Carolita Johnson has an innate feel for the art of making cartoons. “I’ve always done whatever I can do, and cartooning is one of those things, a natural form of expression after reading all those paperback Charlie Brown books,” she explains. Johnson attended Parsons School of Design intending to study illustration, but pursued fashion design instead when told she had “no aptitude for color or composition.” Upon graduating from Parsons in 1987, she left for London with a one-way ticket. It was only fifteen years later, after time spent abroad in the fashion world and in academia, that she returned to New York and to illustration. Johnson had so much to say, but “no ability to draw.” She worked on developing her color illustration style, but a cartoonist’s life still remained elusive: “I still didn’t really understand that cartoonists were paid for cartooning. I don’t know where I thought magazines got their cartoons, from generous doodlers with nothing better to do?” The New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff saw something in her work, and within five weeks of her return stateside, she was published in The New Yorker.
She took time to speak with me about tag lines, eavesdropping, inspirations, rejection and lunching with The New Yorker cartoonists at Pergola Des Artistes.
What comes first: the illustration or the punch line?
For me, usually the punch line, with an image in my mind rather than on paper. But often the punch line is no longer attractive to me once I do the illustration, which may inspire a completely different punch line once completed. I love it when that happens. I’d say that happens about a third of the time. Now and then I am dying to use a scene, from a movie, or from a photo or imagination, draw it, and try to think of a caption for it. For example, my two cowboy cartoons happened that way, as well as the eighty-year-old bikini girls cartoon. And then there are the ones that just come out of the blue which I can’t even explain; they just come out under the pen. They’re like manna from heaven–rare, too.
Do you contemplate an issue, or do the cartoon ideas come with serendipity?
I’m not organized enough–hardly ever know what the date and time is–to target a particular issue. Often I save stuff for the next year’s special issue, like this year, when all my Valentine’s Day ideas came to me way too late to get considered. It would be great if the assistant cartoon editor would nag us all a bit more on that level! I try to write things down on my calendar, but I hardly ever look at my calendar in time.
Do you eavesdrop?
Unabashedly and with no compunction. People talk loud in this city. If they don’t want me to hear them, they should keep it down.
What is the cartoon creation process like for you?
Sometimes it’s a lot like herding cats. Sometimes I have an idea, forget to write it down before I think of the next idea, and totally lose the first idea to the ether by the time I stop to write the second idea down, or vice versa. Sometimes just looking for a pen will make me forget both. The worst part of this is that not writing down my ideas in time somehow inhibits me from coming up with another idea, since I obsess so long over trying to remember the lost idea. It’s as if I get a back-up in my imagination. The more I forget, the more I forget. Then I get grumpy and have feelings of hopelessness till something distracts me. My attention span and memory capacity can be very long or very short, but never reliable. My latest trick is to text myself the idea on my cell phone, which is always handy and easy to find. Then the only problem that arises when I go through all these "great" ideas in my cell phone, is when they turn out to be not as great as I thought.
The New Yorker only publishes 18-20 cartoons per week. What was it like to have your first published?
It was very satisfying. Very validating. Especially since my mother didn’t believe I was actually selling cartoons to The New Yorker. She assumed I was being taken for a ride or something; just like she assumed I was being led into white–or beige, in my case–slavery when I began modeling in London, till she saw the magazines. In a way, that’s sort of sweet of her, because obviously she thinks I’m much more innocent, hapless and gullible than I actually am. If only she knew!
How many cartoons do you create per week?
I prepare up to ten, but only submit seven. The reason for this is that Barbara Smaller once told me that the maximum number of cartoons she ever sold in one shot was six. I just don’t like to submit many more cartoons than I can reasonably sell, based on empirical observations of other cartoonists’ experience.
How have you drawn upon your academic study and work in fashion?
Marisa Acocella Marchetto is so much better at the fashion stuff. I think I’m too close to the industry to see what’s funny about it yet. Also, my cartoons often arise from confusion and an inability to relate. So I do a lot of marriage cartoons because I just don’t understand why anyone would ever get married. I’ve never even lived with someone, much less considered getting married. So I think people who want to get married are funny. I think gainfully employed people are funny. I find normality appealing or bemusing because it’s exotic to me. Perhaps my studies in anthropology and sociology have helped hone that observer’s point of view.
Cartoon editor Robert Mankoff has said, "Each generation has to speak to its own generation." What does that mean to you?
Personally, I missed the boat when it came to my own generation. I was raised in a sort of "autistic culture," as I say with totally antisocial parents: Asperger’s Dad, and a bipolar, possibly BPD Mom. So I was a non-participant with no social skills as I grew up, always an outsider. Then, when I came back from France after fifteen years away, I felt like a person who had woken from a fifteen-year coma. I was missing a lot of cultural references, TV shows and words like "self-pay" at the doctor’s office. I still speak as a bit of an outsider. But perhaps that’s part of my generation’s character. Many of us have traveled and been absent from our own culture for long periods of time.
Mankoff also said that he tries to teach each cartoonist to get over the "euphoria of her own ideas." What is your euphoria?
I hope I’ve lost my euphoria and only relapse intermittently. I know what he means. I call it by a different name–having one’s head up one’s ass, thinking one’s own little quirks are what make one unique. The problem occurs when the cartoons become overwhelmed by that quirkiness and cease to relate to anyone else, or become repetitive. It’s amazing how shallow a person’s quirkiness can turn out to be when he or she dips into it as a sole resource. They run out of material fast. Losing one’s "euphoria" is actually very conducive to self-awareness, and I’m grateful if I’ve achieved a bit of that.
What is the role of a cartoonist?
It depends on the cartoonist, but artists of any type have a role in society. We say what other people are afraid to say; we notice and point out contradictions and anomalies that people overlook in order to make their day seamless and smooth. We provide an escape, or an outlet. We try out ideas that other people would be afraid to speak, and suffer embarrassment, or worse, on their behalf when it flops–like with the cartoon riots.
Who are the cartoonists who inspired you?
Windsor McCay (Little Nemo, Rarebit Dreams), Herg (Tintin), Helen Hokinson, Dana Gibson (The Gibson Girl), Pancho. I find my friend–and fellow TNY cartoonist–Crawford inspiring because he’s so productive and can work an idea into many other ideas and projects in a way that’s incredibly prolific. It’s productive also in the amount of ideas and unexpected gags that result from all that brainstorming. I think for any creative longevity, one has to learn to be more like him. I’m a lot more laid back, often letting my ideas just come to me on a silver platter. For now, I’m lucky they come to me in a timely, relatively effortless manner.
What is “The Rejection Show”?
It’s a show hosted by Jon Friedman that Matthew Diffee brought me into when they were collaborators. It presents various artists, cartoonists, writers, filmmakers, you name it, and their rejected works, whether pitches for commercials or sitcoms, or stories of getting fired or dumped in spectacular or incredibly funny ways. I’ve been in it twice, to my great pleasure. There’s a “Rejection Show” book in the works now, too, in which I hope some of my last presentation, autobiographical illustrations, will appear. Diffee’s covered the rejected New Yorker cartoons side of this whole adventure in his "Rejection Collection." There’s a second one coming out, which I also hope I’ll appear in.
What is the scene like at Pergola des Artistes?
The thing about the lunch at Pergola is that it takes place after we’ve all waited in line for our turn with Bob. You wait on line and for that hour or two you’re all equal, equally nervous, equally grumpy or tired, equally optimistic, however young or old or famous (or not) you are. Going to lunch afterwards is a good way to decompress for everyone. It’s great to hear them talk, compare stories, complain, whatever. You hear stories about how it was for them in the "old days," which were very different from these days for cartoonists.
What do you do outside of your work for The New Yorker?
I do "fit modeling" for anyone from Calvin Klein or Donna Karan to the people who do Target and Strawberry’s clothes. This is what old models do when they finally put on weight and start looking normal. I help make the clothes that women buy in stores fit well, and I love it because it makes use of my pattern-making skills from Parson’s, and calls upon my aesthetic point of view. I also do illustrations for individual clients, such as The Bubble Lounge, which I love doing because they periodically give me a little mission, and I have to come up with a drawing. I use my brush and ink style for them, which is one of my favorite ways to create an image. In a pinch, I’ll do other unrelated jobs for money if both cartoon sales and fittings are slow, and when they’re good ones they provide fresh insights into the so-called "real world," teach me things about myself, as well as giving a certain bad-faith satisfaction to the bitter, "gainfully employed" people who think I sleep all day. Also, I’m working on paintings. Nothing much to say on that yet, but thought I’d throw it out there to put myself on the spot.
You’re working on a book called "Bug Juice." Can you tell me anything about it?
Actually, it’s been written once, five years ago, and it’s dreadful. I like the idea and plan on re-adapting it. It’s basically a collection of memories and transcriptions of bits of paper with thoughts written on them that I collected over the fifteen years I spent not drawing much. Bug juice is basically generic kool-aid made from a powder that was served to me and my fellow campers when I used to go to day camp. That’s what we called it. I felt like all these memories and thoughts were like that powder, and that writing and reading then all at once was like adding water. Bug juice is something banal that united me temporarily with a group of people in thirstiness. I felt like bug juice was a metaphor for my life. I’m going to change that text into a much shorter one with illustrations, lots of pictures, but not a comic strip. It would be for adults, or kids with progressive parents.
If you had unlimited time, what else would you do?
I would draw more and paint more, and I would do my taxes and accounting stuff more often and pay less late fees! I’d cook more and eat better. Maybe I’d have a couple of boyfriends if I felt extra-leisurely. Men are lovely to have around, but they certainly take up a lot of one’s time–for that matter, I don’t know where people find the time to have sordid affairs! Maybe I’ll try it some day when I have a personal assistant! Oh and I’d definitely get a dog, some nice little scruffy mutt.
Images copyright Carolita Johnson