Drawing on life: for New Yorker cartoonist William Haefeli life really is a laughing matter.
Nothing vexes out cartoonist William Haefeli quite so much as the demise of the cocktail party. He doesn't miss the polite conversation or the mood lighting or even the dirty martinis--he laments the loss of the perfect milieu for a New Yorker cartoon.
"Two people could meet who had never met before; a housewife could meet a general," sighs Haefeli. "There were all sorts of exchanges and social pleasantries."
At 54 years old, Haefeli doesn't look a day over 38, but he does oddly resemble the characters in his New Yorker cartoons. Not feature for feature, mind you--they have squinty eyes, big ears, big noses, and no chin--but in overall angularity and expression. Watching him enter a Los Angeles coffee shop one blistering summer day was like spotting one of his drawings come to life.
There's a certain amount of truth in every stereotype, and the New Yorker cartoon is no exception. It's sophisticated, wry, and at times incomprehensible. In a 1998 episode of Seinfeld written by New Yorker cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan, Elaine's frustration over an inscrutable cartoon of a cat and a dog chatting in an office compels her to go to the magazine to ask its cartoon editor why he ran it. His response? "I liked the kitty." Yet under that canopy of enigmatic privilege and sophistication, the cartoons are quite diverse, even progressive. "The New Yorker cartoon doesn't have to he funny. It doesn't need to make you laugh," says Haefeli, who regularly draws both interracial and gay couples into his cartoons. "It has to make you think."
"When you start to know the cartoonists, you'll see it's a comic style and a personality," says real-life New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. "Sometimes it's commentary, sometimes satire, sometimes absurdity, sometimes what I call ludic, a mind play. It's someone communicating his ideas through the medium of humor. Bill is one of the best examples of it-his cartoons are social commentary."
Haefeli's childhood was very much the kind of existence mirrored in The New Yorker. He grew up in Philadelphia's prestigious Main Line neighborhood, the son of an advertising copywriter and homemaker. His father had gone to Princeton; he took the train to work each day and the family to Ivy League football games on the weekend. His mother had always considered them middle class, until she read an article on the middle class; then she considered them upper middle class. Haefeli calls his home modest and his parents unaffected, but when an 8-year-old Bill would read New Yorker cartoons of Charles Saxon and Peter Arno, it wasn't much of a stretch to envision his parents' friends wearing those mink stoles and smoking jackets.
When he enrolled at Duke University in 1971, Haefeli already knew he wanted to be a cartoonist, particularly a New Yorker cartoonist. But he originally balked at actually making it a career. "It's like saying 'I want to be an astronaut.' So few get to do it," he explains. "I was always good at school. I thought, I have to get a 'real job.'" So he studied social psychology--a more academic way to exercise the cartoonist's eye for human nature. Eventually he yielded to his lifelong dream and switched to art. His professors were supportive of his cartooning, though it's likely they were envisioning something more like Roy Lichtenstein than James Thurber. After Duke, Haefeli enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, a commercial art school that encouraged him to embrace advertising, which he did for four months after graduation.
"I thought I'd make some money, get some experience," he says. "Then, I saw the people around me, and thought, I could wake up when I'm 40, still be in advertising, be very rich, and have a heart condition. I really just want to be a cartoonist."
And so it was that with a little nest egg of savings, which he still has, Haefeli began his career as a full-time Chicago-based cartoonist. To this day Haefeli has never actually lived in New York City, though his Los Angeles apartment, outfitted with antique clocks and painted metal furniture, looks plucked from Manhattan circa 1945. In 1979 the now-defunct Saturday Review was the first to publish one of his cartoons. He sold other drawings to Cosmopolitan, TV Guide, and the trade publication Physician and Patient at $100 a pop while continuing to pitch the big boys--Playboy and The New Yorker. It was Chicago magazine that would run Haefeli's first overtly gay cartoon in the mid 1980s. "I'm almost embarrassed, it's so hokey," he laughs. "A woman comes into her bedroom and finds her husband naked in bed, and in the closet is another naked guy. And the woman says, 'I have nothing against gays coming out of the closet; it's just when they start coming out of our closet.'"
In the early '90s, Haefeli was in London for a short stint, at the venerable British humor magazine Punch (where his upscale yuppie characters would sip chardonnay and says things like "I'm sorry--what's your name again? When you told me I had no reason to believe I'd want to remember"). But in 1992, he returned to Chicago, where he met Bob Mankoff, a successful cartoonist who had only just started a collection of intelligent humor (now also an online portal) called the Cartoon Bank. Mankoff's appreciation of Haefeli's work would prove instrumental when Mankoff became the cartoon editor for the New Yorker in 1997. The following year, after 19 years of rejection, a Haefeli cartoon finally ran in the magazine. He had nabbed the brass ring of cartooning at last.
"Bill is an interesting cartoonist because he thinks of abroad range of issues--gay and straight," explains Mankoff. "He has a world that's not just a joke. It's bigger than a stereotype."
If Haefeli has any beat at The New Yorker, it's the gay beat, though he draws from a broad pool of themes--even married straight couples. "I'm gay, so I'm thinking about gay issues," he explains. "I think a lot of straight cartoonists are hesitant to draw gay characters because they fear they would seem inauthentic or be inadvertently offensive or rely too much on stereotype. Hey, I wouldn't do a cartoon about golf."
The Haefeli cartoon is decidedly more postgay than gay. His gay characters are so accustomed to being out in an accepting world that their orientation is about as important as the style of shirt Haefeli chooses to dress them in--revealing, but not really the point. It's an attitude that suits the refined nature of The New Yorker and speaks to the larger evolution of gay visibility. "Back in the '80s, if two guys were in a living room talking, there would be more questions than answers," says Haefeli. "Cartoonists need to be behind the curve. I had to wait until gays were accepted enough in society to do the cartoons I do now. Today, everyone can extrapolate. Let's face it: No one has ever been stranded on a desert island, but you get it."
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MEGHAN QUINN
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|Title Annotation:||GREAT AMERICAN LIVES|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Sep 25, 2007|
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