Simon: Hi, Mick. How’s life in Miami Beach?
Mick Stevens: Good, good.
Simon: I want to start by asking you about your email address, which includes the phrase “I really should be drawing.” Why did you pick that?
Mick: It was just something that came into my mind because I’m always distracted by stuff and I really should be working.
Simon: What distracts you?
Mick: Music, my own thoughts occasionally, although you can use those apparently. Mostly I’m tempted to go play music all the time, Music always takes a back seat, though, to cartooning.
Max: We know you’re an accomplished tenor sax player. I’m fascinated by the idea of inspiration, whether for music or art. Is there a time when you sit down and go into that fugue-like state?
Mick: I don’t have a definite time, but I sit down probably three times during the day when I’m really at it. If I’ve had some good luck and I have several ideas in the box I’ll say, “Okay, you can go practice.”
Max: Is that your reward?
Mick: Yes, I give myself permission. I work almost every day, including weekends.
Max: Do you jot down some ideas or do you just store them away in the brain pan?
Mick: The brain pan is getting a little perforated apparently. Actually I’m pretty much always thinking about ideas, and the antennae are always out. I’ll get ideas in the proverbial shower or when I’m swimming—I do a lot of swimming. In conversation with other people, things that happen in the coffee shop or in the restaurant—it’s always fair game out there. I jot down ideas or put them on the trusty iPhone.
Simon: Do people ever look at you in social situations and say, “Are you with us or are you thinking about cartooning, because I don’t feel like you’re totally engaged”?
Mick: I get that a lot from my girlfriend, who is my muse-in-chief. When I space out at parties I don’t think anybody notices. In social situations maybe something will come up and it’ll trigger an idea. Because I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s just part of my life now so much that I’m automatically thinking that way.
Simon: It sounds like you have the ideas and then go to the drawing board, but you’ve also said sometimes you’ll just start doodling and come up with an idea.
“Jules Feiffer once told me, ‘90% of what we do is shit.’ That was good advice.”
Simon: Do you doodle when you don’t have an idea?
Mick: Usually I don’t, but I do sometimes. My friend Peter Steiner told me once, when you feel like you’re in the middle of an idea drought, just get the pen moving on the paper and see what happens. I’ll draw a fish in a bowl, or a whale (Moby Dick is one of my favorite clichés.) I’ll doodle a taco truck maybe, put a different sign on it or put a different guy or an animal or object and see where that goes.
Jules Feiffer once told me, “90% of what we do is shit.” I said, “Your 10% is a little bit better than my 10%.” It was good to know that even a master of the form like Jules felt that way. The thing is not to put too much pressure on yourself. You don’t sit down in front of a blank piece of paper and say, “I’ve got to make something out of this.”
Another bit of advice I got was that paper is cheap, which actually isn’t true in my case because I buy this great paper I like which is a bit more expensive. I try not to get too tense, and keep my distance from the deadline if you can. I don’t usually get crushed. Usually I’m working ahead of schedule.
Max: We know that Jack Ziegler influenced your work. Tell us a little about that.
Mick: I became aware of Jack’s work when I lived in San Francisco in the ’70s. I was drawing cartoons for cartoon strips and doing magazine cartoons. I was not selling these things, but I was working on projects all the time.
It turns out, this was during the time of the underground comics explosion. There was some influence there. There was also influence from Hap Kliban, who did some famous cat cartoon books. He was also obviously influenced by the underground. He was more of a Playboy cartoonist. I knew some of the underground guys and I tried to be an underground cartoonist, but that didn’t work. I couldn’t do it. I guess I was too straight to be an underground cartoonist.
Jack Ziegler later told me he was living in San Francisco then, walking on the same streets, but I never met him. A friend of mine, another wannabe cartoonist, and I discovered Jack’s book, “Hamburger Madness”, in a bookstore one day. As soon as we saw that, we both just went right to the drawing board and started copying Jack Ziegler as best we could.
I wasn’t too proud of that at the time, because I wanted to be more original, but copying is part of the learning process. As a musician I have been advised by other players to steal everything you can. I found that out much later, but now I’m not as embarrassed about what I did. My work did look a lot like Jack’s at first, using the box title above or below the drawing, for instance. I just loved that departure from the standard form for captioning.
Simon: Once you began working for The New Yorker, how did your relationship with Jack Ziegler develop? Did you talk to him about how he influenced you?
“You couldn’t beat Jack [Ziegler] for being crazy.”
Mick: I was very worshipful and he was very dismissive of that. He said, “Let’s go get a beer,” basically. We became really good friends when I finally moved to New York and I started selling to the magazine. There was this Wednesday meeting for the cartoonists with the cartoon editor, at that time, Lee Lorenz. It was very closed doors, very hard to get in there. Once you got in, you had a shot. Roz Chast was there, Bob Mankoff when he was just starting out as a cartoonist and Peter Steiner and several others. We would all go out to lunch after the meeting. Pretty soon it came down to me and Jack. The rest of them drifted off to more sensible pursuits.
Jack and I continued to play pool and drink beer all afternoon and into the evening. I was living downtown, splitting a loft with this artist friend of mine. One night Jack and I were both pretty smashed I think, and I said, “I’ve got to go. I’ve got to get on the subway.” He said, “You can’t take the subway. It’s too dangerous. You better drive home with me.” We ended up in his Volkswagen van. He drove very well, amazingly. That night we started a regular thing where I would come up to his house to visit. I would spend a weekend up there in New Milford, Connecticut. I kind of became his kids’ crazy uncle for a while. Of course, Dad was crazier than the crazy uncle. You couldn’t beat Jack for being crazy.
Max: I believe it. When you’re describing your life in New York and in San Francisco, people wonder how can these cartoonists made a living. Tell us about your day job in San Francisco.
Mick: I had several day jobs, even after I started getting published in The New Yorker because you only get that one check and it doesn’t stretch far between sales. In San Francisco, I ended up at Rolling Stone magazine doing paste-up and layout work. I was also drawing cartoons all the time, getting ideas for strips and sending them off and getting rejected. Then, eventually, when I moved to New York, it turned out Rolling Stone was getting ready to move to New York too. It was totally coincidental. By that time I was working part-time for them. When I moved to New York I needed work. I ended up going back to Rolling Stone part-time, doing layout work and so forth. I worked as a cameraman there for a time—an inside cameraman, not the outside-taking-pictures guy, but the guy who processed the pictures in the darkroom and gave them half tone treatment to made them publishable.
Max: That was very thoughtful of Jann Wenner to support your career as a cartoonist.
Mick: He was a peach. He walked through my space with his entourage one day when I was working there, and I had drawings lying around. At that time I had a job where I was isolated in a little box of a room. He walked through my box and he saw these pictures. He told Robert Kingsbury, the art director then, “Try this guy out on a couple of things.” I ended up doing some illustration work as well, mostly for a Charlie Perry, a very funny writer. He called himself “Smokestack El Ropo”. Most of his writing was about drugs. My cartoons were a good match.
Simon: During your pre-New Yorker period, what were some of the publications that your cartoons appeared in?
Mick: There was a little left-leaning weekly in San Francisco, The Bay Guardian. They also had some books out, and I illustrated them as well. Let’s see, what else? I did some free-lance animation for Sesame Street. I had a lot of non-cartooning jobs along the way. I pumped gas, believe it or not. You should have that in your resume, right?
Max: I think that’s part of it.
Mick: I drove people to the airport. I was totally unqualified. I had some real adventures with that. Just kept body and soul together, or at least body.
“About 12 of my jokes ended up in Charles Addams’ cartoons.”
Simon: Your first acceptance in The New Yorker wasn’t even a cartoon. They took a look at your cartoons and had another artist draw your gags, right?
Mick: It was back in the day when all the giants like Charles Addams were there. In those days, and especially earlier, it was all about their art and about their style of drawing. I thought everybody did their own work, everybody did their own writing, and so forth. It turns out they bought stuff from gag writers and other cartoonists and then furnished their house artists with those. I ended up doing jokes. About 12 of my jokes ended up in Charles Addams’ cartoons. Really surprised me.
Max: But without attribution.
Mick: I guess that’s why I didn’t know about the procedure. They didn’t publicize it. I don’t know if that was a sensitive area or not. It’s just that’s the way they did it.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Mick Stevens Interview.