Cartoonist Drew Dernavich on Humor, Craft, and Drawing for The New Yorker

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Drew Dernavich is a prolific cartoonist whose work has appeared regularly in The New Yorker since 2002. In the past few months his two book projects also had a moment in the spotlight: It’s Not Easy Being Number Three, a children’s book which he wrote and illustrated, and Bullshit: A Lexicon, a collaboration with Mark Peters.

Drew blogs regularly about his artistic process and other interests at Words, Pictures, Humor. We recently chatted about his work, the path that led him to his distinct visual style, and the challenges of visual humor.


Earlier this year you published your first children’s book, It’s Not Easy Being Number Three, in which the titular number decides to disappear. How did this project come about?

Photo by Amy Semple.
Photo by Amy Semple.

I tried to publish a graphic novel for a long time and I had several different ideas, which I carried to various levels of completion. This was a beast that would have been two hundred or more pages. I tried to make it funny; my agent saw it, read it, and said, “this is a great idea, but if you make it into a kids’ book, if you make it really simple, then I will sell it for you.”

How hard was it to cut away so much of the story?

Less is always more, so it was nice to strip it down, to just have it be an identity story about the number three. And instead of all these philosophical ideas about numbers, it was just about finding the shape of the number in common, everyday objects, which was really fun to do. The only question was whether I had the correct voice to write for three-to-seven-year-olds, because The New Yorker is not that.

Did you have to modify the way you think about humor to write something that would make a five-year-old laugh?

It probably had more to do with accessing that part of my brain that connects with that sense of humor. Because we all have it, that kind of simple, goofy, very basic sense of humor that appeals to a kid. And then you build these layers of sarcasm, irony, and dry humor — very subtle bits of meta humor, in-jokes about other in-jokes, cartoons about other cartoons. So it’s stripping all that away.

Most readers are used to seeing your cartoons in black and white. In the book, all of a sudden you treat us to pops of color everywhere. How did you tackle the transition?

My mind doesn’t really think in color, it thinks in high-contrast black and white. I have trouble with gray. So color was terrifying. It was like colorizing an old photograph.

Do you feel back at home, being restricted once again to black and white?

Limitations or restrictions, even if they’re self-imposed, are a satisfying challenge for an artist.

I always feel like limitations or restrictions, even if they’re self-imposed, are a satisfying challenge for an artist, any artist, even if you’re a writer or a musician. I like the idea of saying you can’t use color, or you can’t go out of this box, or you can’t use a certain word or image. I like that creative tension.

I think an artist that works well in black and white can convey color just by the richness and depth of line, tone, and detail. So that will always be my primary interest. But it is fun to explore color.

Last fall you collaborated with Mark Peters on Bullshit: A Lexicon, a very different topic (for a very different audience). How did you approach that project?

Mark and I had been friends on Twitter, and he had said, if I sell this book, do you want to illustrate it? And I said yes.

The challenge was that it’s a book where every word means the same thing. I had to stick to the literal word pictures that the phrases — like “horse feathers” — evoked. I was very conservative with it. I just didn’t want to have to draw a piece of poop. I think I only drew one in the entire book!

I like my cartoons to look like they were carved out of stone. I like the rough look of them, that they’re kind of approximate and not precise.

You work mostly in scratchboard — how did it become your medium?

Before I knew I would be a cartoonist, the medium that I gravitated towards was printmaking. I think it’s because I like the boldness of sculpture. I like the physicality of sculpting and the idea that a sculpture is a more imposing physical object than a drawing. But I didn’t actually like sculpting. So printmaking, and woodcut in particular, is kind of like sculpting, it’s sculpture-drawing.

Scratchboard is a cheaper, more user-friendly alternative to doing woodcut. It’s a piece of board that has clay on it that you cover with black ink. And then you carve it the same way you would with the woodblock.

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I don’t start with a white page and make lines on it. I start with a big black blob of ink and then figure out how to scrape away so that I create the silhouettes of the figures and then add in the detail later. It’s like sculpting because you’re approaching the outlines of the figure from the edge or from the outside instead of drawing them from within.

I like my cartoons to look like they were carved out of stone. I like the rough look of them, that they’re kind of approximate and not precise.

It’s not a very common choice for cartoonists.

I abandoned scratchboard after I went to school because I thought you could only do cartoons by drawing with pen and ink. So I did that for a long time. I had submitted to The New Yorker for a couple of years unsuccessfully. And then I chose to try doing it in this printmaking style.

And it just happened that editor Bob Mankoff liked it when he saw it. He said it was a fresh look and a fresh take on cartoon style, which I was obviously glad about, because there are a lot of things you can’t do with it. You can’t do minute details, so it cuts down on the kinds of jokes you can make.

The scratchboard process in motion.

The scratchboard process in motion.

Would you say your technique forced you to recalibrate your humor?

I’ve always liked the humor in The Office and other mockumentaries where there’s no laugh track; it’s dry humor where you have to figure out for yourself how much you’re going to laugh. My style works with dry humor because when the work and the lines are heavy, you can’t really do light-hearted, pun-based jokes — the really ridiculous, Saturday-morning-cartoon type of humor.

You draw regularly for a weekly magazine — how do you make sure you never run out of ideas?

I try to sit down for two hours every morning, as many mornings as I can during the week, and come up with, say, ten ideas. If I come up with ten ideas, usually seven of them are garbage and only two or three will survive when I wake up the next day and look at them.

Most days I’ll sit there for forty-five minutes and just stare, drink coffee, and think, ‘maybe I’ve had the last idea I’ve ever had.’

The pleasure in that is that there’s no continuity from one day to the other — you’re just trying to churn out as many ideas as you can. It’s also terrifying, because most days I’ll sit there for forty-five minutes and just stare, drink coffee, and think, “maybe I’ve had the last idea I’ve ever had. My brain is spent and I’m going to end up working in a diner for the rest of my life.”

But then when you get going and think of ideas, even if you have a crappy day and your ideas are all garbage, you throw it behind you and you’re done. You don’t need to continue with the bad ideas. You wake up the next day and you start all over again.

Do you get to share ideas or pitches with other cartoonists from the magazine, or is it mostly a solitary activity?

It’s a solitary profession, so I enjoy showing my work to other people, showing my ideas. When we go in on the day that the editor sees people, sometimes we’ll pass our cartoons around just to see if people laugh at them or if someone will have a suggestion — do x or y, shorten the caption, change the setting. And I like it.

On your blog, readers see your entire process, from very rough sketch to highly polished cartoon. Isn’t it a bit scary to show to the world that it doesn’t come out perfect on the first try?

You get better ideas collaborating and sharing than you do sitting at your desk.

Well, usually, if you’ve noticed, I expose the process only after I’ve done something that’s finished. I don’t usually throw a bunch of ideas out there that are still in progress and I have no place to put them. But I could. I’m not afraid of doing that either.

I enjoy showing work to people because a lot of times you get better ideas collaborating and sharing than you do sitting at your desk or at the same coffee shop day after day, trying to generate new ideas.

Drew-Dernavich-Panel-Internet-Wing

Visit “Gratefully Grumpy” for the story behind this cartoon.

Another thing that becomes clear in your blog posts is how long it takes between the genesis of an idea and the finished product. For some — like the Grumpy Cat making a cameo as a library statue — it was years between the initial thought and the actual cartoon.

I’m friends with author and artist Austin Kleon, who wrote two books, Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work. He’s been an influence on me in terms of just showing my process — there’s nothing wrong with exposing your process to the world. You’re not dropping a shiny finished album on the world out of nowhere. You’re like Kanye, where you’ve released this album that’s messy and you say, well, I’m not really done, I’m not even sure which tracks are on it. I’m still working on the sound. But you’re still sharing with people and maybe somebody has an idea that you can use or follow up on.

The New Yorker is great for a finished product, but that’s the beauty of the internet — if I wanted to, I could dump a bunch of half-finished ideas on there, and say, hey, who’s got a way to make these better?

You don’t necessarily know what the image or caption is, but there’s a funny scenario that wants to be a cartoon, an idea that’s lodged deep in your brain, and your goal is to capture it.

One last question, something I always wanted to know: what comes first, the drawing or the caption?

It usually comes as an idea. There’s something that I want to say, as opposed to an image that I find funny and think, how can I type a caption onto this? You could just read the news and come across a word like “coopetition,” that hybrid of cooperation and competition that you hear in the business world. And then you think about expressing the funny silliness of that term. You could think of an animal that presented itself into a boardroom — there’s an endless supply of ideas. You could have a rhino sitting at the conference table, or a hippo, or a flamingo. And then once you put the flamingo at the conference table, you could think of a funny caption.

Drew-Dernavich-Panel-Gym

Follow Drew’s process for creating the cartoon above at his post, “Paleo Gym.”

But there’s something about it when you’re brainstorming and you hit on the one you like. You say, oh, an elephant, that’s funny — but you don’t know why it’s funny. The idea is there, you’re just trying to uncover it. Lots of times the genesis of the idea is almost subconscious. You think something is funny before you’ve actually written the joke.

I never have a funny drawing onto which I then stick a random caption. You don’t necessarily know what the image or caption is, but there’s a funny scenario that wants to be a cartoon, an idea that’s lodged deep in your brain, and your goal is to capture it.


Read more of Drew’s posts on his blog, Words, Pictures, Humor, and check out an archive of his cartoons on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter (@DrewDernavich) and Instagram.

April 4, 2016Comics, Humor, Illustration, Inspiration, Interviews, Longreads, , , , ,