Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Edward Sorel Interview in Comics Journal

From The Comics Journal.

Excerpts from an April 1993 interview with Edward Sorel by Gary Groth:

Getting back to the ’50s, did you have ambitions to be an artist? Did you enjoy illustrators or cartooning?

Yes, I was a great fan. It seems to me that my hero, my big hero when I was at Cooper Union, was André François, and Ronald Searle, and a little later Felix Topolski

In retrospect, I can see where my love of Topolski comes through in some of my drawings. 

Some of the people who my work reminds me of weren’t my heroes. John Groth for example. I don’t know if you know his work. He was the first art director of Esquire, by the way. 

Then I discovered the work of Heinrich Kley. What saved me was that I had good taste buds, by which I mean I preferred André Francois to Jack Davis. [Laughs.] 

One of the most distressing things in my brief period of teaching was the realization that most of the students there wanted to be Jack Davis. I was not the person to help them. [Laughs.]

You were in an issue of Raw, an issue or two ago. How would you assess the drawing skills of the people in Raw?

Oh, they’re awful. I’m so glad to have this interview because I’d never have the courage to say that to Art. I think it’s awful. I think, first of all, there is something to be said: some of my favorite artists are klutzy drawers. There was a guy named Alfred Kubin who drew for Simplicissimus who couldn’t draw, but he had so much passion in his stuff that it really didn’t matter. By the same token, Art Spiegelman, who I don’t think draws well, has so much passion in his Maus that the whole thing works beautifully. I give a lot of points for passion. I’m not particularly interested in drawing that is naturalistic.

In 1963, Simon and Shuster published Moon Missing. Can you tell me what that was?

Well, I’ll always be very grateful to Moon Missing. While I was having my nervous breakdown after my first marriage collapsed, I went to Quaker meetings. I thought it would be a good idea for me to be concerned with troubles other than my own. 

At a meeting, I met a woman during the coffee break, and I was able to let drop that I had a book out, which was Moon Missing. I think she assumed that I was a writer, rather than a cartoonist, and so she became impressed enough that we went out to breakfast, and we fell in love and we got married, and lived happily ever after. 

So I’ll always be grateful to Moon Missing for that. Moon Missing was a fantasy that was about what happens in the world when the moon disappears. It used people who were very much in the limelight at the time.

Moon Missing was published by Simon & Shuster, who had a half-page ad set to appear in The New York Times on a Monday morning. Unfortunately, it was the Monday morning that the newspaper strike started, and that was the end of Moon Missing, which was remaindered along with all of the other books that couldn’t be publicized. 

The story of my life is a whole series of stories like that, which leads me to believe that there is a God and he’s pissed off at me. For example, I don’t know if you know my poster of Cardinal Spellman, that was done at the peak of the Vietnam War.

“Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammo.” I was going to ask you about that.

Yes. “Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition.” Right. Well, that poster … that was really one of the happiest days of my life when Personality Posters said that they would make a poster out of this drawing, which everybody, every magazine refused to publish — even Ramparts refused to publish it. 

It was somehow too sacrilegious. Here he was going to make a poster of it and I would be famous at last. The day that poster got off the press was the day that Cardinal Spellman died, and that poster was not sold anyplace in the United States. It was sold in one store in Chicago that had its window broken for selling it.

What year was that?

That was 1968 or so.

Can you explain what Spellman represented socially and theologically?

Well, he represented the continuation of the long line of reactionary fatheads in the Catholic Church. People forget that he had gone over to Vietnam and assured the soldiers that they were friends of Christ’s simply because they were over there. 

A tradition, I believe, carried on by Cardinal Cook, who was his successor. Much of my cartooning is anti-clerical, which explains why I appear in The Nation instead of Time Magazine.

At what point did you learn how to use color? And how?

Well, color is so easy that it didn’t require learning. I can’t understand why anybody ever has trouble with color. Color’s easy.

Other artists say that they struggle with it, and still don’t get it.

It’s the easiest thing in the world. All you do is put down a ground. You know what a ground is?


In other words, you put a color …

… over the entire canvas or surface.

Yeah! And then whatever color you put over it, it holds together, because it’s got that color underneath it, especially if you’re working with watercolor. So all my color is terrific, because of this very simple trick.

You once said, “The reason I use so many lines is because in certain drawings that are done direct, when you work in a line with pen and ink, there’s a sudden death situation on reliance there. There’s no erasing it, no fudging it, so there are a lot of finding lines.’’ Can you explain what you meant by that? You have this technique where your drawings are almost composed of a series of circular linework. Can you explain how you arrived at that? And of course you’re being imitated now. There are other illustrators who are using similar techniques, but it’s uniquely yours.

Well, there’s only one guy who’s attempting to work in my style. His name is Victor Juhasz. What he’s copying are the surface mannerisms, and I wish him well. What I worry about is the drawing, what he worries about is the circles.

Can you explain what you mean when you say you work direct?

Quite simply, it’s without any pencil indication of where the drawing’s going to go. No light box, no tracing of any kind. 

To do work direct in a medium that is insusceptible to change like charcoal or pencil is suicidal. It’s kind of dumb. 

That’s one of the reasons I work on cheap paper, because it takes many, many sheets before you get it right, and if I worked on good paper I would worry too much about all the money I was losing. So I work on cheap bond, so if it takes 30 or 40 sheets of paper before I get the right one I don’t worry about it.

First Encounters: A Book of Memorable Meetings © 1994 Edward Sorel

When you do one of your painting using pastels, do you use pencil indications?

No, I work the same way that I do with pen and ink, except I’m using charcoal, which of course you can erase. As a result of that, I don’t have to go through 30 different drawings, although sometimes I do have to go through three or four. 

I think the important thing is to work in such a way that accidents can happen. What’s death is knowing where everything is going to be, so there’s no excitement either in the doing of it or in the looking at it. I think every modern artist that I like has an element of accident in his work.

Almost every artist I know pencils, and then inks, and you and Ralph Steadman are the only two I know of who skip that one step.

Well, what’s great is to be a magician, to be able to do a kind of work where somebody says, “I don’t know how he does that.” 

Gluyas Williams, who prepared everything very meticulously, is nevertheless a magician. I don’t know how he did it. It’s still a mystery to me. The cartoons that you like best are the ones where you say, “I don’t know how he did that.” 

I don’t know how Crumb does what he does. To me, all the good stuff seems incredible.

Let me ask you about a few cartoonists, and ask you what you think of them. Pat Oliphant?

The best political/editorial cartoonist around, and I envy him because he has more imitators than I do.

 [Laughs.] Steadman?

The most miraculous of all. What he does is the most amazing to me. I have his Da Vinci book, which I’m sure you’ve seen. Now, how he did that, I don’t know. Just absolutely gorgeous. I mean, if we were living in any other age except this one he would be internationally celebrated, I think. I can’t speak too highly of him. And he writes well, too.

And as you know he speaks well. He’s funny. Do you know Gerald Scarfe’s work?

Yeah. Scarfe interests me less than Steadman. I’ve seen stuff by him that I admire. It just doesn’t interest me that much.


What about old newspaper cartoonists, like Winsor McCay?

Winsor McCay. It’s like liking movies that everybody else likes. Everybody loves Winsor McCay and recognizes his genius. 

It’s more fun liking Cliff Sterrett. There are some examples of his work in the Smithsonian Collection of Comic Strips. Those were the best art deco strips I’ve ever seen, and nobody writes monographs about Cliff Sterrett, although I might.

Cliff Sterrett. Polly and Her Pals. “I won't have that critter on the farm, Fat-head!” 1933

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