I think that my mother always fancied herself a writer. Had her life taken a different turn, she might well have ended up carousing with painters and poets in smoky after-hours jazz clubs in Greenwich Village, instead of being stranded light years away in an artless little central Texas town. But Mom was a product of her times, and not the kind of woman to abandon her family for the bohemian life, no matter how much she might have longed for something else. She truly and deeply loved my father, sticking with him through thick and thin. In the early days, it was mostly thin, as Dad struggled to build the business while Mom stayed home and raised the kids.
Mom’s writing was confined to her letters, lengthy tomes that she regularly composed. She wrote with a fountain pen in an elegant script that frequently filled many pages on thin, translucent sheets of stationery, stuffed into bulging envelopes and mailed to her many friends in far-away Youngstown, Cleveland and the New York that she secretly longed for, at least in my fantasies.
She was also an avid reader. We never had many books in the house, but she loved her magazines. There were always copies of the latest Ladies Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook and Life and Look Magazines scattered around the house. Her body may have been marooned in Waco, but not her imagination. I’m convinced that those magazines were her portal to the wider world she could visit only by proxy in those lean years.
Even before I could read, I couldn’t wait until the newest Redbook arrived, because it frequently had a Dr. Seuss cartoon. I was entranced by the crazy drawings and by the silly rhymes, which Mom read to me over and over until I had them memorized.
But it was the Saturday Evening Post that had the two things I loved most: Norman Rockwell’s amazing covers, and the cartoons. The Dr. Seuss stories were wonderful, but it was the single-panel gag cartoons that intrigued me the most.
I spent hours poring over them, trying to deconstruct their magic. I often didn’t understand them. Deciphering cartoons usually requires a certain amount of cultural background knowledge, something in short supply at the tender age of eight. Fortunately for me, Dad loved the drawings as much as I did, and he never tired of helping me understand them. The easiest by far were the ones with puns.
You didn’t need to know anything except the meaning of the words, so once you got the pun you got the cartoon.
It was in the third grade that I started drawing. Once I discovered that I could actually make a pencil do more or less what I wanted, that I could sometimes manage to pull off a reasonable likeness of something, I became a child obsessed. I drew constantly, and it seemed perfectly natural to try my hand at creating my own versions of the drawings I loved best. My first attempts at cartoons generally relied on the kinds of gags I understood, the sillier and more obvious the puns the better.
I was particularly proud of that one, which I thought quite hilarious. Dad agreed with me, even if Mom, much more sophisticated than Dad in her tastes, thought it was a bit of a groaner. Eventually I graduated from puns to pranks, like this one:
I thought it was quite clever of me to show off my knowledge of history by way of a satirical drawing. (In truth, it’s not a great intellectual leap from this early work to the editorial cartoons by which I made my living later, but that’s a story for another time).
Once I showed some promise as an artist, Mom and Dad both encouraged me to practice drawing as much as possible, not that I needed much of a push. I was more than happy to fill reams of paper. But they wanted me to take lessons and work toward developing my skills, not just play around with funny sketches and silly gags. Dad was especially insistent. He told me I had the talent and the brains to do something with my art, but if I was ever going to accomplish anything besides amusing myself, I needed discipline and training.
What a bore Dad was turning out to be.
Go to SCHOOL to draw? Learn how to use the tools, develop proper technique? Come ON, Dad! Didn’t that defeat the entire purpose, wouldn’t that take all the joy out of letting the pencil run free? Drawing should be FUN, not work, especially cartoons. How could a cartoon be both funny AND labored? Dad just didn’t get it. I mean, look at the ones in the magazines. Just a few simple, elegant lines and a caption below. They looked like they practically drew themselves.
Honestly, how hard could it be?