Funny Lady

The New Yorker’s cartoonist Liza Donnelly on Trump, feminist cartoons, how she works, and her favorite cartoonists


Liza Donnelly. Photo: Anik Biswas/Mint
Liza Donnelly. Photo: Anik Biswas/Mint

Liza Donnelly, staff cartoonist with The New Yorker, is in Delhi; she’ll be live cartooning during the HT Leadership Summit this weekend. Donnelly, who has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1979 and now also does live cartooning for the US news channel CBS, besides publishing in other media forums, has since carved out a niche for herself: many of her cartoons centre around issues of gender. Of the several books she’s written is one on the pioneering women who drew for The New Yorker, which had women cartoonists right from when they first began publishing in 1925.

Donnelly spoke to Mint Lounge on why women weren’t considered funny enough to be cartoonists, how she keeps her anger at bay while drawing on issues related to women’s rights, her favorite graphic novelists, and Donald Trump. Edited Excerpts.

Your cartoons address some very serious issues, yet there is no anger in them. How do you keep anger away?

I think the anger is there, but it’s under the surface. I want to talk about issues in my cartoons that I’m interested in, I’m passionate about. But I don’t want to push people away, I want the cartoon to be a dialogue; and sometimes anger might push the reader away instead of pulling them into a conversation.

Photo courtesy: Liza Donnelly.
Photo courtesy: Liza Donnelly.

You did some pretty scathing cartoons in the run up to the US presidential elections, but we haven’t seen one since Mr Trump won?

I haven’t done a cartoon about our president elect, because I’m not sure yet how to deal with my feelings. When he first started running for president we were very confused about his stance on women; because on the one hand he said he loves women, and that he hires them—which he does—but then he’ll talk off-camera about groping women. Now we’ve learnt of course that this is not atypical of Mr Trump, that he says contradictory things all the time.

You do a lot of live cartooning as well, swiftly capturing people and places and moods—for example, you did that during the 2016 Academy Awards—are you always a fast worker? What’s your process like?

No, not always. For the cartoons I do for The New Yorker, it can often be a long process. Coming up with the ideas is often the hardest part. You have to go through a lot of stupid ideas before you come up with a good one, and you often don’t even know if the good one is a good one—not until other people look at it and tell you. The drawing also…it depends on what you’re drawing. Sometimes it’s pretty simple, The New Yorker cartoons are often just two people on a couch—that’s sometimes all you need for an idea—and if it’s a complicated setting than it takes longer. It varies a lot. The more you practice, the easier it gets. You learn tricks of the trade and your own mind and how it works and what works for you.

I read the papers, hard copies and online, and then I sit and make notes, pick out buzz words and trends. I’m always on the alert for what’s going on in the cultural space, or in news. A lot of my work is news based. And then I sit and I kind of daydream and doodle and try to see what can work, what goes together. In your mind you put words in somebody’s mouth and then you put them in a doctor’s office; play with different settings, different types of people. Sometimes you may have to push the envelope and try to make things bizarre. You have to try out many things before you figure out what works.

For most of us cartoonists, the process is the same. We gather about 6-7 cartoons and send it in to the editor. And then they buy one or they don’t.

How did you get introduced to cartoons?

Naturally as a child I was drawn to cartoons. But my mother, she is the one who gave me a book of cartoons by James Thurber, a man not many people remember any more. He was a New Yorker cartoonist, and his style is very simple, line drawings. His ideas I didn’t understand at all, but his drawings were simple, so I would trace those. And I found that I could make my mom laugh, and that was important.

Your husband, Michael Maslin, is a cartoonist as well, and together, you did a book on marriage called ‘Cartoon Marriage: Adventures in Love and Matrimony’.

My husband is a cartoonist for The New Yorker and that’s how we met. We were both working there. We’d been married maybe ten years or so when we thought we should do a book about marriage. We both already had a lot of cartoons on marriage, cartoons that were never published, so we knew we had a volume of work already. Cartoons not about us necessarily, but about marriage in general. And then, for each chapter we did a graphic piece together. We were not sure how we will do because we had never done cartoons together, but it worked. We’re still married!

The only chapter we had trouble doing cartoons together was the chapter on arguing. We couldn’t agree on how we argue.

How did you shift more and more towards doing feminist cartoons?

As you get older you get a little less worried about what people think of you. At least for me, I’m a little less self-conscious and a little-less worried about offending people. In the 1990s Tina Brown became editor of The New Yorker—and I only realized this after she’d left and I started looking at my work again—I saw that a fair number of cartoons she bought were of women speaking in the cartoons and women being sarcastic and snarky. I thought that was interesting that she was sort of nurturing—and I don’t think that she had realized it either—but she was buying cartoons of mine that had that voice. And that led me to keep doing more of those. All of that also coincided with the advent of the internet and my wanting to be more and more political, and doing more feminist cartoons, and more of an activist in my work in feminism.

I think the internet has given me an outlet for doing even more feminist cartoons, and pushing myself to do stronger feminist cartoons. Ones that I think, for me, are angry: about abuse, and rape, and things like that. It’s the kind of thing that The New Yorker would not publish.

There was a gender bias when it came to cartoonists as well. Men were considered funnier than women…

My feeling is that in society, in the US at least, there was a feeling for many generations that women just weren’t funny—that that was the job of men. With a few well-known exceptions, you know, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, comedy was supposed to be the realm of men. Women bought into that as well. I think they subconsciously thought that ‘oh well, I’m not funny, my job is to laugh at men’s jokes’, and did not go into that profession for that reason. That’s changing now, pretty rapidly I think. Cartoons just fit into that pattern. The New Yorker though had women cartoonists in their first issue in 1925, so they were open to women cartoonists from the first days of the magazine. I wrote a book about that ( Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons).

Your favourite graphic novelists/cartoonists, contemporary or otherwise?

I like so many. My bias is gonna show here with the graphic novels but I loved Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Maus (Art Spiegelman) of course…

Some of my favourites from the past are Gary Trudeau and Jules Feiffer, James Thurber, Barbara Sherman from The New Yorker. I was a big fan of Charles Shulz growing up. Jules Feiffer was in the Village Voice when I was a young professional; his work is a mix of culture and politics, which I like. And, one last thing—my husband!

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