Conducted by Aaron Alexander
Mick Stevens has been a cartoonist with the New Yorker for over three decades — selling his first drawing to them in 1979 — a contemporary of the magazine’s cartoon editor Robert Mankoff, as well as cartoonists Roz Chast, Jack Ziegler, and others. He recently wrapped up a stint as the cartoonist for the New Yorker’s Daily Cartoon blog and has a cameo piece in Robert Mankoff’s New Yorker memoir, How About Never–Is Never Good For You?
He is also a very friendly man and generous with his time and advice. He assures me that all the cartoonists at the New Yorker are equally kind. I believe him! He is also an Oregon native, like myself. You can find his work on his website as well as at the Cartoon Bank.
This interview was conducted via email and phone during June 2014.
Aaron Alexander: Do tools make the cartoonist? Probably not. Still they say something about your approach, and it always interesting to hear about. What are your cartooning utensils of choice? (Let’s say sketching and final work).
Mick Stevens: I use my trusty Uni-Ball pens and good quality bond for roughs, Arches 140 lb. acid-free watercolor paper for finishes, pencil and/or ink wash on my finishes for publication. When I do color I use Dr. Martin’s dyes. During my 10-week stint as the New Yorker Daily cartoonist (my last one was on June 20), I was working strictly for web publication, so I didn’t need physical finished art. I drew on bond and used pencil (Mirado Black Warrior HB2) for shading, then photoshopped the results and tweaked them for the finals.
I draw several roughs for my regular weekly batch, and when I’m satisfied (or my deadline encroaches), I use a light-table to trace off clean versions. These are still roughs. If the mag wants a finish, I get out the watercolor paper and use the light-table again to do the finish, add tone, and send it off FedEx to the New Yorker.
AA: I understand that before you made it in the New Yorker, you were working on breaking into the underground comix scene. Can you tell us more about this part of your journey?
MS: I tried a number of things when I started out: cartoon strips (two ideas almost made the big time, but eventually died a lonely, undeserved death), greeting card designs, and animation — did a couple of short things for Sesame Street, also, back in the day. I was living in San Francisco at the time, which was a hotbed of underground cartooning. Naturally, I gave it a shot, but my efforts were mostly only seen in my own little neighborhood newsletter, which I ran with a friend of mine. I had a day job at Rolling Stone Magazine then, and every once in a while would do illustrations for some of their stories. I also did work for an alternative newspaper called the The Bay Area Guardian and collaborated on a couple of books written by Charles Monegan, including one called Poodles From Hell, which I understand now has a tiny cult following. Eventually, I decided I was somewhere between underground and above-ground, and went back to trying to sell to mainstream magazines.
AA: Do you still follow the wider comics industry at all? If so, what do you read?
MS: I’ve read a few more modern comics as an adult and many old Disney comic books and strips, plus old Beetle Bailey, Peanuts, and B.C. dailies, etc., when I was little. Read all the underground comics in the ’70s, and ran into some of the artists at some poorly remembered pot parties. Now I’m pretty much centered on magazine cartoons.
AA: What do you think makes the quintessential successful single-panel gag cartoon?
MS: I wish I had that formula. I guess I’d say a blend of intelligence, whimsy, and drawing good enough to carry the idea and match it in spirit. Does that make any sense at all?
AA: It does. But to elaborate on that idea: Do you think the drawing should lean more towards being funny than being clear (if you had to pick one or the other I guess)?
MS: Hmm…those are two excellent choices there. But I see what you mean, sometimes you sit with it for a while and then it’s funny…well, I would go funny definitely — the drawing has to be funny.
AA: When you and I talked via email a few weeks ago, you mentioned that you believe a cartoonist’s style is one of the most important things as far as getting noticed, and that style is not just drawing, but the way you think. Can you expand on this idea? How would you characterize your style?
MS: The best cartoonists, I think, are those whose personal style doesn’t too closely resemble that of anyone else’s. Like a lot of artists starting out, my earlier work looked much too much like other people’s. When I began drawing, I aped others because of a lack of confidence in my own abilities. (My drawings didn’t seem to me to be legitimate professional cartoons until I saw them in print.) I found out later that it was best to just relax and let my style emerge in a more natural way. That process is still going on.
AA: The single-panel comic is a hard sell as a form of income-producing work these days. Why do you think this is? Do you feel the form will adapt to the comedic needs of a new age? Further, what do you think is the future of cartoons at the New Yorker? Will these carry on indefinitely into the future?
MS: It’s never been easy to make a living as a magazine cartoonist. Harder now that the web has usurped print to the point it has (and will to do in the future). Publishing on the Internet is much different. We’re paid much less, for one thing. The Net eats the work up and spits it back out through social media and in other ways, usually without further compensation for the artist. It’s easier to get your work seen, but harder to get paid.
As for the future of New Yorker cartoons, readers still look for them, sometimes before reading the rest of the magazine, and it’s impossible to imagine the New Yorker without its cartoons. There is the other side of publication, of course, the New Yorker Daily Cartoon, for example, which only appears online. There may be more of that sort of thing.
AA: How many cartoons do you draw a week? How many roughs do you do for a final piece? And how many ideas do you throw out per one you keep?
MS: I do ten or so rough ideas a week. Usually, my roughs are very close to finished work, so when I make a sale, I make any needed changes and draw up a finish using the light-table. I probably throw out 90% of the ideas or semi-ideas I do each week. Some I hold onto for later perusal. Ideas look different at different times. Many times, a doodle done a few days or weeks earlier will look better after I see it again. It may just need a slightly different caption or detail in the drawing to bring it to life.
AA: What is the life of a cartoonist like for you? What are the major advantages and disadvantages of this life?
MS: Life for me revolves around the weekly Batch (capital letter intended). I’m always delighted when I sell a cartoon, and of course not so happy when I don’t. Rejection is still a big part of working at the New Yorker, even for those of us fortunate enough to be contract artists. We sell only a fraction of what we submit, so we all have a big backlog of unsold cartoons lying around. It’s still one of the best jobs in the world, though, one of the few where you can do what you like to do and actually make a living.
AA: Do you ever wish you were in New York instead of Florida?
MS: I’m happy to be here in FL but I do miss NYC, where I lived for several years after I started appearing in the magazine. A lot of people told me I’d “lose my edge” if I moved here, but what edge I had seems to still be with me. (I wasn’t really that edgy to begin with.)
AA: How close are you with Robert Mankoff and the other cartoonists (regular and otherwise) for the New Yorker?
MS: Bob and I go way back, as do Jack Ziegler, Roz Chast, and several others. I email with them from time to time, and of course, Bob sees my work every week, and we have the occasional conversation about that.
AA: Whose work inside and outside of the New Yorker do you respect the most (barring yours of course)?
MS: I pretty much admire all of the cartoonists in the magazine, past and present. Sam Gross is one of my favorites. I consider him a “cartoonist’s cartoonist.” For a while, when I first moved to New York from California, some of us would gather at his apartment for cartooning “jam-sessions.” I got good advice from him and the other established cartoonists there. One thing Sam said, especially, stands out in my memory: “Never throw anything away.” He was right. There are times when those old ideas and sketches come in handy. Sam’s still at it and I still love his work.
Another cartoonist I’ve always loved, although didn’t see him personally too often, was Charles Barsotti, who just recently passed away. Nobody could say so much with a few lines of drawing.
AA: Ever want Robert Mankoff’s job?
MS: I wouldn’t want Bob’s job. Saying “no” to so many cartoonists, both deserving and undeserving, week after week, would be very stressful. There are so few spots in the magazine, and so many aspirants. I think it would drive me crazy.
AA: Have you ever taught cartooning? If so, what did you enjoy about it?
MS: I’ve never taught. Once someone’s on the road, though, I can help with some advice.
AA: If you could give advice to your twenty-something self just starting out, what would it be? What about some twenty-something cartoonist today?
MS: I’m not sure what I’d say to my twenty-year-old self. We’re actually still in touch, but all he seems to want to do is drink beer. I’d tell him that maybe he should consider some lifestyle changes, maybe work a little harder and party a little less. If only he’d listen!
Get your copies of these Mick Stevens collections, as well as work by other New Yorker cartoonists: