Seldom do we see a signature that tells us more about the artist, his work and his vision than Arnold Roth’s. The last name’s initial letter stands on one spikey leg while the other, giving a chorus line kick, swoops down and around and curlicues into the letter “o”—a corkscrewing, screwball “o” pinwheeling in on itself with the fizzing frenzy of a July Fourth firework. The concluding “th” hangs there on the end, lopeared and languid, the very soul of patience in a mildly insane world. The “A” that launches the performance stands slightly askew while the following “r” tilts askance in a looney opposing angle, joining the “A” at the top to bridge an invisible inquisitive nose, and the other letters ravel down like the ribbon on the lorgnette through which the artist peers at the world. This happily jumbled calligraphy is affixed to a Roth drawing like an observant fly on the wall, rubbing its legs together in satiric satisfaction over the lunacy being committed before us. The fingerprint of the artist. An indelicate albeit decorative smudge at the corner of the portrait.
Roth’s signature didn’t always betray so vividly its owner’s antic attitude toward the world at large. As revealed in Fantagraphics’ 2001 retrospective volume, Arnold Roth: Free Lance (still available at $22.95 at www.fantagraphics.com), Roth once signed his name in an entirely normal manner. No curlicues, no maniacal pinwheels. Just “R-o-t-h,” fini. The “A” in Arnold stood a trifle akimbo, true. But for the most part, the letters in his name, strung together in a nearly cursive line, marched along in orderly cadence. It is as if, with maturity, the artist saw the world more clearly, and with clarity of vision came comprehension: we had all gone a trifle mad in the mid-day sun, and our foolishnesses deserved to be examined. Minutely. And the more Roth looked, the more acrobatic his signature become, the more its letters danced crazily to the music of the spheres that was, perforce, not so much musical as discordant. Or so it would seem here in this fanciful prelude.
A prelude of extravagant metaphor, no question; but there is something about Arnold Roth’s work that brings out the extravagant in us all. And if it seems from what I’ve said that Roth has changed as the years rolled by—that he became more sheerly perceptive and satirical—that is but the trick of the metaphor. In actual fact, probably the world around him has never seemed entirely sane to Roth. Throughout his work, we have his risible gloss on civilization as we know it—or, more accurately, as we’ve tried to ignore it, an enterprise Roth seems dedicated to undermine by making us face ourselves. What he makes us see is not so much any congenital ugliness or evil as it is a somewhat bent reality oddly inconsistent with our more exalted aspirations. Roth’s satiric vision seems more attuned to highlighting the nature of the human condition than to reforming it. He doesn’t want to change us to much as he wants us to take some sort of perversely comical delight in our own idiosyncracies as a species.
On the most straight-forward unabashed level, Roth shows us exactly how a perfect lemon pie affects the consumer in “Seasoned Cook: Lemon Pie.” Here ordinary physiognomy goes violently agog. Lips are not merely pursed: they are stretched beyond anatomical possibility. And the eyes bulge out of the head altogether to underscore the sensation—to illustrate, to dramatize, the delicious sourness of that first bite. The sharp angularity of the man’s arms adds a sense of startled rigidity to the portrait, precisely the kind of attention riveting that the inaugural taste of tart stimulates. Exaggeration of the most extreme sort makes the point, Roth’s visual rendition of the taste of a lemon pie—his caricature of lemon pie eating. Everything is exaggerated. Everything is in caricature.
Perhaps the best bird’s-eye view of Roth’s sportive sense of anatomy is on display in the whimsical frieze of readers he produced for The New York Times Book Review as a “History of Reading.” Here his selection of visual details and the distortion of the figures and their visages is regulated by the gleeful satiric impulse, not the sober anatomical or photographic or realistic proclivity. Anatomy is determined solely by the role the figure is playing. Under Roth’s pen, anatomy is the satire.
In “The Original Pushers Return to Washington Square,” anatomy is again shaped by the personalities Roth is portraying—Greenwich Village types—and vice versa. But the comedy here also derives from the juxtaposition of the picture and its title. In the best traditions of cartooning, the words play as large a role in the final result as do the pictures, neither words nor pictures achieving alone without the other quite the same effect as they do together. And here, in that tradition, “pusher” attains a meaning from the pictures that is not inherit in the term itself—just as the picture gains greater meaning from the words used to describe it. And in the visual pun inherent in “Blind Date,” we have the ultimate blend of word and picture. Roth’s mastery of verbal-visual blending is complete, and when the blend is achieved through the exaggeration of caricatural rendering, the very essence of cartooning emerges, its madcap drollery paramount. In the two-page spread for Punch on “Assertive Woman,” we find both word-play and picture-play running giddily rampant.
Pure cartooning. Funny pictures that complete the meaning of the words and vice versa.
As revealed in his work, Roth is clearly what many of us mean when we say “cartoonist.” He is a maker of funny pictures—funny pictures often yoked to accompanying words. And vice versa. He has been a cartoonist all his life, and for most of that time, he has freelanced, snatching a living by hustling one assignment after another in a highly competitive market, the wolf kept at bay by ingenuity and energy. And talent. And luck, lots of luck.
“It’s great to try to be good at what you do,” Roth told me when we talked in the fall of 2000, “but you can’t try to be lucky. It sure helps, though. Of course, if you count only on luck, you might be caught short if you have to back it up sometime.”
Roth had the luck to be born in 1929 on the cusp of the dawning Great Depression, and so he learned the survival value of scrambling for gainful employment as he grew up. And Philadelphia was a good place for a kid of artistic bent to grow up in. Roth and his older brother (by four years) shared the same interests and frequented the cultural environs of the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Philadelphia Library.
“From age seven or eight, we were allowed to go anywhere in the city,” Roth said. “I think because there were no neighborhoods worse than ours so our parents figured if we went someplace else, we were safer.”
They went to exhibitions and shows. They borrowed books from the Library. They attended events at the University of Pennsylvania. For the rest of his life, whenever Roth did work for these institutions, he did it as cheaply as he could by way of paying them back for the free education he’d received. While a teenager, he worked in the Library, first as a page and then as a repairer of books and bound volumes. As he repaired torn pages in stacks of Harper’s Weekly from the Civil War era, he studied the drawings that made the magazine famous. He also saw cartoons in The New Yorker and in Esquire (thanks to an uncle who subscribed to the latter).
And he went to movies like any other youth of the period. Unlike most, he fell in love with jazz and learned to play the saxophone. “We always listened to music growing up,” he told Gary Groth in an interview for The Comics Journal (June 1961, No. 142). “With six kids there was a different radio playing different music everywhere in the house.” Although he took lessons briefly, most of his learning about the saxophone was by observing other players and talking with them.
Roth also drew pictures and sold a few, and he worked in an “art factory”—a so-called studio that mass-produced hand-painted works of art for sale in dime stores. And he worked in a toy factory one summer: “I painted eyes on ducks,” he explained.
Upon graduation from high school in 1946, Roth was awarded a full scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts. But he finished only two years. “I was put on probation after the first year,” he explained, “and expelled after the second.” But it wasn’t for lack of talent; it was for lack of punctuality. He seldom arrived at class on time.
“It was a strict school,” Roth said, “and you had to be there at nine o’clock. And when I say I was late, I don’t mean five after nine: I mean ten-thirty. That kind of thing.”
He was late because he had been up until the wee hours of the morning playing in jazz bands around town.
Roth started freelancing artwork in the summer of 1948, but music was his most dependable source of income: he spent his nights playing in jazz bands around the city. By late fall, he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. “Somebody had to get it,” he quipped; “it’s a whole disease.” In December, he entered a sanitarium, where he spent the next fourteen months. While there, he read voraciously. And he drew a lot, sending postcards to friends by the hundreds. He left the sanitarium in late January 1950 and re-enrolled in art school but left a month or so later to take care of his mother, who was dying of cancer.
Upon her death in November, he and his five siblings inherited $719 each, and he staked himself to a career as a freelance cartoonist. He and ten other creative entrepreneurs set up a studio in a 20x15-foot room in a historic building near Independence Hall. Many of his studio-mates used the address as a mail-drop and never spent any time on the premises. But Roth did. All week long, he prepared a portfolio of drawings to sell. He hustled them around Philadelphia, and once a week, he took the train to New York, a recognized Mecca for commercial artists, where he peddled his wares.
Looking for any sort of work that would yield an income, Roth did all kinds of menial artistic tasks for a time. He did silk screen designs for Pennsylvania Dutch lampshades for Levittown. He did cocktail napkins that were designed to be sold to habitues of nudist camps. Once he took an assignment whiting-out the specs that blemished velox prints. His only steady work was with Temple University medical school for which he did leroy lettering on medical charts. He did anything thrown his way. None of the jobs paid much, but they paid.
“Eventually, I learned the obvious,” he said: “not to go to places where I didn’t want to work. Although I was hungry for every buck I could get, it’s a waste of time to go somewhere just because they need artwork but not the artwork you do. I didn’t want to start doing realistic illustrations or even stylized illustration, which is what they would buy readily. I wanted to draw the way I drew and sell my thinking, too. I wanted to do humor. And I was frothing at the mouth to get in The New Yorker.”
Toward the end of 1951, one of the editors at The New Yorker manifested great interest in Roth’s work. He invited the young cartoonist into his office where he proceeded to go through his cartoons, making suggestions. Roth responded in his usual flip manner.
“You know,” said the editor, “you keep making wise cracks. Are you sure you understand what I’m telling you?”
“Well, I think you’re telling me I should draw more like Sam Cobean,” Roth said. Cobean had just died in an automobile crash. He was celebrated for his “naked eye” cartoons in which thought balloons over men’s heads revealed that they were usually mentally undressing the women they were looking at.
The editor was somewhat ruffled. “You have to make up your mind if you want more than anything in the world to be a New Yorker cartoonist,” he said.
“No,” Roth said, “I want to screw and drink and smoke and cock around.”
The editor stared at Roth. He repeated his question with deadly seriousness. Roth told him no. The interview was over. And Roth never went back. But forty years later, he would be asked to contribute.
Impolitic as the youthful cartoonist had been, he knew what he wanted. And he knew what he didn’t want. The New Yorker was notorious for editing cartoons—suggesting changes, so-called improvements in the composition or the drawings. And Roth didn’t want to spend his energies re-doing his drawings. He still doesn’t.
“I don’t like to preliminary sketches,” he said. “I don’t like to do things over and over. I don’t work well under those circumstances. That doesn’t mean that I’m always right and they’re always wrong. But it’s my work. I have to make my mistakes my way, and when I make it good, make it good my way. Other people can work the New Yorker system, and they do terrific work. I would have been miserable. I’d rather work in a grocery store—but I’d like to say where the cans go.”
The New Yorker was launched in 1925 on the champagne vapors of the Jazz Age (as one wag put it), its founder a gap-toothed unkempt hobo newspaperman named Harold Ross, who, despite his bucolic appearance, midwifed a sophisticated and literate humor magazine aimed directly at New Yorkers. Although Ross famously disavowed any interest in readership by the little old ladies in Dubuque, the magazine nonetheless became a national phenomena as well as the country’s premiere market for cartoonists. It was and is a cartoon showcase. “If you went looking for the best American gag cartoonists,” Roth said, “they were for sure in The New Yorker. They didn’t have every good cartoonist, but they didn’t have any bad ones.”
Had Roth been published in the magazine, his career would have taken flight and soared as a result. But he realized very early that if he drew cartoons based upon the “corrections” and suggestions of others, he would sacrifice the very spontaneity and invention that made his work uniquely his own. He learned to set ground rules early in a relationship.
“I tell them, if you want my best work, the work you’ve seen, this is how I do it,” he explained. “I won’t do preliminary sketches for advance approval, and I won’t draw what they tell me to draw. They can’t give me the idea. I won’t make piddling changes. They have to trust me. I’m not going to do a cartoon about a rainstorm if the story is about furniture. If it’s a new magazine or I don’t know the people very well, I’ll ask them if there are any taboos, if there’s something that is a sin to draw. I just don’t work well under any other circumstance. I tighten up. I get to be too careful. I start considering too many ancillaries. It takes the mickey out of the job.”
To do his best work, Roth must be free to follow his maniac muse wherever it might lead him. Pursuing that muse is the fun of the work. That’s why Roth is a cartoonist—for the fun of the work, for the mickey in the job.
“I made mistakes in the beginning,” Roth admits. “But I was working for people who weren’t paying me much. And I managed to avoid people who wanted to do the drawing. It’s like a band leader telling a guy what to play in his jazz chorus. If you have to tell him, he shouldn’t be playing in a jazz chorus to begin with. If I’m not doing it right, I don’t belong in the business. And if I am in the business, I’ll know more about it than they do.”
In 1952, Roth started getting lucky. He began finding better outlets for his work. It was a watershed year.
Charm magazine began buying spot drawings at ten dollars apiece, two a month. “It kept me going,” Roth said. And by a “pure fluke,” he got in on the ground floor with TV Guide.
Launched in 1948, TV Guide was initially directed at a New York viewing audience. But by the middle of 1952, it was moving toward national distribution, which it achieved when it was acquired by Walter Annenberg’s Triangle Publications. A special dummy issue of the magazine was being prepared as part of TV Guide’s conversion for a national audience, and Roth did a drawing for that issue.
Walking down a street in Philadelphia one day, he ran into an ad agency friend who was working on the dummy issue. “He was desperate because they were in a big hurry,” Roth said. “And he said, ‘Could you do a pencil drawing—if we give you the information—of where the tv cameras will be for Eisenhower’s inauguration?’”
Roth did the pencil drawing and, later, the finished version for publication. His second drawing for the magazine—a picture of a man on a roof sprouting tv antennas—was so well received that he began getting regular assignments with TV Guide. It became a steady account, and his relationship with the magazine continued until Rupert Murdock bought it decades later.
With increasingly regular assignments, Roth felt financially confident enough to marry Caroline Wingfield, an artist he’d met at art school. They were wed in October 1952. About that time, Roth met Paul Desmond and the rest of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
He and Caroline frequented the jazz clubs in Philadelphia, so Roth knew the Brubeck group was in town for five weeks, but he didn’t expect them to show up at his studio. One of the photographers sharing the room had advertised a camera for sale, and when Brubeck and his cohorts saw the ad, they chipped in to buy the camera as a birthday gift for Desmond, who had developed a passion for photography. Although the Quartet wasn’t as famous as it would become, Roth recognized them as soon as they walked into the studio, and this chance meeting led to a life-long friendship with Desmond—and to numerous lucrative assignments doing album covers for the Quartet and others.
It was the Quartet’s first swing through the East, and they made Philadelphia their base. Desmond would often dine at the Roths’ apartment. Afterwards, they’d go to the club where the Quartet was playing, and Desmond would pick up the tab for the Roths. “Sometimes he’d come over to the apartment with food,” Roth remembered; “we just didn’t have any money. And my wife would cook it.”
Once Roth had done a few album covers for the Fantasy Records releases of Brubeck music, he had proofs of his work and could get similar assignments at other record companies, including, eventually, Columbia Records. Then in 1954 came another lucky break.
Roth arrived at the offices of Glamour magazine late in the afternoon. At first, the art director told the receptionist he wouldn’t see Roth, but then he suddenly came out and wanted to look at Roth’s drawings. He browsed through the portfolio and then said:
“Would you sell all of these drawings?”
“Sure,” Roth said “—that’s what they’re for.”
“I just had a double-page spread killed,” the man explained, “and we have to go to press tomorrow.”
The drawings were all humorous, not gag cartoons, and without any particularly unifying them. But Glamour printed them all and gave them a theme, entitling the double-page spread, “New Talent of 1954.”
At about the same time, television began to emerge as a vast new outlet for advertising. The new medium had a voracious appetite for material, and animation found an enthusiastic welcome in commercials. Roth was soon into it. In 1955-56, he started contributing ideas and character designs to an outfit named Storyboard, Inc. Started by John Hubley, one of the founders of the UPA animation enterprise and a creator of Gerald McBoing-Boing and Mister Magoo, Storyboard manufactured material for ad agencies to use in tv commercials. With steady sales there plus TV Guide, Charm magazine and a few sales to Esquire and elsewhere, Roth was at last earning enough money to say that he was making a living as a cartoonist. Feeling fairly secure in his profession, he and Caroline started their family with Charles Perino, born in 1956, and Adam Wingfield, in 1958. About the same time, Roth made his big break-through.
Hubley had two cartoonists on staff as art directors—R. O. “Bob” Blechman and Gene Deitch. Talking with Blechman, Roth heard about Trump, which, at the time, didn’t have a name. But it had an editor—or founder—and Roth knew the reputation of the editor. Harvey Kurtzman did the kind of cartooning Roth did, and Kurtzman was looking for people to help with his latest project.
Kurtzman was the comedic genius who launched Mad comic book in the fall of 1952 for Entertaining Comics (EC). Paul Desmond had introduced Roth to Mad. “He picked one up in an airport when he was traveling around to gigs,” Roth said, “and he brought one to Philadelphia to show me and said, ‘You gotta be reading this! This is great!’”
At the time, though—roughly 1953—Roth wasn’t thinking about comic books; he was aiming for magazines, the “slicks” not four-color pulp. He didn’t pursue the matter then. But in 1956, when Bleichman mentioned Kurtzman’s new project—and when Roth heard about it again from New Yorker cartoonist Ed Fisher—it seemed a promising venue.
By then, Kurtzman had moved beyond comic books both physically and intellectually. During the first couple of years with the Mad comic book, Kurtzman had honed the device of parody into a weapon of sharply pointed satire. Beginning with takeoffs of comic strips, movies, tv shows, and literary classics, he expanded into the larger realm of popular culture generally. By 1955, Kurtzman had become increasingly impatient with the limitations of the form. He converted the comic book to a magazine format, but he was soon lured away by Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy, to produce a luxurious new satirical magazine that would deploy all the resources of magazine publishing—color and photographs as well as cartoons and text—to achieve through elaborate parody the ridicule of popular culture that Kurtzman aimed for. Hefner set him up in his Playboy branch office, a handsome row house on 38th Street across from the J. P. Morgan Library.
Roth went to see Kurtzman, and Kurtzman immediately put him on retainer.
Kurtzman was sitting at a table in an office, Roth remembered, and on the table was a sheet of paper with the names of about fourteen young cartoonists on it. “And every one of those names—which I could remember for years—belonged to cartoonists who would have great careers in publishing or animation,” Roth said. “Harvey was great at spotting people and giving them a chance.”
The first issue of Trump, cover-dated January 1957, contained work by Mad alumni Wally Wood, Jack Davis, and zany Will Elder as well as a host of others from Kurtzman’s list—Al Jaffee, Ed Fisher, Russ Heath, Bob Blechman, Howard Schneider, and Bill Ashman among others. Roth illustrated a Roger Price article, “Why Christmas Is Nice.” The second issue (March) was more lavishly produced with many more pages of color. Roth was now listed on the masthead as “Staff Artist (Asst. Ed.),” and he contributed pieces mocking the Russian tendency to claim epoch-making inventions as their own, the influence of ballet on everyday life, and “Movie Scenes You Must Have Seen,” a send-up of celluloid cliches.
Roth had continued freelancing to a growing list of client magazines, but he produced a good deal more material for Trump, too—much of it put aside for future issues of the magazine.
Alas, Trump was out of business before it hit the stands in late 1956. The March issue was its last. The problem was a nervous bank. Hefner’s success with Playboy had established him as the boy genius of Chicago, and that was good enough for the bank for a while. But Playboy was making an expensive move into new offices at the time, and a brief recession resulted in a dip in the magazine’s advertising and sales revenues. Moreover, it wasn’t a good time for magazines, and when the venerable Collier’s magazine folded in January 1957, the bank refused to renew the Hefner’s line of credit. To absorb loses, Hefner stopped drawing a salary for awhile. And he killed Trump, which by then had run its loses to $95,000.
But Kurtzman and his crew had almost tasted success. Kurtzman told Roth that he expected Trump to be making money by the fourth or fifth issue. Kurtzman wanted to continue the crusade, and he was able, without much effort, to persuade five of his cohorts to join him in a partnership to publish another national satirical magazine. Elder, Jaffee, Davis, Roth, and Kurtzman’s lifelong production manager, Harry Chester, signed on. Hefner, feeling contrite, gave them free office space in his new Manhattan headquarters at Madison and 57th Street, and the partners put up cash as well as talent to publish their brainchild, Humbug.
Humbug was a much more modest production than Trump: it was smaller in size and page count, and it was published on cheap newsprint paper. But it, too, was a doomed effort. Just as it debuted, the biggest magazine distributor in the country folded. American News Service owned newsstands in hundreds of transportation centers and most of the best corner locations in big cities. Kurtzman, Roth recalled, tried to see beyond the immediate tragedy: “Look,” he said, “we’re not in the worst trouble: The New Yorker doesn’t have a distributor!”
Casting about for an alternative, the partners found an operation in Derby, Connecticut, which, Roth suspects, had a more than incidental relationship with unsavory underworld types. The magazine struggled along for eleven issues from August 1957 until August 1958.
“We really went through hardship to do it,” Roth remembered. “We were all young. We had young children. And I was doubled-up like crazy because I had to make a living. But still, my heart was in the magazine. I even borrowed money to help—from the Brubeck guys, their record company. We had a lot of talent and a helluva nerve but we had no brains. Everything really did conspire against us. But Harvey, being Harvey, when we were getting it all together, he would say, ‘Gee, I just had a horrible thought: if this makes a hit, we’ll have to keep doing it.’ I said, ‘Harvey: don’t worry about that now.’”
Kurtzman would pursue his dream in yet another low-budget production, Help!, which lasted for twenty-five issues, coming out irregularly until August 1965. Roth contributed occasionally, as we’ll see anon. And when Kurtzman and Elder teamed up to produce the world’s most lavish comic strip, the painted full-color Little Annie Fanny, for Playboy, starting in October 1962, Roth occasionally helped paint Elder’s pictures. But by this time, Roth was in demand in numerous other publications and had less time to devote to lost causes. Still, he regards his time with Kurtzman on Trump and Humbug as the biggest break he had.
It was a signal if not salutary experience not just because of the fellowship of the crew but because of their focus. “I was doing purely humor,” Roth said. “And it wasn’t just piece-work: it was filling up the magazine. Although I’ve always done funny ideas, this wasn’t just one album cover for which you create an idea suitable to the subject and then go on to the next, which would be something completely different. And so that was one of the best things that ever happened.”
He enjoyed working with Kurtzman and learned much from him. Kurtzman had a reputation for meticulousness, for a fastidiousness in layout and rendering that carried perfectionism to an wholly impractical extreme. When editing the adventure comic books and Mad for EC, he produced detailed layouts for every story, and he demanded that the artists follow his layouts precisely. But he didn’t do layouts for Roth; Roth did his own.
“Harvey and I used to argue and fight all the time,” Roth said, “although we were in absolute philosophical agreement, our ways of working were very different. I’ve always thought, Well, if it’s not that hot, you do another one. But Harvey wanted to hone and re-do. And I’ve never worked well in that way. I want to do it and then do another one. So I’d say, ‘Harvey, I don’t want to have life where I’ve done one terrific drawing. I want to do a lot of crumby ones,’” he said with a laugh. “It’s just like the two Egyptian kids looking at the pyramids, and one saying, ‘Wow—you know how good we are at doing these now? Imagine how good we’ll be in 5,000 years.’” He laughed again.
His regard for Kurtzman was at least as enduring as the Egyptian rock piles. And when he published A Comick Book of Pets with Scribner’s in 1976, he dedicated it to Kurtzman—“the master.”
Another of the beneficial effects of the Kurtzman adventure was that Roth started being published regularly in Playboy. Many of his efforts were illustrations for articles executed in his usual maniacal manner. But perhaps his most celebrated contribution to the magazine is a series that started in the late 1970s, “The History of Sex,” a compendium of verbal-visual japes about the most intimate of the relations between the sexes through the centuries.
In setting out on this project, Roth made a deal with Hefner. He knew that Hefner had ambitions to be a cartoonist himself when young and that he couldn’t refrain from making suggestions for changes in cartoons submitted to Playboy. (Jules Feiffer, among others, agrees that Hefner is a very perceptive editor of cartoons. He often produces several pages of detailed critique with ideas for “improvements” in a single cartoon with the sole intention of making the cartoon work better, Feiffer said. “And often he would bring up things that he was absolutely right about,” he added.) But Roth, as we’ve seen, doesn’t feel comfortable working in that manner.
“I made a deal that if he didn’t like something, I wouldn’t do it over, but I would replace it,” Roth explained. “If you agree to changing things and doing them over, you’ll be doing it to everything. I didn’t want to collaborate with Hefner. Although I admire and value his editorial judgement, I think he can’t leave well enough alone. I only had to replace a few things out of lots of cartoons I submitted. It was filthy and fun--though I think with one or two exceptions, my favorite jokes were clean ones: they had nothing to do with sex.”
But when Hefner saw in the “Olympian Games” the picture of King Midas whose magic touch had turned his penis to gold, he couldn’t stop himself.
“He sent a three-page single-spaced letter,” Roth remembered, “about how he really didn’t want me to replace it, he liked it a lot, but the only thing is, he didn’t like the way I drew the penis. And Caroline opened it, I was working—and I was in a horrible rush on a job—and she was reading this letter to me, and she’s dying laughing, and she says, ‘I can’t believe this guy is heading a two-hundred million dollar a year business and has time for this.’ She showed me the memo—with ‘From the desk of Hugh M. Hefner’ at the top—and here was a sketch. It was three red lines—two parallel with an inverted V on top. He’s showing me how to draw a penis! So I wrote back and said, ‘You’re right. The way you indicated is the way to draw a penis, but unfortunately that’s the way I draw noses, so for clarity sake—, he chuckled, the conclusion of the sentence obvious. “And that was the end of that,” he said.
He never cleared his ideas in advance. “At the magazine,” Roth said, “they had no idea what was coming: every chapter, I would just do it. And they’d ask me: ‘How long is this going to go on?’ And I’d say, ‘As long as I’m paying tuition for my kids in school.’”
All of Roth’s “History of Sex” for Playboy has not yet not been published. He has completed three or four installments that the magazine has yet to run. The last chapter to be published appeared nearly fifteen years ago. Since the series began, Playboy’s attitude about frontal male nudity has changed: Roth has had to change his art in some instances to eliminate phallic offense.
Back in 1958 in the wake of Humbug’s collapse, Roth increased his efforts to find more markets for his work. He sent three cartoons to Punch magazine in England. All three were purchased. And he worked up an idea for a newspaper comic strip.
Called Poor Arnold’s Almanac, it was designed as a Sunday feature, and it proved to be the sort of cartooning Roth would be most adept at—and the kind he liked most to do. Like his later “History of Sex” series for Playboy, each installment of the Almanac picked out a single subject, and Roth played variations on the theme in the manner of a jazz musician. The opening panel announced the topic for the day, and in subsequent panels—sometimes one at a time, sometimes two or more in succession—Roth turned the subject this way and that, inspecting it from every angle and finding inconsistencies in human behavior and naked emperors everywhere he looked. Typically, his hilarities resulted from yoking pictures to words: the pictures revealed the comedy in the verbiage. But his format permitted him simply to play with words alone, punning and making lists and reciting with sportive abandon whatever drollery he discerned in some aspect of his subject. It was vintage Roth buffoonery. And he would eventually continue in the same mode for Punch and, as we’ve seen, for Playboy. It was the way Roth liked most to work.
He presented four completed strips to Harry Welker, the comic editor at the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate, the distribution operation of its namesake newspaper, the nation’s most literate daily paper. Welker bought it immediately. The syndicate didn’t have many comics, but what they had was quality—Johnny Hart’s B.C., Mell Lazarus’s Miss Peach, Al Jaffee’s Tall Tales (which had just begun). Poor Arnold’s Almanac started appearing on May 31, 1959. It was a regular gig, as Roth put it—steady income. Living on what he earned with magazine work, Roth used the Almanac money to pay off his dept to the Brubeck record company. Within a year, he had discharged the debt, and then he decided to go to England.
Roth had always wanted to go to England, and now, with a regular check from his comic strip, he could afford to risk the venture. Since he could live on the Almanac income, he didn’t need to hustle for work in the New York magazine market. In London, he would supplement the syndicate income by doing work for Punch, which had been buying from him with some regularity. He packed up everything he owned, and he and his wife and two kids moved to London in August 1960.
Punch was the English-speaking world’s most revered humor magazine—in legend, at least, if not in fact as well. Allegedly launched from the back room of a tavern in the summer of 1841, it was one of many British attempts of the day at duplicating the satirical and comedic impact of La Charivari, a daily paper in Paris, founded in 1832 by Charles Philipon, who had earlier (1830) achieved notoriety with a caricature of King Louis Philippe in his weekly paper La Caricature, the magazine that made caricature famous (due more to its chief contributors, Honore Daumier and Gustave Dore, than to Philipon). At the time of Roth’s initiation into Punch, its editor was Bernard Hollowood, a sometime cartoonist himself who had served as the magazine’s deputy literary editor and radio and television critic. The soon-to-retire cartoon editor was Russell Brockbank (“a wonderful guy who was a very good cartoonist himself,” Roth said), who had brought into the magazine such personages as Ronald Searle, Francis Wilford-Smith (“Smilby”), Michael Ffolkes, and Gerald Scrafe among others. A great many cartoonists were connected to the magazine, but Punch needed them: a weekly, it published about thirty cartoons in every issue.
Much of the planning for every issue of the magazine occurred on Thursdays at a weekly meeting dubbed “the Punch lunch.” Like many things in England, it had a long and mellow tradition. The meeting of editors, writers, and cartoonists took place at a large table that could seat about twenty-four persons. The table, sometimes called “the Mahogany tree” (because of a poem William Makepeace Thackeray wrote about it in 1847), had been the possession of the proprietors since about 1855. It is not a particularly ornate piece of furniture; it is, rather, an inexpensive but sturdy piece of Victorian office furniture in ordinary deal (not “mahogany” at all). Its distinction, however, lays in the carved initials that adorn its surface. To symbolize the permanence of the institution, “members of the Table” were invited to make their marks thereon. The invitations were not lightly extended. By 1979—after over 120 years—only 79 sets of initials appeared, including those of such literary and artistic lights as Thackeray, Searle, A.A. Milne, John Leech, George du Maurier, Phil May, Malcolm Muggeridge, and John Tenniel. The only American by then was James Thurber. Mark Twain had been invited to inscribe his initials but declined, saying he would be quite satisfied to share the last two letters in Thackeray’s beautifully executed monogram. (“Everyone assumed that he was simply too drunk to handle a penknife,” Roth said with a chuckle.)
The meeting was an evening dinner until 1925, when it became a mid-day meal. It began, without fail, in the editor’s office with drinks, starting about noon. “There was about an hour of boozing,” Roth said, “and then, you’d go into lunch, which was served by liveried guys with white gloves on, one of whom looked like Mr. Punch. I always thought they got him from central casting. The editor sat at one end of the table, and the publisher at the other.”
The walls of the “banquet room” were decorated with framed drawings from Punch and photographs of various dignitaries, including a painted portrait of Mark Lemon, the first to edit the magazine single-handedly. (At the beginning, the editorship was shared by Lemon and two others.)
The meal was a traditional five-course Victorian feast, beginning with soup and including a hearty main course like saddle of lamb and ending with desert and cheese, all lubricated by bottles of claret. “You didn’t have to eat or drink for a couple of days afterwards,” Roth said. “And by the end of the thing, everybody was pretty much in the bag.”
In addition to staff members, the company might include a special guest—a politician, entertainer, writer, or other notable. During the meal, the conversation was general around the table—general gossip, rude jokes, bad puns, obscene limericks, and other forms of verbal horseplay. If there was a guest, that person might be queried about an interest or activity. Eventually, the talk would turn to current events, and staff members would comment on aspects of the conversation.
“And so the editor would say, ‘Well, good—why don’t you get me a hundred words on that for next week’s issue,’” Roth said. “And then a cartoonist might mention something, and the editor would say, ‘Oh, yes—why don’t you do something on that?’ The meetings lasted most of the afternoon. The editor told me that the next morning there were always all these phone calls from people who’d been there: ‘Ah, I neglected to jot down the subject you assigned to me.’” Roth laughed: “They were lucky they remembered how to get home!”
Roth contributed exclusively to Punch for the next year. Although the edgier Private Eye magazine invited him to contribute, he didn’t. “I always try not to draw for the competition if I’m doing a lot of work for somebody; I don’t think it’s the right thing. It would just be egregious.”
Working for American magazines, however, was not working for competitors. While in London, Roth received a couple of assignments from Kurtzman, then producing Help! He went to Moscow and Berlin (“the pleasure domes of Europe”) to do cartoon reportage. He also did a lot of color work for Esquire—illustrations as well as cartoons. Then in the late spring of 1961, the syndicate rug was pulled from under him.
Shortly after Roth renewed his contract with the Herald Tribune Syndicate, he received another letter telling him that his contract was terminated. Later, Roth found out that the newspaper and the syndicate were quarreling, and the newspaper canceled Poor Arnold’s Almanac. Once the flagship newspaper no longer carried a syndicated feature, it became difficult for the syndicate to sell the feature. About forty newspapers carried the Almanac, but salesmen still had no way to counter the scathing comment they met with many editors they visited: “If this strip is so good, why don’t you [the syndicate’s home-base paper] carry it?”
Roth immediately wrote to another syndicate to see if it would carry the strip. But by then, it was too late. “As soon as a syndicate decides to kill you, they tell all the client papers that the strip is ending,” Roth said. And all those papers promptly drop the strip and put another in its place. Had he found out earlier about the impending demise of the Almanac, he could have negotiated a transfer of the feature to another syndicate that might have been interested in acquiring a strip that came with a ready-made string of subscribing papers. But since he was in England, Roth heard no rumors in advance, inklings that might have prompted a salvage maneuver. The last strip ran on May 14, 1961; it had completed two full years.
Roth continued producing material for Punch and Esquire, but Punch didn’t pay well and Esquire wasn’t regular enough. By summer, he was broke. In August, he packed up the family and returned to Philadelphia (where he lived for the next two years, moving then to Princeton, New Jersey, where he stayed until his 1983 move to Manhattan). Within a couple months, Roth had hustled enough work to recoup an income and to pay back the money he’d borrowed to finance the return trip from England.
He continued to do work for Punch by mail, occasionally making a quick trip to London. Then in 1965, he inherited the magazine’s regular monthly two-page feature, “Report from America,” which had been contributed for years by P.G. Wodehouse, by then in his nineties. His report had slowly deteriorated over the years until it consisted of little more than a miscellaneous collection of clippings from U.S. magazines and newspapers. Bernard Hollowood asked Roth to take it over.
“I wrote what I was sure were the funniest two pages ever written in English and mailed them off,” Roth recalled. “They came back and in red on top of the page in big letters it said, ‘You fool, I meant draw two pages!’ My wife said, ‘Gee, they’re really angry at you.’ I said, ‘No, if they don’t call you at least a swine, they’re not even serious.’”
Roth did a monthly two-page spread of cartoon reportage on American foibles for the next twenty-three years. Deploying again the method he’d perfected in Poor Arnold’s Almanac, he examined such topics as the cutback in funding of the National Endowment for the Arts, the struggle between smokers and non-smokers, the jogging fad, hypocritical U.S. immigration policies, and so on. As in the Almanac, he mustered the entire arsenal of cartoon weaponry—single-panel cartoons, humorous illustration, mini-strips of several sequential panels as well as a healthy dose of verbal high jinks (like the delicious pun in the immigration report on the “Open Dour Policy”). He loved doing it. The format was a perfect reflection of his comedic sensibility; he was therefore stimulated to ever more prankish flights of hilarity. And he enjoyed absolute editorial freedom.
“It was the perfect symbiotic arrangement,” Roth said. “I knew I had to fill two pages every month, I did two pages, I sent them in, they never said a word, they printed them, and then they underpaid me. And everyone was happy!” He laughed.
Finally, in September 1986, the ultimate accolade. Roth received a letter from Alan Coren, then the editor of Punch, inviting the cartoonist to sign the Table next time he was in town. Next time? Roth turned to Caroline and said, “Pack our bags—we’re going to London. Don’t want to miss this opportunity.”
“What it meant was that I was considered staff,” Roth told me. “And the staff is very small.” It was a signal honor, and one that had been conferred upon almost no other Americans.
In the mid-1960s, Roth added Sports Illustrated to his list of major outlets. The list would eventually number in the hundreds of publications, including Time and Newsweek, Fortune and Forbes, Harpers, Gentleman’s Quarterly, Holiday, Horizon, Life, American Health, Audubon, Modern Maturity, Mother Jones, The Nation, Money, National Lampoon, New Woman, Parenting, People, Premier, The Progressive, Psychology Today, Saturday Evening Post, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Town and Country, and the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers, particularly in New York. He became one of the most published cartoonists. Then in the late 1970s, Roth had perhaps the most serious financial setback of his career.
He had concocted another cartoon feature for syndication. Called Downtown, it was intended to reflect an emerging population shift. People were moving back into city centers from the suburbs—single people. And Roth set his cartoon locale in a downtown bar where all sorts of odd and engaging characters would congregate. “The premise,” he said, “was much like the television show, Cheers” (which began in September 1982). An agent placed the feature almost immediately with a syndicate, and Roth began to cut back on his magazine work to give himself time to produce the cartoon on a daily basis. He did about three months’ worth of cartoons, but the syndicate kept stalling on releasing the feature, telling Roth all the time that it would be launched “any day now.” Eventually, however, the enterprise collapsed altogether. But by then, Roth had turned away scores of assignments. “And when you turn away people too often,” he remarked, “they start to think you’re not in the business anymore.”
Faced with near financial disaster, Roth manufactured a flier and printed about a thousand to send to major markets. He had sent out only about a hundred when he started getting assignments again. In a few months, he was back on his feet, but Caroline had started teaching art in public schools in the suburbs of Philadelphia to keep food on the family board.
The 1980s was a good decade, Roth said. Not only did he appear regularly in the pages of numerous national magazines, but he was elected president of the National Cartoonists Society in 1983. The next year, the Society named him Cartoonist of the Year and awarded him the Reuben. He had won NCS awards previously for sports cartooning in Sports Illustrated (1976 and 1977) and for cartoon illustration (1976 and 1979), and he won the latter annually through the eighties (so regularly that he withdrew himself from consideration after 1989). A member of the Society of Illustrators as well as several city art directors clubs, he won many gold and silver awards in the Society’s annual shows.
He appeared on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson several times and on the David Letterman’s “Late Show.” He lectured at the Philadelphia College of Art, the School of Visual Arts, Pratt Institute, Cooper Union, Parsons School, Princeton University, and Yale, among others. He filled in for vacationing editorial cartoonists Bay Rigby at the New York Post and for his father Paul at the New York Daily News, indulging in a little political commentary as well as social satire.
Roth’s approach to editorial cartooning is amiable rather than adversarial. He believes cartoons should laugh the pompous off their perches rather than skewer them to the wall. The agenda is to deflate not to destroy. For Roth, “liberal” is middle ground, not “left.”
“I’ve done a lot of political stuff from the very left to—well, not the very right,” he told me. “Like today, I’m working on a job for a magazine here which I’ve worked for steadily, City Journal, which is, I’d say, middle conservative. Not a right wing. And they’re a pleasure to work for. I worked for The Progressive for about a year—that’s up in Wisconsin, the old Lafollette paper, and they’re pretty far toward the left. And I’ve done work for The Nation, too, which some say is very left.”
By the end of the decade, his regular assignment at Punch had evaporated with the rapid turn-over of editors, so Roth revived Poor Arnold’s Almanac with Creators Syndicate. This time, however, he avoided the mistake he’d made with Downtown: he continued to accept magazine assignments while doing the cartoon. But this time, the strip was daily as well as Sunday, and the combined magazine and strip workload was exhausting. The circulation of the cartoon simply wasn’t great enough to justify this all-out effort. Still, Roth carried on for almost two years before he discontinued the Almanac. But there was good news from other quarters.
In 1992, Tina Brown became editor of The New Yorker. This was an extraordinary event in American journalism: not only was Brown a woman, but she was relatively young (under forty), and she was English. A Brit, editing America’s foremost literary journal! Unheard of if not altogether untoward. But that was precisely the sort of sensation that she was capable of creating, and upon such ploys she built a reputation and a career. Brown’s rise in journalistic circles had been rapid—editor of England’s Tatler at age twenty-five, of America’s Vanity Fair at thirty—and spectacular: she revitalized both magazines before moving on. And she would do the same at The New Yorker.
Brown had done some writing for Punch shortly after graduating from Oxford, and she knew Roth’s work. Soon after taking the editor’s chair at The New Yorker, she invited him to submit material. Lee Lorenz, then art editor (“cartoon editor”) for the magazine, phoned Roth and said, “She’d like to see ideas.”
As always, Roth was loath to do sketches. “I’ll tell you what, Lee,” he said. “I’d like to do double-page spreads for you. Would you be open to them?”
Lee said he would, and Roth continued: “Okay, I’ll just do a couple finished, and if you like ’em and want to buy ’em, good. And if not, I’ll know this is not for me.”
Roth did two spreads in his customary jazzman manner. The New Yorker bought one but passed on the one he did about bicycling in the city. Thereafter Roth appeared sporadically in the magazine until David Remnick succeeded Brown a half-dozen years later, and then the cartoonist started getting commissions regularly, frequently for the magazine’s Back Page, a single page cartoon feature.
“They call up and say, ‘Could you do a Back Page?” Roth said. “And the way I work—I say, ‘Okay—do you have an idea of the subject? Is it a theme issue?’ ‘Oh, no,’ they say; ‘we’d just like something that goes with the season.’ And that’s the way I like to work. And I’ll do sketches for them because with a commission, I know they’ll pay me for my time and effort whether they publish the work or not. As I always say—if they’d paid me to go to art school, I wouldn’t have been late,” he finished with a laugh. “I’ve had thousands and thousands of deadlines and never missed one.”
Some years later, casting about for a subject for one of the Back Page commissions, Roth remembered the two pages he’d done in bicycling. He edited it down to the customary single page allowance and titled it “As You Bike It.” Another Back Page, “Animal City,” is perhaps a better example of how Roth works because it was designed as a single page, as a unified work.
The literal idea—the joke, the humor—is paramount, but in the execution of the drawing, Roth strives for aesthetic qualities as well as technical, narrative clarity. “I try to make the composition attractive,” he explained, “so that the way I stage each panel and where they are in relation to each other make an attractive, balanced appearance. When I say ‘balance,’ I don’t mean axial balance. If there’s heaviness or darkness here in one area, there should be something to balance it elsewhere so the whole page will be attractive—so it will be appealing to the eye—and will read easier.”
Although there are five separate drawings in “Animal City,” each of them is related to the others in an over-all design. The two smaller panels at the top of the page are balanced by the large panel at the bottom. The huge shaggy dog at the upper right is balanced against the cluster of figures at the lower left, including a big fat horse the anatomy of which echoes that of the observer on the bench at the left. But aesthetic balance is more complex than simply weighing visual elements, one against another. The action of the third panel is diagonal from upper left to lower right; this diagonal is countered by a diagonal in the opposite direction in the next panel (the stairway and the falling flower pot point from upper right to lower left), the visual impulse directing the eye to the left side of the panel below, which continues the same diagonal composition element in the line of observers, leading, ultimately, to the fat man on the bench whose comment sets up the final joke. The action across the bottom of the page at the right duplicates the diagonal of the third panel and acquires a kind of visual impetus as a result.
At the same time, each individual drawing is composed for narrative clarity. The rat in the first panel points with his nose to the girl in the chair, the rat’s nose and the girl’s arm creating a diagonal that leads to the speech balloon that, coupled to the picture of the rat itself, makes the joke. The picture here, although humorous, is not a joke without the words; and the words make no comedic sense without the picture. The next pictures are all humorous in themselves. The huge dog is contrasted with its master, a tiny woman; but the size of the dog and the comparatively tiny plastic receptacle that she plans to use in scooping up the dog’s deposit creates the comedy at the heart of this picture.
“I try to make everything be funny,” Roth said, “but that huge face of that huge dog—I wanted him to look like a digestion machine. And in the last panel, the visual joke is the contrast between the running horse and the plodding one.”
And, again, the verbal content taken in conjunction with the visual content creates a joke that neither words nor pictures achieve without the other.
Given Roth’s attention to such subtleties, it should come as no surprise that he was upset when The New Yorker moved the home plate in his baseball drawing, “The First Pitch.” The magazine’s famed “fact checkers” had noted that in Roth’s drawing, the home plate seems to be a little outside the batter’s box, so when the drawing was reproduced on the magazine’s cover April 3, 2000, it was adjusted by computer editing. The home plate was moved to the right so it would be within the batter’s box. Factually, it was correct; but aesthetically, the picture lost something. The diagonals of the first base line and the third base line converge exactly to the point of the home plate; thus, the composition as a whole is a giant arrow, pointing to the place just in front of the catcher where the ball should be—but isn’t. By moving the home plate, the convergence of the diagonals is destroyed, and the giant arrow is not quite as evident.
“It doesn’t ruin the drawing as a baseball drawing,” Roth said. “But it reduces the effect. The whole idea is that the ball isn’t making it to where everything is pointing. The directionals emphasize the inertia of the ball: they exert a kind of pull on it. And moving the home plate diminishes the pull that exists when all these pointers, directionals, direct the reading and the eye toward the place where the ball ought to be but isn’t. It doesn’t ruin the thing. It’s just it would have been better the way I did it. My objection to them was that they didn’t tell me they were going to move it.”
It’s not so much that the drawing is better Roth’s way. But it is more satisfying to the artist. As he executed the drawing, he was thinking about its design, and when the diagonals began to converge, their convergence seemed to him to enhance the effect he was aiming for and thereby increased his own delight at what he was doing. The humor in the drawing works regardless of the placement of the home plate; but the subtle refinement that is achieved by converting the entire composition into a giant bow-and-arrow, perfectly aimed, is diminished, and the artistic sensibility is therefore offended.
Every drawing represents an artistic challenge as well as a narrative one. The cartoonist must not only make the literal humorous point clearly—the narrative chore—but must make it in a way that is aesthetically pleasing—to the artist as much as to the reader. In meeting this challenge, Roth thinks like a jazz musician.
“I enjoy doing it,” he said. “I try to give myself little problems. Brubeck, years ago, was on a symposium and somebody asked him, ‘Would you describe what playing jazz is?’ And he said, ‘It’s getting yourself into and out of trouble.’ I thought that was a good way to put it. If you’re not doing that, you’re really hacking it, doing the same thing over and over. I always want to push it a little.
“When you’re illustrating,” he continued, “usually there are givens. The subject matter. Whether I make up the subject—let’s say biking—or it’s an article about bikes, you shift into that gear; you start going through that channel. You start to gather pieces of the puzzle. You might know what you want to do at the end—what the joke is going to be. And a lot of times, there’s no real joke. It’s just exaggeration that is funny—which is what cartooning is. But there are all these pieces that you want to incorporate. And that to me is the fun of it; that’s very exciting. And that’s where the art comes into it—doing an attractive or interesting or effective drawing that somebody wants to look at—instead of turning away.
“When I illustrate,” he went on, “I do a funny drawing about that subject. I won’t just illustrate an occurrence in the story. I want the drawing to be comprehensible and entertaining apart from the piece. My experience is that people look at the pictures first and then they read the piece. If you’re a straight illustrator, you depict an incident from the story, and the reader thinks, ‘Wow—that looks exciting.’ But what’s the point of me drawing Joe putting his hat on the rack while Mary shoves her lover out the back door? You can do that with a photo now. Straight illustrators used to do those things. I figure my function is to entertain the person and get them into the piece.”
In solving the gradually evolving succession of problems that he sets himself in the process of creating a drawing, Roth tries to avoid using “tricks,” a practice he fell into early.
“I had a great teacher in high school who was a painter named Frederick Gill,” Roth said. “Composition was his main interest and it’s always been mine, also—how to put things together to make a picture and, in my case, to tell a story. I think the thing he imparted most was the idea of working honest, and by that, I mean not to go for effect. He taught me not to go for the cheap shot or the obvious and easy solution. He taught me to create a problem for myself and try to solve it. And no tricks. We get into habits about the ways we solve problems. If we’re not really concentrating, we solve problems in an almost automatic way. It becomes a part of our iconographic language. It’s like saying ‘like’ a lot. After awhile, you’re not thinking: you’re just saying ‘like’ all the time. I’m thinking constantly. I give it absolute concentration when I’m working, but these automatic things can creep in, and you have to be wary of them and try to avoid them. If you rely on them—after awhile, it kills the fun of doing the work. Automatic makes it uninteresting.”
A pronounced mannerism in drawing—artistic style itself—can be such a crutch. Style for Roth is like handwriting: he draws, and his style emerges.
“People ask me how I worked out my style,” Roth said with a chuckle. “Well, I didn’t. It sort of like the way you sign your name. I just do it. When I was very young, I went once to the studio of a couple of guys I knew in art school, and they hoped to be gag cartoonists. And I would say, ‘What are you working on?’ And they would say, ‘I’m working out my style.’ And I said, ‘You mean you’re twenty years old and you’re going to work out how you’re gonna draw everything for the rest of your life?’ It was something I never believed—you just drew. If I’m doing a drawing where I want a lot of tension rather than something that looks pleasant, I think it does affect the way I inscribe the line. And I think that’s the explanation for it”
Sometimes a raggedy line indicates texture; but sometimes it suggests tension in a scene. Fat, smooth lines suggest repose, placidity. Roth feels such emotions as he works, more-or-less consciously. If he has a rush job, for instance, he frequently works at a larger scale than usual. But it isn’t entirely intentional. The more rapidly he works, the more his hand sweeps back and forth across the paper, a large gesture that results in a large drawing.
Roth typically blocks out a drawing with pencil, sketching lightly and loosely. Most of the detail is added as he inks with a pen. “Sometimes I’ll do more pencil if it’s a very complicated piece,” he explained. “A lot of times I’ll just put in the main figures and then fill in the ancillary jokes in the background as I ink.”
And sometimes the incidental comedy is added as he works and realizes that he’s leaving negative space or other visual awkwardnesses that need to be filled with something so they won’t detract from the main purpose of the picture. Sometimes, however, he leaves empty spaces for narrative emphasis.
Once the linework of the drawing is completed in black ink, Roth begins to lay in color. Since he doesn’t work from color sketches, he goes slowly, starting with light tints and building up the color as he goes and sees how the over-all composition is developing. “It takes a little time,” he said, “but in watercolor, once you commit too much, you’re stuck. I have in mind what I want—and a lot of the color is determined automatically by the thing being colored—but my technique allows me a lot of flexibility as I go.”
The more time he has, the more care he can lavish on the painting. “If the clock is ticking and I can’t really get into more complicated painting, I use over-all tones of colors, warms and cools, and then just suggest color. Others I can really develop.”
Although Roth’s work is commercial, he feels completely free artistically. “I feel very journalistic about it,” he said. “If a drawing is a little weaker than I want it to be, then I’ll just make the next one a little better—if time allows. If time doesn’t, I make it as good as I can under the circumstances. There’s no other choice. If you break your leg and need to run for help, you can’t say, ‘I’m not going to run; my leg’s broken.’ You run as best you can.
“In the short run,” he continued, “the most important thing—for salability and communication—the most important thing is the joke. But in the long run, the most important thing is the art, the actual graphic work. And I say this to people, and they say, ‘Oh, no.’ And I say, ‘Look—none of us care what Gillray’s politics were, or Rowlandson’s views; you just look at those pictures. They’re funny and they’re great. They’re beautifully done.’”
Looking at Gillray and Rowlandson and Roth, we have the sense that they were all having fun being funny. We know Roth is having fun. We know he does it for the fun of it. And from the evidence before us, we know that when Roth does it for the fun of it, he creates works of art as well as works of comedy.
Footnit: The foregoing essay is substantially the Introduction to Arnold Roth, Free Lance: A Fifty Year Retrospective, which, as I mentioned at the onset, is still available from Fantagraphics (www.fantagraphics.com).