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A Short Interview With John Cuneo
posted March 17, 2007
 

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*****

John Cuneo's nEuROTIC may be the greatest surprise of 2007 thus far. A book of frequently profane and sometimes shocking cartoons featuring nudity, sexual situations and even occasional, casual violence, Cuneo's work is distinguished by the breadth of Cuneo's imagination and the skill with which each scene is presented. A longtime, prominent illustrator with a client list distinguished by nearly every major magazine published today, Cuneo never intended to have this work published. How the comics moved from his desk drawer and into the distributor catalogs is a story almost on par as those suggested between nEuROTIC's covers, and hints at an entire world of more private work out there from dozens of artists that may be one day see release. That's likely a fantasy, of course, and even if it were to turn out to be true it's hard to imagine any of those as-yet undiscovered books would be of a higher quality than Cuneo's. It's an encouraging sign that Fantagraphics will use the stability it's gained from publishing Peanuts to release a book so idiosyncratic and uncompromising.

I found the artist straight-forward and engaging, and enjoyed our exchange.

*****

TOM SPURGEON: Can you tell the story about how this work moved from your drawer and into publication? You acknowledge two people at the beginning of the book.

JOHN CUNEO: Several years ago Steven Guarnaccia, who's a very well known illustrator and designer (and who now heads the illustration department at Parsons, I believe), recommended these sketchbook drawings of mine to some folks at Fantagraphics, with whom he was doing some projects. He'd seen some of my books on a few occasions -- I think at the ICON, the Illustration Conference that was in Santa Fe and then in Philadelphia. I'd brought a few of them and they were being passed around the hotel bar at night. He might have seen some stuff before that, but I'm fuzzy on the time line. Anyhow when I got back home, Steve got in touch and said he'd taken upon himself to mention these things to Fanta, and asked if that was okay.

Consequently, Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics got in touch and we discussed the possibility of a selection of this stuff being made into a book. Some time passed and my enthusiasm waned as I discovered that the pace of book publishing was much different than the "combat-duty" immediacy of editorial illustration. Eric was very encouraging, but my ambivalence about actually having these drawings "out there" got the best of me, and I put off the idea, though I continued to draw these little pictures late at night in between deadlines.

A few years later, with the encouragement of my pals and colleagues Tim Bower and Joe Ciardiello, I'd become emboldened enough to show some more of the books around to various illustrator and art director friends and again the feedback was usually pretty good. (Though I should point out that these "viewings" were almost always conducted very late, in bad light, and at a bar -- so the standards might have been a little compromised...) Another friend, the designer Robert Festino, who I'd worked with for years at Entertainment Weekly, grew frustrated with the idea of these books accumulating dust in a studio drawer, and on a visit to my house, took a few of them back with him, scanned twenty or so drawings after-hours at the EW offices, and put together a kind of mock-up version that we sent off to Fantagraphics, who promptly got back in touch,with the editor Kim Thompson saying, "Okay, let's make a book." Robert's "dummy" wasn't all that far off from the finished product that is out there now.

Left to my own devices, I might have let these things just molder away in a dark closet -- I'm sure some folks wish that I'd exercised that option.

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SPURGEON: The material in nEuROTIC is described in a couple of places as sketchbook material, but looking at it much of it seems quite accomplished and finished, even colored. Was there additional work done to prepare these illustrations for publication? How do you distinguish these works from your more traditional sketchbook work that sometimes shows up on your site?

CUNEO: Yeah, the "sketchbook" thing is a little misleading. Like everybody else, I have the usual sketchbooks lying around for doodles, phone numbers, quick ideas, assignment notes and things like that. They're stuffed in bookshelves all over the house (just in case a spasm of OCD requires that I quickly draw the same little running figure two dozen times or so -- exactly the same way each time...).

But the drawings in nEuROTIC are all done in these other little hardcover "sketchbooks" that Holbein makes. And I liked the idea of these self contained small pads with hard covers filled up with little colored drawings. There is something in me that responds well to the limitations and pace of working in that small rectangle. Ironically, I find a bigger, single piece of paper inhibiting -- but methodically working my way through a 25-page "sketchbook" provides me with an illusion of order and control that eludes me in every other aspect of my life. It's sad, really, now that I think about it.

SPURGEON: To help place your work in the minds of those reading, can you elaborate a bit on who some of your inspirations and favorite artists might be? No artist too obscure, I promise.

CUNEO: I'm easily influenced, and a lifetime of insecurity has resulted in some embarrassing stylistic shifts. I have to be careful not to wallow in the works of my heroes too long, or I'll tend to get off track with what I'm really after with my own thing.

And while I see appallingly talented new folks all the time, and the list of contemporaries whose drawings I admire, and have been influenced by, is too long to list here, there are a few names whose work continues to resonate for me. Among them are the children's book illustrator Friso Henstra, the Italian illustrator and caricaturist Tullio Pericoli, Carlos Nine, Oscar Grillo, the late Harry Rountree, the great pen and ink humorists from the early 1900s Sullivant and A.B. Frost, and -- please forgive me if this comes off as hubris -- but I look at Rembrandt's etchings almost every day... there, I said it.

Lately I've find myself under the sway of some artists who work in a much simpler, rawer, comic style. I love the directness and refined economy in the work of Mark Marek, Marcel Dzama, Paul Davis (the younger, British one), and Benoit. There is no evidence of their influence in the nEuROTIC drawings; it mostly just manifests itself in deep feelings of envy. I regret that I'm not able to shake my comparatively florid approach to rendering.

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SPURGEON: Now, was there a specific inspiration for this project?

CUNEO: No, there wasn't, because it didn't start off as a "project," really.

These drawings were never supposed to be published, and I guess that accounts for the slightly untethered sexual content. They were just done for practice . I was trying to resolve some drawing issues regarding my dissatisfaction with how I was incorporating color into my line work. And overdrawing, not trusting my "line" and figuring out the kind of "people" that I wanted to draw -- the proportions and the types. So these started just as little exercises to relax and re-figure out my "style." They are sexually oriented because I like that subject, and it entertained me to draw middle aged characters performing unseemly acts. I'm also big on self-loathing, and enjoy coming up with ways to illustrate it. Of course now that these things are in a book, I'm desperately trying to convince people that each image contains some deep universal psycho-sexual insight, but I doubt anybody is buying it -- the book or the insight thing.

SPURGEON: Even though they're definitely physically explicit to a certain extent, I found a lot of the book really funny as well. How much do you think the work is about arousal and how much is it about using that visual language in a variety of ways?

CUNEO: These aren't drawings you can masturbate to. (Just trust me on that...)

Someone described the book as "a full-color, 96-page cry for help..." which doesn't sound all that sexy, either. But I am a humorous illustrator and cartoonist, and that is my visual language. (I know, insert bilingual joke here.) I try hard not to think about any "meaning" while I'm drawing these things,
so I'd sound like a pretentious windbag if I tried to "deconstruct" each of them now, y'know?

I guess if there is an overriding "theme," it involves the intersection of lust, ambivalence and the attraction/repulsion reflex towards the ways of the flesh -- and the anxiety that ensues. How can that not be a laugh riot?

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SPURGEON: Do you have a favorite in there?

CUNEO: I don't have a favorite . The cover image won a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators and is in the American Illustration annual also (it's just a little 4"x6" drawing), and I was thrilled about that, but I cannot look at any of the stuff, including that piece, without cringing at some part of it. There are sometimes small "passages" in a piece -- a gesture, some clothing or an expression, that has some element of grace to it that I probably couldn't improve upon, but they are infrequent.

SPURGEON: How do you feel about the way the work has been presented? Did you provide your own art direction, and if so, what did you have in mind?

CUNEO: The art direction and design is all Robert Festino. I chose which drawings to include (from about a dozen sketchbooks), and wrote titles. He "paced" and sequenced them, and sized and arranged them on the pages. (Most are pretty close to actual size.)

I came up with the book title knowing that he'd have a nice typographic opportunity with the two words it contained. The covers, title pages and spine treatment are all his, right down to the two-color "sexual content warning" that lines up with the bar code on the back. He eventually took his name off the book. I'm not sure why, but perhaps he became uneasy with the association.

SPURGEON: In this work and to a certain extent in your illustration you deal with a lot of grotesquery and distortion -- people of different sizes, over-sized body parts, twisted limbs. Is there a strategy you have when employing this approach in figure drawing, or is that more of a natural way you draw that just sort of comes out through the illustrations whether or not you plan it that way?

CUNEO: Over the years I've tried to free myself from some of the academic "rules " of making a picture. Partly to keep myself entertained with the process. I have a pretty specific, "literal" cartoon (or whatever) style. It's based on some fundamental drawing precepts which demand that the figures look "real" enough to work in the picture. It's a kind of tight-assed way to make funny drawings, so to break up that fundamentally grounded aspect, I try and allow myself a lot of freedom with scale, gravity and asymmetry.

I draw that way naturally now, but it came about only after years of working my way through it, on a couch with a pad and a pen, incrementally unclenching. It's one of many lessons I've learned from friends like Tim and Joe who i mentioned above, and others like Steve Brodner, Jack Unruh, Richard Thompson and Barry Blitt, who all seem to have figured this stuff out years ago.

SPURGEON: What has it been like to have this work out in published form where everyone can see it?

CUNEO: I think I mentioned my initial disinclination to have this stuff out there. These drawings are liberated from good taste only because they weren't supposed to be seen by anybody but a few friends. But I'm old enough now to not care a whole lot. I won't be giving a copy to my mom, my father-in-law or my son's sixth grade teacher. And if the guys that I play basketball with don't get wind of it, that's probably for the best. They're more impressed with a sports illustrated assignment, and might have a tough time reconciling that stuff with this. But my kid hasn't lost any play dates because of it, and my wife Jan, who's always been amazingly supportive of this work (and of making sure I get my "sketchbook time" -- which is an essential component of any cartoonist's domestic harmony), is nonplussed by any scandalized reactions. She just wants to make it clear that none of the women in the book are her.

SPURGEON: Have you received any feedback that's surprised you?

CUNEO: Most of the feedback I get are nice notes from folks who want to know about pen nibs and paper, or a request to sign a copy.

The reviews have been good but I haven't done a public signing, and I can't imagine there would be a demand, so I don't what kind of personal public response it would get. I have given out a few copies to bartenders in town, who have grown tired of my napkin drawings, and they seem pleased.

Occasionally, when an assignment comes in to do a cover for, say, the School Library Journal or an illo for American Airlines magazine or something, the art director will describe what they're looking for, and they might mention that they "don't want a bunch of penises..." but I pretty much endorse that decision as a rule anyway. .

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SPURGEON: How much of an illustrators community is there? It seems looking on your web site and from a posting about a birthday party that I caught that many of you are close. Is the market deep enough and broad enough to make it easy for a lot of you to be friends, or are you all competitive?

CUNEO: Maybe that Woodstock Times piece is online and you came across it.

Yeah, many of my closest friends are illustrators. And a bunch of them were here recently for a birthday party. The editorial illustration world's a pretty small community, I suppose. And it is very competitive as far as getting work, but the people I've mentioned here are all very supportive friends -- maybe it's because they don't think of me as a threat?

Often, a magazine will call somebody with a job and I will have just heard from one or two of the guys who also do the ink, watercolor, caricature and/or humorous stuff, and they had just turned down the assignment. There seems to be a short list of people that do that sort of thing well and quickly, and Art Directors will sometimes go down the line, starting with their favorite, to see who's available. Eventually, they get to me.

We are all very close, and not just the humorous line guys either. Dan Adel, who is doing mostly fine art these days, Peter deSeve who did the characters in the Ice Age movies, Hadley Hooper, Mark Ulriksen, Tim O'Brien, Thom Fuchs and lots more. Some of your readers may be unfamiliar with those names, but they've definitely seen the work -- on New Yorker covers, posters, magazines, animated movies and children's books. These are all future Hall of Famers, and I see them as often as I can. They come up to the house for a weekend, we visit them or we get together in the city. I haven't had much of an art education, and these friendships have also had a real formative professional influence on me. Once you've watched Tim Bower paint or Joe Ciardiello draw, or rifled through a pile of Peter's Ice Age character sketches, sat next to Steve Brodner while he does caricatures on bar napkins, or hashed out NY'er cover ideas with Barry Blitt in his studio, things become a whole lot less mysterious, and I don't feel so bad about never learning color theory.

*****

nEuROTIC, John Cuneo, Fantagraphics, hardover, 96 pages, 1560977884 (ISBN), $19.95