All the funny ladies

In conjunction with an exhibit at The Society of Illustrators/Museum of Illustration on East 63rd Street, a panel of cartoonists, including, left to right, Roz Chast, Emma Allen and Liza Donnelly discussed the creative process behind their cartoons.
Exhibit chronicles The New Yorker’s female cartoonists


It was hearty humor that broke through the seemingly never-ending humidity that engulfed the city last week.

“Funny Ladies at The New Yorker: Cartoonists Then and Now” is a new exhibit at The Society of Illustrators/Museum of Illustration, on East 63rd Street between Lexington and Park Avenues. To kick off the exhibition, the museum hosted a panel discussion on July 26, featuring acclaimed women cartoonists from The New Yorker.

Veteran New Yorker cartoonists Roz Chast, Liana Finck, Carolita Johnson and cartoon editor Emma Allen joined Liza Donnelly, the exhibit’s curator, to talk about what it’s like being a cartoonist at The New Yorker, the creative process behind their cartoons, and why they love being a cartoonist.

Donnelly, herself a renowned cartoonist at the magazine, is the author of “Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons,” an anthology celebrating the magazine’s women cartoonists.

The New Yorker was founded in 1925 by journalist Harold Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, a reporter for The New York Times. Being a feminist and having a funny bone during the Roaring Twenties landed Ethel Plummer a plum role; she became The New Yorker’s first woman cartoonist and her work appeared in the inaugural issue.

So, what is it like to work at The New Yorker today?

“It’s a routine, there is a weekly schedule, and there’s a number of people who are on staff I guess ... basically, we don’t talk that much to other people,” quipped Roz Chast. “I spend a lot of time at my desk staring at a blank piece of paper. I jot down ideas during the week, things that seem funny, something I overheard, something that popped into my head, or just something weird that happened, and just play around with it.”

Cartoonists typically submit a “batch” of 5-11 cartoons weekly. Chast noted that the discipline of delivering each week allows for experimenting with different forms and feelings. “I tend to stay away from topical influences, like the news cycle because I always want everything I do to be relatable 50 years from now, relatable on a universal level,” she said. “In this day and age, what’s relevant on the news can change so quickly.”

Chast shared an exchange with her daughter that resulted in a cartoon titled, “When Moms Dance.” The cartoon depicts a mom dancing in front of her daughter, accompanied with the caption, “Stop. You’re hurting me.”

“I literally used that line from my daughter word for word!” said Chast.

“The captions come out of my own mouth,” said Carolita Johnson. “Before I was a cartoonist, I drove everybody nuts!”

“I’m like the empathetic sponge,” joked Emma Allen. “I know how incredibly difficult it is to work in isolation and come up with great ideas week after week.”

Allen further explained what it takes to shepherd a cartoon through to publication. “The metabolism of The New Yorker is not really structured to have lots of [lead] time. Cartoons undergo an incredibly rigorous editorial process. Our cartoons are copy edited, fact-checked and reviewed by general counsel. Usually a cartoon is deemed hot and won’t often see light of day for a year or more ... so it’s not really built for timeliness or to coincide with the news cycle.”

Liana Finck spoke about how cartooning anchors her and enables her “to do [other] things that she loves that are hard but not too hard” including authoring a graphic novel and freelance design illustration. Doodling is a part of her creative process — Finck photographs her doodles and posts them on Instagram. “They’re not always funny – they’re usually angry,” she said, eliciting a chuckle from the audience.

Like Finck, Chast also uses Instagram as an outlet for iteration. “With Instagram, I can play around with different things,” Chast said.

During the discussion, a slideshow of cartoons was presented, touching on a slew of themes based on a woman’s perspective, including relationships, weddings and, of course, shoes.

The exhibit runs through Oct. 13.