoonist would probably kill me.

6. What’s your favorite rejected cartoon?

An earless Vincent Van Gogh sitting in the emergency room waiting area with a bloody bandage over his groin. He says to the guy next to him. "When she said I was a bad listener, I cut off my ear...last night, she said I was a lousy lay."

7. What’s the future of gag cartooning? Magazines? The Internet?

The future of gag cartooning is grim. It's getting too expensive for magazines and newspapers to keep publishing. Getting published on the internet is like getting noticed for peeing in the pool. There's just no challenge there, because anybody can stick up a cartoon without having to deal with rejection or the editing process. Hopefully, if publications go digital, they'll continue to buy and use the gag cartoon and pay cartoonists enough to make it worth their best efforts.

8. Name five of your favorite cartoonists.

John Caldwell, Eric Decetis, Sam Gross, Charles Addams, and Charles Rodgrigues. All of these guys have walked out to the edge and given us a good look at how powerful the gag cartoon can be.

9. Who would win in a cage match, James Thurber or Charles Addams?

Charles Addams, because James Thurber only had one good eye. He'd never see those left hooks coming.

10. How do you develop ideas? Which comes first, words or pictures?

I usually start my writing sessions with a few doodles, then try to develop concepts by putting two things together that don't belong together...such as a prehistoric scene with a limo driving through it, and one of the cave men saying something like, "Well, I guess some of us just can't appreciate the Pleistocene era." I wish I had a set formula for coming up with gags. What it really boils down to is thinking, thinking, thinking. Drawing is fun...gagwriting is torture.

11. Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?

I always worry about running out of ideas, but I just keep reminding myself that times are always changing, and with these changes come new annoying cliches that drive us crazy until a cartoonist relieves the tension.

12. You’re a staff cartoonist at The New Yorker. That sounds like a dream gig. How did that come about?

I submitted a batch of cartoons to The New Yorker each week for 18 years, non-stop, and they finally offered me a contract. It's been the most challenging and rewarding gig of my career, and I consider myself lucky to be with them. It's hard work, and they expect nothing less than my best efforts, but the results are always worth it. The best fan mail I get is from New Yorker readers who liked a particular cartoon I did.

13. What kind of editor do you prefer, hands-on or laissez-faire?

Ideally, the more laissez-faire the better, but a good hands-on editor can actually have a positive influence on a cartoonist's work. Lee Lorenz helped me a great deal when asking for particular drawing changes, and I learned a lot from his his editing. On the other hand, I've worked with editors who weren't qualified to compose grocery lists, let alone work with professional cartoonists.

14. What are your favorite books, TV shows, songs and films? (Yes, that counts as one question.)

Favorite books: Tattoo by Earl Thompson.
Favorite TV show: COPS
Favorite Songs: Anything Blues or Jazz
Favorite Movie: The Last Detail

15. What are your tools of the trade?

I've gone through quite a few pens. My favorite for the longest time was the Pelikan 120 medium point, but it's become a dinosaur and I can't find replacement nibs for it. Lately I'm using a filed down Crow Quill (Hunt 108.) Pencil is a 2 mm lead holder with B grade lead, and my favorite brush is the Windsor and Newton Series 7, #7 round. I used Dr. Martins for color work, along with transparent watercolors. I avoid using a computer for color, simply because I don't want my work looking like everyone else’s.

16. What’s the best part about being a cartoonist?

I don't own an alarm clock, there's no commute, I can live anywhere I want (Hawaii,) and I get paid to draw pictures of every idiotic thought that pops into my head. How can it possibly get better than that?

17. Have you met any of your cartoonist idols? Under what circumstances?

I've met Lee Lorenz and Randy Glasbergen, but they're the only two cartoonists I've ever had the honor of meeting.

18. What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?

Stay with it. Even though it may seem fruitless and hopeless right now, it will be worth it in the long run. Every drawing you do, no matter how complex or simple, teaches you how to do the next drawing and how to be better at what you do. Remember that you're not just telling jokes or making cute're also in possession of a very powerful weapon. You'll be able to reach people and change minds the way no politician, clergyman, or poet could ever dream of.

19. How important are awards?

If you're a pro, then awards that offer cash are very important. If you're just getting a little statue or a plaque, hell, you can do that by baking pies for the county fair. I've seen awards go to some of the worst hacks and dullards in the business, while the greatest cartoonists I've ever known continue to quietly amaze and dazzle their readers in relative obscurity. An award that doesn't help you pay your bills or beat a deadline isn't worth that much.

20. What’s something that nobody knows about you?

If I told you that, we'd BOTH get arrested.


Benita said...

The funniest gag cartoonist ever! Scott, thanks for this interview.

Steve Delmonte said...

Very cool Thanks for the interview
Scott. Great Cartoonist that Tom there!