Drawing upon humor for change

From 'The New Yorker' to Tel Aviv: Political cartoonist Liza Donnelly heads for Animix.

Liza Donnelly (370) (photo credit: Michael Maslin)
Liza Donnelly (370)
(photo credit: Michael Maslin)
"I started drawing cartoons to make my mother laugh,” says Liza Donnelly, a cartoonist for The New Yorker who will appear at the 12th Animix Festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, an international festival of comics and animated films. The festival will run from August 8-12. The festival features a dazzling array of exhibits, workshops, classes and events that will provide some much-needed relief from the heat and summer doldrums for kids, teens and anyone with an interest in cartoons and comics.
You may not know Donnelly’s name, but anyone who reads The New Yorker will be familiar with her wry take on contemporary life, and her simple but engaging line drawings.
She discovered her artist and comic talent as a child, and her mother encouraged it, by giving her a book of James Thurber cartoons.
“I just liked drawing,” she recalls. “I didn’t aspire to the heights of cartooning until I met Nurit Karlin,” an Israeli cartoonist and illustrator who was living in the United States. “I liked her very simple, actionless, often political, commentary.”
Donnelly was drawing quite a bit then while holding down a day job at the American Museum of Natural History. But getting to know Karlin was a turning point in her life. While Donnelly loved James Thurber’s work, his sometimes over-the-top male chauvinism turned her off. “The way he dealt with women scared me. But Nurit was different.”
Fortuitously, around this time, New Yorker art director Lee Lorenz was “bringing different voices into the magazine” in the early Eighties. She submitted some drawings that were accepted as illustrations, and she began drawing cartoons that were published, both by The New Yorker and other magazines.
“More women were starting to get into cartooning then,” she says, mentioning another well-known colleague, Roz Chast. “There isn’t a girls’ club, though.
We meet each other in the hallway and talk, but there is no formal group.”
Soon, Donnelly was able to quit her day job. In addition to cartoons, she also does artwork for books (she has illustrated a series on dinosaurs), and her work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, The Nation, Audubon, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, and Cosmopolitan.
Cartooning is very much the family business in her home, since she is married to a fellow New Yorker cartoonist, Michael Maslin. The two even co-wrote and drew a book, Cartoon Marriage / Adventures in Love and Matrimony by The New Yorker's Cartooning Couple ( Random House, 2008).
“We met at a party” of New Yorker contributors, she says. Although you might expect that having a husband and wife in such a small and quirky field might get competitive or complicated, Donnelly says it’s actually quite simple.
“We don’t show each other our work until it’s published,” she explains, so there are no spats over who gets to make use of amusing incidents from their daily lives. The couple, who live in a suburb of New York City, have two daughters in their twenties, “who are both artistically inclined,” not surprisingly.
Having two cartoonist parents was fun for them growing up, Donnelly says, but they also saw “how hard it is, not having a steady paycheck.” New Yorker cartoonists submit their work each week, and even for established contributors such as Donnelly and Maslin, there is no guarantee their work will be accepted.
Although she acknowledges that cartooning is a lot of fun, sometimes it isn’t easy.
“When I was dealing with an illness in the family, it was hard,” she recalls. 9/11 was also a turning point for her. “Making people laugh is a wonderful job. But I had always had this feeling that I need to save the world. And I began to do cartoons that were more political, where I make people laugh through politics.”
She also began to write, and now has a blog that runs on Forbes.com, where she writes about issues in the news that interest her.
“It’s a great venue for me. I feel I’m really finding my voice,” she says. Recently, she interviewed Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, after he did a series of comics about sexual abuse in the military, for the blog.
Donnelly is philosophical about the fact that men still outnumber women in cartooning, and is working on a book called, Women on Men, that will come out next year. “When I meet women from all over the world who are cartoonists, we talk about why there aren’t more of us. And about how politics affect daily life, and how cartoons can be a way to share our humanity.”
For more information on Animix, and Donnelly’s appearance there, go to http://www.animixfest.co.il You can check out Donnelly’s work on her Website at www.lizadonnelly.com