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posted December 16, 2008


Creators: George Booth, Interview and Editing By Lee Lorenz
Publishing Information: Workman Publishing, softcover, 166 pages, February 1999, $10.95
Ordering Numbers: 0761112510 (ISBN10)

In a perfect world, there would be 500 books like Booth, each one teaming a cartoonist's work, examples of their work, and a light and breezy interview from an interested admirer. George Booth may be the great hope for late-blooming cartoonists in that he didn't begin doing cartoons for The New Yorker until his forties. By the time he stopped submitting work to that long-hallowed publication, Booth had enjoyed a more than three-decade run. He produced some of the arguably best and inarguably most fondly remembered cartoons of the William Shawn era.

In Booth, completed ten years ago and finding its way onto my bookshelf via the magic of the local library sale, the cartoonist talks to Lee Lorenz about his idiosyncratic assemblage of characters and situations. The structure flatters Booth. Unlike some cartoonists who can boast of a few interrelated gag platforms, Booth's recurring set-ups include an old lady who played in a civic orchestra, yards stuffed with junk, a man in a bathtub, a garage and its mechanics, a woman speaking to her husband while he sits back turned to her in a chair, cavemen that run around on all fours, a few of the talkiest cartoons any magazine has ever run, and some incredibly ugly dogs. All of them are discussed in a to-the-point manner. Mrs. Rittenhouse is based on "Mother." Booth remembers one panel with the man in the bathtub gag where he managed to work in 86 cats, which he declares his record. The cartoon over which he received the most mail was the nonsense-languaged "Ip Gissa Gul," which anyone who was reading the New Yorker in the 1970s may at least partly remember from that cursory description and will immediately recall in full upon seeing it again. Booth and Lee Lorenz seem to have an admirable relationship, or at least display the ability to fake one. It makes me feel intrusive to suggest I would have liked a clearer distinction made between Booth and the cartoonists he most resembles in the collective memory of New Yorker fans, such as George Price.

Booth was a master of the odd observation. It was a kind of humor that made my father and most of his friends laugh: someone slightly goofy saying something slightly off-kilter in a situation that may have invited the slightest touch of derision or disdain but never did. Although I don't think Booth looked at his junkyards and cluttered apartments that way. I suspect he saw them as relatable circumstances given an interesting visual life, an agreement that he worked out with his most attentive fans to satisfy their desire for the familiar and the strange in the same moment. Maybe the best part about Booth is that we get to see the non-typical gag cartoons he did, such as his wordless strips in the style of Sam Cobean and samples from his syndicated newspaper feature. When Booth has to extend his punchline past the abrupt intrusion of someone clueless, something sweet and good-natured begins to seep out. My favorite is one where a man watches a street musician accidentally collect a hotdog in his instrument and then with another breath shoot that foodstuff up to a window where waits a hungry animal. It's an absurd action. It's funny, but it's also cold in a sense, a clinically proficient act. But when the man decides that this nonsense finally makes the musician worth tipping? That makes it human, and hysterical.

There are a number of second-wave New Yorker cartoonists like Booth out there to discover. Few of them conveyed the visual sumptuousness you see in a gag by Arno or Addams. They compensated in that most of them told their own jokes, and many were great designers. If the results weren't as attractive on a regular basis, they were certainly as clever and just as fun to look at. Booth is a memorable book mostly in that there's something endearing about its subject matter. Booth makes you want to root for his art. He got me when he described doing his shading by applying ink on the other side of the paper and letting it soak through. He got me again when he talked about being taken out back to look at George Price's farmhouse and declaring, "That is memorable to me." I'd certainly welcome him were he to walk in the room and say something funny.