BRIAN McFADDEN got word about a month ago: New York was interested, had seen his sweet stroke and was calling him up to the bigs. “I was essentially plucked from some sandlot and dropped into a Major League stadium,” he says. “Yankee Stadium would fit the analogy better, but I am a die-hard Red Sox fan.”
At 31, McFadden had turned the head of the New York Times, which was reinventing its Week in Review section — what a Times memo reportedly called not just a new look or layout, but rather “the creation of an entirely new section.” Op-ed art director Aviva Michaelov wanted the young alt-cartoonist to join the section’s opening-debut roster.
She “asked out of the blue if I was available and willing to do a weekly comics column during the summer,” McFadden tells Comic Riffs. “She had seen my ‘Big Fat Whale’ stuff online and showed a few recent comics to the editors. I assume they liked them, or a series of double-dog-dares led them to this decision.”
This weekend, the Times introduced its new Sunday Review section. There, prominently displayed, was the first fruit of McFadden’s new weekly employment: Ironically, a multi-panel cartoon titled “The State of Unemployment.”
Citing the swelling ranks of jobless Americans, the comic wryly paints an Unemployment Statehood Movement — featuring such characters as the movement’s leading intellectual, the sweat-panted “esteemed guy on his parents’ couch” (looking vaguely like Zach Galifianakis), and a stock cigar-chomping fat cat as Big Business (Central Casting would have Ed Asner’s mug in mind).
“I’ve been given a lot of leeway,” says McFadden, whose online comics can be spiced with saltier language . “I was told what ‘Big Fat Whale’ comics the editors liked, and asked to do more stuff like that, but without swearing and keeping a wider, family audience in mind. In fact, this week’s comic went through the editing process without any changes.”
Because of that editing process, McFadden says he has to get script approval by midweek. “But that’s where weekly comics excel,” he says. “What they lack in immediacy, they make up for in exploring ideas in a deeper way, which I think is the goal of the Sunday Review.”
The invention of the Sunday Review led the Times not only to devote new real estate to a rotating roster of artists, but also to scuttle its weekly roundup of national political cartoons — a perch cherished by some newspaper cartoonists who especially value the visibility as they work in a beleaguered field. Aware of the politics of the Times’s revamp, McFadden says his feelings about the shift are “definitely mixed.”
“I didn’t want to see anyone lose that platform,” he says, “but I think the commissioning of work just for Sunday Review is something to be excited about for all cartoonists. If this spurs editors at other papers to seek out more original work, it’ll be good for all cartoonists.”
On a personal level, McFadden is hopeful that the new gig will raise his visibility enough to result in more employment. “Honestly,” the Massachusetts-based artist says, ”I’d be thrilled if this just gets me enough work to eke out a decent living and have some fun away from my desk and tablet.”
McFadden has been an alt-comics fan for nearly two decades, ever since he discovered Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell.” “As a 13-year-old ‘Simpsons’ fan, [that’s] probably what got me digging deeper into alt-weekly comics and comedy in general.” Now, he gets to play on one of the biggest journalistic stages. He doesn’t know just how long his New York call-up will last, but that does nothing to dampen the joy.
“I’m just thrilled I get to do another one next week.”