Continued from Part 1 of our interview with Amy Hwang:
Simon: What has been your relationship with [former New Yorker Cartoon Editor] Bob Mankoff? Did he encourage you, did he make suggestions, that sort of thing?
AH: When I sold my first cartoon, he actually called and he was talking a mile a minute about cartoons. That buzz just kind of thrilled me. I can’t even remember what he said! Then I would start meeting with him in person, and he would always have some advice, little snippets. I worked in the City so I went every week; I’d take a long lunch and show my cartoons. Every now and then he would spend a good ten minutes talking to me. Sometimes it wouldn’t be about cartoons. Sometimes it might be about travel or something random, like baseball. [laughter] He’s always encouraged me to explore my drawing style and that sort of thing.
“I think cats are kind of selfish. They are like us.”
Simon: Do you own a cat?
AH: I don’t have a cat, but I draw a lot of cats. It was something that [New Yorker cartoonist] Michael Maslin said in an email to me. He liked the drawing of the cats that I had on my website. I sort of just ran with it from there. I had this hare-brained idea to do a cat breed poster. I have it on my Etsy shop. It was one of those things I started and in the middle I was like: Why did I decide to do this? It wasn’t drawing the cats that was so bad, it was more the Photoshopping all of them into one space and resizing them and rearranging them and cleaning up the scans. It took me a year to finish. Whenever people are like, “Oh, you should do one with dogs”, I’m like, “No, no, never.” [Laughter]
Simon: Do you have an idea why cats make good cartoons subjects?
AH: I find them actually more human than a lot of the other animals in terms of personalities. I think cats are kind of selfish. They are like us. They’re a little weird. there’s more complexity in cats.
Max: You mentioned Michael Maslin, who we look up to as the Dean of New Yorker cartoonists, especially with his influential Inkspill site. Are there cartoonists that you hang out with, or some little groups that get together? Are you part of any network there?
AH: I wish I was, but I don’t go into the City enough. Maybe every now and then I might see them at a cartoon meeting. I only go into The New Yorker maybe twice a year because I don’t have enough time now. It’s at least half a day for me to go there and back. But I do I see them all at The New Yorker party [Laughter]. When I first started at the New Yorker, the cartoonists I saw more often were David Borchart and Bob Eckstein. They got in around the same time I did. Some of them aren’t even submitting anymore, like Isaac Littlejohn Eddy, I think he may have had two or three cartoons in, but then he stopped – other priorities.
Simon: Are there cartoonists at The New Yorker whose work you particularly like?
AH: There are a bunch of them. I always like Drew Panckeri’s style. I don’t know if it’s because I gravitate towards the curves. Tom Chitty, who I know you guys criticize in your reviews, but I like his style. There’s just something about it, a very abstract curvature of lines. I also like Liana [Finck]’s style—very simple and kind of weird. These are all newer cartoonists.
“I try to diversify my cartoon characters as much as I can.”
Simon: I saw you did a cartoon review of the Charles Addams exhibit in New York a few years ago. How did that come about?
AH: That was actually a friend of Isaac Littlejohn Eddy, the guy I was just mentioning. One of his friends, I don’t know if he’s editor or if he was the person in charge of that site. I want to say it was an architecture in New York type website/blog thing. They needed somebody to review that. I think Isaac referred me to him. It was just one of those things like, “Sure, I’ll do it.” I went to the museum, and I’m glad I took photos of the works, otherwise I would not have been able to remember anything I saw. Charles Addams was one of my favorite cartoonists. Those are the ones that appealed to me as a child.
Simon: His style is very meticulous with heavy washes and all sorts of artistic elements to it. So many of the current cartoonists don’t use washes at all.
AH: Yeah, that’s true. I don’t know why. I guess it’s just their style. Part of me thinks maybe it’s easier to scan. I do think that one disadvantage to not using a wash is I know The New Yorker always wants more diverse cartoon characters. Unless if you have a very realistic drawing style where it’s obvious from even the black and white whether a person is, say, African American or Asian or of another descent—in my drawing style, there’s no way you would know without the wash. I try to always include different ethnicities, more women. I try to diversify my cartoon characters as much as I can. Obviously the wash helps in my case, because the facial features on my cartoons were two dots and a line for a mouth; it really doesn’t convey enough for people to go, “Oh, she’s black or she’s Asian or she’s Indian or Iranian.” Even now, you still couldn’t say someone’s Hispanic or Persian—there’s a lot of room for guessing.
Simon: What’s your approach to creating cartoons? Some cartoonists say just doodle and draw pictures and wait for an idea to attach to the art. Others start with the gag and draw around that.
AH: I feel like it’s a little bit of a mixture. I think it’s probably more idea first, then the doodling. Sometimes it’s just even a certain word and you’re like: Oh, I should try and use it. Obviously, it might not turn into a cartoon of that word, but it might include a word, or it might have that idea. I’d say it’s less visual first. I think my cartoons more rely on the caption than the picture. I have my sketchbook here, and it’s really hard for me to go: How did I come up with that idea? It usually is an idea in my head, no matter how abstract it might be. It might just be, kind of, I just came back from an event and I’m thinking about something. The event I went to last night, there was valet parking. I was like, you know, I should try and come up with a valet parking type cartoon. Anything with a sign that says something, it’s like: Oh you can work with that.
Max: What does your notebook look like?
AH: It’s like a recycled sketchbook. One of my friends wanted to look through my notebook. I think she was thinking, “Oh it’ll be funny. I’ll look through and see all these funny cartoons.” I was like, “No, it’s hard to read anything, the drawings are messy. It’s not a pretty notebook.” I think a lot of cartoonists are very artistic and maybe their notebooks are organized. I guess if you looked through my sketchbook you’d see how disappointing it is.
Simon: I saw you also did a week’s drawings of Rhymes With Orange, Hilary Price’s strip.
AH: I did do that.
Simon: Do you have any interest in trying to get syndicated yourself?
AH: It’s funny, because right around that time, I was like: Maybe I should try and get syndicated. Actually it was like: I’ll have this character who’s some sort of designer and she’d have an assistant. I think I had drawn maybe ten panels, but then I realized that it would be really hard for me to keep this up. I think at that time I wasn’t working. I never really did anything with them. It was one of those things when you get an idea, you start and then you don’t really follow through. I think it just dawned on me that it wasn’t maybe the most financially sustainable kind of career option for me. I know it sounds horrible if you’re an artist and you want to hear people say you should just go for it. At that time I had a baby, I was a single mom, it was more like: I’m going to need a job with benefits.
I’m kind of my own patron. I can do my own artistic things, which is a luxury, but at the same time I have no time. I think a syndication thing, even to try to get into that, does require a huge time commitment, more dedication than I even could do. I think just between The New Yorker cartoons, it’s hard enough.
“I think my dad finally understood one of my cartoons.”
Simon: As a kid, were you drawing all the time?
AH: I was. It’s funny, I remember being in, I want to say I was in fifth grade. One of my classmates was like, “Oh, you should be a cartoonist when you grow up.” Of course, when you’re a kid you’re not thinking a New Yorker cartoonist, you’re thinking you can be Charles Schulz. By the time I was in middle school, high school, I didn’t draw as much. I wish I had. I was playing the cello, so I was in the orchestra. I wish I had done more visual arts because obviously that was more of a strength for me than the musical arts.
My mom was a bit of an artist also—not professionally, but she always drew and she would paint and now she’s just into photography a lot. I think she does still paint sometimes too. My sister’s always drawing also. She’s more of a natural artist. I’m always trying to get things right; she can do things so easily.
Max: When you have a cartoon published in The New Yorker, what does your mom say when she calls you?
AH: Usually I have to tell my parents when my cartoons are in there so that they know to look. They’re always like, “Congratulations, good job.” It’s funny, I was talking to Bob about it once. He was like, “What do your parents think of The New Yorker?” I don’t know if they quite understood what a big deal it was to have my cartoons in The New Yorker, which is strange, because we subscribed to The New Yorker when I was in high school. Mom must have subscribed to it, but it wasn’t like she was reading it.
My parents weren’t born in the U.S. They’re not native English speakers. I think usually that’s almost one of the prerequisites for The New Yorker to naturally show up in some of these households. It showed up and I would actually start reading it, and that’s when I started seeing the cartoons. It’s funny … they realize it’s a big deal when they tell their friends at work or people they know, and then their friends go, “Wow, that’s really impressive, that’s really hard to do.” Then, they’re like, “Wow, she really did something big.” [Laughter]
Simon: I’m glad your parents get it now and how hard it is.
AH: I think so, but they don’t always get my cartoons. I think my dad finally understood one of my cartoons, the one with the apartment window, the view of the park. He was like, “Oh that was really funny. I understood it.” Maybe they’re too subtle or too vague or they just weren’t funny enough for him.
Max: I can appreciate why they might have a little trouble sometimes with especially the more urban or very New York City-specific cartoons.
Simon: And some are pretty heavy on irony, too, which is the diet of New Yorkers, but may not be as much appreciated outside certain urban areas.
AH: There’s a certain sense of humor that’s very different. Some of my friends who don’t read The New Yorker don’t quite get my cartoons. They have the same background as me, they’re college educated, they grew up here. I guess their sense of humor hasn’t been developed enough obviously. [laughter]
Max: Well, Amy, we get them and we really enjoy them.
AH: Oh, great, I appreciate that, thanks.
“I just really do it for myself, and I think it’s so important to have something like that.”
Max: You’ve certainly given us a lot of insight into your thought process and how cartooning is part of your life. It’s impressive the sacrifices that you have to make to stick to it.
AH: At this point, I’ve invested so much into it, I would never just give up on it. It’s also one of the few things in my life that I actually do for myself. There are lots of things you do for your kids, for your reputation. I don’t know why people do other things so they can buy a big house, I don’t know. For me, I just really do it for myself, and I think it’s so important to have something like that.
Max: It’s also a very rarefied skill. Not many people can do it. It’s that delicate combination of idea and ability to execute it. We applaud you for that.
Simon: I’m sure you get gratification not only from doing the work and having it published, but also knowing that millions of people enjoy your work.
AH: Yeah. it is very gratifying. Every now and then you get an email from somebody who is thanking you for doing whatever cartoon, or they really liked it. You do realize, oh, you do have a voice. You have some sort of reach, which is kind of amazing. I’m always just here by myself drawing. It’s such an isolating profession. I guess with social media you can interact a lot more with the people who read your cartoons, but all in all, I’m just here by myself doing this. You kind of wonder what do people think. The stuff I’ve just been working on by myself, it’s unfiltered.
Max: Well, you can always drop us a line. We’re up all night thinking about cartoons.
Simon: I’d say you have the sunniest disposition of any cartoonist we’ve talked to, which is wonderful.
AH: I don’t know, maybe it’s a good time of the day, it’s not too late. I’m well- rested, it’s sunny outside. I think I’m always like this. I can’t help it.
Simon: Well, thank you.
AH: I love your site. I always look forward to reading your opinions on all the cartoons. It’s something I do look forward to. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a cartoonist; obviously, it is something that interests me.
Max: Thank you very much.