That cover is part of a wave of recent illustrations that offer glimpses of inching toward normalcy — while they zero in on truths and nuances of human nature.
Last summer, responding to the initial stages of life during pandemic restrictions, Tomine, the acclaimed illustrator and graphic novelist, aimed to capture a forward-looking mood. “This was one of those covers where I started with a feeling or a state of mind,” he says, “and then worked towards nailing that down into an image.”
So he drew partygoers socializing just as they had before the pandemic — while tucked away in bulk, in a foregrounded closet, are the telltale pandemic supplies from the Earlier Time of Great Hoarding.
Tomine then showed the cover concept to Françoise Mouly, the New Yorker art editor. She knew right away: too soon.
“I had a split reaction: Intellectually, I understood what Tomine was representing, but I couldn't inhabit it — couldn't conceive of a time when our very real then-present would only be a thing of the past,” Mouly says. “If I stretched, maybe I could conceive of coming to the point where people could gather again, but I didn't think we could then be standing next to each other and laughing.”
Now, however, she sees his image as “mind-bendingly right on target,” calling it "an unerringly sharp snapshot of what we lived through, where we’re at and, I realize now, maybe even our future.”
Tomine says recent months have been “too long and sad for me to feel purely joyful, even at this point.” Yet the past year has deepened his personal connection to the mood expressed in his cover. “I'm doing better than I expected with the ‘easing back.’ As always, when it comes to things that might otherwise be anxiety-provoking in me, having kids helps.”
Emily Flake, a Brooklyn-based cartoonist, is a keen observer of quirky little social behaviors — including how we are adapting. She recalls an art event she was at this month. “A friend breathed right into my drink and I drank it anyway,” she says. “Nature is truly healing.” Her 2019 book is called “That Was Awkward: The Art and Etiquette of the Awkward Hug,” so it was only natural that she would offer an update through the prism of a pandemic, with her new comic this month for the Nib, “Awkward Hugs: Post-Quarantine Edition.”
“As we emerge, blinking like mole rats,” she writes, we now have “new hugs to consider.” She illustrates and illuminates such hugging “variants” as “The Busted Timer” (“Nobody remembers how long hugs are supposed to last. A second. Three seconds? Until you’d legally be considered common-law married”) and “The Torpedo” (“Charge towards [a friend] silently with my arms straight ahead”).
Flake notes that about 90 percent of her post-vaccination hugs have been the kind that “dissolves immediately into sobs” — and she created another cartoon panel that shows her teary love.
“I’ve absolutely been crying when hugging,” she says. “I live with my husband and daughter, so I haven’t been exactly touch-deprived this whole time, but the isolation and distance of quarantine truly does make you appreciate the everyday miracle that is human touch and affection.”
And because she’s a crier, “miracles make me leak out of my eyeholes.”
So just how hard has social distancing been on committed huggers? “Just know that if we wanted to hug you before, we probably want to hug you so bad now that we’re doing everything in our power not to jump up and fully Golden-Retriever you. Or that’s what I’m doing, anyway.”
Steve Breen, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, has especially missed the family trips. But he’s noticed the marked uptick at the pump.
As he was planning a road trip for the summer, his creativity began burbling. “I went online to look at oil company logos and inspiration struck,” he says. So he drew a road-bound family coming out of its shell — beneath the Shell sign showing gas prices topping five bucks a gallon.
Darrin Bell, meanwhile, is among the comic-strip creators tackling the realities of shifting social spaces. In his syndicated “Candorville,” the character Susan Garcia, an executive, has been dealing with her colleagues’ odd behavior as they’ve returned to in-person work.
“Susan’s office is going to be a minefield for a long time — and like most workplaces, they’re not going to have an easy time moving past the pandemic,” the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist says. “It’s not just safety, it’s also priorities — millions of white-collar workers miss office culture, but millions of others discovered a new sense of freedom over the past year.”
Adds Bell: “For a lot of people, it’s going to be hard to go back to a building where you feel more like a cog in a machine than like an individual.”
Peter Kuper, meanwhile, looks out his window and sees humans increasing their damage to the environment again. So he drew a landscape ablaze (“fireworks at an extinction reveal party,” the artist notes wryly) as a woman in the cartoon says, “I’m just happy things are getting back to normal.”
“What qualifies as ‘normal’ these days is absolutely not,” says Kuper, who is syndicated by Cagle Cartoons. “We have reached a point where outrageous is run-of-the-mill, par for the course and business as usual.”
So Kuper offers the momentary balm of distracting humor. “Thank goodness cartoons are here to make us forget all that,” he notes, “so we can get back to what’s important — like dining indoors at restaurants.”