Everyone knows that when you open an issue of the New Yorker, the first thing you do is check out the cartoons. Over the past 40 years or so, anyone flipping through the pages of the New Yorker has encountered and chuckled at the cartoons of Brooklyn-born Mort Gerberg. His cartoons have appeared pretty much everywhere, from the New Yorker and Playboy to Publishers Weekly, where he drew a weekly cartoon about the book business from 1987 to 1994.
But Gerberg’s a full-service cartoonist who has created syndicated comic strips in addition to writing or illustrating more than 40 books for both adults and children. He’s taught cartooning at the Parson’s School of Design, and his now out-of-print book, Cartooning: The Art and the Business, is still considered a classic. For his newest book, Last Laughs: Cartoons about Aging, Retirement and the Great Beyond, published this month by Scribner, Gerberg brought together 26 New Yorker cartoonists to take a good long look at the big topics—including the big D—of our senior years. Turns out, getting older can be pretty funny.
PW Comics Week: Why do a potentially depressing book like Last Laughs?
Mort Gerberg: [laughs] A combination of things. These days people are living longer, and I started to think about the idea of retiring. I love the idea of people just going on and on, living life to the fullest. There are all these older cartoonists like Frank Modell—he’s 90—cartoonists that I look up to that I could get stuff from. Also there are a lot of older cartoonists who aren’t being used by the New Yorker as much as they used to be—people like Bob Weber, Modell and J.B. Handelsman, who died just before the book came out—great single panel cartoonists. The New Yorker is using more younger cartoonists, but these guys are still brilliant.
I was able to sample a lot of points of views on aging, retirement and death from people in their 70s, 40s and 30s, because everyone’s got to deal with those issues. With the help of my agent, David Kuhn, who also represented another book of New Yorker cartoons, The Rejection Collection, we put together a book proposal using intelligent, literate, old-fashioned single-panel cartoons. And when I say old-fashioned, I mean cartoons with something to say that are also drawn well. I was able to pay well, so I was able to get a lot of original work from guys I’ve known and published with for 30 or 40 years.
PWCW: What makes you think death is so funny?
MG: Well, it was on my mind, and it’s on other people’s minds [laughs]. I’ve done a lot of cartoons about death. If the book has a message, it’s really that death is a part of life, and you don’t need to avoid it as a topic for discussion. That’s why I asked the cartoonists to draw their own funerals.
PWCW: Some of the book’s funniest cartoons are about death—there’s several just about delivering the bad news.
MG: It’s amazing how many different ways you can say it. That’s how great we are about avoiding saying we’re all going to die. It’s amazing how many euphemisms there are—“passed away,” “go to the other side.” As a society, we refuse to say we are dying. We’re marvelously creative at avoiding it, and these cartoons make fun of that. Death is just an aspect of life, and if it’s irritating, do a cartoon about it. That’s what cartoonists do: draw about stuff that bothers them.
PWCW: Is this what New Yorker cartoonists talk about when you get together each week to show your cartoons?
MG: Retirement does come up. People visit their parents; some have to go to Florida, where their parents have retired. Now that’s death. None of my colleagues, the artists in the book, even want to think about retiring in that way. Everyone intends to just keep working. I’ve done more than 40 books and every cartoonist in the book has something else going on.
PWCW: How did you pick the work? Was it a version of the weekly New Yorker meetings with Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor?
MG: The book has 132 cartoons. I kept it to a small group of cartoonists so that [they] could all publish several pieces of work. I had a list of people to suggest to the publishers. Nan Graham [Scribner v-p and editor-in-chief] wanted some of the cartoons in the original proposal. I told all the cartoonists what I wanted for the original work. There were a lot of duplications, so I made a bunch of piles and sorted them out—the grim reaper pile, the heaven pile, the hell pile. Then we took a look at how many grim reaper jokes we ought to keep. [My wife] Judith helped a lot. I received hundreds of cartoons on death, aging and retirement. The ones picked for the book kind of all work together. One reason a cartoon works is when there is some surprise. Varying the subject increases the surprise and the humor.
PWCW: Any favorites?
MG: Frank Modell is great. The New Yorker stopped buying his work, so I really wanted him in the book. But at first he kept telling me he wasn’t in the cartoon business anymore. I kept asking, but he just kept refusing. But eventually he asked if Lee Lorenz [longtime New Yorker cartoonist] was in the book. I ,said yeah. So later I’m in the doctor’s office and my cellphone rings. It’s Frank. He says, ‘Okay, I’ve done a few.’ He did 18. We took six right away. I was thrilled.
PWCW: The book also includes younger New Yorker cartoonists like Marisa Acocella Marchetto, the author of the comics survivor memoir Cancer Vixen; Kim Warp; Matthew Diffee; and others.
MG: Younger cartoonists belong in the book, too. The young ones represent a connection to the traditions of the art and craft of cartooning. Their cartoons have ideas that have a connection to life—or death as a part of life, in this case. People will remember a cartoon more than a column by Paul Krugman. Diffee, for instance, is quirky but a good artist. He’s funny and has a unique way of looking at things.
PWCW: What’s the state of the gag panel: the single-panel cartoon. It was once a staple editorial feature in glossy consumer magazines.
MG: The reality is that there’s no place for anyone coming into the business. There’s no place for them to learn the craft of cartooning. When I started in 1963, ’64, there were still a lot of magazines. I was getting $25 a cartoon from the Realist. There were a lot of men’s magazines; there was Look, Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and Playboy early on.
Finally, in the late 1960s I got a chance to start with the New Yorker, but it took a long time. You had to pay your dues to get in there. Bob Weber, one of the great New Yorker cartoonists, submitted cartoons for a year before he got in—and he didn’t even get a rejection note back during that time. Today, there’s only the New Yorker and Playboy. I used to sell cartoons to Barron’s. PW, even the Harvard Business Review. That was a motivation for doing this book. To gather together in one place a lot of really great cartoons, just like the old New Yorker. I wanted it to be a beautiful collection, a labor of love.
PWCW: You close out the book with a section where you ask all the cartoonists a series of questions. The section is very funny, especially when you ask them to draw their own funerals.
MG: That came out of a conversation I had when I first talked with David Kuhn about the book. We wanted to ask a few quirky questions to challenge the cartoonists, and it gives the book another dimension. Nan liked the idea, so I wrote the questions. A lot of the answers are similar, which is interesting. Some of the cartoonists drew themselves missing their own funerals. One of the questions asked, when you were kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Bob Weber and I both said the same thing: taller.