Max: Hey, Frank, do you run into many New Yorker cartoonists down there in Memphis?
Frank Cotham (FC): I don’t think I’ve ever met one. [laughter] can’t remember when the last time I ever saw a New Yorker cartoonist was, so it’s probably been years.
Simon: I guess you don’t have much need to go to The New Yorker’s offices.
FC: The last time I was at The New Yorker’s office is probably – I don’t know – 15 or 20 years ago. I’ve only been, I think, maybe two or three times. I haven’t been to the new office, so this was still in Times Square when I went there. Anyway, it’s been a while, and I’m not much of a traveler – and my wife is even worse.
Max: Oh, that’ll explain it.
Simon: So you submit every week by email?
FC: Yes, I used to always do it through the mail, which is how I got started there, sending stuff in every week, and then it was by fax, and now it’s all email.
“I’d send a batch every week, 10 to 12 cartoons every week. Yeah, it was 15 years or more before they finally bought one.”
Simon: Did you have much communication with Bob Mankoff, other than “here’s my batch for the week”?
FC: That’s pretty much it. Usually my little cover note with the attachment that I send says, “Cartoon submissions for this week, thanks.” [laughter] And that’s it. And, I think I talked to him by email a few weeks ago, can’t remember what it was about, and that was probably the first time I’d spoken or communicated with him in like three years. I send the stuff in, and he buys it or it doesn’t buy it. I’m not much of a conversationalist, so I guess he doesn’t bother.
Max: You sure get published a lot.
FC: Well, I can’t explain that. I don’t know how that happened.
Simon: I read that you had submitted to The New Yorker every week for 15 years before you got your first cartoon published. Is that right?
FC: Yes, that’s true. I think it was probably even longer than that, come to think of it. I’d send a batch every week, 10 to 12 cartoons every week. Yeah, it was 15 years or more before they finally bought one, and I just knew it was a mistake – it couldn’t be right.
Simon: It sounds like you submitted somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 cartoons before your first one caught their eye.
FC: That sounds about right. I’ve looked back at some of those sent in and they were just horrible. Surprised they ever bought anything, surprised I wasn’t just written off right at the beginning.
Simon: But what kept you motivated to submit every week after all that rejection?
FC: I’m an awful creature of habit. Every Friday I would get a batch of cartoons together, no matter what, and send them in. And I started selling cartoons pretty quickly – I guess, maybe not that quickly – it was probably about two years or so, and The Saturday Review bought one, and then, like in a couple of weeks, Saturday Evening Post, they bought some. So I started selling those to other magazines. I had worked at the TV station and did this, like part-time.
Simon: You were doing graphics for the news department for, what, 13 years?
FC: Yeah, back when they used to do it all by hand, and it was such crap, looking back on that stuff [laughter]. It was a nice place to work, nice people, but boy we did some awful stuff.
Simon: Are you trained as an artist?
FC: I don’t know if you’d call it training or not. I got a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Memphis, which has been absolutely useless. I had an art job right out of college; I went to work for – this is unbelievable, too – at the Mississippi public television network, and the guy who was in charge of that had a pretty good size art department. He was my TV graphics instructor at Memphis State, so that’s how I got the job. I got paid like $600 a month and no benefits, no nothing. You go rent your room someplace in some dump and that was about it. It was a terrible job, but they had really a nice facility there; they got some kind of a grant. Anyway, when the new governor found out about it, they kinda closed it all down – cut the staff.
Simon: You were also doing work for Penthouse back then.
FC: I did a lot of work for Penthouse when I left the TV station. They pretty much kept me in business ‘cause the other magazines didn’t pay much. Penthouse paid better than most, and they gave me a lot of work. I did a lot of features and stuff and sold stuff to Omni, which was one of their magazines. And I worked for Bill Lee. I don’t know if you are familiar with him or not. He was a quite a character. [Laughter].
Simon: He was the art director?
FC: Yeah, yeah, he would call with, “I need you to send in some sketches for a cartoon feature for, say, Thanksgiving or Fourth of July.” [The] holidays would roll around and I’d dread them because I’d know what was coming. He’d want to see like 25 sketches in the morning, so I’d stay up all night and he’d maybe buy 10 or 12, and he said we’re going to need them in the morning, so I’d stay up all night to do the finishes.
Simon: Was there a lot of “figure drawing” involved in those cartoons?
FC: Yes, well, I’m not too proud of the stuff that I did. [laughter] My wife is a public accountant. She said that you have your morality on one hand and have accounts receivable on the other [laughter].
Max: Your wife sounds like she has quite a sense of humor.
FC: She does, she has a great sense of humor, and I got lots of ideas from her. She’s really great. We’ve been married 45 years this year.
Max and Simon: Congratulations!
FC: Thank you, thank you. We were 12 years old when we started dating. We’ve known each other since childhood. She’s great.
Max: We really enjoy your cartoons, but I’m curious—how is it that you’ve come to latch onto these siege warriors and Attila the Huns and all these other wonderful, dreadful characters?
FC: I’m not really sure. I just like drawing guys with long beards. I show the people sitting on the porch of the house; I don’t know why I do that either. I just sit down and start doodling. But they’ll maybe a medieval type cartoon or the people sitting on the old house steps, and I’ll send that in, just maybe one of those, and they’ll be nine other cartoons, but it’ll be the medieval one that they buy, or the people sitting on the porch. They’ve got to be getting tired of them by now.
Max: No, they’re not, because they published another one not long ago.
Simon: It’s not just a couple on a porch. These are very specific characters on a specific porch of a specific ramshackle shack.
FC: My father was from Hog Creek, Tennessee. It’s like maybe 90 miles away. He escaped by joining the Navy in 1939. And a picture of my great-great-grandparents, and that’s them [the couple on the porch]. I mean he’s got the long beard, and I’m not sure if she has any teeth or not. [laughter]. I’d say this picture was taken about 1880 or ’85, judging from the clothes. My father has taken me back to Hog Creek to see where he grew up – his grandfather raised him – and most of those old places were torn down a long time ago, but I can see where they stood. He showed me where the house stood that he grew up in; just some bricks from the foundation were all that was left.
“I have a blank piece of paper, I have no idea. I have a TV here; I usually have CNN on, just listen to the babble and I come up with something that way.”
Simon: One follow-up question: When you first started getting published in The New Yorker, was Lee Lorenz the Cartoon Editor?
FC: Yes, he was. I met him at a photo shoot in 1997 of all the cartoonists, and that was the only time I ever met him in person. Back then I mailed my stuff in, and suddenly I started noticing that on the edges of some of the cartoons there was an indentation of where a paperclip had been attached it. I got real hopeful. I thought, well, maybe they were considering this, and then I thought maybe this is something about, “Don’t buy from this guy.” But it wasn’t long after that they did buy one. I was surprised.
Simon: Did Lee Lorenz or anyone say, “You know, this one we’re buying is noticeably better than the other 10,000 before”? Any explanation at all?
FC: No, once during that 15 years or so I sent a little note along with cartoons. I said I’m sending this stuff for years and years—don’t seem to be getting anywhere. The note came back and said, “Sorry, nothing seems to click.” That’s all you got to say after all this work? [Laughter]
Max: We’re all glad your persistence paid off. You were describing drawing your shack, and one of our theories is that there are a couple different schools of cartoonists—one who writes the gag and does the drawing and then the other one that does the drawing and then comes up with the caption.
FC: I do it either way. Sometimes somebody will say something, and I think I can tweak that a little bit and it’ll sound pretty stupid, and then I’ll come up with a drawing to match it. Sometimes it’s the other way around. I don’t have a clue. I have a blank piece of paper, I have no idea. I have a TV here; I usually have CNN on, just listen to the babble and I come up with something that way. So it works for me; it works either way with me.
Simon: I was going to ask how your workday goes typically.
FC: Well, I’m usually pretty regimented and pretty much stick to a routine. I try to do three cartoons a day. I make them pretty finished. I know that I can actually do a finish, and if they don’t buy it I will send it as is to the next magazine on the list. Lately the next magazine is Barron’s. That’s pretty much it, that’s about all I can manage. It’s been a little bit difficult lately. I’ve had Parkinson’s for years, and I’ve had to change the way I work. I used to use a dip pen, but now hitting the bottle of acrylic ink is sort of hit or miss, so I’ve had to switch to Micron pens, so I have to allow myself a little more time. Instead of knocking off at five I might come back like in the evening and finish up, maybe work some on the weekends. Sunday afternoons in Bartlett, Tennessee are I mean dead. There is nothing to do. I’ve been to the mall out here and walking that mall for 20 years. I’m so sick of it I just might as well just work.
Simon: You use watercolor crayon a lot, is that right?
FC: Yeah, it gets kind of a murky texture that I kinda like. I kinda stumbled on it. I tried using just regular watercolors out of a pan, but it was just like a big mess; I couldn’t control it. This method makes it a little easier to control.
Simon: It is a unique look, and your cartoons are easily identified with you.
Max: Especially when I see that helmet.
FC: Yeah, I got some of these old drawings out, and I can see that I could probably send the same one over and over again and just change the caption. Someone would probably notice and say, “Will you stop sending this stupid cartoon?” [Laughter]
“I have one that I think, this is a real knee-slapper, they’re not gonna pass on this, and they’ll pick the one that I think is the worst one in the batch.”
Simon: You wouldn’t be the first cartoonist who’s done that.
FC: [Laughter] I got a couple of file cabinets of cartoons going back to the mid-‘70s, and some of them are just crap. I can’t believe I sent this to somebody. I used to work when I sent stuff out by mail late at night on Fridays, and I must have gotten kind of loopy or something late at night. I’d send the most inappropriate stuff to Consumer Reports magazine you would send to Penthouse. [Laughter]
Simon: Like a lot of cartoonists, you have a lot of rejections. Are they just sitting in a file cabinet?
FC: Yeah, they’re still here. I’ve got most everything that didn’t sell. I probably still got it in the file cabinet here or in cardboard storage boxes in the attic.
Simon: Do you have a sense of which cartoons The New Yorker will accept?
FC: That’s something I’ve never been able to predict. I have one that I think, this is a real knee-slapper, they’re not gonna pass on this, and they’ll pick the one that I think is the worst one in the batch.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Frank Cotham.