In our last installment, we took a look at the obscure underground comix tabloid, The Funny Papers, a shortlived monthly from 1975, that featured the finest alternative cartoonists of the day, including R. Crumb, Vaughn Bodé, Trina Robbins, and Justin Green, among many others. This time we feature an interview with TFP art director, cartoonist and children’s book illustrator Ron Barrett, plus a brief email chat with Ron’s assistant AD, Faye Dorman.
The Barrett interview was conducted on July 4, 2013, and was ably transcribed by Steven Thompson. Ron tidied up the transcript.
Jon B. Cooke: I’d love to talk to you a little bit about your career and specifically about The Funny Papers a little bit. Are you a native New Yorker?
Ron Barrett: I was born in The Bronx.
And you went to art school in the city?
I went to the High School of Industrial Art, now the School of Art and Design, and then I went to Pratt Institute, which was like high school all over again. But, yes, I had my art training here.
Were you drawn to cartooning at a young age?
My father was a terrific cartoonist, albeit an amateur one. For him it was a road not taken but he was certainly an inspiration to me. You know, he liked to draw cartoon characters for me. He was good at Barney Google and Sparkplug especially.
And comic books and comic strips? Were they important to you?
They were my children’s books. I never had any children’s books except The Golden Book of Bible Stories, which was given to me by my mother. So my children’s books were Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies and Donald Duck comics. My father also used to pretend that he was me and write to cartoonists and ask them for samples of their work. So I have a wonderful collection right in front of me now of George McManus at the top, Chic Young beneath him….
…and Berndt, who drew Smitty, there next. After that is Stanley Link who drew, uh, what was it? Tiny Tim and Ching Chow. Ching Chow was a single panel sort of “Confucius says” strip that appeared in the [newspapers subscribing to] the Chicago Tribune Syndicate. And there are others in the vault, which are too valuable for me [laughs] to put in my apartment. There’s a Siegel and Shuster Superman, some Bill Holman Smokey Stover and a Prince Valiant….
Wow, Hal Foster!
Each Hal Foster Prince Valiant panel was fantastic. My dad pretended he was me so all of this artwork is autographed to me and it’s a real personal treasure.
And the Siegel and Shuster was a comic strip or a comic book page?
It was a daily newspaper strip.
Wow. So what newspapers did you get in the house?
Well, I think my father always brought home the Daily News and maybe the Journal-American… and the Hearst paper.
So, the GOOD stuff!
My father saw an ad in the Journal-American in 1938 placed by Walt Disney looking for cartoonists, illustrators to come out to Hollywood and work on Snow White. Of course, they had to pass some tests first. My father answered the ad. Disney Studios sent him an application and a test. My father was a natural but he was intimidated by the question about formal art training, of which he had none. So that application lay in the desk drawer for many, many years. It was a road not taken for him. Finally I cut the beautiful letterhead off the letter and framed it. It was from Burbank Studios, the Disney Studios, their first location on Hyperion Avenue in Burbank. It’s a beautiful letterhead, with an orange and black Mickey stepping out.
So did you doodle as a child?
I can’t say that I ever doodled. I don’t tend to work in that way. I fought World War II in my bedroom. I liked to draw airplanes shooting at each other and “Japs” getting slapped in traps.
Did you aspire, as a youngster, to be a cartoonist?
I have an essay — if you can call it that. It’s one page — that I wrote in the third grade that says … “When I Grow Up” is the title of it and it says, “When I grow up I want to work for Walt Disney,” and “I know I will have to go to art school and my father will help teach me, too.” I got a B+ for capitalizing “And” but the teacher overlooked my misspelling of Dizney—D-I-Z-N-E-Y. [Jon laughs]. So that was at P.S. 20 in the Bronx.
Did your father encourage your drawing?
Yes, of course! We would do things together. Art projects. Making plaster casts from molds or building airplanes. There were a lot of father/son artistic activities.
And did you do stories or comic strips when you were young?
My father made a book for me called “A Day At the Circus.” That was when I was about five years old. I wasn’t much of a story maker. No, I wasn’t. Because I liked to draw Flying Tigers shooting down Messerschmitts.
So when you got out of school, what were your plans?
Because I thought it would behoove me to earn a living and I didn’t want to study plumbing — my mother said I should have plumbing as a “backup” career — so I went into advertising as an art director. That was really what I studied at art school: art direction. Eventually I realized I would just be fired one day and wind up living in a refrigerator carton or a subway tunnel. Because everybody in advertising — unless you own an agency — has a very brief lifespan.
And it’s a high-driven, high-octane life.
Well, I was not very good at meetings, at presenting things. That was not my forte. Although I did a lot of wonderful work and was privileged to work with some of the very best people in the business — people that were really changing advertising at the time — I was kind of a wunderkind there at Young & Rubicam and went on to produce some really… I would say significant advertising and then just realized this was no place for me to be.
Can you remember a particular campaign that anybody might recognize today?
Well, I don’t know that anybody would recognize it at all today. It was for Horn and Hardart restaurants and cafeterias. That was a New York/Philadelphia institution. It was local advertising but I think it was groundbreaking. I worked on Hertz. I worked on Citizens For Clean Air, which was another local account that was really wonderful. National accounts? Yes — IBM, Corning Glass, Fiat and Hertz. Things like that.
Did you work with freelancers?
Occasionally I would work with illustrators. As an art director I would commission photographers, retouchers, lettering people, all sorts of talents, to do work.
Obviously you learned deadlines at Y&R. When did you leave advertising?
Around 1972, ’73. I had done a children’s book with my first wife, Judi Barrett, called “Old McDonald Had an Apartment House,” which was exhibited at the Louvre. [Laughs] I was very confident that that was the way for me to move forward and move out of advertising. I continued to work on children’s books with Judi. Even after our marriage ended, our creative partnership continued. It continues until this day. Now, how many years later? Forty years later.
So had you always moonlighted as a cartoonist?
Well, when I was in advertising, I wasn’t doing any moonlighting. It wasn’t until after I left advertising that… Well, I guess I DID moonlight in a sense. That first book that Judi and I did was drawn in the kitchen while I was working at [advertising agency] Carl Ally. That was in 1968.
Do you have influences on your style that you can peg, particularly cartooning influences?
Well, the first really successful book called “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” was done after I illustrated a book of Bible stories where I felt it was appropriate to mimic the style of Gustave Doré and do a tightly crosshatched style. It was Doré and Hogarth that were very important to me at that time as I adopted their very realistic style, which I felt was in contrast to the very improbable story. Treating the ridiculous in the very straight-forward, straight-faced style is a humorous thing to do. You know, like telling a joke with a straight face.
Did you have exposure to underground comix? Were you cognizant of them being around?
Yeah, I think so because I would go out to L.A. on photo-shoots, commercial shoots and pick up a lot of comix out there that seemed to be more accessible than they were in New York.
And what impressed you about them?
Well, the content is what was amazing to me. [laughs] People were writing about things I never thought possible in comic strips, Crumb especially. His take on modern life and sexuality and desperation, depression… all that stuff that was part of the Crumb comic strips I was really very much taken by.
Did you recognize it as revolutionary within the form?
Oh, sure. Absolutely. After Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies, XYZ Comics was quite a leap.
So it was after you left advertising that you started contributing to National Lampoon? When did Politeness Man come about?
In the ’80s.
Ah! Did you work with Michael Gross at all at National Lampoon?
I would just sort of slip things under the door at that time. I would show my work I think to [NatLamp editor-in-chief] P.J. O’Rourke and to [senior editor] Gerry Sussman. They were the two editors that I worked with. I became the art director of the Lampoon, thanks to Rick Meyerowitz, a fantastic talent.
I did an issue [Comic Book Artist Vol. 1, #24] devoted to the comics of National Lampoon and I’ll send it to you.
Yeah! I’d love to see it.
There was a Supreme Court decision that came down about paraphernalia and also, in ’73, the local definition for obscenity and that sent a real chill within underground comix and they spiraled down. But the underground sensibility spread out. It went into National Lampoon, it went into Arcade, it permeated the slicks to a degree. And The Funny Papers is something I’d never seen before and I discovered copies of this. Art Spiegelman called Arcade, the Comics Revue a lifeboat for struggling underground cartoonists and there seems some of that same essence in The Funny Papers. How did The Funny Papers come about?
The Funny Papers was a pretty leaky lifeboat to leave the sinking ship of advertising in. [Laughter] It was the brainchild of Sherman and Lydia Saiger. Sherman was a lawyer at King Features syndicate.
How did you know him?
I didn’t know him. He looked ME up. When was The Funny Papers? That was 1975, before “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” so I don’t know how they knew me. I don’t know.
You obviously were a cartoonist, you had worked as an art director in advertising. Where did the idea of YOU working as an art director on a newspaper come about?
[Laughs] I don’t know WHERE that came from. [Laughter] I really don’t know. I was art directing a magazine for the Children’s Television Workshop at the time, the Electric Company magazine. They may have seen what I did there. Maybe they saw some of the other kids’ books I did, the “Old McDonald” or “Benjamin.” … Maybe they saw some of the early kids’ books. No. I can’t remember and too bad Sherman’s not around so we can’t ask him.
The Electric Company magazine was very graphic, (as in) there were a lot of cartoons in it, as memory serves.
Your memory is very good. There were a lot of cartoons in it. There was Randy Jones and I think George Evans may have been done some work, and Marvin Mattelson, Seymour Chwast. … Whoever’s arm was twistable I would invite them to come and work for almost nothing.
On virtue of the content?
Yes, because it was sort of a public service institution, helping kids learn to read. It was a great thing to do and many people would work for much less than their normal fees to be part of that effort.
Was it exciting to work with so much talent?
Of course, it’s always wonderful.
Did you establish friendships?
No, it never worked that way, at least not for me. “Shall we go out and have a cup of coffee?” was not my style. I would never have thought to do that with George Evans. Or Roy Doty? [Laughs] Roy Doty! It was such a pleasure to be able to commission something for Roy Doty to do. Are you familiar with HIS work? He was sort of the white bread cartoonist of the 1950s.
Oh, yeah, I have seen that name before. It must have been really interesting having this amalgamation of the underground sensibility permeating into the mainstream stuff. Certainly as a kid seeing this stuff come out was a very exciting time. This real mix of stuff and really it seemed to be FUN.
Well, it sure WAS fun. To leave advertising and be working on The Funny Papers or Electric Company magazine was very liberating.
Did you directly contact these cartoonists who were in the papers at all?
No, I think it was Sherman or Lydia who did that. My role in this was putting it together and doing a lot of spot illustrations. You mentioned something about Pulp Fiction? You wondered if I used a pulp artist for that. I think you may be referring to a feature called Sleuthing. We used pick-up art for that.
Oh! And you got Marie Severin. I was very startled to see…
Yeah, Marie Severin. Right. One of the lettering people, too, from Marvel would come in and work in our offices. That was groundbreaking for me because I learned about the life-changing Ames Lettering Guide.
Interesting. So this was not a full time job? Was it something you would devote a week to at a given time?
I would go somewhere — where, I can’t remember — to work with Faye Dorman to put this thing together every month. I’m sorry I can’t be more informational about The Funny Papers but it was a job, and fun to do.
Faye had very good memories of those days. Somewhat vague, too… [Ron laughs] She discussed having quite a crush on you and her being alone in the office waiting for you to arrive.
[Laughs] Oh, Faye! Now I’m blushing! [Laughs]
But it seemed like fun stuff but it was short-lived, obviously.
Yeah. Just three issues. The distributors hated the Crumb “Bo-Bo Bolinski” strip where he throws up on a woman as he’s about to smooch, so they shredded all the copies they had. The distributors censored by shredding and that was the death of The Funny Papers.
And you went on to great success with “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”
Yes. … Thank you, Judi! She had a terrific idea and I was able to do it justice.
And 30 years after you two first did the book it was made into a motion picture, correct?
That’s right. The book first appeared in 1978.
Has that been good for you?
It was VERY good!Great!
Have you helmed other publications subsequently?
Just the National Lampoon in ’90–91.
How was that experience?
Well, it wasn’t the Golden Age, that’s for sure. The readership had declined, budgets had declined, and maybe just the quality of humor had declined. People were getting their laughs in other places in 1990. They were going to the Internet and to television.
But basically a mass-market humor magazine was just no longer viable and America didn’t have room for something like that anymore. No advertising. Nobody wanted to buy advertising in it. You know. We were just running a lot of Smokey the Bear ads.
Are you happy today?
Yes! I am! Busy doing kids books every day, occasional work for the New York Times or somebody else.
If you could characterize the very short time that you were with The Funny Papers, what would you say?
[Laughs] It was a very short time! [Laughter] It was brief, but beautiful! It was a chance for me to do a lot of different things — design, draw … use my skills. So that was fun!
That’s great! Thanks Ron!
You’re very welcome!
As an extra Alternative Fridays bonus, here’s a short email chat Yours Truly conducted with The Funny Papers assistant art director Faye Dorman last summer!
Jon B. Cooke: Did you have much exposure to comics and, particularly, the underground comix in your early years? What did you think of them?
Faye Dorman: Comics taught me to read. My parents had a store that sold comics, all comics. Kindly folks would come over and point out different letters to me and voila!
I could also tell the difference between the artists. For instance, I liked some Superman comics but not others because of the art. All comics were great in my eyes.
The only ones I disliked were the war comics and the Classics (Illustrated). The Classics used ink that smelled bad; war just wasn’t of interest. I did love the way tears were drawn in the romance comics and maybe they encouraged my interest in art.
Everyone in New York knew the underground comics. R. Crumb was a favorite. I didn’t think of them, they were just there.Can you share a general background, please? Where are you from, field of study and how did you end up in magazine production?
I studied art at Pratt Institute and, due to a daily push to eat, got into magazine production. I worked for CBS Records, Scholastic, and various places around the city as a freelancer after having worked as a photo stylist. I also worked on some X-rated newspaper type thing, but I’ve blocked most of that memory.
Of course, any memories to share about Albert Morse, Sherman H. Saiger and Lydia Saiger are very welcome. Do you know how a pair of lawyers became publishers? And did the Saigers’ puzzle books predate The Funny Papers?
The Saigers were living in an adult mist to me at the time. They were professional, married, had a daughter (I believe), and would appear at times. Sherman wore this great trenchcoat. I had no idea of why they were doing this, but at that time I didn’t have any idea of why anyone did anything.
How was it working with Ron Barrett?
Working with Ron was terrific. I was head over heels in love with him at the time and so, since it was barely requited, work was less about The Funny Papers and more about, “Will I see Ron today?” Sorry, I was quite young. On a more professional level, Ron is one of the funniest, most talented artists I’ve ever known.
Do you recall the job interview?
Job interview!? He: “Do you want to do paste-ups?” Me: “Sure!”
A fantastic array of talent was featured in The Funny Papers. Do you recall dealing with any of the contributors?
Trina Robbins was mad at me for mailing back a piece of art that I didn’t protect correctly, I remember that. And, that it was shocking when Vaughn Bodé died of autoerotic asphyxiation (which was the first I had heard of it).
What was up with including classic strips like Little Nemo and Smokey Stover?
What was up with Little Nemo is that it is a classic and should be remembered.
Do you know why the tabloid folded so soon? Were you surprised it ended so abruptly?
Probably the paper was short-lived because it didn’t make any money. Distribution in New York was, if I recall, run by the Mafia…? Maybe that was the problem. Nothing was surprising in those days.
Mostly I remember being alone in this office waiting for Ron to show up. It was dark and I was the only one there. So sad, eh? I’m not sure if I was the one working at the end or if it went on for a while after me.
What happened after The Funny Papers closed?
After working at many other freelance jobs, I moved to California and went back to school. I got my masters in psychology and have worked as a psychotherapist for about 30 years. I live in a little northern California town called Petaluma, and started painting again about seven years ago. I show at a few places, but mostly enjoy it for whatever impulse that is born into some of us that makes us want to do that.
NEXT TIME: I have NO idea! But I promise it’ll be mind-bending! See you Friday after next, mes amis!