RIP, CHARLES BARSOTTI: New Yorker artist was ‘master cartoonist, a true original, and a nice guy, to boot.’


by CHARLES BARSOTTI / used by permission of The New Yorker

 

CHARLES BARSOTTI knew, deep down, where we live.

The New Yorker cartoonist with a gift for the simple line and succinct caption can himself be summed up somewhat concisely: The man knew our appetites.  And he never ceased in finding new ways to render them in wise and amusing and truthful form.

Whether his skewer was slicing into those who hunger for power — be they corporate kings or feudal lords — or he was depicting such literal sustenance as conversational pasta, what Chef Barsotti was always serving up, really, was pithy food for thought. Except for the occasional physical gag purely for the visual joke’s sake, each of his cartoons was a slice of humanity. Even when the only characters pictured were cutlery. Or sporting goods. Or dogs.

And oh, how Barsotti could draw dogs. They each had a long, Snoopy-like snout, but they usually lacked the “Peanuts” pooch’s worldly bravado and panache. These were canine who cried. On the couch. In therapy. Sometimes only wanting to know why pet owners dare move the doggie dish.

The Barsotti dogs were usually motivated by the same wants and needs as people: Security. Peace. Reassurance. Social company. And, of course, food.

Barsotti had little patience, though, for those people whose appetites became obscene. He especially relished exposing greed. Simple, fat bags of money proliferated, like a comedic prop that launched the action we were witnessing. In one Barsotti cartoon, one god tells another on a cloud: Watch what trouble will ensue when we hurl to Earth not a thunderbolt, but a big wad of moolah.

The truth, it zings.

“There is so much to say about Charley Barsotti that you’d need a book to say it. And, in fact there is a book, ‘The Essential Charles Barsotti,’ by my predecessor, Lee Lorenz,” New Yorker cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff tells The Post’s Comic Riffs, noting that Barsotti published nearly 1,400 cartoons in the magazine over five decades.

For Mankoff, though, the essential Charles Barsotti boiled down to three elements. First was the empathy of his humor.

“It hugs us and we want to hug it back,” says Mankoff. author of the new memoir “How About Never — Is Never Good for You?”. “Our heart goes out to the little dog on the psychiatrist’s couch plaintively saying with a tear dripping down from one eye, ‘They moved my bowl.’ ”

“I loved Charley Barsotti’s cartoons,” veteran New Yorker cartoonist and graphic-memoir author Roz Chast (“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”) tells Comic Riffs. “They were funny, but never mean and never corny. I loved seeing the world through his eyes.”

“I don’t think his cartoons ever had a mean spirit,,” says New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly (author of the new “Women on Men”). “They were always gently poking fun at life, and often had a warm and gentle affectionate quality.”

“Charles’s little dogs always got to me,” says New Yorker cartoonist Frank Cotham, an avowed dog person. “Anyone who could render little dogs in such a way had to have been a very nice man.”


by CHARLES BARSOTTI / used by permission of The New Yorker

 

Barsotti’s gift for empathy was delivered through clean, spare lines in scenes that often lacked a backdrop (save for a token cloud or squiggle of an airborne bird). He was as effective as Thurber, with even greater visual grace. His knowing geometry and sense of space frequently reflected the power-play at work within the cartoon — be the scene a courtroom or a castle, a corporate boardroom or a psychiatrist’s couch. There was rarely a gray tone or wash, particularly in his later works, and occasional, purposeful fields of black within his line drawings usually connoted authority and importance, whether nefarious or pure.

This was “the sophisticated simplicity of his art,” Mankoff tells me. “With a few sinuous strokes, he could lasso any topic; love, death, truth, wisdom and pull laughs from it.”

“I also loved looking at the drawings — that black line looping through all that lovely white space,” Chast tells Comic Riffs. “He never overdid it, or underdid it.”

“Charley was an incredible artist who could pack enormous meaning into the simplest of drawings,” New Yorker cartoonist and artist David Sipress tells The Post. “The spare beauty and graphic punch of his style is unmatched.”

New Yorker colleague Michael Maslin says that Barsotti belongs alongside such masters as Steig and Addams, and the Prices, George and Garrett — with a line straight from “the school of Thurber, Al Ross and Otto Soglow.”

A third essential, Mankoff says, was Barsotti’s skill at making “the surreal real.”

“Every cartoonist does talking animals, but Charley’s comic imagination ranged much further afield, animating the inanimate, and giving voice to, for example, pasta, bowling pins, forks, knives and assorted fruit.”

One of Barsotti’s most famous cartoons shows a friendly faced pasta tube answering the phone by saying: “Fusilli, you crazy bastard! How are you?” It’s one of those inspired “surreal real” cartoons that might drive Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s “Seinfeld” character (Elaine Benes) crazy — and amuse the heck out of most anyone else, especially in the great surname sound of a “Fusilli” (let alone a “Barsotti”).


by CHARLES BARSOTTI / used by permission of The New Yorker

 

Even with the warmest of lines, Barsotti could be cuttingly political — and incisively philosophical.

“His writing has always been sharp and totally original,” Sipress tells me. “I especially admire his politically themed cartoons. Charley has been taking on income inequality since before we had words for it, and he managed to do it hilariously every time.

“In fact, his work was always, always funny, and that is the mark of a truly great New Yorker cartoonist.”

The ultimate essential about Charles Barsotti, though, is how friends and colleagues describe the kindness of the man.

“A master cartoonist, a true original, and a nice guy, to boot,” Chast says.

“He was also a gracious and lovely man,” says Sipress.

“Charley was a legend: a great cartoonist, a better guy and a heck of a lot of fun,” says friend John McMeel, of Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel, which published a number of Barsotti’s books. “He will be missed.”

Charles Barsotti was born in 1933 in San Marcos, Texas; he grew up in San Antonio, and studied social sciences at what is now Texas State University.

Barsotti died late Monday in Kansas City. Last year, he received a diagnosis of brain cancer, and had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, his wife, Ramoth, told the Kansas City Star. He was 80.

“My memories of Charley are of a sweet and gentle soul,” Mankoff says, “who even under the weight of a terminal illness continued to lighten our lives with his wit, humor and humanity.”

 


by CHARLES BARSOTTI / used by permission of The New Yorker
Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the "Comic Riffs" column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Post's Book World. He relishes sharp-eyed satire in most any form.
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Michael Cavna · June 16