In the book, you talk about how your style of generating cartoons is similar to what they do in improv groups—riffing off an idea and just seeing where it goes.
Yes, I realized when I first saw Second City in Chicago that the way they work, which is starting with an opening line and following it through, was basically the same way I did strips. I’d start writing, and if six or seven or eight panels later, a cartoon ended up getting somewhere, then I’d draw it. The writing always came first. And if it didn’t, then I’d either try to doctor it, or throw it out and start again. And as I say in the book, sometimes I’d get as far as six or seven panels, but I couldn’t figure out the ending, so I’d put it aside. And then I’d stumble on it many years later—sometimes twenty-five or thirty years later—and suddenly I’d think of a last panel. It would come immediately.
So were you always inspired by a line of text, rather than starting with a doodle?
Occasionally, when I was coming up blank, I would just doodle, hoping that the drawing would inspire something. And sometimes it did. But most of the time—I’d say 99 percent of the time—I’d start with text. Sometimes an opening line would come. Or, often enough, during the Vietnam and civil rights years, an issue would be angering me that I’d want to address, and I’d figure out a way of turning that into a strip.
Would you do a few strips at once and then take time off? Or would it be a regular routine each week, where you’d sit down on a certain day and crank it out?
Both. You always think, “I’m not going to be caught this time; I’m going to get way ahead.” And then two minutes before you have to, you finally get to work. So I would leave too many things to the last minute. I had what I call a system of avoidances. I’d have three or four things that I needed to do, and the one that was most important would be the last one I’d get to. So I’d work on one thing, which would energize me toward the next thing. And I found that switching from the cartoon, to plays, to whatever, would energize both forms, rather than distract me.
You cartooned for the Voice from the mid-‘50s through the late ‘90s. Is there a decade that you found to be most fertile from a cartooning perspective?
Looking back at the early years—in the mid-‘50s—the reader really wasn’t expecting much of anything, because the culture was so moribund, and was about to undergo seismic change. So that period, when I was just discovering myself, was by definition fertile, because I was beginning, and I was beginning to find an audience. And the audience had a need for this kind of work, because it didn’t exist before. But while I was doing it, I wasn’t thinking “This is a really fertile time.” I was just trying to figure everything out.
Then, in the ‘60s, during the height of the civil rights and Vietnam years, virtually noone else was doing this kind of commentary. On civil rights, the only other cartoonist that I know of who was white and was making strong comments was Bill Mauldin, and he was losing lots of newspapers. So it was very exciting to be out there. This was a time when Martin Luther King was thought of as an extremist by the very respectable mainstream white press. So my target was the well-meaning, white liberal who was saying exactly the wrong things to the civil rights movement. I found it exciting to go against the grain of established liberal opinion. I was doing the same thing on Vietnam, which was, after all, a liberal war. We who were the war protestors were always being told that our protests were in ignorance, and that the insiders—the Pentagon and State—had access to information that we didn’t have. But with all their access, it turned out the experts were wrong and the protestors were right. And we knew that from fairly early on. So it was exciting to get that down in print, because it was a fairly minority opinion until it became a majority position, which was only after we started losing the war.