Back in the last century, Stan Mack and I worked together at the Village Voice, where he produced a weekly comic called Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies. The strips featured an illustrated Mack wandering around New York City, eavesdropping on what people of all sorts were saying, and drawing them and their stories. (A line printed beneath the strip’s title for years read: “Guarantee: All Dialogue Reported Verbatim.”)

Eventually—albeit long before the debut of—New Yorkers started telling him their overheards, and Mack turned into a reporter, grilling people on the facts and phrasing and reproducing them verbatim in his comic, which took up half a page in the paper. (One example, from 1980: Two women pass a ringing pay phone on the street. One of them answers the phone. A man is trying to respond to a personals ad in the Voice for “a male slave to entertain four women.” The woman hangs up the phone, and in the last panel, says, “I’ve got to tell Stan Mack about this.”)

I was the copy chief at the Voice for several years in the 1980s, and on editorial closing night, Mack would bring his comic to me to proofread. He always brought along a pen and ink and whitener, in case there was a misspelled word or any mysterious punctuation.

This week, Fantagraphics published Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies, collecting 304 out of the thousands of strips that the book’s subtitle calls “The Collected Conceits, Delusions, and Hijinks of New Yorkers from 1974 to 1995.” To mark the occasion, I spoke with Mack at the Fairway 74th Street Café on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to talk about the comic, the book, and life after Real Life.

How did Real Life Funnies get started?

When I first came to New York, I got illustration work and eventually fell into newspapers as an art director, at the Herald Tribune Sunday Book Review and the New York Times Magazine, but it was very corporate, and I missed illustration. So I quit and went back to freelance illustration, but I didn’t want to wait for assignments. So I went to Milton Glaser, who was then the design director at the Village Voice, which Clay Felker had just bought. I proposed the idea that I report on the city by listening to people and sketching them. I thought of it as a one-shot. Milton said do it, but every week. Clay said, “Why don’t you go to Bloomingdale’s?” So I did this thing, with panels.

Then I took it to the editors and they asked, “What is this?” and I said, “I went to Bloomingdale’s, these are real people, these are their real words.” They said, “What are you talking about? Comic strips are fiction. How are the readers going to know it’s real?” One of them comes up with: “We’ll call it Real Life Funnies.” Then somebody says, “We’re going to guarantee that this stuff is verbatim? Like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval?” Somebody else says, “Let Stan Mack guarantee it. Put his name up front and big.”

How did the strip develop? Did you have any role models for your style?

No, because nobody was doing anything like this. My role models growing up were sports cartoonist Willard Mullin and WWII cartoonist-reporter Bill Mauldin. Bill did what I was trying to do. But I knew I didn’t draw like those guys, so I did it the only way I could: with my scratchy pen line.

For the strip, nothing was planned. I just had to go out every day and go somewhere. I discovered that certain words jumped out at me, and I wrote them down. Over time, the overheard evolved into conversations.

If I’m going to keep on doing this, I thought then, I’ve got to get out of my comfort zone. At a lot of places that I went, I had to be surreptitious about it, like writing or drawing on a napkin under the table. Sex was everywhere in the ’70s, and in the ’80s it was the business of sex. In the ’70s, I went to the swingers' club Plato’s Retreat looking for stories and I bumped into the cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman. I said, “What are you doing here?” And he said, “I’m researching for Little Annie Fanny,” which was his famous Playboy comic strip. In the ’80s, I did an interview with a dominatrix about how she cleaned her equipment and what was her insurance.

Stylistically, the strip changed when I started interviewing people. The strips got wordier, for one thing. But I’m a cartoonist first. The pictures always told more than half the story. The readers had to feel that they were in that scene, with those particular people, on that particular street corner. And sometimes, they were: even years later, people would say, “See that guy in the third panel in the lower right-hand corner? That’s me!”

How did this collection come about? How did you organize the book?

My agent, Liz Nealon at Great Dog Literary, suggested that it was time, and Gary Groth at Fantagraphics went for it. It’s chronological, with 11 chapter introductions—they share backstories of some of the strips. At first, it just looks like a book of comic strips. But really, it’s an offbeat history of two eras in New York City: the “me” decade of the ’70s and the yuppie decade of the ’80s.

Some couldn’t be reprinted because they didn’t hold up physically. I’ve moved a lot, and I didn’t take super care of them. Right now, they’re under my bed—boxes of them.

You grew up in Providence, R.I., where you went to Rhode Island School of Design. Did you always want to be a cartoonist?

I was an avid reader of comic books as a kid, and the Sunday funnies. My father read the New York papers on Sunday, and I would read the color section of the Daily News with all the comics, but it never dawned on me to want to do it.

I was a townie. I’d gone to RISD as a kid because they had a Saturday morning program for kids, then went on to get a degree in illustration. But it was the ‘50s, and I had no focus. The fact that I drew was perplexing to my parents. I went to New York because it was a way out of Providence. It was closer to the flame, whatever the flame was.

What did you do after the strip was gone from the Voice? Did you think of continuing it elsewhere?

I started to do books. I did a cartoon history of the American Revolution in 1994. That came out of my time covering the squatter movement in the East Village.

Then I did a cartoon history of the Jewish people. I was raised Jewish up to a point, but I’d had no interest in it. Then I was traveling through the Middle East, from Jordan to Egypt, and climbed Mount Sinai at sunrise. At the top, I wondered, How did my people get from the bottom of this mountain to Providence, R.I.?

An editor at Random House asked if I’d ever thought about cartoons on a Jewish topic, and I said, “I will now.” I knew my great-grandparents came from Eastern Europe, but there’s no evidence before that, so I tracked the larger movements of the Jewish people— Sephardic, Ashkenazi, where they were in the various centuries. I did start with biblical history, but I treated it as a reporter, not taking it literally. It was more about my family than about God. The book is being used in some Christian schools, but its biggest market, I’m told, is as gifts at bar mitzvahs.

Then I did a book about being a caregiver for Janet, Janet and Me. I chose not to do it in comic strip form, but as a traditional text with lots of drawings. [Editor's note: Janet Bode was Mack’s second wife, who died from breast cancer in 1999.]

Do you ever think about doing the comic again?

That’s a hard question. My drawing arm is not happy at the moment. I did some strips for the nonprofit news website I drew them on an iPad, but it’s not as much fun. There’s something satisfying about paper and my pen line. On the iPad, it feels like skating on ice. Young people coming out of art school today are all using the iPad. Once this publicity stuff is over, I want to go back to something, whether a book on history or a real life series.

Did you ever do comics about the Voice?

From time to time I did turn my pad toward the Voice itself. Biting the hand that fed me? One strip was about closing night during a Voice redesign. And, as is natural during any publication design change at deadline, chaos ensued. This included, in the last panel, one editor commenting, “Let’s go see poor Sonia with the new type specs.”

And I once reported a conversation between two copy editors about whether the word “blowjob” is hyphenated. You stepped in and resolved it. When you worked at the Voice, this was simply life. And the Voice folks were always forgiving about appearing in my comics.

That blowjob comic became famous. I know it hung on the wall at the copy desk of Business Week, where my husband was a copy editor for many years.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.