The Boston Phoenix
February 4 - 11, 1999


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 track.

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 husband offers.)

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 Brown.

"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 '60s.

"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 '50s.

"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 ideas."

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.

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