Frank Cotham Interview, part 2
Simon: You’ve mentioned Robert Weber and Charles Saxon as cartoonists who influenced you.
FC: Yes. When I first started out I thought every New Yorker cartoon is supposed to look like a Charles Saxon cartoon. I couldn’t quite match his sophistication, and I don’t remember him ever doing any barbarian cartoons or anything like that, but I thought his style was really, really nice. I like a wash. That was a style that I like. I wish I could do that.
Max: Well, he probably wishes he could push a siege tower up to a castle and say, “Hey, quit trying to pick up girls with this thing.”
FC: [Laughter] I think that was one of those I just sat down and doodled that one.
Max: That was hilarious.
Simon: A number of your cartoons have a dark and somewhat depressing situation presented, like the doctor giving bad news to a patient. Would you like to comment on that theme that seems to run through many of your cartoons?
“I’m a ‘glass is empty’ sort of person. I just to try to see the humor in the really awful stuff that happens.”
FC: It’s just like anything’s going to go bad or anything’s going to go wrong, it will, no matter what. I know there’s a friend of mine here in Memphis in the Memphis Cartoonist Association, he told me that my cartoons were mean-spirited, but he meant it as a compliment. That’s not a compliment at all. I’m not trying to be mean. It’s just I’m a “glass is empty” sort of person. I just to try to see the humor in the really awful stuff that happens. [Laughter]
Simon: Are there any active cartoonists that you’re fond of?
FC: Jean–Jacques Sempé. I guess he’s more of an illustrator. I think he’s still alive. I always really liked his stuff. He was somebody else who I thought his stuff always looks similar. It’s always little people maybe in marathon races or a big urban setting, but it always seemed fresh to me. I admired the way he was able able to do it. Yeah, there are lots of contemporary cartoonists whose stuff I like. I feel if I say anybody’s name I’m going to slight somebody by not saying theirs.
Simon: Among others …
FC: I have to admit that Ed Steed … strange person …
Max: Oh, yes!
FC: And his work is strange, but I like strange stuff. It doesn’t have the gray wash and tones that I always like, but it’s different. His stuff doesn’t seem cheery to me. The faces look like really demented people. I feel like I know people like that. [Laughter] But I like his stuff. I like Liam Walsh’s stuff, just really elegant. I like Bob Eckstein’s stuff. Paul Noth is really great, very witty. Harry Bliss is another one of my favorites. He’s great. I really like his stuff. I’ve always liked Victoria Roberts. I haven’t seen her stuff in the magazine as much as I used to. I met her 20 years ago and Arnie Levin at that photo shoot, and I had to get back to my airplane at La Guardia Airport after the shoot. I really didn’t know how to get there. It’s a wonder I got there from Memphis at all. My wife says I don’t have sense enough to do air travel alone. That automated check-in—I can’t handle that. Anyway, I met Victoria Roberts and we got some kind of chauffeur driven car. I had some time. Victoria Roberts showed me Central Park. That was my first trip to New York. I had maybe a couple of hours to see the city. She took me to Central Park and we walked through that, and she got me back into the car to go to the airport. I made it and got home. I really enjoyed that tour through the park.
Max: That was very sweet of her.
FC: It was, and she seemed like a very sweet person. Arnie Levin seemed like a really great guy, funny to talk to. I enjoyed that. The photo shoot was really a quite an experience for me. I met all of these people that I heard of through their work. That was really great. A hick from the sticks. I had to go get my suitcase to go to the airport, and I got lost in the studio. [Laughter]
Simon: Do you communicate much with the other New Yorker cartoonists?
FC: Not before Facebook came along. Every now and then I’ll get a message from somebody, an email maybe. I don’t really talk to people much on the phone. I think people forget about you when you’re way out in the boonies. I’d love to go to some of these get-togethers they have. Socially awkward to say the least. It’s getting now it’s kind of hard for me to get around at my age. Maybe one of these days .…
“I found The New Yorker magazine in the [junior high school] library. I didn’t read the articles, I just looked at the cartoons. I thought they were just right, that’s what I’d like to do.”
Simon: Have you considered doing covers?
FC: I thought about it, but I have a lot of trouble with color. I can do black and white pretty well, but the color stuff that I’ve done—I used to do color illustrations for magazines from time to time, and I thought they were kind of stinkers. I used to do a lot of color stuff for Penthouse. I’d rather done black and white. I’m not really sure how to go about submitting a cover anyway, and don’t have any great ideas. I kind of have a lot of things going against me doing covers.
Simon: What drew you to The New Yorker to submit your work so consistently?
FC: When I was a kid in junior high school back when they called it junior high school, I found The New Yorker magazine in the library. I didn’t read the articles, I just looked at the cartoons. I thought they were just right, that’s what I’d like to do. When I was at the station, this guy I worked with—we had a two-man art department—he got mad and quit, and then we had a one-man art department, there’d be times I didn’t have anything to do, so he said, “Why don’t you send some of those stupid little drawings that you do and try sending them to magazines?” So I thought, why not? I credit him with getting me started doing this. But The New Yorker — I just always thought those were the best cartoons, so that’s how I got started with them.
Max: That’s interesting, that it’s that whole question of “Why not?”
FC: Why not? Might as well. [Laughter] That was always my favorite magazine.
Simon: What were some your favorite cartoonists as a kid, cartoon strips or anything like that?
FC: It’s funny, I never really cared for cartoon strips. I realized that some of those guys are really great artists, but … never did it for me. It was like single panel or nothing. If it was three panels or four panels, it seemed like if you had to go that long to get to the joke—I mean a lot of these could have been done in one panel I thought.
Simon: Bob Mankoff has made it clear that he did not want anything that had facial expressions that were reminiscent of the funnies.
FC: Yeah, I kinda caught on to that—you know, eyeballs popping out or tongues hanging out or lots of teeth, anything like that, or a smile that was way too big—they’re not going to buy that. I try to subdue it some, but I still get carried away, but I try to avoid that.
Simon: Do you still enjoy it?
FC: I do. I still enjoy working and I hope to keep at it. I don’t really have any hobbies or anything else to do [laughter], so why not?
Max: And you’re still popping out three a day. That’s amazing.
FC: I try to do three a day. Some of them have been stinkers here lately. I’ll go back to my file and see if there’s something there that could be reworked or if it was a decent idea that didn’t sell, try to rework that. That works sometimes and sometimes it’s just a waste of time, but I try to do a three day. Lately, I’ve been doing two and a half a day and coming back in the evening and finishing one up. I try to maintain that schedule. Some weeks it’s just no way, I just can’t, I’m just having a bad day. I’ll just maybe send in eight or nine.
Max: That’s still quite an output. It’s inspiring.
FC: Well, thank you. I haven’t inspired anybody here lately. I still try to crank them out. I think it was Jack Ziegler, he had a cartoon once where he was at his drawing table and he had like a roll of butcher paper up above his desk, and he was just apparently pulling down the stuff, and he said—I can’t remember exactly what it said—“Down here at the Laugh-a-Minute.” It was like a factory cranking them out. Sometimes that’s the way it feels, just have to keep going. Every now and then I’ll get up in the morning, sit down, and here I got a blank piece of paper and absolutely no idea whatsoever.
Simon: You’ve never used a gag writer, other than your wife I guess?
FC: She’s a good gag writer, she’s my inspiration—but no. I used to get a lot of envelopes from gag writers, they want to sell me something. I tried it make a nice rejection slip. I appreciate it, but I try to write my own stuff. Doesn’t always work, sometimes it does.
Max: Frank, you were very forthcoming about your Parkinson’s. How does that affect your drawing ability to draw?
FC: It slows down everything. It takes me longer to complete a task. Fighting with a piece of paper to get it taped down on my drawing board is not fun. I had to quit with the dip pen, but it’s mostly a resting tremor, considerable tremors, but when you move your hand—I think they describe it is if you move with purposeful movement—it diminishes. If I rub my fingers together, the tremor goes away pretty much. Still, I noticed that my lines are a lot shakier than they used to be. I think it makes for a better drawing. [Laughter] Somebody probably thinks I’m drunk or something, but I don’t think it hurts anything.
Max: It’s about the ideas. As long as the ideas are still there, and they obviously are because you’re still in The New Yorker with regularity.
FC: Well, I hope so. I don’t know how things will be with the new cartoon editor. We’ll just have to wait and see. But if that doesn’t work out, I’ll have to get a new file cabinet and file stuff away or sell them somewhere else.
Simon: We’re big fans and regardless of what we might say about a particular cartoon, the body of your work is absolutely the pinnacle.
FC: Well, I appreciate that. That’s the nicest compliment I’ve ever gotten.
Simon: Is there anything else you want to tell us, some area that we haven’t covered?
FC: It’s sad, but that’s about all there is. [Laughter] There’s not a whole lot. I sit on the back porch with my dog and mull things over in the evenings. We go to the hardware store and have a nice Italian restaurant on Union Avenue that we go to in Memphis, we do that every Saturday, and that’s pretty much it.
Simon: Nothing wrong with that.
Max: We’ll let you go get back to your life and get back to your wife. We don’t want her to get mad at you because we’re keeping you up too late. Anyway, again our thanks.
FC: Thank you. I certainly appreciate it.