The illustrated man
George Booth, the New Yorker's sage of disorder
by Amy Finch
As people, cartoonists are an invisible lot. George Booth has spent
three decades at the New Yorker constructing a universe so distinct and
detailed it would be immediately identifiable even without the clear signature
in the bottom corner. Yet much like earlier New Yorker icons such as
Charles Addams and George Price, Booth the man is as unfamiliar as his work is
familiar. Two of his early books, Think Good Thoughts About a Pussycat
(Dodd, Mead & Company, 1975) and Pussycats Need Love, Too (Dodd,
Mead, 1980), offer only the scantest facts about him.
It would be easy to get the wrong idea from his cartoons. In person, George
Booth is a vision of propriety and pensiveness, unlike his famously scroungy
repertoire of cats, bull terriers, and humans, most of whom are prone to
explosions of flea-scratching or freeform verbalizing, depending on the
species. Archetypal Booth scenes are a cosmos unto themselves: think of his
bare-bulb-lit rooms in which a ditzy frump addles her newspaper-clutching
husband -- "One of your eyes is bugged out further than the other one" -- or
the repair shop where the news is all bad: "We located the hissing noise, Mr.
Watkins. Your wife's mother is in the back seat." Each Booth detail lends such
a strong sense of personality and place that it's more like gazing at a stage
set than at a printed page. The paradox is that while the Booth world overflows
with concrete details, the humor is subtle and skewed, arriving without a laugh
Booth is the subject of a new illustrated book, The Essential George
Booth (Workman Publishing Company), edited by former New Yorker arts
editor Lee Lorenz, who also wrote The Art of the New Yorker:
1925-1995 (Alfred A. Knopf). It marks the beginning of a project in which
Lorenz hopes to focus on two cartoonists per year. (The other current volume is
The Essential Charles Barsotti; a Jack Ziegler book is next in line.)
Herewith, some select facts: Booth is 72, grew up in Missouri, started
drawing at the age of three (his mother drew a comic strip), joined the
Marines, cartooned for the military magazine Leatherneck, went to art
school, and married in 1958, which is also around when he first began
submitting to the New Yorker. He worked as art director for a group of
trade magazines, had a daughter, illustrated several children's books
(including one by Dr. Seuss), and finally got published in the New
Yorker in 1969.
At brunch with his wife, Dione, at a resort restaurant not far from their home
on Long Island, Booth the human being emerges a little more, and laughs often.
He laughs at his own comments; he laughs when the waitress mumbles something
and promptly skitters away. He laughs when a bridal party parades past the
window, a bare-chested man sauntering alongside the tuxes and satin bows.
In some ways that man embodies the spirit of Booth's characters, who plow
forth talking, behaving, and dressing however they darn well please. In Booth's
world, there is little room for self-consciousness or self-censorship amid all
the yard-sale salvage. Words fall out of characters' mouths with a sweet, nutty
authenticity that comes straight from life. Take the rhythmic chatter of the
chair-tipping, toe-picking Leon: "I saw Yerkow yesterday. He says, 'How ya
doin', Leon?' I says, 'Just fine, Yerkow, how you doin?' He says, 'Doin' fine,
how's the wife?' I says, 'She's doin' just fine, how's your wife?' He says,
'She's doin' fine.' I says, 'Sure good to see you doin' fine, Yerkow.' Yerkow
says, 'Yeh, Leon, good to see you doin' so fine, too.'"
Very early on in Booth's career, when he worked setting type at a
small-town newspaper, he learned to ferret out funniness in everyday minutiae.
"The items that were sent in tickled me because they were of such a subtle
nature," he says. "[At the New Yorker] I've had the pleasure of working
with a magazine where I can be subtle and the audience will get it. I got
subtle with 'Local Item,' and the audience didn't get it." ("Local Item," his
syndicated cartoon, ran briefly in the early '80s.)
He is still drawn to the uncosmopolitan aspects of life. In the back of his
mind, he says, he's been toying with the idea of doing something related to
small-town police blotters. He cites an example: " 'A woman on Cedar
Street reported a man peering into her garbage can. When police got there, the
man was gone.' So what? It doesn't mean anything, but it's funny."
One of the greatest, most expressive Booth drawings stars his cave people.
A group of these ragged primordials is gathered in front of a steaming volcano;
all are convulsed with laughter, including the dog. A newcomer approaches. The
caption reads, "Nothing is funny. We're just having a good laugh." Who knows
what it means -- it's an exquisite ode to the ineffability of humor.
(Dione Booth has a somewhat more somber interpretation of that particular
cartoon. "The hurt of society is so deep in that drawing. They don't have
anything to laugh about," she says, with a laugh. "Tragedy is funny," her
Since 1975, when Booth's cave people graced the New Yorker with the
two-page linguistic epic "Ip Gissa Gul," his crusty hominids have been part of
the Booth crew of oddballs. But it is likely that New Yorker readers
more readily identify Booth with his rumpled rabble of cats and dogs. No other
artist has ever bestowed such wit and soul on the slouch of a cat's back or a
dog's haunches; his English bull terrier has become sort of a New Yorker
mascot. Yet surprisingly, Booth has never owned a dog. He became a cat person
by marrying into a cat family. "I've loved them ever since, because there's
everything in a cat," he says. Particularly intelligence, he believes. (He and
Dione share quarters with four cats.)
As for his trademark terriers, he says, "I drew an ornery-looking mutt in the
New Yorker and somebody wrote a letter and said, 'Is that an English
bull terrier?' And I didn't know what they looked like. I went to the library,
and gradually the dog became an English bull terrier. . . . I
had drawn a dog sitting next to a sign that read BEWARE OF SKITTISH DOG. That
was the character that started that. I think Mr. Shawn had said something about
it. He liked it."
Mr. Shawn, of course, being William Shawn, the legendary editor of the New
Yorker from 1952 until 1987, when Robert Gottlieb took over. In 1992,
Gottlieb was replaced by Tina Brown, who left last year.
"I'm not exactly grinding up editors," Booth jokes. He has, however, been at
the magazine long enough to have witnessed much upheaval, notably the coming
and going of Brown, who was determined to replace the New Yorker's
stodgy fields of gray with a rowdy topicality. As a freelancer, Booth was at a
remove from the commotion, and he is hesitant to talk on the record about
"The less said about Tina Brown, the better, because she's
gone. . . . I don't think I need to analyze her past work at
this point," he says.
Most of what Booth does divulge about Brown is favorable. As far as cartoons
go, "Tina Brown stirred the waters. She required that you pick up a subject
that's happening this week or today, and work on that." Before she arrived, he
thinks, the cartooning was more apt to be self-indulgent.
What about Shawn? "I was affected by William Shawn, worked under him for 17
years. I only laid eyes on him five times. And he was inspiring.
"Shawn could see value in my work early on. He saw value in my loose roughs.
Sometimes he'd say, 'Just print the roughs.' My attitude at the time was, I can
always do better. But sometimes a rough had so much feeling in it
. . . that you almost can't repeat it by doing a finish. You stiffen
up. So he made me aware of that." Even today, as he starts to work on a
"finish," he might realize that parts of the rough are too inspired to leave
out, and he'll use them.
Booth is, in fact, a master of collage. Lee Lorenz says, "He is a virtuoso of
the cut-and-paste. But he doesn't paste, which is very peculiar. What he likes
to do is tape it up with little bits of Scotch tape, which is even more
difficult because sometimes it's just a hand or a nose or something he's
putting on. So by the time he gets done they have a very rich, tactile surface.
In fact, when the New Yorker had a traveling show to celebrate its 60th
anniversary, and there were several pieces by George, almost every time they
unwrapped the drawings, in George's there would be a few pieces that had come
loose and drifted to the bottom of the frame. So you had to take it out of the
mat, take the glass out, and put it back together again."
When Booth was first published in the New Yorker, says Lorenz, he made
an immediate impact. "It wasn't like anything else there. He established a
completely new identity. . . . Some people compare him to George
Price because he likes to draw sort of these socially marginal types. But the
similarity is more apparent than real.
"Booth has a very recognizable stock company of people that he draws from, and
he's adding to it all the time. I think there's another generation of younger
cartoonists who seldom do that, who do it on a gag-by-gag basis, but who don't
really create this kind of repertory company. I think, with exceptions, that's
generally true of the generation of cartoonists that started in the late
"The younger generation seem to be more writers than artists. They're creators
of humorous situations, and the drawing, which certainly is important, is a way
of carrying the idea, rather than the other way around. In the very early days
of the magazine, very few artists did their own ideas, so everything was really
kind of collaboration. The magazine would buy ideas from people who wrote ideas
or people on the staff who created them. And then they would sign an artist,
like Peter Arno or George Price, who would draw them. So these people were
primarily draftsmen and not idea people. And that began to change in the
"Now, it seems to me, it's gone a step beyond that, where we have people who
are essentially creators of ideas . . . rather than artists who are
primarily artists, and who do either their own ideas or other people's
One cartoonist of the younger generation, David Sipress, has been cartooning
for the Phoenix since 1971 (see "Reality Check," News) and finally was
published in the New Yorker last year. About Booth, Sipress says, "The
joke isn't encased in the words -- it's always in the drawing, and that's what
he does better than anybody. Anybody who can do more with less gets my
admiration. . . . Just the three frames of the dog sitting
there, then scratching himself like crazy, then sitting still again, with the
cat watching. That's doing more with less."
"I compare [Booth] to other great American regional humorists like Mark
Twain," says Lorenz. "The humor comes right out of character. He manages to
establish characters with wonderful efficiency with his
art. . . . Right away, before you read the caption, before they
start to talk, you have a very good sense of who these people are. You're
halfway home already. You're beginning to chuckle."
Booth says, "It used to be in cartooning that you pursued drawing; you'd go to
art school and study life drawing. The gags and stuff, the writing of it, came
later. I always made it a point to become a whole package."
During Booth's early New Yorker days, people sometimes noticed the
ambiance of the cartoons, and the electrical details, and began to wonder.
Dione says, "When George started doing that [bare light bulbs], my mother
. . . called me up one day and said, 'People are asking me, they want
to know if you still have bare light bulbs in your house. It's
embarrassing.' " Booth laughs.
Booth says he sometimes gets ideas directly from something Dione says. Or he
"can hear a phrase on a television set that I'm not watching, and it's a gag.
Just dialogue -- I've shied away pretty much from gag writers."
I wonder what Booth thinks of his older work -- does he find it funnier or
less so than he did originally?
"Both," he says. "I go back and I find very funny stuff that kind of
surprises me, that it was so funny and nothing happened with it. And I go back
and I look at stuff and I wonder why they let me come in the
office. . . . The first thing I notice when I look back is there
was too much writing in a caption."
As for time-induced permutations, Booth says, "I don't try to hold to
drawing the same thing that I drew yesterday. The reader will probably never
know this because a style does develop -- you do draw the same things again.
But it's not like a comic strip, where you try to make the character look
exactly the same every day. Any time I feel I want to change, I just change.
"One thing bothered me about syndicated cartooning -- and there are some
great cartoonists in the field and I'm jealous; I'd like to be in there, too --
but one of the things that always bothered me was you produce a daily laugh
whether you feel funny or not. [It] must get to be a drag
sometimes. . . . My qualification, when I think about a
syndicated feature, is that it be timely, have human interest, reach the reader
right now. I now think there must be a main character to identify the feature.
And I must enjoy it, and it must grow for me."
Among syndicated comic strips, Dilbert, by Scott Adams, fits the bill
in Booth's estimation. So do Pickles, by B. Crane, and
Mutts, by Patrick McDowell.
In a broader sense, what sorts of things make Booth laugh? "I could sit down
anytime and watch Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton. I love
vaudeville. I was greatly affected by all those movies I saw as a kid, and
vaudeville. And since New York, I've related to Jewish
humor. . . ." He also mentions Shel Silverstein, John Cleese
(Fawlty Towers), Peter Sellers (The Ladykillers).
"I was affected greatly, too, by the visual happenings of humor," Booth
says. "And that seems to be something that's almost lost in the production of
magazine humor. It's not always lost in television, because Seinfeld, I
think, has visual humor. [Kramer] is totally pantomime, visual humor. He's
beautiful. Bill Cosby is one of the greatest thinkers on the face of the earth.
He thinks before he talks. I don't know many people who can do that."
The Essential George Booth, and a lengthy profile in the New
Yorker's cartoon issue in December, amount to "kind of a rebirth for me at
the New Yorker," Booth says. He's also been working on illustrations for
children's books, and a Bravo network documentary is in the works. The
January 25 issue of the New Yorker ran a Booth cartoon on three
consecutive pages; the mood of the series is more topical than anything he's
done. Working under a tight deadline, he found his creative juices stirred.
He's says he's excited and "hyped-up" by the prospect of doing more projects
that have a decidedly political slant.
Magazine cartooning is a notoriously difficult field in which to make a
living, never mind plan for retirement. When he was president of the
Cartoonists' Guild for two years in the '70s, Booth once spoke in front of a
gathering of artists. "I got up and announced over the microphone that I'd
worked out a retirement program for freelance cartoonists," he recalls. "They
were all scooting forward in their chairs. I said, 'You just work like hell all
your life and then die suddenly.' "
When he stops laughing, he conjures the spirit of Dr. John. "Now I've got
a better program. It's just 'keep on keepin' on.' "
Amy Finch is a freelance writer living in Boston.