Around the Writers’ Table with two New Yorker cartoonists
Last Friday I sat down with cartoonists Mick Stevens and Paul Karasik in the gallery space of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, where some of Stevens’ cartoons are currently being exhibited. I had gone to the opening of his show, and wanted to see it again. When you see a great cartoon, you often find yourself thinking and laughing about it days later. Cartoonists have a way of hitting the sweet spot. Exposing our societal flaws and personal peccadillos, finding the humor and irony in the day-to-day, in our interior monologues, and in the world around us. The best ones get us and get inside of us, as you’ll see when you go to see Stevens’ show at the Playhouse, which is an outing I highly recommend you take — at least once.
Another outing to put on your calendar is to come hear Mick Stevens and Paul Karasik at Islanders Write on Monday, August 21, at 11:30 am, for “Thinking in Ink with Two New Yorker Cartoonists.”
At the Playhouse, the three of us talked about their game plan for Islanders Write, and the two of them were so interesting and funny together that I decided to write about them in this week’s Writers’ Table.
A bit of backstory to begin. Stevens, who now lives year-round in West Tisbury, has been a staff cartoonist at the New Yorker for more than four decades. When he started submitting his cartoons to the magazine, the cartoon editor at the time was more interested in his gag lines than his drawn lines, and bought some of his ideas, but not drawings. (The ideas ended up in Charles Addams cartoons. As readers likely know, Addams’ New Yorker cartoons inspired the popular TV show “The Addams Family,” and more recently movies, a Broadway musical, and the Netflix series “Wednesday.”) Stevens developed his drawing style, and the New Yorker started publishing his cartoons, and before long made him a staff cartoonist. Stevens’ work has also appeared in a number of other magazines and books; he has a weekly e-cartoon you can subscribe to, called “The Weekly Mick.”
Paul Karasik, also West Tisbury–based, sold his first cartoon to the New Yorker in 1999. Karasik has published widely, and is the co-author of several books, including ““How to Read Nancy” (with Mark Newgarden), which is a book that explains the essence of cartooning by deconstructing a strip of the cartoon “Nancy” by Ernie Bushmiller. Karasik has won two Eisner Awards — think Oscars for cartoonists — and is an educator with an encyclopedic depth of knowledge about cartoonists and cartooning. He also has a subscription-based Patreon page.
Stevens and Karasik are friends who regularly walk together and, as Stevens said, “buck each other up during the many, many weeks that we don’t sell.” They champion each other’s work, not in an ultra-supportive you-look-great-in-that-dress kind of way, but analytically, deconstructing what works and what might not work.
“There’s no doubt who drew these cartoons,” said Karasik, as he looked around the gallery. “This is a specific world that Mick is creating, and that’s what a successful New Yorker cartoonist does. It’s a kind of clean look. It’s almost a stark look, and everything is very clearly delineated and staged well.”
He added, “I think that my problem as a cartoonist has often been that I don’t have that really defined territory that I’ve staked out. You think about the great New Yorker cartoonists — Charles Adams, Roz Chast, George Booth — and they’re world creators. Who they are is expressed in their cartoons.”
Asked about which comes first, the caption or the drawing — a question Stevens said is a question they get asked a lot — Karasik explained, “The caption and the gag kind of basically happen at the same time, then it’s distilling it and synthesizing it. Oh, I could say the same thing, but I could use four words instead of 12. And maybe the door should be on the left rather than the right, and then when you start to hone it down, that’s when you can see whether these two things are actually working together.”
Stevens added, “When I visualize an idea, or when an idea occurs to me, generally it’s as he said, in one package — the idea, the line, and the drawing itself.”
The New Yorker may be considered the gold standard for a certain type of single-panel gag cartoon. It is also, unfortunately, one of the only magazines around that’s publishing this kind of work. “It’s a bizarrely archaic and dying art form that this magazine is keeping alive,” lamented Karasik.
It’s a shame. Cartoonists like Stevens and Katasik make us chortle and chuckle, laugh and think. They get it and get us. Find out how they do it at Islanders Write, and treat yourself to some laughs at Stevens’ show beforehand.