The bearded cartoonist, post-simectomy

It begins with a Facebook posting by Bob Eckstein on 1/12:

BE: The Daily Cartoonist just ran this piece … and that is Sam Gross on the cover on the right:

(#1) The BE cartoon: a bearded fellow — I take him to be a cartoonist (since this is in The Daily Cartoonist) — in a hospital bed, post-simectory

Note simectory ‘the surgical removal of a simian’ — in this case not an actual simian, but the simulacrum of a monkey: a one-man-band-monkey toy. I hadn’t realized that such toys are still being made, but it seems that they are (classically they are wind-up metal — “tin” — toys, but now they appear to be battery-operated plastic, and considerably more durable than the vintage versions; I speak with recollected sorrow over the short life of my very own monkey-band toy, roughly 75 years ago).

A digression on monkey-band toys. And then I’ll move on to Sam Gross.

It starts with one-man bands. From Wikipedia:

A one-man band is a musician [usually a street performer] who plays a number of instruments simultaneously using their hands, feet, limbs, and various mechanical or electronic contraptions. One-man bands also often sing while they perform.

(#2) Street performer in situ (photo: Wikipedia Commons)

The simplest type of “one-man band” is a singer accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar and playing a harmonica mounted in a metal “harp rack” below the mouth. This approach is often taken by buskers and folk music singer-guitarists. More complicated setups may include wind instruments strapped around the neck, a large bass drum mounted on the musician’s back with a beater which is connected to a foot pedal, cymbals strapped between the knees or triggered by a pedal mechanism, tambourines and maracas tied to the limbs, and a stringed instrument strapped over the shoulders (e.g., a banjo, ukulele or guitar).

At some point, there were monkeys trained as one-man bands, performing in circuses, at fairs, and the like. I suspect not a great many of them, but the idea caught on as the model for a toy. And provided us with this creepy image:

(#3) Theatrical release poster for the 1988 film Monkey Shines

Which brings us to the monkey-band toy, so nicely illustrated in the BE cartoon in #1.

Sam Gross. A photo of the great gag cartoonist:

(#4) SG, September 17th, 2014, photo taken in downtown NYC

Wikipedia tells us that SG (born August 7, 1933) is an American cartoonist, specializing in single-panel cartoons — and then provides a somewhat goofy life history, told in Gross’s voice. And  includes this account of his work habits:

Gross averages 16–17 drawings a week, and numbers and dates every one. Once finished, he photocopies the drawings on forty-four-pound stock paper, then punches three holes and puts them into loose-leaf books; Gross is afraid of losing his original copy and idea. In 2012, Sam Gross had a total of about 27,592 cartoons.

SG has a special place in my world, because he’s the creator of the cartoon that brought me the woolly mammoth as my totem animal:

(#5) I have a deep fellow feeling for SG’s mammoth

Back to #1: Who is that bearded cartoonist? And to the Facebook discussion of #1. What Bob Eckstein said in full about #1:

— BE: that is Sam Gross on the cover on the right, and many say, Sam Gross in the cartoon on the left. I’ll let him decide –– I’m seeing him in a little while.

— AZ > BE: So: you drew this — really fine — cartoon featuring a bearded cartoonist in a hospital bed, post-simectomy. Cartoonists often (intentionally) base their depictions of their characters on real-life persons (sometimes famous people, sometimes just friends); others, including the models, might disagree on the degree of likeness in such depictions.

Also, a cartoonist creating the fresh image of a generic character will sometimes inadvertently draw something resembling a real person (by sheer happenstance — every such image is going to resemble someone — or by its bubbling up from bits of memory).

So, two separate questions, one having to do with your intentions (were you drawing an (affectionate) cartoon likeness of Sam Gross?), one having to do with the cartoon cartoonist’s likeness to Gross (does the character look like Gross? in whose judgment?). I assume you were aiming for Gross, and I judge that to be an excellent cartoon likeness of him, though others might differ.

— BE > AZ: I did not intend to draw Sam. But friends have since said it is a dead ringer for him. I have been accused of making my doctors look like my doctors, women in crowd scene look like my exes and men in scenes look like my brother Joe. It is never intentional but as I draw without reference and use the library in my head, these faces come pouring out onto the page, by accident as these are faces I have seen the most or saw the most and cannot get rid of.

— AZ >BE: I allowed for that possibility, suspecting that that’s the way you work. (Quite different from Wayno in Bizarro, who’s forever deliberately inserting caricatures of real people.) Writers and artists create their characters, locations, situations, and events from bits and pieces of their experience, from an appreciation of those that have cultural value, from pure invention — but the results often resemble, sometimes quite movingly, things in the real world. (And working from a model doesn’t necessarily give greater depth to the result.) You didn’t intend to draw Sam, but somehow you drew him anyway, who cares by what route.

(One of my pieces of gay short fiction has a section set in a fern bar in San Francisco. A gay male reader thought the piece was funny and touching, but was especially wonderful as a portrait of this specific place. Which of course I’d never been to, or to any other gay fern bar in SF. The occasional straight fern bar, plenty of gay bars, but not gay fern bars, the place was an invention. But invested with specific details that made it seem familiar.)

I try not to think too much about what I’m doing when I write (or when I made collages), just follow stuff where it goes. It’s a little bit like being possessed, and even when I’ve planned things out carefully, fresh stuff emerges in the doing. (In the middle of a lecture, a useful image or way of looking at the topic that just bubbles up, and you think, what a great way to put that, I didn’t know I thought that, and so on — exhilarating and astonishing.) Then afterwards I’ll go back and analyze my own stuff as if it were someone else’s — always a surprise, to find stuff you had no idea might be there.

The mysteries of artistic creation. We have wandered, inevitably I expect, into the question of where visual and verbal artists get their ideas and how they realize them in detail. Much explicit planning, but also ideas that come into our heads — who knows from where — in the shower.

And then the stuff that appears in the doing of the art. Which comes from somewhere in the artist, but not all of it by conscious thought. “It’s a little bit like being possessed”, I said above. Writers often say that their characters take over the story and tell them where it will go. Bob: “these faces come pouring out onto the page”. Famously, Flannery O’Connor is quoted as explaining: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

So she is quoted, again and again, but never with an actual source that I can find. However, the leading idea in her quote has been expressed in various ways by a considerable number of writers in citable places, among them George Bernard Shaw, Stephen King, William Faulkner, and Joan Didion. Didion’s pithy version: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down”.

One Response to “The bearded cartoonist, post-simectomy”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I am reminded of something that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son Christopher while working on The Lord of the Rings, about the character of Faramir “walking into” the story without any conscious intention on the author’s part: “A new character has come join the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir…”

    [Quoted in Christopher’s The War of the Ring, Volume VIII of The History of Middle-Earth.]

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