The Art of the Cartoon

In his New Yorker cartoons, Bill Haefeli bridges the distance between reader and subject, portraying not so much the stupid ways of stupid people but rather the subtle weirdness in everyday encounters.

You can find William Haefeli in the pits. Or at least you can find him in the neighborhood of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. There, as a city guidebook reports, "a large pool of smelly tar (la brea in Spanish) surrounds full-size models of mastodons struggling to free themselves from the grimy muck, a re-creation of prehistoric times, when such creatures tried to drink from the thin layer of water covering the tar in the pits, only to become entrapped."

And week after week, you can find Haefeli '75 far from the grimy muck--though happy to indulge in his own gentle form of muckraking--in the rarified pages of The New Yorker as a contributing cartoonist.

Font of social satire:Haefeli says,

 Font of social satire: Haefeli says, "It's the joke first and then the composition." photo: Robert J. Bliwise


Over lunch at a restaurant that nearly overlooks the pits, I resolve to make a close study of Haefeli humor. A tuna-melt sandwich will be his lunch choice--a funny choice, indeed. I ask him if he has decoded the meaning of life. He puts his face to the tape recorder and declares that the meaning of life is anyplace but the relentless restaurant soundtrack; at the moment, "Unchain My Heart" is playing in the background. I see an opportunity for a follow-up question: Does the possible secession of Hollywood from greater L.A. signal something about the chaotic nature of civilization? "No," he says, obviously a man of firm opinions.

Then a revelation: As a kid growing up in Philadelphia's Main Line, he consumed The New Yorker, for the cartoons alone (along with Charles Schulz's Peanuts). "I was eight or nine. I had no interest in the articles, except for the movie reviews." He was drawn particularly to Charles Saxon, a cartoonist for the magazine in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, who impressed the impressionable Haefeli with his contemporary, sophisticated portrayals of urbanities and suburbanites.

Haefeli cartoon
Haefeli cartoon

Haefeli was among seven or so of his high-school classmates who enrolled at Duke--so Duke was, in his words, an "excellent but conventional" choice. And was Duke funny in the early Seventies? "No. Not even remotely." He was a psychology major, and in the extracurricular arena, he found a place on the traffic appeals board. Was he accommodating of pleas for mercy? "Well, by the letter of the law, nobody had a good excuse." Was he worried about his peers getting mad at him? "No. I had the law on my side." Could he have been bribed in the appeals process? "No. Nobody I knew had any money." The college-age Haefeli doesn't sound quick to buck authority.

He was, though, learning something about human behavior. "I figured I would become a psychologist," he says, "that I would be one of those people who ran hidden-camera social psychology experiments on people." Serving as an experimental subject was a requirement for the major. That wasn't very funny, or very fun. He revised his figuring and revived an artistic interest; he took courses in art, including advanced drawing and advanced painting. He didn't do any campus cartoon production as such, but he says, "My drawing and paintings evolved into very cartoon-like images."

That craving for cartooning hadn't been so much dormant as beaten back, he explains. Steered away from making "an inappropriate career choice for an actual human being of any intelligence," he had stopped taking art courses in junior high school. "I had a number of art teachers whose attitude was, basically, that if you did a project the way they wanted it, they'd give you an A. If you did it the way you wanted it, they'd give you a B. That discouraged me from any formal art training, and I stopped completely until junior year of college."

So there's the essence of the younger, pre-tuna-melt Haefeli: a rebel discouraged out of his passions. "Well, that's putting words in my mouth, but that's all right," he says between mouthfuls. Then he rethinks that characterization. "I'd never call myself a rebel because, if I had been a rebel, I would have put up more of a stink instead of just giving up art." A more rebellious type, that is, would have presided over the smelly tar pits of junior high, putting those fossilized teachers in their place, as it were. So there's the real essence of the younger Haefeli: not a rebel but quietly resilient and unfazed by junior-high trauma. "I just believe in biding my time."

In Haefeli's time at Duke, art professor Vernon Pratt nurtured his cartooning style. "I was actually sort of reluctant to adopt it. He said to just go for it. He was very good at getting us to be self-directed and to chart our own course as artists--unlike the instructors I'd had in junior high school. As long as we could demonstrate that we'd grown from one painting to the next, and that we were making some sort of progression or experimentation as artists, then he was fine with whatever direction we went in."

After graduation, Haefeli attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts for two and a half years as a "student at large"; the school itself wasn't an enduring work of art, and it folded shortly after he left. "It taught me some more specific techniques and how to get across an idea, so that my intentions would be understood by whoever was looking at my artwork. It gave me a lot of mechanical tools that I could play with artistically--contrasts between light and dark, color experimentation, that sort of stuff."

Haefeli cartoon
Haefeli cartoon
Haefeli cartoon

From there, Haefeli got a job as a freelance assistant art director with a Chicago advertising agency, working up concepts and producing images. His most memorable assignment was milky: He designed the logo for a feed product meant to get cows to lactate more productively. "After one month, I realized that it was very easy to get sucked into the advertising world. You worked at one place for a year and then went to another place to get a raise, and you just keep hopping and getting raises. And my plan had been to work in advertising just to have experience in the art world, then to quit and become a cartoonist. It would be very easy to get sucked into advertising and wake up when I was forty with an ulcer and heart problems and realize that all I ever had really wanted to do was be a cartoonist. So I worked for another three months to build up a nest egg for myself and my venture into cartooning."

Haefeli finally was ready to be the rebel. Advancing from lactating cows to a nest egg, he had found a measure of economic security. So he started drawing and submitting cartoons. In just six weeks, he sold his first cartoon, to the Saturday Review, whose cartoon editor was Clarence Brown '50. He recalls that its subject was the phenomenon of Perrier bottled water, signaling his definitive break from cows and milk cartons. He then began a relationship with the British humor magazine Punch. He eventually moved to London, drawn by events surrounding the 150th anniversary of Punch and frustrated by the complaint that his submissions were "a little too American." Punch evidently lost its punch, and it interrupted publication just as Haefeli was ending his one-year stint abroad.

He says he was impressed by the British accent on humor through performance. "In England, you don't have to make a terribly original observation, but if you say it in a funny way, they'll appreciate it. Americans think that something said cleverly means the person is trying too hard." He also found communal humor to be a sort of cultural signifier. "In Wimbledon, if it's raining, they all start singing pub songs to keep themselves amused."

When he returned to the States, he discovered the Cartoon Bank, a new cartoon clearinghouse that would link cartoonists with cartoon purchasers. Its organizer was Robert Mankoff. Haefeli contacted Mankoff, who liked his work and who, in 1997, became The New Yorker's cartoon editor.

Mankoff, himself a cartoonist, remains a Haefeli fan. He talks in the midst of a frenzied "cartoonist's day" at the magazine--a free-for-all featuring cartoonist hopefuls lined up to show their portfolios. According to Mankoff, the magazine showcases some thirty to forty regular contributors. For cartooning, he says, "The New Yorker is in first place, and there is no second place. No one cares about any cartoons in any other magazine but The New Yorker. That doesn't mean they don't enjoy it when they see it. But other magazines use it as filler."

For Haefeli and his colleagues, it isn't filler but career fulfillment. In the "contributors lounge" wait a just-beginning young cartoonist, a forty-five-year cartooning veteran growing concerned about his placement record, and a small clique of cartoonists making jokes about fax machines that might have a paper-shredding function. "Here are these unrelated objects in some sense," says Mankoff, discussing the magazine's cartoon component. "They're not about the articles, they're not illustrations. Yet they do fit with the magazine and with the idea of intelligent readers having many aspects of their personality. Humor is another way of thinking, a complementary or supplementary perspective on what's going on in the world. If you don't have a sense of humor, then you're missing something--something about people's essential fallibility. Humor tells you about this over and over again, this contrast between what people pretend to be and what they actually are."

"It's the unique or at least the unusual voice that we're looking for," Mankoff says. "And that is what Haefeli definitely has--the ability to communicate ideas through humor. It's not just gags. I mean, every once in a while, you can throw in a gag, but if you look through The New Yorker, we're trying to use humor as a channel to express a philosophy. Haefeli is a social satirist; he's looking at contemporary society and he's satirizing it. He's got an interesting mind. A lot of his stuff isn't ha-ha funny, but sometimes the best cartoons are not the ones that make you laugh, but the ones that make you smile and think."

Mankoff tells cartoonists to avoid the easy laugh that would come from funny names or mindless jokes. "Don't make your people look dopey or idiotic. The idea is not that these people are morons, but that we're all morons."

Asked if he considers himself more of an artist or a social commentator, Haefeli says, "I consider myself more of a writer. Good writing tells me what the drawing needs to be. If I have no idea, I don't know what to draw." 

Haefeli cartoon

Much of what he draws centers on relationships--amorous, professional, social. In the June 3 issue of The New Yorker, a Haefeli cartoon shows a frustrated male patron trying to communicate with a female service-provider through a glass partition. Maybe the scene is a bank, or a railroad station. "I don't get paid enough to speak up," the woman says. Is this an illustration of social divisions, or a comment on indifferent service, or just an offbeat look at a common encounter? Haefeli says he doesn't concern himself with accuracy of interpretation, that such a concern would only be distracting. In that sense, he sounds more like the artist than the writer or commentator.

But in crafting a cartoon, he has a message--or a point of view--in mind. "Cartooning is definitely a form of self-expression," he says. Whatever philosophy he might be articulating, he insists he's not peddling social cynicism. "I'm not negative enough to be cynical. I'm more realistic. I'm a bit ironic, I'm very dry, and I'm pretty generous with my characters. If I'm portraying them negatively, I try to do it with grace rather than nailing them to the wall. Sometimes people are confused with whether I agree with what my characters are saying or whether I'm making fun of what my characters are saying. Sometimes a little bit of both, and sometimes it doesn't even really matter. It's just that what they're saying is funny."

In the course of his cartooning career, Haefeli has become more interested in bridging the distance between reader and subject, in portraying not so much the stupid ways of stupid people but rather the subtle weirdness in everyday encounters. With a regular gig in The New Yorker, he says it's possible to establish a reputation and a rapport with readers. (He says he might produce twenty-five to forty cartoons for every one accepted by the magazine--though he doesn't like to keep track.) "When I first did cartoons, I thought of my characters as 'them.' When I drew adults, they were these middle-aged, clueless sort of people. As I became an adult myself, I had some compassion for them; I realized that they were just trying to do their best. And I stopped seeing them as 'them.' I started seeing them as 'us.' And now I see virtually all my characters as 'us.' I don't want my readers to feel so distant from the characters that they can just laugh at 'them,' because I'm sort of holding up a mirror to the readers as well, and I want them to realize, 'this could be me.'

"Even in my drawings, if you compare them to other people's drawings, you look at the scale of where I show people. Some artists show a full figure of the characters, whereas I crop people here"--Haefeli gestures at his waist--"and I want people to think that maybe they're sitting in the next table in the restaurant, that they're right in the scene, maybe at the cocktail party as opposed to a distant observer of the cocktail party."

In artistic terms, Haefeli's work seems rather clean and spare. He says that's a product of his commercial-art training. "They stressed that you never knew how large your work would be produced and so you had to make it really clear. Actually, as a cartoonist, I only draw as much as is necessary for the joke. It's the joke first and then the composition. If I'm doing a cartoon about two people at a restaurant and the joke is about the ketchup bottle, the reader has to be able to read what's on the label. Some jokes need an atmosphere, so I'll put things in the background to give a feel, while some jokes need just two people and a little bit of visual interest. If you look at my drawings, all my characters look really similar. It's their expressions that change. I'm not interested in having somebody look at the character and think he looks funny. You have to judge them on what's coming out of their mouths, on how they react and how they behave toward one another."

L.A. would seem to be rich ground for cartoon production. On the day I meet with Haefeli, the Los Angeles Times carries stories about a "surf cam" in Palos Verdes removed because of fears that it would "draw hordes of rowdy surfers to this neighborhood of multimillion-dollar, bluff-top homes"; a committed vegan released from a city jail after she had argued that she "would have trouble serving a jail term because of her stance against eating meat and animal byproducts"; and actress Winona Ryder's standing trial on shoplifting from a Saks Fifth Avenue store. But Haefeli is hooked more on good living than on good inspiration in Southern California. "I don't subscribe to this theory of California as being a place of wacky people," he says. "People say to me, why don't you come to New York and live in a real city? And I say, you should come here to lighten up a bit and get a broader viewpoint."

For him, spotting the trends of the day doesn't flow from a terribly deliberative process. He's kept up his psychology major's fascination with behavior, and his artist's concern for capturing details. "I am constantly having random encounters with popular culture. Some things will stick with me; I'll absorb the idea and filter it and use it six months later."

Just minutes later, my next random encounter takes me back alongside the tar pits. As I look down to the muck, I think of Bill Haefeli, and things sticking with him. Actually, I think of mining the muck for my own cartoon idea. Here goes: Two dinosaurs are ambling along the banks of the tar pits. One turns to the other and says, "Take a swim if you insist, but I don't know why you're stuck on the idea."

Probably too dino-specific, I conclude. Then there's the idea of an encounter with two people over a tuna-melt--a surefire winner as a New Yorker cartoon.

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