Thursday, May 18, 2006

Friends of the Fiend 23: Carolita Johnson

Someone wrote a comment on my other blog pointing me to Carolita Johnson's web page. As soon as I got there I realised I knew her work from my sparse collection of New Yorker magazines. The more cartoons I saw while I was there, the more I liked her. Her not '...puffy enough for you' cartoon had me laughing out loud - an all too rare event for someone who has been drawing cartoons as long as I have - and I became an instant fan.

Her Newyorkette blog, I might add, is also a hoot. Do yourself a convulsive favour and drop in.

Carolita Johnson goodies at Cartoonbank

CF. Hello, Carolita.

CJ. Hey big fella!

CF. Okay, what are your current projects, anything exciting in the pipeline - that you can tell us about?

CJ. Just the usual grind: the batch (seven cartoons, my personal goal) to submit to TNY every week. Though I've decided to work on my caricatures as well, hoping to get other kinds of artwork published. I've also always dreamed of doing some of the "spots" for The NewYorker. They've started hiring one artist to do weekly spots, instead of just mixing different artists' spots into one issue as before, so you actually get a credit now.

And I'm re-working my old manuscript (a book, and all I can say for now is that the title will be "Bug Juice").

CF. Did you always want to be a cartoonist, and set out to become one, or was it a gradual process?

CJ. I never WANTED to be a cartoonist. That's why I'm always puzzled by people who approach me with their cartoonist dreams. I've never"dreamed" of doing anything, in the way most people say they do. I just try something if I think I can do it well. And I've never doubted that I can draw, even though I've doubted everything else I did!

As a kid I drew all the time, and I had a little strip when I was a kid, inspired by Peanuts, called "Snurfuls" about a sheepdog. My dad reminded me of this when I started getting published in TNY. I'd totally forgotten about it.

A very early original Carolita Johnson drawing

I got back into cartooning (after 15 years of not drawing at all), encouraged by Crawford when I was trying to put an illustration portfolio together. I guess he saw something in my drawings. He suggested I give it a try while I worked out my illustration style, and I thought it would be good practice for drawing a lot and meeting deadlines, so I started submitting, not expecting to sell at all. But I did sell, within five weeks, much to our surprise.

CF. The work you do at the moment, can you tell us something about the process?

CJ. Since I'm one of the newer cartoonists, I have other jobs and run around town a lot and don't have the luxury of sitting around at an art table coming up with brilliant ideas! So, a lot of my ideas come to me while I'm running about, and are jotted down into notebooks or into the palm of my hand. It's awful when I forget to note something, because as soon as you lose one idea into the ether of forgetfulness, it seems to guarantee a sort of inspiration "blockage." Other cartoonists have observed this too. Very very important to write the ideas down as they come.

But it's even better when I sit down and draw something, and the idea comes to me by looking at the drawing. Many of the cartoons I've sold seemed to just appear under my pen like magic, with the idea forming as I draw. It makes me think, wow! Where did THAT come from? It almost makes me feel as if I shouldn't really take credit for it, because there was no real thinking process behind it, just a flash of inspiration.

CF. I know you've been asked this a million times, but what tools do you use, and what format do you work to?

CJ. Actually hardly anyone asks! They assume I use watercolors for some reason. I use india ink, because it's waterproof, for the lines. I draw the lines using a pen and nib, I think it's a hunter 12. It's very hard to break that nib in, as it's not meant for what I do with it, and many are thrown out as duds, while one in ten last six months before they poop out. For the wash, I use water diluted with ink. That's why I need it waterproof, so I don't get any bleeding from the lines on application of the wash. I have three shades of dirty ink water for the wash.

CF. Is the cartoonist a proper artist? I mean, does cartooning have the same cultural impact as some other artforms, in your opinion?

CJ. Yes and no. I think it all depends on the readers' perception. The New Yorker cartoon has had a certain style. I think it behooves TNY to keep it up and set their cartoons apart from other cartoons. We'reknown for having a certain kind of humor that is unique to The New Yorker. In that way, I think we do have an impact on other cartoonists, as well as on the development of the level of the sense of humor of readers.

I've also noticed that artists are incorporating cartoons or cartooning style into their work a lot now, as part of the insertion of pop culture into "serious" art. I'm not sure if that means cartoons influence art or if art influences cartoons, or neither!

And then there's people like David Mamet doing cartoons. It makes eloquent the current idea that anyone with an idea and access to an audience can be an artist. I guess because we've had some excellent cartoonists breaking the mold and drawing in a "naive" style about personal anxieties, like Roz Chast, it's encouraged people to do cartoons on banal subjects, whether they can draw or not. This is where the line gets blurry. Is it art? Is it not art? Who knows! I think it's part of a movement.

Schopenhauer said something like there used to be a great philosopher once in a century, but now schools are turning out philosophers by the hundreds! How can everyone be so brilliant? Everyone's a wiseguy! Anyone can reasonably aspire to be a cartoonist these days. My only snobbism is that a person should be a cartoonist only if they can't beanything else. That's the only meritocracy I believe in, in the cartooning world. Most of us at TNY are absolute failures ateverything else. That's why we have little sympathy for the David Mamets out there.

One last thing, I think that the David Mamets of the world are partly responsible for the shake-up at TNY: we've all been told to clean upour acts and draw better.
I've got nothing against it personally because it's helped me push myself, and I think now that the cartooning market is more open it means even the "naive" style cartoonists at TNY need to push the envelope further and keep on the edge we're supposed to be representing.

Find Carolita's work at The New Yorker store

CF. Is there any other area of cartooning you'd like to work in, if you can find the time?

CJ. Just other magazines maybe in the future. I'd love to be able to understand business to the point where I could do business cartoons! I like overcoming my handicaps!

CF. Who were your major artistic influences?

CJ. Doré, John R. Neill. Toulouse-Lautrec. (sounds pretentious!) Dana Gibson. Hopper.

CF. Who was/is your favourite cartoonist/writer, of all time?

CJ. Cartoonist: Too hard to have one favorite. Weber, Crawford, and Barsotti make a good triumverate for me, for one kind of cartoonist. Then there's Tintin, Little Nemo, and Rarebit Dreams for strips. I love little Nemo. (Notice I don't know the strip artists' names, just their work).

Writer: Same thing. Chandler, Melville, Capote, Lem, Maupassant,Tennessee Williams and Mark Twain .

CF. There's a lot of talk about a new 'paper-less future' and 'new digital reading habits', do you think this will affect cartooning, at some point.

CJ. On the cartoonist's side of that question, yes, there's already a cartoonist or two doing digital-only cartoons at TNY. On the reader's side of the question, yes, there's already quite a lot of cartoons being read and emailed back and forth online.

CF. If you had the time, and you were helicoptered in to work on anything you chose, any publication, strip, panel, character, book, show, what would you like to work on?

CJ. My daydreams: I'd love to work on the Conan O'Brien show, come up with ideas for commercials, or do storyboarding, or paint portraits in the style of the northern artists. Maybe all of it at once! (I'm not used to having just one job and love multi-tasking, as each job inspires the other).

CF. Is there anything you'd rather be?

CJ. Nope. Or maybe the same thing but rich!

CF. Thank you for visiting with us.

CJ. My pleasure!


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