School Days Influences: Inside the World of New Yorker Cartoonists
Artists who contribute regularly to the venerable magazine share their school experiences and how it led them to cartooning
For nearly a century, the weekly New Yorker magazine has been a launchpad and regular home for cartoonists and humor artists—among them James Thurber, Saul Steinberg, and Roz Chast. And for the hundreds who have found their work printed by the magazine—always one panel, always pen and ink—many, many more have tried and failed to break through the publication’s famously rigorous vetting process.
But in recent years, things have loosened up, if ever so slightly. Since 2005, the magazine has run its popular Cartoon Caption Contest, inviting readers to complete the punchline of a cartoonist’s work. And since 2012, artists who don’t make the competitive cut for the magazine’s weekly print edition have seen their work featured within the online Daily Shouts—a section that has grown increasingly popular as the work is shared on Instagram and other social media.
Drawing comics and cartooning is deceptive—it looks so simple, anyone could do it. But sit down and try to think up a funny, witty, and incisive one-panel story that feels both relevant to the world today and can be appreciated by readers years into the future. You’ll quickly learn it’s very difficult, takes lots of practice, and requires sharp skills and intelligence.
That got us thinking: What did some of today’s New Yorker cartoonists do during their high school and college years to develop the artistic chops to publish work in one of the world’s most famous magazines? The Elective interviewed a few of them to find out. Their insight is a peek inside the experience and brains of some of the most talented cartoonists working today. And even though they publish in a magazine called The New Yorker, they come from all over the country: California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and, yes, New York.
The cover of the December 30, 2019, issue of The New Yorker was created by cartoonist Robert Sikoryak, who imitated the styles and character types of other New Yorker cartoonists.
Where did you go to high school? What habits or hobbies did you develop during those years that contribute to working as a professional cartoonist?
Lila Ash: I went to Santa Monica High School. I was in AP Art class and also took figure drawing classes outside of school. Throughout my life I’ve always been drawing, so it felt obvious and natural that I would go to art school after graduating. I’ve never considered any other career path than that of an artist.
Liza Donnelly: I graduated from Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. I was already drawing a lot by the time I reached high school, and so I was comfortable just drawing by myself in blank notebooks. I was a quiet kid, and this became who I was—the class artist and cartoonist. I drew all the time. I also lived in Rome with my parents for my sophomore year and attended the American Overseas School of Rome. I always thought that living abroad for a year or more gives one a good perspective on the world. I was comfortable walking alone in foreign countries, observing. Still am.
Amy Hwang: I went to a large public high school in Plano, Texas, which is a large suburb north of Dallas. Besides studying, I would often go into Dallas to see artsy films, I think because they took me away from where I lived. A desire to try different things is something that has helped me professionally. The cartoon industry is always evolving. It helps to not get too complacent with where you are.
Navied Mahdavian: I went to a large public high school in Miami, Fla. I drew from childhood, but actually stopped during high school to focus on academics. As a consequence, I feel like I'm still playing catch-up, trying to learn skills that other cartoonists have who studied art. Looking back, I wish I had taken more art classes at the time because there's no better time to develop skills than when you're young.
Sam Marlow: I went to the High School of Art and Design in midtown Manhattan. I was a painter and illustrator during that time. I intended to be a gallery artist, but that dream was not realistic. I thought about New Yorker cartoons for a short time, as a hobby. I liked The Simpsons, Mel Brooks movies, and stand-up comedy. The New Yorker seemed like a good mix of all of my humor-related interests. I tried 20 or 30 ideas. Only one good joke came out of it: a sheep drying on a clothing line. Not the best, but not terrible either.
A cartoon created by Liz Montague and recently published in The New Yorker, which she shared on Instagram.
Liz Montague: I went to Cherokee High School (shout-out to public school) in South Jersey. I really loved art. I took AP Studio Art and had great teachers, but back then sports were also a huge part of my life. I was a three-sport varsity athlete in indoor track, outdoor track, and volleyball, so I was in season year-round. The discipline and time management I learned from that has contributed a lot to my career.
Jeremy Nguyen: I went to a Catholic high school in the Bay Area. I was on student government, yearbook, did AP Art—kind of an overachiever, but it was a school of 75% Asian students, so we all were overachieving. But it was okay because I was passionate about art and design and stand-up comedy, and still am. It was weird to be into comics and graphic novels right as manga was becoming big and before the Marvel movies came out, so I did feel a little bit on the outside.
Ellis Rosen: I went to the Trevor Day School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. While there I primarily painted, but I continued a bad doodling habit that I developed in grade school. The doodling lives on today in the form of cartooning. I didn't know it at the time, but I was developing my humor, style, comedic pacing, and observational skills in the margins of my schoolwork.
Robert Sikoryak: I went to high school in Manville, New Jersey. I took as many art classes as I could fit in my schedule, and I was also making comics with my brothers in my spare time. We worked on many art projects together, including short animated films and even greeting cards for friends and relatives.
The New Yorker published this Lila Ash cartoon, which she shared on Instagram, in November 2019.
Where did you attend college and what sorts of skills did you develop during your time there that you utilize now as a professional cartoonist?
Lila Ash: I studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. RISD is very rigorous and feels like a conservatory in a lot of ways. I learned so many technical skills and about tons of artistic materials and processes. I also was exposed to the work of so many artists that still influence me to this day. When I reflect on my time as a student, I think one of the most valuable skills I developed at RISD was my work ethic. My senior thesis was a comic book, so it’s kind of cool that everything has come full circle for me.
Liza Donnelly: I graduated from Earlham College, a small liberal arts college. I studied a lot of subjects—as one does at a liberal arts school—and ended up majoring in art. I think that’s good for being a cartoonist because you learn two things: you acquire a bit of knowledge about each field, and you learn to develop a curiosity about everything—a desire to acquire knowledge. I also learned how to draw realistically, which helps as a basis for cartooning.
Amy Hwang: I attended Barnard College, a small women’s college in New York. I started drawing cartoons for a school paper, so that would be the main skill I carried over into my current professional life. As an architecture major, I also learned perspective drawing, which is also helpful.
Navied Mahdavian: I attended the University of Miami for undergrad, where I studied philosophy and classics, and then attended Stanford where I received a master’s in elementary education. Cartooning draws on a wide range of topics, because every week you have to come up with many new ideas. The more widely you can cast that net for ideas, the better. Because I studied the humanities, I can now draw from philosophy, Greek mythology, literature, and science to develop new jokes for cartoons.
Sam Marlow shared this cartoon, which was rejected by The New Yorker, on Instagram.
Sam Marlow: I attended the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004. I studied the basics of character animation and background design with the intent of making my own animated short. I met fellow cartoonist Ellis Rosen, who introduced me to the sequential arts, and we worked on a handful of self-published comic art. The most useful skill I learned was collaboration and planning. Animation and comics are basically the same visual language, with two very different results. I worked in both realms to find a style that worked for me.
Liz Montague: I went to University of Richmond in Virginia on a track scholarship. It's really hard to juggle schoolwork, especially when you need to be physically in the studio and working with things, with being a Division I athlete. In addition to discipline and time management, I eventually got really good at fully concentrating when I was doing things. Whether I was in class, at practice, or doing work, I would be fully there doing that thing, and then once it was over I would switch gears and concentrate on whatever I had to do next without getting overwhelmed.
Jeremy Nguyen: I attended the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). I majored in sequential art and really found myself drawn to alternative forms of storytelling and experimental ways to create and present comics. I got to explore ideas I never would be able to nowadays, learning to fail over and over. I bring that into my cartoons today: I fail at drawing funny cartoons every day!
Ellis Rosen: I went to the Art Institute of Chicago. While there, my paintings and doodling began to merge. All the elements of my cartoons began to creep up. I had subjects and targets, but the images were more abstracted, without punchlines. I experimented with style and tools, humor and ideas. I was fortunate enough to have teachers that encouraged the cartooning approach. Eventually, I switched from painting and focused mainly on cartoons and comics.
Robert Sikoryak: I went to school at Parsons in New York City. I majored in illustration, and again, took as many comics-related classes as I could find.
Cartoonist Amy Hwang shared this snail cartoon, published in The New Yorker magazine in April, on Instagram.
Looking back, was there something unique about your particular campus environment, geography, or regional culture that impacted the development of your skills?
Lila Ash: RISD is a really special place to grow into your identity as an artist. It’s very selective, and your classmates end up achieving a lot of incredible things in the fields of fine art and design. Living and working in Providence was an awesome experience for me because I was able to learn new artistic skills, particularly metalworking, at a local community arts center called The Steel Yard. I was employed there throughout my years at RISD and was able to expand my skill set to include fabrication and sculpture. Providence is a great place to be an artist!
Liza Donnelly: Earlham is a very accepting and innovative learning environment. Both my college and high school are Quaker-based schools, and they stress the value of equality and of the individual. This taught me, first, to pay attention to all people, observe and listen. Secondly, I felt from my time there that my perspective is of value. They teach that silence and patience are good attributes—important skills for a cartoonist. And they stress the importance of service, that all people can contribute to helping make a better world. It encouraged me to apply that to my drawing. I saw my art as a potential tool for helping others.
Amy Hwang: Barnard is located in Manhattan, so I had access to art museums and institutions in the city. One semester, I took a cartooning continuing education course at the School of Visual Arts, though I stopped attending midway because my regular college course load became too burdensome for me to make the trek downtown. I do think being able to see art firsthand is beneficial. I was able to see it in the context of a public space with people interacting with it.
Navied Mahdavian: Both the University of Miami and Stanford are located in places with vibrant art scenes. I was fortunate to attend UM during the years that the art fair Art Basel was taking off and when the downtown area was becoming hip. This meant I got to attend lots of live music shows, art openings, and other creative events on the weekends. Exposure to what other people are doing, even in other arts, translates well to cartooning.
Sam Marlow: I spent a lot of time in the animation department, which was very small, and separate from the rest of the school. I learned a lot about working next to others in an open space. That would later match the work style of the animation world and specifically at the Titmouse studio, where I did background design for roughly six years.
Liz Montague: The Virginia Museum of Fine Art and their retrospective on Kehinde Wiley during my junior or senior year had a huge impact on me—especially since it happened in tandem with the national conversation about monuments in Richmond and the legacy of the Confederacy. I became more aware of art as a tool for propaganda and began to question the narratives of what I was seeing, who created them, when they were created, and who allowed them to be created. Contextualizing monuments and national imagery in general within art history and interrogating them as pieces of art is fascinating. We have immaculate portraits of slave owners on our currency, which is pretty wild if you think about it.
The New Yorker published this Jeremy Nguyen cartoon, which he shared on Instagram, in October 2019.
Jeremy Nguyen: I was part of a very big Asian community in California, so I was taken out of my comfort zone in the South. But it was gorgeous, and I enjoyed discovering the comics culture they have. Because there isn't a thriving professional world of cartoonists there, it really empowered the students to create a community on their own. I used to fantasize about living in New York and going to galleries or attend conventions and run into famous artists at bookstores. But if I didn't go to SCAD, I wouldn't have learned how create your own convention or grasp onto the work of the one cool guest speaker that came to town.
Ellis Rosen: Chicago was a “comix” town, and I was introduced to world of cartooning much larger than I was aware of previously. Plenty of my teachers, like Karl Wirsum, worked with a cartooning style and encouraged it in me. We had lots of guest lecturers with cartooning backgrounds, all Chicago natives. I attended classes and lectures from Ivan Brunetti, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and others, all of whom do work for The New Yorker today.
Robert Sikoryak: I went to school in the 1980s, and it was very helpful to be in New York City because so much publishing was happening there. I was also extremely lucky to have teachers who were well-connected in that world, who would help me find other resources and sometimes get me freelance illustration jobs. One of my teachers, Steven Guarnaccia, introduced me to Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, who were running the comics anthology Raw magazine. I’ve worked with them on many projects over the years. Françoise later became the art editor of The New Yorker.
This Ellis Rosen cartoon was recently published in The New Yorker magazine and shared on Instagram by Rosen.
How long after graduation did you begin contributing to The New Yorker? Did you develop any habits or skills in the interim that you utilize now?
Lila Ash: I graduated in 2011 and first submitted to The New Yorker in 2013 after spending a few years in Los Angeles working as a sculpture fabricator and carpenter. I only submitted to the magazine once, but the experience inspired me to create hundreds of hand-painted comics and cartoons on my own. I self-published a book of these cartoons, had two solo art shows in L.A., then struggled to find work as an editorial illustrator before deciding to give The New Yorker another try in 2018. Luckily, it worked out, and I’m really happy to be a cartoonist today!
Liza Donnelly: I graduated in 1977 and sold my first cartoon in 1979. In those two years, I started to learn the habits you need to be a freelancer: discipline and patience. You have to draw a lot, make a lot of bad art, and make mistakes. There will be times when you have no ideas, but know that this is expected and will pass. From looking at many books of cartoons, I learned how to craft a good layout and caption (although I’m still learning these things). I learned how to juggle a lot of different jobs at once. I still do that!
Amy Hwang: I sent a few batches to The New Yorker shortly after graduating from college, but once I got a job I stopped and got on with my life. Several years later, I decided to submit with more seriousness. I sold my first cartoon after sending in weekly batches of 10 cartoons for 10 months. I worked in a small architecture firm at the time, and I did a little bit of everything, including all the accounting. Being a cartoonist isn’t just drawing funny pictures. It is a business, and having an understanding of those aspects is useful.
Navied Mahdavian: I decided to take a break from teaching after five years in the classroom to pursue cartooning professionally. I sold a cartoon to The New Yorker a year later. Having the time to nurture my creative development was essential. People often say they can't do something because they weren't born with a talent, but I think giving yourself the time to learn a craft is key
A recent cartoon created by Navied Mahdavian, published by The New Yorker, and shared by Mahdavian on Instagram.
Sam Marlow: I graduated in 2008, but I didn’t pursue The New Yorker until late 2015. In between that time, I worked a bunch of weird animation jobs, in advertising, on documentaries, and did some freelance illustration. I didn’t have too many hobbies because I was jumping from one project to the next. In 2015, I was working on an animated short through Titmouse, and I met Paul Noth, the New Yorker cartoonist. I asked him how it all worked, and he gave me very helpful feedback, not just with cartoons but how to pitch them.
Liz Montague: I graduated in May 2018 and sold my first cartoon to The New Yorker in January 2019, and it was published that March. Something I learned during that very short interim was how much I missed having somewhere for my art to go. In school we have critique and classmates and professors—after graduation it was a huge adjustment to no longer have an automatic audience. When I get overwhelmed with things or feel really stressed, I try to remember that at one point all I wanted more than anything was to share my work with people.
Jeremy Nguyen: I graduated in 2011 and started contributing in 2017. In between, I enjoyed working a full-time office job at a comics company with other artists fresh out of school. And on the side, we would draw our personal comics and share them with each other. It was nice to have that support structure day in and day out, and I was able to build my voice with the comics I was drawing. Eventually, it gave me the confidence to say that my comics were undeniably funny and that I could bring my perspective to The New Yorker.
Ellis Rosen: I graduated from Chicago in 2008 and continued on to the Savannah College of Art and Design for grad school, where I graduated in 2012. I started working on cartoons in 2016. I tried out a bunch of different styles before developing a simple approach I felt was appropriate. Drawing cartoons, over and over, often every week, honed my skills and my style and I became faster and more efficient. I learned to develop an "on switch" for coming up with ideas, a voice in the back of my head that constantly chimes in and asks, "Is this a cartoon?" I'm still developing my style; I hope it changes many times. You can't be too comfortable in this business. There's nothing funny about that.
Robert Sikoryak: I began contributing to The New Yorker about seven years after I graduated from Parsons. In the time before, and even since, I’ve developed many skills in different fields. Working with Art and Francoise at Raw taught me a lot about book production and editing. While I was contributing to The New Yorker in the 1990s, I also helped out Françoise at her office, so I got to see the inner workings of the magazine. In the years since, I've also done a lot of book illustration and created several graphic novels, which for me always involve a lot of research and exploration of different drawing techniques and storytelling styles. In addition, I’ve started working in the animation industry, at Augenblick Studios in Brooklyn, which has greatly expanded my computer skills. And I host a live comics reading series called Carousel, which connects me more to the cartooning scene. As a freelancer, it’s very important to be flexible and be willing to try new media.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.