Charles Barsotti, New Yorker cartoonist known for his simplicity, dies at 80


A cartoon by Charles Barsotti, whose drawings were a staple of the New Yorker magazine for decades. He died June 16 at 80. (Courtesy of The New Yorker)
June 18

Charles Barsotti, whose clean-lined cartoons, often depicting dogs, kings or overbearing businessmen, were a staple of the New Yorker magazine for decades, died June 16 at his home in Kansas City, Mo. He was 80.

The cause was brain cancer, his daughter Wendy Barsotti said.

Since the 1960s, Mr. Barsotti published more than 1,300 cartoons in the New Yorker, developing a style characterized by simple drawings and subtle humor. He had a remarkably economical style, using just a few lines and the simplest of captions to make his point. His flowing signature, “C. Barsotti,” was often the most elaborate part of his drawings.

Mr. Barsotti had several recurring themes, including rapacious businessmen, self-doubting kings, the psychiatrist’s couch and humanized dogs musing on the mysteries of life. His captions were often oblique references to familiar sayings, seen through a clear but oddly angled lens.

“Charley Barsotti brings a style so simple, so direct, so unique,” New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff told the Dallas Morning News in 1998, “that every one of his drawings acts like this little cognitive arrow that goes right to the brain.”


Cartoonist Charles Barsotti at his home studio in Kansas City, Mo. (Karen Stallwood/The Dallas Morning News)

In Mr. Barsotti’s world, an adult dog offers this suggestion to a puppy: “My advice is to learn all the tricks you can while you’re young.”

A masked thief clutches a bag of money while sitting at a bar, speaking to another customer: “ ‘Alleged,’ please, ‘alleged.’ ”

In perhaps his best-known cartoon, Mr. Barsotti shows a piece of pasta — rigatoni, to be precise — speaking on the telephone: “Fusilli, you crazy bastard! How are you?”

Mr. Barsotti’s dry, sophisticated humor may have seemed fated for the New Yorker. But after publishing his first cartoon in the magazine in 1962, it took years before he became established in what has long been the country’s top showcase for single-panel cartoonists.

His streamlined, sketchily drawn style showed the influence of earlier New Yorker cartoonists such as James Thurber, Otto Soglow and Saul Steinberg. He often turned in dozens of ideas to the New Yorker each week, and his work also appeared in many other venues, including Playboy, Esquire, the New York Times, Texas Monthly, a British line of stationery and several cartoon collections.

“If you see one of his drawings anywhere, on a coffee mug, on a refrigerator, you know that’s his,” New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin said Wednesday in an interview. “It seemed like the simpler he got, the better he got.”

Charles Branum Barsotti was born Sept. 28, 1933, in San Marcos, Tex., and grew up in San Antonio. His father worked at a furniture store, and his mother was a teacher.

He began drawing cartoons in his youth, including for the school paper at what is now Texas State University in San Marcos, from which he graduated in 1955. He spent two years in the Army, then worked for six years at a school for emotionally disturbed young people while drawing cartoons in his free time.

He moved to Kansas City in 1964 to draw greeting cards and write slogans for Hallmark. In 1968, Mr. Barsotti became the cartoon editor and poetry editor of the Saturday Evening Post during the magazine’s final year of life. By the time he returned to the Kansas City area in the early 1970s, he had a contract to draw cartoons for the New Yorker.

In 1972, his opposition to the Vietnam War led him to take on the quixotic mission of running for Congress as the Democratic nominee in a heavily Republican district in Kansas. He abandoned his campaign long before Election Day.

One of his cartoons can be seen as an implicit commentary on his short-lived political career. Speaking on the phone, a king says: “Corrupted absolutely — and you?”

Instead of the frivolities of politics, Mr. Barsotti decided to devote himself to the serious business of cartoons.

“It may be ‘antic’ art — not really heavyweight stuff,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986, “but there’s an integrity to this stuff, a fearsome integrity, or should be.”

His first marriage, to Jo Ann Zimmerman, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 35 years, the former Ramoth Millin of Kansas City; four children from his first marriage; his second wife’s daughter, whom he adopted; a sister; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Barsotti was known as a genial host who flew the Texas flag in his back yard while making barbecued ribs. He remained a prolific cartoon artist until the past few months.

“I start with a small stack of paper, good paper that can stand a lot of erasing because I seldom begin with a specific idea for a cartoon,” Mr. Barsotti wrote earlier this spring for the New Yorker’s Web site. “Then I start drawing in pencil, drawing and erasing.”

And somehow an absurdist view of the world emerged, one where a morose clown could say on the telephone, “What’s the next best medicine?”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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