Continued from part 1 of Mick Stevens interview.
Simon: How many cartoons did you submit before they accepted the wonderful “Life Without Mozart” cartoon of yours, which was published around 1980?
Mick: It was probably three years before I sold my first cartoon. The last year of that period, I sold ideas. They would pay around $250 for the idea, which was more than some people paid for a cartoon. As far as making a living, it’s still tough. When I was back in San Francisco, I described to a friend of mine what I did, and he said, “It sounds like half a job. It’s not a real job.” He was a businessman and a cartooning career made no sense to him at all. [Laughter]
Max: I can understand that. It’s hard to convey these lifelong passions. For you, it started early in life. Can you tell us a little about how you became a cartoonist?
Mick: My first drawing was when I was about five or six years old. I used to sit on the floor and draw on the cover of magazines. I would add my own little palm trees. My parents eventually decided that I should have a proper drawing pad.
A few days before my first day of first grade, the schoolhouse burned down. We had this one schoolhouse in our little town and it burned down, which brought great joy to my heart. [Laughter] It was a big event. Everybody went up to see the smoldering remains of the schoolhouse. I was in the back of our family car, drawing, because I had a pencil with me. My first drawing was of the remains of schoolhouse, with a lot of horizontal lines and wisps of smoke.
Max: A dramatic scene!
“I was obviously a little unhappy with my world. I wanted that alternative.”
Mick: I used to identify with cartoon characters. I did that Sunday morning thing where they had the newspaper, and the whole family’s in the front room, and mom was cooking pancakes in the kitchen, and I’m on the floor with the comics page. I just got so lost in it. I wanted to be those little cartoon guys, I wanted to live in their world.
I was obviously a little unhappy with my world. I wanted that alternative. We didn’t have a really happy family life. It got worse and worse and I ended up going into the Navy instead of college. I did a lot of drawing for the Navy and for publications associated with the Navy. I got along pretty well with people, but I wasn’t a very good military person. So once again, drawing saved me. They gave me a pass on a lot of stuff because I was funny and I drew pictures.
When I was about nine years old, I had a deck of playing cards that had Disney characters on them. I drew copies—I didn’t trace—the pictures of all the characters, Pluto and all the others. I sent them off to Walt Disney personally because I felt like we were pretty close. We used to watch him on TV on Sunday nights. I wanted to study at the knee of Walt, become his assistant and climb the ladder to success and be the next Walt Disney. Everybody gave me so many compliments on my drawing that I thought, “I’m really great and he’ll see that.” I guess it was probably two months later I got a rejection slip from the Disney people.
Max: Probably the biggest regret of Walt’s life.
Mick: I remember the letter. “Dear Mick, I’m so damn sorry, buddy.” At the end it seemed like he said, “But seriously, screw you, Mick.” [Laughter]
Simon: There was another side to Walt.
Mick: He wasn’t as nice as people thought.
Max: So much for warm and fuzzy.
Simon: Tell us about some of the active New Yorker cartoonists who you like and why you like them.
Mick: Almost everyone’s work appeals to me on one level or another. Some drawings appeal to me and some drawings don’t, but I always respect the fact that those people are doing what they’re doing. Except for Walt Disney. [Laughter]
Max: Is there anybody on the scene now that you feel either is stretching the bounds of the form or is in some way unique? Sometimes there’s the smooth path and then some take the bumpier path. Is there anybody you think that’s really sticking out for being different?
Max: Ah, Edward Steed, our young British cartoonist.
Mick: Yeah. He’s the wildest of the bunch —the contrast between the humor and the gory pictures. For a lot of artists with a unique voice, you just don’t get them at first. You see their work and think, “What the hell is that?” Then their style starts to grow on you. Yeah, I think Steed’s great.
I really like some of the newer people who are drawing “naïve” stuff. it’s not that they can’t draw, they’re trying to tear a cartoon down to the basics. In any case, I find it charming, like Liana Finck’s work. It’s like you’re in her brain. I think she’s like Roz [Chast] in that respect. It’s her own very personal world and she’s sharing it. I like that.
Simon: Are you familiar with a non-New Yorker cartoonist, Lynda Barry?
Mick: Yes, I remember she was in a lot of what we called “underground”.
Simon: She also has a somewhat naive style. She relies on a lot of autobiographical narrative in her work.
Mick: I haven’t really gotten into the graphic novel form. I couldn’t go in that direction, most of my multi-panel stuff turn out to be autobiographical and wordy – not really the way I want to go.
Simon: Do you think your cartoons reflect something about you?
Mick: Probably. I feel my voice is distinct and you can recognize a Mick Stevens cartoon from the drawing alone.
“I tried to get away from the cartoon clichés, but they just sink back in.”
Mick: My gags are based on the cartoon clichés. A lot of them are jokes that someone else might have done, but I channel them through my style. It’s basically cartooning 101. In some ways I’m too close to my own work to really see it in a greater perspective.
Max: We just looked at Bob Mankoff’s [former New Yorker cartoon editor] revised cartoon cliché list and it’s ballooned up to 192 themes.
Mick: I tried to get away from the cartoon clichés, but they just sink back in. They just won’t go away, like I’m a slave to these things. I thought, “I’ll just use them ironically.” You can’t really tell the difference. The attempt might be ironic, but basically the reader doesn’t see the irony. It’s just another cartoon about a whale. You know the evolving fish cartoon?
Mick: I finally got to the point where I said, “I’m going to draw the last one, this is the last one.” I had an evolving fish coming up and a big banner that read “Welcome, 10 Millionth Evolving Fish.” I thought, “That’s it, I’m done,” and they bought that cartoon, which encouraged me to do more of them.
Simon: Of course.
Mick: I can’t get that evolving fish out of my head. It’s always swimming through here. Moby Dick, a little fish in a fish bowl. I’m a Pisces; that’s probably it.
Max: And your Navy experience too, of course.
Mick: Yes, my naval exploits.
Simon: Can you tell which cartoons The New Yorker is likely to buy?
Mick: No idea. I just put together whatever I can every week, send it in, and hope for the best. Sometimes the one that sells will be one that I consider one of the weaker cartoons in the batch. Often, like with the 10 millionth fish and a few others, I thought, “Good, they bought that one.” First it’s “Good, I got a sale,” and then it’s “Which one did they buy?” and “How come only one? How about two?” [Laughter]
Simon: Do they ever hold your cartoons for a long time after they buy it before publishing it?
Mick: Yes. There’s been some that never came out that they have in what they call “the bank”. It’s only a couple instances like that, for me anyway.
Max: And you’re still sending them in.
Mick: Yeah, every week.
Max: What do you think about the change of the guard? Have you met Emma Allen, the new cartoon editor?
Mick: I’ve been up to New York a couple of times, but I’ve never actually met her. We have a fairly lively back and forth by email. She’s very lighthearted, smart, and funny.
Max: I would imagine those traits would be prerequisites for the job.
Mick: I would say so. Bob has a great eye for cartoons. I think she’s developing one too.
Max: Are you still in touch with Bob Mankoff?
Mick: Yeah, I talk to him sometimes, just an occasional email back and forth. He’s at Esquire now.
Simon: We’re looking forward to seeing what he does there.
Mick: We called him “The [pronounced ‘thee’] Bob” for a long time. I don’t know if he was aware of that.
Simon: Before we wrap up, I want to ask about music and cartooning, and whether your music puts you in a frame of mind for cartooning. Is it another creative outlet that somehow complements your cartooning?
Mick: They do seem to complement one another, but I don’t know how. I approach music the way I approach cartooning, which is making up my own rules basically. There’s a big gap in my musical education. You saw the Greg Fishman book that I illustrated [“The Lobster Theory”]. I took a lesson or two from him, but it was very difficult for me to do that. He has a great line of books, some instructional books, little etudes, and so forth. I practice on those, which is helping a lot. I’ve had three or four teachers and either they or I have given up. I just don’t understand or I don’t speak their language.
The music keeps my mind active, and then when I get to the drawing board it’s running. Music and cartoons are similar in some respects, having your own voice.
Simon: We really enjoy your work, Mick. Thank you for your time.
The Cartoon Companion invites its readers to check out the Gallery for never-before-seen Mick Stevens cartoons.