It is not widely known, even by regular readers of The New Yorker, that many if not most of the ideas for the celebrated cartoons do not come from the artists, but are dreamed up by various of the editors, who then decide which of their stable of cartoonists ought to be given the idea. There are, however, exceptions, artists who both invent the gag and draw the cartoon. One of these is Lee Lorenz, who has probably had a greater impact on American cartooning in recent decades that anyone else, both as a leading cartoonist and for twenty years, The New Yorker’s art editor.
Lorenz began drawing cartoons as a young teenager. According to an interview of Lorenz by Richard Gere for the Comic Journal, Lorenz became interested in drawing when he was quite young. He says,” I had a gift for it,” which was clearly true. His interest in cartooning came when he was in high school. By his senior year, his gift was apparent to teachers and students and he was asked to design the yearbook. He wrote a satirical history of his class and went on to illustrate it. He says, “The drawings were very influenced by Steinberg and Gene Deitch,” who is best remembered for his cartoons for a small jazz magazine, The Record Changer. In fact, he says that at the time he was more interested in music than art, especially jazz.
However, Lorenz’s gift was not only for art. It became clear to one of his teachers that he had a talent for writing. He was thus a double-barreled artist, which gave him a certain advantage over cartoonist who could not come up with their own gags. Humor is, admittedly, very difficult to analyze. Many people have tried, among them Sigmund Freud, whose work has never been described as a bundle of laughs. Certain elements are obvious – the surprise ending, a view of life from an oblique angle, a deferential narrator. However analysis is not enough: humor cannot be created cold-bloodedly in the way that, say, a chair or a vase can be manufactured without much emotional input. The artist must bring something of his personal vision to it.
The ability to do this is crucial to cartooning. We usually know at a glance whose work a cartoon is, even when the signature is illegible, as it frequently is in cartoons.
The cartoonist, therefore, must have complete confidence that his joke is funny. Many times they make a misjudgment: the audience fails to find the joke funny or simply doesn’t get it. Yet right or wrong the humorist must have that confidence.
This is certainly true of Lorenz. Like many of the most creative people, in his personal life he is a worrier, sometimes wondering if he is doing the right thing. However in respect to his cartooning, he has the requisite confidence in his abilities. He began drawing cartoons as a young teenager, and was selling his art when he was just out of art school. Soon somebody suggested that he submit stuff to The New Yorker, which was paying well, and because it was a weekly, needed a lot product. Very soon he was selling The New Yorker a lot of gags which were farmed out to other cartoonists, like Charles Addams and George Price. Not long after, he asked the New Yorker editors if they would consider some of his drawings. It took him several tries while he was developing the style which was to make him a major figure in the world of cartooning. Eventually,
The New Yorker offered him a contract and his work began to appear regularly in the
In 1973, he was chosen to become the art editor, commissioning and editing covers as well as composing the spot illustrations and working with artists and gag writers to create the cartoons. This was a tough job. Among other things, The New Yorker art editor could not simply hire and fire cartoonists: readers expected to see drawings by their favorites like Price, Addams, Reilly, Booth, Barsotti and others. This meant constantly dealing with humorists who are not notably easy-going, cheerful people, but are often moody and temperamental. Fortunately for both The New Yorker and the cartoonists, Lorenz brought to the job a natural tact, and while anyone in a position to accept or reject other people’s work is likely to make enemies, Lorenz remains well-liked and has a wide circle of friends, many of them the same temperamental and moody people.
On these pages, a sampling of his work.