Once I hit high school cartoons become more than something that I read and copied. I wanted to be able to draw my own, and part of this I recognized was understanding how they worked. I harbored dreams of creating the next great comic strip or perhaps working for MAD Magazine and believed that the best way to get into the business was to pick up every cartooning book I could find and absorbing everything in it. At the time there weren’t a whole lot out there, but I happened to come across Mort Gerberg’s book on cartooning at the local library and was immediately sucked in. To this day I still enjoy rereading it, having finally tracked down a discarded library copy about ten years ago.
Gerberg’s book has very little to do with how to draw comics. Instead, he addresses drawing cartoons as a business, beginning with the long-gone days where cartoonists went from magazine to magazine to sell strips. Of course there were a lot more places to sell to back in 1989 – today there’s only Playboy and the New Yorker for the most part – and of course no one really submits strips in person anymore. But Gerberg, who was in the thick of things, really makes it an appealing way to make a living, one in which creating a gag was a lot of work, but the sheer enjoyment of doing it for a living made up for any writer’s block and dry spells. The cover really says it all – the image on the front stuck in my head for years as what being a cartoonist was: sitting at a drawing table surrounded by pens and pencils and works in progress, smiling all the time.
Gerberg then discusses the single panel gag cartoon in great detail; he maintains (correctly) that if you can master the gag cartoon, you can do anything else. And thus we are introduced into a world of terrific cartoons from places like the New Yorker like this classic from Shel Silverstein:
There were plenty of other great cartoonist in here as well, from the world of magazine cartoons which I never knew existed: Lorenz, Saxon, Addams, Wilson .. masters all.
There’s also a wonderful section on tools of the trade, which I immediately used as a shopping list for Conte crayons, pen nibs, fountain pens – there was nothing I wasn’t willing to try, and I loved the experimentation that went along with it.
Above all this was a book that you read; there really weren’t any drawing exercises that went with it. It was all about a business which sadly is in decline. As fun as it is to read this book, the way that Gerberg describes the business just doesn’t exist anymore. There isn’t much of a market for gag cartoons, and although the back does include other viable markets like greeting cards, most of the other sources of income he describes – editorial cartoons, comic books – have become smaller markets as well.
Gerberg’s book has been out of print for a long time – no surprise, since it would need a complete overhaul to be relevant to today’s market – but I still love it for the nostalgia. I gave up on the dream of creating a comic strip, but I wouldn’t want to do it in today’s market anyway. But I love this book for what it meant to me at one time, and continue to enjoy delving into it for the fun lifestyle it presents drawing cartoons to be. And even to this day when I read the book I think about what I might have done if I had followed this book’s advice.