When his friends call him wacky, George Booth considers it a compliment of the highest order.

The friends are refering to Booth's brand of humor, and humor is Booth's stock in trade. He is one of the nation's most popular cartoonists, and his complacent cats, dour dogs and eccentric-looking characters appear regularly in The New Yorker magazine, in advertising campaigns and on stationery products ranging from calendars to valentines.

"George is an overnight success -- after a period of 30 years," says Martin Garrity, a California commercial artist who 30-odd years ago was Booth's teacher at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. As testimony to that success, Garrity notes that Booth, who is 53 years old has a growing number of imitators. "I won't name names," he says, "but there are enough of them around now copying George."

Imitative or otherwise, cartooning is a growing field. "More young people, including women, are entering [cartooning] than ever before, says Ron Wolin, executive director of the Cartoonists Guild, a trade association. The best of the gag cartoons (as distinct from the political variety and the syndicated comic strips) appear in The New Yorker, Playboy and the women's magazines. But Wolin adds that nowadays "more opportunities exist for cartoonists' work being used outside of the traditional magazine and newspaper markets."

George Booth has successfully taken advantage of those opportunities, but he views his success with modesty. "I'm making a living," he says in his characteristic soft-spoken manner.

How he makes that living is the fulfillment of a lifetime ambition. "I wanted to be a cartoonist from the time I was three years old," he says. And with a few detours, he has been just that. He could make more money using his talents in other ways, he says, but his goal isn't to amass riches. Instead, the tall, bearded Booth says he wants "to make people smile . . . and maybe even chuckle once in a while." He pauses reflectively and then adds: "The need is great."

To meet that need, Booth uses a Bic ball point pen, a felt-tipped pen and a pad of 9-by-12 ledger paper. The most important tool of his trade, however, is his imagination. He gets many of his ideas by reading, he says, noting, for example, "I buy The Wall Street Journal on the newsstand, and my main purpose is to get cartoon ideas." Not long ago, his wife, Dione, called his attention to a New York Times recipe for chicken cooked with 40 cloves of garlic. He used the recipe as the basis for a cartoon.

He also delves into the classics. "Shakespeare is one of my writers," he says with a laugh. Last year, he used a Shakespeare line -- "By Jupiter, an angel! Or, if not, an earthly paragon!" -- as the caption for a drawing of an extremely old man peering through a pair of binoculars at an equally old woman. The cartoon, which appeared in The New Yorker, in many ways typifies the Booth style. The principal characters were drawn in a series of quick scrawls and squiggly lines by the Bic, with the felt-tipped pen used for shading, included in the scene was a white dog with upraised ears.

Pets are staples of most Booth cartoons. He particularly fancies a daffy-looking English bull terrier, often drawn with a faintly menacing expression that is belied by crossed eyes. Because he so frequently uses the bull terrier, he says, "some people think I invented the breed."

Many of the cartoonists's favorite human characters evoke, in spirit if not in faithful representation, Booth's comic heroes: Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields. It isn't coincidental that those inspirational figures were kings of comedy during Booth's childhood; he is the first to admit the seminal influence of his early years, both at the movies and at home.

"I draw a lot on what I saw as a child -- the naked light bulbs, the bare floorboards," he says. In sum, his cartoons often have the look of the 1930s. f"A lot of humor came out of those Depression years," he says.

Booth grew up in Fairfax, Mo. Both his parents were teachers. His mother, however, had a consuming avocation: cartooning. When he was a child, Booth recalls, "my mother and I would often be up until two or three in the morning drawing cartoons -- she was a lot different from the mothers who want their children to go to bed early." (Today, Booth's mother, at the age of 76, has a weekly cartoon in the Princeton, Mo., Post-Telegraph; she signs herself MawMaw Booth.)

Professional cartooning for Booth, however, didn't get under way until after World War II. He had served in the Marine Corps during the war, at which time he was a reader of the Marines' magazine, Leatherneck. In 1946, he applied to and was accepted by Leatherneck for an additional two-year stint in the Marines as a cartoonist.

"He was very raw then," says Leatherneck's art director, John DeGrasse, who was assistant art director of the magazine when he first met Booth. "He was worried about his drawing. I told him to emulate the experts for draftsmanship and then gradually he'd develop his own style. And soon he did develop his own style. Today, his style is more sophisticated, but his humor is essentially the same -- offbeat."

In 1948, he left Leatherneck and began two years at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where his teacher, Garrity, noticed not only the new pupil's talent but also his unfailing good humor. "I never saw anyone enjoy his own drawings more than George," Garrity recalls. "He'd sit back and laugh at everything he did."

The Korean war brought another stint at Leatherneck, more cartoons and even some covers. Booth thought he was ready for the big time. In 1952, he left Leatherneck and went to New York. Storming the Barricades

The splash he made could be measured in droplets. He sold a few cartoons to major magazines and a number to small trade publications; the trade publications paid an average $15 per cartoon. He tried over the next few years on several occasions to crack The New Yorker. Each time he failed. And so, in 1958, newly married, he took a job with Bill Communications, a publisher of business magazines, as an art director.

Because of the pressures of the job, he says, "I stopped doing cartoons." He would come home at night and try to work on cartoons, he explains, but fatigue would set in. "I'd just sit and stare at a blank sheet of paper."

It was a problem that lasted for most of his nine years with Bill Communications. At the end of those nine years, however, he quit to make a renewed attempt at cartooning. For a year, he worked on small accounts. After that year, he decided to make another assault on The New Yorker.

As Booth recalls, The New Yorker editors weren't interested in his new submissions. But this time they did see some potential -- if they could be assured that the cartoonist would be around for a few years. "They hadn't met met," Booth says. "And since my style is shaky, and I draw old things all the time, they thought I might be 85 -- in which case they would have been hesitant." Instead, the magazine's editors found a man in his mid-40s, fairly panting for an opportunity. Booth was invited to submit more of his work. The Detail's the Thing

By 1972, Booth cartoons were appearing with regularity in The New Yorker. Today, he is under contract with the magazine, which gives The New Yorker a first-refusal arrangement for his work. That work, including cartoons and covers, is submitted weekly to The New Yorker's art director, Lee Lorenz, himself a cartoonist.

Once The New Yorker decides it wants a particular cartoon, it buys the reproduction rights from the cartoonist (who retains the original). The cartoonist is paid on the basis of the cartoon's size as it appears in the magazine. That fee averages $600 a cartoon, Lorrenz says. "We pay more than anyone else," the art director says, "but still most of our cartoonists make under $20,000 a year" from their work in The New Yorker.

But a successful cartoonist like Booth has a number of sources of income. Barbara Nicholls, who operates a Manhattan gallery that specializes in cartoons, says that originals of Booth cartoons sell in the range of $300 to $500 each. And Herb Valen, the agent who represents many New Yorker cartoonists in their dealings with advertising agencies, says that Booth drawings are "very popular" advertisers.

Booth won't discuss his income but says, "if you want to get rich, cartooning, as I practice it, isn't the thing to do." Considerable amounts of money can be made from syndicated comic strips, he adds, a notable example being Charles Schulz of "Peanuts" fame.

But Booth doesn't want the pressure of a syndicated strip. As it is, he creates some 10 cartoons a week, including his work for The New Yorker and other outlets. On the average, he says, it takes him from 20 minutes to two or three days to create a cartoon. He does most of his final drawing in a studio adjacent to the Booths' 19th-century saltbox house on the North Shore of Long Island.

As much as he likes being a cartoonist, Booth also considers himself an illustrator and thereby pays particular attention to detail. "You look for the little things," he says. "Laurel and Hardy paid attention to the little things."

Lee Lorenz says, "Not many artists take the same delight in details -- the little kittens behind the sofa, the untied shoe, the coat buttoned the wrong way." Booth's fans comment on his details in letters to him. Depending on what's in print, he says, he gets six or seven letters a week -- most of them favorable. The Repeat Entry

Still, The New Yorker doesn't accept every Booth submission. In cases of rejections, he will often try to rework the cartoon. Last year for example, the magazine ran a cartoon that Booth had submitted off and on, and in various forms, over a period of seven years.

"Sometimes I go to far, or almost too far, in trying to be funny," he says. "It can be like overacting. I can border on being grotesque, I guess. But then life is grotesque."

At Drawing Board Greeting Cards Inc., the Dallas-based concern that features greeting cards and other items bearing Booth drawings, creative director Peter Vatsures says that sometimes Booth "comes up with things that are too remote for our customers." However, Vatsures adds that Booth's "friendly but terribly offbeat" style is highly popular "in the big coastal cities." He adds, "I'm not so sure about the small towns."

Of course, even city slickers aren't universally enamored of Booth's work. His friend Morgan Browne, president of Bill Communications, says, "I've never been crazy about George's cartoons -- they aren't particularly to my taste." He adds, "But that doesn't bother George -- he's too much his own person."

Others think that Booth's work has its highs and lows. "He's a very funny man," says James Geraghty, retired art director of The New Yorker. "Even when the situation or the gag isn't that funny, the drawing is funny." However, Mr. Geraghty says, "Like all cartoonists, he has to do so much that some of [Booth's work] is forced."

Booth knows that he needs relaxation from time to time. Besides judo, a favorite form of unwinding, the cartoonist says he likes to "cruise around in a 1935 Dodge -- it does wonders" He returns from his drives in the Depression-era vehicle refreshed and ready for work. "There's a lot of talk that cartoonists have to be angry to be effective," he says. "I don't feel like that at all."