Written by Janece Shaffer Tuesday, March 06 2012
Snapshot: Liza Donnelly, Cartoonist, The New Yorker
When Liza Donnelly joined The New Yorker in 1982, she was the youngest cartoonist on staff and one of only three women to hold the job. More than 30 years later, her work is still featured on their pages as well as those of The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, The Nation, Good Housekeeping, and Cosmopolitan, and online at CNN.com, DailyBeast, HuffingtonPost and Salon.
In 2005, Donnelly wrote the definitive book about her colleagues: “Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons.” She also wrote and edited many other books, including “Sex and Sensibility,” “Husbands and Wives,” “Cartoon Marriage” (about her life with her husband Michael Maslin, fellow New Yorker cartoonist) and “When Do They Serve the Wine? The Folly, Flexibility and Fun of Being a Woman.” She is expecting a new book out in the spring -- “Women on Men” -- published by 21st Street Books.
In 2007, Donnelly joined the United Nations initiative Cartooning for Peace. She travels worldwide to speak out about freedom of speech, world peace and other global issues. Donnelly is the editor of World Ink (found on dscriber.com), which publishes timely, political cartoons from around the world. She's a founding member of the Cartoonists Association and also teaches women’s studies at Vassar.
Her deadpan style makes her a sought-after public speaker, and she has presented talks in many venues including at TED, Vassar College and The Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art. She lives in New York with her husband and their two daughters.
Womenetics: What has been the greatest challenge in being one of a handful of women in a male-dominated field? And were you ever confronted with the notion that women aren’t funny?
Liza Donnelly: When I started out in the field of cartooning, I was aware that there were not many women. But at the time, I reasoned that it should not make a difference because we all sign our last names anyway, who would know? And what was important was quality. And to an extent this is and was true. But where the problem lies is in the standards of what is considered funny. I have given this a lot of thought and actually wrote a few books on the subject.
When I began at The New Yorker, the art editor was a man named Lee Lorenz who had just arrived at the magazine as art editor a few years prior to my selling my first cartoon. He began his tenure as editor looking for cartoonists who were different. An artist himself, he was looking for ways to approach humor that were unusual and not simply the status quo. Consequently, he ended up bringing in three women cartoonists in the late 1970s (Nurit Karlin, Roz Chast and myself), after a long period of no women cartoonists at The New Yorker. When you open up the standards for excellence, you are able to bring in more types of artists, and this is what happened at The New Yorker in my opinion.
I know that in other fields of cartooning, there has been blatant sexism, and women are excluded from jobs, but I have not experienced that . The notion that "women aren't funny" or "don't have a sense of humor" keeps surfacing every few years. It's so silly, and I don't know why it keeps coming up as a question. I know why historically this was asked repeatedly, but that's over. Now it's so clear that women are capable of creating humor as well as laughing at it. The question should be buried forever!
Womenetics: What was the process of getting your first cartoons published in the New Yorker? And what was the cartoon about?
Donnelly: I simply began submitting every week. Typically artists send in anywhere from six to 15 cartoons a week to The New Yorker for consideration. Right after college, I moved to New York and had a day job at The American Museum of Natural History in the art department. I would work on cartoons at night and weekends and take them down to the magazine on Wednesdays, the day you were allowed to drop them off.
After two years of fairly regular submissions, I sold one. It was absolutely thrilling. The cartoon was odd – it was captionless and obscure. I'm not sure describing it would work! But many of my early cartoons were captionless and often multi-paneled.
Womenetics: Where do you get your inspiration? How do you start? With an idea – a visual image? Is it suddenly all there?
Donnelly: I get my inspiration from reading the newspapers, online and off, and from life. I start by jotting down words, phrases and doodling. I let my mind wander. Over the course of a week, I gather buzz words from the news and pay attention to trends and try to use these. Sometimes an idea comes instantly, other times it's really hard work.
Womenetics: Do you pull from your life, and are there areas off limits? I know you have daughters. Do they ever say, “No, Mom, you can’t use this”?
Donnelly: When I do cartoons I do draw from life, but it's sort of indirect. I think when our daughters were little, I was inspired by the things children in general would say, not ours specifically. The same goes with marriage: you take the specific and turn it into a universal idea (hopefully).
Womenetics: Have you ever censored yourself -- thought of an idea and then thought, “I can’t do that,” and can you tell us about that?
Donnelly: I think I do have an internal censor, but it's so deeply engrained in my personality that it's hard to spotlight it. I am someone who enjoys taking risks in my career, but I do not take big risks in humor. I don't like to make mean fun of people (unless they are politicians) nor religion. My humor tries to quietly expose the stupid things we humans do, not ridicule.
Womenetics: Are you viewed as a female cartoonist? Were you at the start of your career? And if so, was/is that voice valued as “female”?
Donnelly: I hope I'm not viewed as a "female cartoonist." I prefer to be known as a cartoonist who happens to be a woman, and one who draws about all of life, while sometimes focusing on women’s rights and political issues. It is important to recognize that there have not been many women in this business, but it is also very important not to segregate cartoonists who are women as somehow drawing differently.
What I hope is that the world begins to accept all forms of humor, from many different voices, not just white male voices. I don't really consider my voice "female," although of course I cannot ignore the fact that I am a woman, and my experiences come partly from that perspective. We just have to be careful not to ghettoize women's voices.
Womenetics: In September 2010 you were invited to participate in a United Nations’ program titled, Cartooning for Peace. Can you tell us a little about that? Were there universal themes, and did your work “translate” well?
Donnelly: That event at the UN was in 2005, I believe, and it was thrilling. About 10 cartoonists were invited from around the world to discuss the role of cartoons in peace efforts. This was immediately following the Danish cartoon controversy, wherein some cartoonists depicted Mohamed, and it created a lot of problems. We were brought together to discuss these issues.
There are universal themes, and I sometimes draw them: war, peace, conflict, reconciliation, hunger, etc. My work for The New Yorker is less so about these issues, but on occasion it is. I am still working with Cartooning for Peace, and we will be having a symposium at Emory University (in Atlanta) at the end of this month.
Womenetics: How can humor make a difference? Is there a ripple effect? Can you share a specific example?
Donnelly: It is hard to be specific, but I think humor can make people think about things that they may not have before. It can put a new perspective on issues and also soften an issue such that people may be able to see it more clearly.
Womenetics: In a recent talk, you said, “Women are doing amazing things around the world, and now it’s time to free our bodies.” Can you elaborate on that?
Donnelly: I was talking about two types of freedom: a need for freedom to be able to do what we want in our culture/society; and secondly, not to be limited by society's view of our bodies as sexual objects. Also, we women sometimes don't realize that we are masters of our own bodies, and consequently we often hold ourselves back. I also was referring to helping other women in cultures where their movement is extremely limited. We need to understand those cultures and learn how we might help other women.
Women are clearly as intelligent as men, we know that -- but often they are not able to implement their ideas/dreams because of restricted movement.
Womenetics: Tell us a little bit about your upbringing? How did your family shape you? And how is the family you raised different?
Donnelly: My father was a doctor and my mother a homemaker. They loved humor and loved The New Yorker. My mother gave me a book of cartoons by James Thurber when I was little, and that's how I started cartooning, by copying his work. I think humor is essential in a family! And my parents made me feel I could do anything; they were very supportive. I must mention that my older sister was always rebelling, so as a little girl, I saw it as my job to make my parents laugh.
My husband is a New Yorker cartoonist as well (Michael Maslin), and we raised our daughters with lots of laughs and lots of crayons and drawing paper.
Womenetics: How have you managed to balance work, family, home? And what is it like to collaborate with your husband on projects?
Donnelly: My husband and I shared work time when the girls were little: He worked four hours; I worked four hours. It was great. You end up working nights and weekends, but it's so worth it. Michael and I enjoy collaborating, and so far we seem to do it well!
Womenetics: What’s next for you? TV show? New book?
Donnelly: I am working on a new book called, “Women on Men” (published by 21st Street Books) which will be out this spring. It's my cartoons and writing and is about women being funny, usually about men. It will be an ebook and will be out this spring. I am also working on a script for television and hope to do a lot more speaking gigs. I love to make people laugh.
Womenetics: What is your finest professional moment?
Donnelly: I am torn! Perhaps selling my first cartoon to The New Yorker was my finest professional moment. But that was so long ago! It certainly set the stage for all the rest. If I had to come up with something more recent, I would say my TED talk.
Womenetics: What makes you laugh?
Donnelly: I love silly, absurdist, physical humor - the kind Steve Martin used to do. Stephen Colbert, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg make me laugh, too. Smart, socially aware humor is my favorite kind of humor.
Womenetics: What is your favorite color in the crayon box?
Donnelly: I like them all.
Check out more stories about creative women:
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Drawing from her Nigerian heritage and interest in insects, Nnedi Okorafor has authored a diverse body of work reflective of her passions.
Janece Shaffer, senior editor of Womenetics, is also an award-winning, professionally produced playwright. Her plays have been produced in theatres across the country including the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Alliance Theatre, and Taproot Theatre. She also has more than two decades of experience in the communications field and has held communications positions at Emory University, The NAMES Project Foundation/AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Alliance Theatre. Shaffer holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in communications from Georgia State University.