An Interview With New Yorker Cartoonist Carolita Johnson

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In this interview with Carolita Johnson, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, she shares about her experiences as a writer and an illustrator; side gigs she takes to keep the lights on; and her other long-running career in the fashion industry.

NWU: How are rights different for visual artists than they are for writers?  
CAROLITA JOHNSON: They’re not really that different. Writers can often make a better living than most cartoonists. Most writers at the New York Times don’t need a day job, for example. But most of the cartoonists at The New Yorker, from my generation, have to have another source of income. Some of the luckier ones among us write for TV; I’m not sure if that really qualifies as a day job or just a darn good gig. Others of us teach cartooning or illustration. One cartoonist told me about working at an STD clinic, and another made his living engraving tombstones. There are those who work in retail, and even a few who are doctors.

Even as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, I’ve had to work nights for a few months at a call center, selling season tickets to the Washington Philharmonic, I think it was. I also earn some of my income trying on clothes for patternmakers—as a junior medium—in Manhattan’s Garment District, which is pretty good work, but I’m getting too old for it, and will soon have to find something else. Anyway, that’s all to say that even the most successful cartoonists at the best publications can’t ever rely on their income from cartooning. Unless they live with their parents or have a rich spouse.

NWU: What’s different in creating a cartoon—which is a certain form of narrative—from writing an article? 
JOHNSON: The creation process is similar, unless it’s an article based on heavy research. Ideas come to you, you write them down to work on them later. What’s different is that cartoons are rarely edited once they’ve been submitted and bought. Maybe someone will say, “add more people,” or “that jacket should be buttoned on the other side because it’s a man,” but that’s pretty much it. Writing with an editor can be a long, painstaking process, but I enjoy the editor-writer relationship. There’s more interaction, which is kind of nice for someone like me who works alone in my room. My editor is my first audience, and I always appreciate her/him. I say “him/her,” although I’ve only had women editors so far.

NWU: How did you get into creating cartoons?
JOHNSON: Apparently I’ve always drawn cartoons! I’d forgotten this until my first new cartoon was published in 2003, and my old school friends came out of the woodwork with cartoons I’d drawn in class for their amusement. I even had a strip, called Snurfuls, about a shaggy dog, which my dad reminded me about. But I’d forgotten all about that by the time I came back from over a decade abroad traveling, trying lots of things, and just basically getting what they call, “a life.”

I spent most of that time in France, with six months in London at first, then six months in Madrid in the middle. I was modeling and had to travel for a month or two at a time to Milan or Tokyo. To renew my visa in France, I had to leave every three months and get my passport stamped, so I’d take a bus or train to Amsterdam or Madrid, where I had friends who’d let me crash for a weekend.

I would do any job I could get. For a while I did mosaics for a mosaic studio in Clichy, but got fired when my papers didn’t come through. Another time, I babysat an old lady on her caregiver’s day off—using her bathtub to wash my clothes and hair as soon as she fell asleep. I lived in a garret with no heat or hot water at the time. I typed 80,000 words a day for a translator for a couple years, until I got ganglion cysts. For all those years I had a gig twice a year at Jean-Paul Gaultier as a showroom model, the shortest one there. That put me through school, since my part time work never could have, and I made the money last for months at a time, living very modestly in varying degrees of Spartan comfort. I always say JPG was my college scholarship.

The second five years in, I spent at a French university. (In desperation I lied about my residence status, and for some reason they didn’t catch up to me until I was on the verge of a doctorate, which I really had no business pursuing anyway.) I was lucky that a few of my key teachers were impressed enough by my glamorous gig that they let me be absent for almost two weeks every semester. Although, I was also a very good student.

When I went back to New York, I was a studio manager for a photographer and later his wife, a big stylist at Italian Vogue. I worked as a hostess in restaurants in Paris and in New York, saving up for my first computer. Then I got a software-testing and network-installing job in Paris for two years. Here’s a piece on all the jobs I had.

So, when I came back to the States after 11 years, I met a New Yorker cartoonist. He encouraged me to try cartooning as a profession—something I’d never thought to do. He was also the first person I’d ever met who made a living from cartooning. To me he was like a mythical beast. I really liked him, and just wanted to go out with him. I didn’t even take the cartooning that seriously at that time, but I did think it would be good practice to submit 10 cartoons a week, raise my productivity, and learn to meet deadlines. I was surprised when I sold a cartoon in the fall of 2002.

NWU Did you go to school for it?
JOHNSON: No, my parents made me go to art school, but they wanted me to be a “commercial artist.” I took fashion design at Parson’s in New York City in rebellion. Then I studied Modern Letters  (comparative literature) in France. The fashion degree came in handy for my day job over a decade later. I don’t think there were cartooning courses in colleges back when I was in college, but there certainly are now. Tons of them, everywhere. I might even try to teach one myself.

NWU: Did you grow up reading The New Yorker?
JOHNSON: My parents are strictly right-wingers, not The New Yorker type, so I never heard of the magazine until I met the cartoonist who got me to do cartoons for them. We live together now and compare cartoons. We tell each other if we think the other’s cartoon is funny or not, but we’re not competitive. Sometimes, when only one of us sells a cartoon, the other will pay for lunch at Keens Steakhouse in Manhattan. It’s always great when we both sell. But more often than not, Michael (Crawford) sells and I don’t, or neither of us do. That’s when we both walk around the house griping for a while, and then we get back to work.

Once in a while, we switch cartoons for fun: I’ll redraw one of his, and he’ll redraw one of mine, just to see if it’ll sell that way, but so far no luck. Or sometimes I’ll give Michael an idea for a job if a client calls for lots of ideas. And sometimes he’ll help me with my perspective or architectural details, because I’m not good at those things. But as far as drawing goes, personally, I don’t like collaborating on drawings with people. I just don’t like drawings with mixed styles unless it’s purely for fun, like at a party or something.

I still mostly only read the cartoons in The New Yorker—ha ha—unless I’m on a long subway ride to the beach. Then I read the magazine from cover to cover, until the sun goes down. It’s a great publication.

NWU: What’s your favorite New Yorker cartoon from over the years?
JOHNSON: Gotta say that the first one that comes to mind is Barsotti’s “Fusilli, you crazy bastard!“, but I have other favorites, depending on the day. It’s too hard to choose just one. There are so many good ones. But I think almost every cartoonist you meet will point to “Fusilli, you crazy bastard!” as at least one of their favorites.

NWU: How do you work? What’s your work space like?
JOHNSON: For cartoons, I work on letter-size paper. I do my rough drawings on resume paper, so that if there’s any rush, they can be used as final drawings. Unless I’m in a real rush, or low on ink or the proper materials, I draw my roughs almost as carefully as a “finish.” I only redraw if I’m not happy with the drawing. I use a lightbox only for reproducing a drawing that I think is perfect except for some major flaw that makes it need redrawing, otherwise I prefer to sketch in non-repro blue, then ink it in. I used to use water with a little ink in it for grays, but I discovered black watercolor when I noticed other cartoonists had much nicer shadows and black contrasts.

My workspace consists of a drafting table and an office desk, but I can work with very little for cartooning. I write at my office desk, so I try to keep the computer there—away from the drafting table. That way I don’t get distracted while I draw. For writing, it’s easy not to get distracted. Once I start, I just forget everything.

NWU: What need does creating cartoons fulfill, and what need does writing articles fulfill? 
JOHNSON: I think I became much easier to get along with when I started doing cartoons for The New Yorker, mainly because all my observations and pet peeves were sublimated into funny or odd little cartoons, instead of complaints to my friends, family, the world. Cartooning is almost like emotional and behavioral therapy.

Writing is different. I’ve always tried to write, even as a child. I never could, though, until computers came along. I remember trying as a child, many times, but then giving up. My thought process is aided by the computer, by cut and paste, and by multiple records of the same story. The computer freed me from my writing handicaps. My typing is fast, lets me keep up with my disorganized thoughts. And words are very important to me. I don’t just love putting them together or seeing beautiful sentences; I need to do this. So writing is just an outgrowth of a love of reading and writing, really. I was a big reader as a kid, and I’m an even bigger reader now. I think I’d write no matter what.

NWU: Will you continue to do both, do you think, given that conditions for writers are not as good? 
JOHNSON: I think the wording of that question proves that writers have no idea how good they have it! Or at least how just-as-not-good things are in the other creative professions. Cartoonists do not have it “as good” as writers, or vice versa. Sure, as a New Yorker cartoonist, I’m one of the few privileged cartoonists who work under a decent contract, with my copyright intact, and my work respected.  However, cartoonists in general do not have it good at all. We’re asked to work for free just as writers are. And cartoons are just unpaid-for spaces in magazines and newspapers, and more and more they’re being dropped from publications. I even pretty much had to persuade a local newspaper to take my cartoons for free! It’s a point of pride for me to be in my local paper, but unpaid print space is tight.

As long as I find things funny in life, I’ll sit down and draw cartoons about them, as a matter of desire and habit. I can’t really stop myself. I do my own webcomic sometimes, for free. (Oscarinaland.com). And I like to illustrate my own essays. So, yeah, I’d continue to do both until some philanthropic urge possesses me to go dig ditches in a third world country, or feel I can be more useful doing something else. But for now, this is my contribution to the world.

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