Art Versus Commerce: Q&A with Author-Cartoonist Bob Eckstein

Image: Bob Eckstein

In this interview, Bob Eckstein discusses art vs. commerce, newspaper/magazine cartoons vs. television as communication delivery systems, the influence of just the right validation, and much more.

Bob Eckstein (@BobEckstein) is a New York Times best-selling author, an award-winning illustrator, New Yorker cartoonist, and the world’s leading snowman expert. He was nominated Gag Cartoonist of the Year twice by the National Cartoonist Society. His work has appeared worldwide, and he was a columnist for many publications like New York Newsday and TimeOut New York and was a regular contributor for The Village Voice, New York Times, New York Daily News, National Lampoon, SPY, PlayboyMAD, and many publications worldwide. He has spent the past years speaking publicly and writing OpEds against online shopping and raising awareness for independent bookstores.

Atlas Obscura calls him a national treasure. His new book is Everyone’s A Critic: The Ultimate Cartoon Book by the World’s Greatest Cartoonists and The Illustrated History of the Snowman.

He lives in New York City and teaches writing and drawing at New York University.

KRISTEN TSETSI: With a skill like yours and the availability of things to sketch on and with, it seems like it could be a challenge to not sketch all the time the same way people, with the ease and availability of smart phone cameras, take pictures so frequently that morning show people tell us to put down the phone, live the moment rather than seeing it through a bright screen.

Do you ever find it hard to sit and absorb rather than take out a drawing or writing instrument?

BOB ECKSTEIN: I love your question, but it’s actually not the case at all. Not that I don’t love my work, but I am never doodling for fun or drawing for recreation as I have so many assignments and clients patiently waiting for work from me.

Like that old episode of I Love Lucy with the conveyor belt in the chocolate factory, my deadlines are relentless and if I’m drawing it’s with a purpose.

There have been times when I presented myself with a day off and went outside with oil paint and did something, but even then the end results turned out to be for a book cover. I think I did it in response to criticism that I work mostly on computer. I work in traditional materials every so often to prove to myself I’m not a fraud, or something.

The advancement of technology has been helpful in addressing the new time demands of my clients, but I see it just as my evolving toolbox and it hasn’t changed the frequency or infrequency that I draw and work. Listening and absorbing has always been a big part of getting ideas (and jokes), and I think my attention span for that remains the same.

I love what you say (in a PBS segment featuring you at the Miami Book Fair) about the magical metamorphosis that takes place somewhere in the space and time between one of your cartoons being shown to someone privately and the same cartoon being published:

When I do cartoons, I can show it to a friend, or my wife, and she’ll say, “Oh, it’s okay…,” but when it gets printed in The New Yorker, all of a sudden, “Wow, that’s funny!” All of a sudden, it changes its status.

My husband and I were just talking about that phenomenon, and he reminded me of an episode in the final season of Seinfeld. Elaine, who can’t figure out why everyone around her is calling a New Yorker cartoon brilliant, meets with the New Yorker editor under the guise of wanting to find cartoonists for the J. Peterman catalog. Finally, she gets around to demanding an explanation of the cartoon, but the editor can’t give one. He has no idea what it means—he just liked the art.

What are your thoughts about the power of publication (or production) by the right entity to persuade many us to believe—right or wrong—“Yes, this is wonderful”? 

Ahh, the evil of validation. While I did say that, and I believe it true, I do think it’s unfair.

Ideally, we would all be able to follow that advice of, Write for yourself. Make cartoons that make YOU laugh. Etc. Life is not like that. It’s about the response of others and the New Yorker is, wrongly, the touch of God that tricks us into thinking that because it’s in those hallowed pages it must be comedy gold.

Now, I have always followed one bit of advice that echoes in my head, and it’s that as a writer or illustrator or cartoonist your number one job description is to communicate properly your idea. Being self-indulgent is for fine artists.

So I’m not suggesting one work in a vacuum, but I’m with Elaine on this one. Good for you if you got published in the New Yorker or New York Times, but that’s not the end-all measurement of the worthiness of your writing or how funny you are. At least that’s what my mom told me.

Regarding communicating properly—and at the risk of this sounding like a silly question, please know I take punctuation seriously—what are your feelings about the general use, misuse, overuse, or underuse of the exclamation point? This question is inspired by a recent post in my Facebook feed in which a man survived what should have been a fatal heart incident, and to which someone responded:


I love to discuss this as I DO think I know something about this.

Correspondence with friends should be not held to the same standards as writing for mass consumption. It’s ridiculous. I even allow for bad publication. Friends don’t judge friends.

Now, if you want to have an argument over whether or not your Facebook friends are really your friends, that’s a whole other discussion. But I say, exclamation marks can be used to reflect the personality of that friend to their heart’s content, or the heart at least stabilized in the case you cited.

Now, for professional writing, you better have a good reason to use this punctuation, and it should surface only when absolutely necessary, like when the quote is being screamed like, “Throw me a flotation device!”

You say in an interview at Cartoon Collections that choosing to be a cartoonist wasn’t the smartest business move, that professionally, in the cartoonist hierarchy, you’ve grown “Zero.” You also say, though, that you don’t put in the work it would require to be what you call a top tier cartoonist because you’re busy doing other things.

As examples of those things, you recently spent a busy few days live-drawing the Miami Book Fair, participating in a podcast, appearing on TV, and giving a talk.

If you were to decide being your definition of a “top tier” cartoonist were your priority, how much would you have to give up to allow yourself the time to work toward it, and what would you miss most about what you’d be losing?

Ooo, these questions have some bite to them. I like it. I forgot I said that, but can clarify what sounds, to my ears, as a little flippant.

It’s true I don’t put in as much focus as it requires to be an excellent humorist. My day is filled with too many meetings and such which my other projects require. I contend when one finishes a book that’s when the real work begins, and I do what’s necessary to create exposure for a new title.

I am being disrespectful to the profession of cartooning if I have the arrogance to think spending a few hours a week on it is enough. And I’m disappointed when I hear others who think they are weekend cartoonists. It’s disrespect. I don’t say I’m a weekend heart surgeon. I’m certainly not going to improve that way, either, without the devotion to the craft.

But with so many great venues for cartoons now gone, like Playboy and MAD, it is a bit foolish not to shift my attention to where I can reach the most amount of people. At this moment, that is me public speaking (often for one of the issues I feel strongly about, like raising awareness for independent bookstores) or books.

In the same interview at Cartoon Collections, you say your interest in cartooning came late. What were you interested in before that, and what is “late”? What’s a typical age, and what inspired your first cartoon (or cartoons?), if you recall?

I have found the cartoonist community to be warm and kind. I have become good friends with many. I have heard over and over how they drew cartoons as a kid, read comics and so forth.

I loved drawing as a kid, but I loved Sports Illustrated and did not follow cartoons. Never dreamed of doing them. Didn’t read the New Yorker except once in a blue moon.

I wanted to illustrate in magazines and took myself too seriously. I was writing humor on the side but wasn’t thinking cartoons until later. And that was on a dare from a friend who was a cartoonist, the great Sam Gross.

I started drawing gag cartoons when I was 45. That’s starting late. And I sincerely regret it. I goofed. But since I did, I have been trying to make up for lost time. I jumped all in trying to read every old New Yorker and studying cartoon books. I have now a pretty good knowledge of cartoons.

You answer some readers’ questions on Goodreads, and in one of them you credit the TV show The Odd Couple with having taught you humor and ultimately as being responsible for your career as a humorist. What was it about their humor in particular—versus that of Get Smart, say—that grabbed you? What did they teach you about humor writing? 

My answer could’ve been Get Smart. It just so happened it was the Odd Couple that was on the TV set. I didn’t vet the shows, but there were subconscious lessons there from comedies I loved, like the Mary Tyler Moore Show or shows that were too old for me, like All In The Family.

It was only much later could I tell you exactly what I learned when I studied old Bob & Ray tapes or every word George Carlin uttered, learning timing (yes, cartoons have timing) and tension and so forth. I learned a lot about humor as a kid watching The Odd Couple, but exactly what I’m not sure except that being funny was powerful and could get you attention. I learned I wanted to be funny.

How did you choose your signature—just Bob, underlined?

It began when signing snowman books. I stumbled across making my name into a smiling face. Later, when I started making cartoons, I used it as it was the simplest way to sign my name.

Can’t get more unpretentious than just bob.

You’re finishing a graphic novel, now, an 1850s diary about the search for Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, who by 1850 had been missing at sea—presumed dead, but not found—for four or five years. What attracted you to the story of Franklin? And whose diary is it?

It’s the diary of a fictional character in a fictional adventure that is based on the real facts surrounding one of the greatest Gothic mysteries in history, which until now wasn’t solved (the missing ships were recently located!).

That’s the set-up. The story is about the human condition, love, and all of our quests for validation. It’s a comedy and romance.

In a sit-down on the Weekly Humorist podcast Talkward, you discuss the adaptation of your book Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores into a TV series. You say the show doesn’t necessarily need to focus only on big-time bookstores but could also include new bookstores, or “bookstores that people should learn about.”

What do you look for in a bookstore before you decide people should learn about it?

There are many criteria that make a bookstore great, and the most important one is its ability to change one’s lives. In my book I found many people, both anonymous and well-known, sharing how a bookstore changed their life. In some cases it’s remarkable and heart wrenching.

What contributor story comes to mind immediately or is most memorable to you?

There’s many worthy of ‘the best story.’ The one I’ll pick today is a fun story told to me after the first book was published. This would make the sequel.

In the 1920s, a magician had a book event in a London bookstore and he made all the books disappear.

You participated in a Writer’s Digest Conference “pitch slam,” in which writers get five minutes to pitch their project to participating agents and publishers. It’s easy to assume someone as established as you are wouldn’t be nervous, but in an illustration you made of the experience, you write that your “stomach was tied up in knots.”

What made you nervous about it? Did you revise your pitch from one agent or publisher to the next?

I did not take my pitch seriously. I was trying to put myself in the shoes of the writers there. But I didn’t even take myself seriously.

In your question you said “as established as you.” I honestly don’t think of myself that way. I’m always wishing and fishing for validation and question whether I’m a fake or not. And I can tell you I’ve had frank conversations with big name people who told me they go through the exact same thing. I seldom get nervous at those things for that very reason. That I feel I have nothing to lose. And nothing to prove, because I haven’t accomplished anything in my eyes.

I sincerely hope I reach a point at which I am able to conquer my self doubt and look back and enjoy where I got. Or perhaps when that day comes I will stop working so hard, so it’s best I don’t have that sense of career satisfaction.

Specifically back to your question. Pitch Slam. It would be wrong for me to take someone else’s place there, so I was pretending and then got out of the way as fast as possible.

But I have crafted many book proposals, one-pagers for TV, made elevator pitches and pitches to publishers. I totally revise the pitch from person to person.

It begins with researching the person and learning the best you can what they need and then sizing up whether or not your pitch meets their needs. It’s all about fitting, and part of the game is finding a place who needs you.

Beginners make the mistake of thinking it’s all about being good and then take rejection personally. It’s all about finding your publishing match.

You say in this conversation with cartoonist Michael Maslin, “… the working business model [in publishing] is all about exposure,” or following up one publication with another and another.

How, if at all, has this affected how you approach your work artistically? If exposure weren’t so important, would you do anything differently?

There are considerations and factors to take into account if you are doing work for mass consumption. I have to be sensitive to a checklist of items.

This morning my agent was discussing with me any references in my new book which could be mistakenly construed as offensive, even when on the surface it seems nonexistent. That aspect alone, being politically correct, has meant changes across the board in my work.

I don’t want to say or admit I pander to readerships, but there is some of that in play. If I were working in a vacuum and didn’t try to meet the needs of the publications I work for, I’d probably just be doing oil paintings of landscapes with no messages and cartoons with biting commentary.

The venues for brave work, places like SPY, MAD, National Lampoon, have all gone to the magazine graveyard. Artists should express themselves any way they wish, but I choose to attempt to make a living from my work and there are compromises, whether I like it or not.

You also say in the Michael Maslin interview, “I like giving cartoons the weight they deserve.”

As someone who’s been so prolific in the cartoon genre, your primary or core passion might be assumed to be pairing words and illustrations. But you’re also interested in TV—two of your books (or more?) are in the process of being adapted for film, and in the interview, you say that if you lived close to cartoonist Michael Shaw, you could imagine meeting up to talk about collaborating on TV scripts.

What attracts you to TV writing that you don’t get from cartooning, and what should we understand about the weight cartoons deserve? We’ve all heard more than once the value of poetry—to capture a single, key moment, a fleeting experience, the depth of a feeling—and fiction—its ability to help people develop broader empathy or escape into worlds different from their own—but we don’t hear as much about the importance of cartoons. In fact, in my life, the only conversation I as someone outside of the cartoon industry have ever heard about cartoons, period, was on “Connecticut’s Cartoon County”, an episode of WNPR’s The Colin McEnroe Show.

I’m attracted to being heard and I’m attracted to being challenged. I love learning this new process of screenwriting and have being taking classes I find exhilarating. Understanding the best way to share a story has endless possibilities. And because I have so much to learn, I’m not bored.

I want to produce work that makes a difference, and right now that means embracing TV and giving it a whirl because there is really only one “theater” left for gag cartoons (and anyone arguing that online is the same is not being realistic—there are a couple of gag cartoonists with a sizable following, like Liana Finck, but the average cartoonist cannot make a living from posting online).

I remember comedian Pete Holmes waiting in the New Yorker Green Room when he started out as a gag cartoonist, and he announced to nobody, “You know, nobody knows who you are. We’re invisible.” And he went on to focus on TV.

I know other cartoonists like Demetri Martin felt the same frustration in that field, being unable to see the best work rise to the top and getting appreciated.

Decades ago gag cartoonists were stars. Jack Ziegler was on David Letterman, and many cartoonists were known to the public. And of course Gahan Wilson, Peter Arno, Charles Addams and many others were celebrities. Now the only ‘household name’ would be Roz Chast. That doesn’t help me and my cartoon friends.

So I created my series of cartoon collections to expand the forum and showcase the best work, but I’m not presumptuous enough to think I can change things around. I have to keep moving, and the logical avenue to explore is TV.

It’s all storytelling and reaching people. I sincerely hope I’m wrong and that cartoons in print make a comeback, but there is a continuing sad trend of newspapers and magazines going the way of the dinosaur, and cartoons on an iPhone is not the same thing.

It’s funny. It took man thousands of years to develop writing and books. It’s been around a very short time in relationship to man’s history. It’s a precious gift we have. I wish we didn’t take so much for granted.

For me personally, as much as I love cartoons, I perhaps have to accept the fact it has limitations for me every which way (financially, communicatively, and the list goes on), and it’s time for a new challenge. I AM doing more gag collection books in the future, and I AM finishing a graphic novel that’s chock-full of my cartoons to tell a story.

As I write this question, you’re about half an hour away from giving a talk with author and cartoonist Liana Finck in the Magic Screening room at the Miami Book Fair. What was the subject of the talk, and at any talk you give, what core idea(s) do you hope to leave people with?

The purpose of this particular talk is to (1) provide entertainment for those attending the Fair and give them straight up laughs, and (2) help the attending bookstores at the Fair sell copies of our new books by making them sound compelling.

I did a slide show about the history of criticism told through cartoons, and from the audience reaction I will say, immodestly, I killed. I really had a delightful time and I know many in the room did, too.

Moments like this that just happened really make me feel right about doing the books.

Thank you, Bob.

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