It is not only fitting that Donnelly be up for the award — named for the humorist who own works appeared in the New Yorker — but also high time: No woman has won the Thurber Prize in its 14-year history.
Comic Riffs caught up with Donnelly to talk about skewering dating and relationships; satirizing gender politics; and the art of capturing these truths a single panel at a time:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on being a Thurber finalist, Liza. So, what’s your strategy for bumping aside David Letterman’s candidacy? “Women on Men” (Narrative Library) is so good, you actually might override the “sympathy vote” that piggybacks Letterman’s big late-night retirement in a few months.
LIZA DONNELLY: Thanks, Michael! I am a huge Letterman fan, and have been since the very first night he was on late night TV. I love his brand of humor, and thought even better of him after he had New Yorker cartoonist, and friend of mine, Jack Ziegler on his show. How many late-night TV shows have cartoonists as guests? So, while I’d do anything to win this thing, I will be happy if Letterman gets it. As they say in Hollywood, it’s an honor to be nominated…particularly with David Letterman.
MC: Speaking of awards, this has been quite a wonderful run in recent weeks for some top established women cartoonists, yourself included. Roz (Chast) being long-listed for the National Book Award, of course, and Alison Bechdel being awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.” I’ve heard some younger cartoonists like Susie Cagle — who just won an ONA award herself — speak to a certain dichotomy: It’s a shame we’re not further along that so many of these awards for women are historic “firsts” – yet it’s so great to see superlative cartoonists who happen to be women be so honored. Could you speak some to your reaction to these recent honors for pioneers like you, Roz and Alison?
LD: One of the problems with editorial art is that until recently, not many women have been choosing it as a career. Of course, there have been exceptions historically. There are a number of reasons for this — there is no simple answer. But it has to do with societal norms: a tendency for women not to want to put their opinions forth in a powerful way [the same is true in editorial opinion columns], in part because women are “raised” to not do so by society — it is not “ladylike.” This is now changing.
Secondly, the norm for what is considered excellence in this art form is changing and that opens the doors for other ways to express ideas. Roz Chast, Alison Bechdel are innovators, and their work is now considered to be great, and it is! Their work also speaks to politics of daily life, the politics of being a woman, and this is recognized as a new and valid area of exploration. Years ago, it would not have been considered “important.” I think it’s wonderful that women are being recognized, and I am honored to be among them in these recent years.
[FROM KIRKUS TO THE MACARTHUR: It’s been a “banner" year for women graphic novelists, editorial artists]
MC: Your talk at the National Book Festival last month was very well-received, eliciting loud rounds of true, knowing laughter – not always an easy feat when showing (and reading aloud) gag panels to a big room [he said, speaking from painful experience]. In fact, I thought one of the best dynamics I saw in the room was that women of all [adult] generations were identifying with your work, laughing heartily — in some cases, even nudging boyfriends or husbands who seemed slower on the recognition uptake. Could you talk about two things related to that:
(a) The careful art of talking about, and showing, your work to sizable audiences; and (b) Do you find that your work transcends generations, if not also gender?
LD: (a) It was a great audience — it’s wonderful to hear your observations. I actually constructed the speech to not just be about women, but wanted to appeal to everyone, so I’m glad it did. It is tricky to write a speech for a large audience using cartoons–you have to make you points simple and make sure the cartoons can be read quickly. I have been doing more multi-paneled cartoons lately, and they do not work well in this type of setting. The quick punch of a single-panel cartoon works very well. I also try to choose cartoons of mine that “illustrate” what I am saying, I don’t just stand there and talk about the cartoon. Rather I have an underlying idea I want to get across and the cartoon is like an accent. I am doing more and more of these kinds of talks around the country to many different types of groups.
(b) I always love when people come to thank me after a talk, particularly young women because I really want to appeal to all generations (and all genders). When I wrote my book “When Do They Serve The Wine?,” I was teaching women’s studies and humor studies at Vassar College , I used my and others’ cartoons to make points, and realized how important it is for women of different generations to seriously talk to one another. Each generation makes the same mistakes and we can stop that if we just share our experiences. What better way than with humor?
MC: In “Women on Men,” you write in one of your sectional chapter breaks that only relatively recently has it been socially acceptable for women to share certain body-related humor in [polite?] mixed company. You write: “So now men are learning how to laugh at our vagina jokes. Just as for generations we have patiently laughed at their penis jokes. Our turn.” Could you talk about this longtime double standard for humor in social settings, as you have experienced it? When did you really notice true waves of change — and have professional women humorists helped bring about that change?
LD: I only realized this later in my career, primarily because I was busy just drawing and not thinking about gender issues. But I think the barriers began to break down slowly, starting with professional comedians like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, continuing with Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg. Now there are many great comics who are women, pushing all kinds of boundaries, I can’t name them all there are so many of them. What comedians do is very public and it affects humor in related fields. Historically in the past, the kind of humor that women shared only with each other stayed in that circle. Now it can be mainstream, provided it is good.
MC: Prior to your husband Michael [Maslin, himself a New Yorker cartoonist], was your dating history sometimes as painful as you depict in your work — or is that mostly comic hyperbole? And on a related note of humor: Is it fair to summarize that you are “anti-” men’s exposed Bermuda-short knees (unless actually IN Bermuda), plaid shirts and porkpies, sauerkraut and male Spanx (which I believe do exist and are called “Manx”)? Because this all makes for fantastic fodder in your book.
LD: My dating life prior to Michael was at times fun, at times very painful, just as I say in the book! I was very glad to find Michael when I did, because I had had it with dating. And as concerns clothing (and food)–its fun to make fun of people’s choices, isn’t it? Men or women–we all have our quirks, and my poking at those things is done only with affection. I, of course, never ever make any stupid choices.
MC: I’ve gotta ask: Does Michael approve, or consent to, all material contained therein? As a cartoonist himself, he has to appreciate fair play and turnabout, etc., right? — even if you’ve outed him as rapidly anti-dancing.
LD: When I asked Michael this question, he said, “Approve?” And then he laughed. Everything is fair game, pretty much.
MC: And speaking of your work and Michael’s, I’m fascinated by divergent “work vs. play” approaches to cartooning. Both of you have such a sense of warmth to your work — could you talk about your process to getting there, as opposed to Michael’s?
LD: Thank you! We both have similar ways of working, in that it involves a lot of playful exploration of images and words. But where we differ is that for some of my work, I look for political or social commentary to draw. My process is often more outwardly directed, his inwardly directed.
MC: Your style is masterfully loose — has it gotten any easier over the years to perfect this looseness, which can take deceptive precision?
LD: I work hard to make it loose. Now I am afraid it might be getting too loose! Sometimes I feel I am in such a rush to get my idea out there that I skimp on the drawing. Soon you will just see some scrawls with a caption underneath.
MC: Is there any advice you give to aspiring cartoonists — whether women cartoonists specifically, or all cartoonists — who ask you about starting out as visual humorists?
LD: Keep drawing and don’t worry too much about what others think. Make a lot of mistakes — that’s what will get you to the good ideas. And stick with it, because sometimes it takes a long time to build a career. But it’s worth it!