DRAWN & QUARTERED
COURTESY TOM CHENEY
Tom Cheney is regularly published in the New Yorker. The caption, above, reads, "Its only emission is water vapor."
Drawing on humor
Tom Cheney finds Kauai's easygoing beaches to be fertile ground for his sophisticated cartoons
Two pivotal moments helped shape Tom Cheney's career as a top-notch cartoonist.
The earliest could be seen as an epiphany. In 1976, after earning his bachelor's degree in psychology, he found himself working in a mental health facility in New York. One day, during his usual in-house duties, a schizophrenic patient broke a chair across his back.
That violent episode sent him reconsidering his initial love of drawing. "I remember looking through a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia," Cheney said, "and reading an entry on ('Peanuts' creator) Charles Schulz. When I saw how much he was making as a cartoonist, I thought 'Wow! That's what I want to do now.' I took a lot of art in college, I've always loved humor and I've been drawing consistently since I was 4."
So with a career change and after toiling in New York for a number of years, the grind was such that Cheney and his wife were looking to relocate. "Ever since my wife went to the Big Island in 1994-'95, she fell in love with it, so Hawaii was always at the top of our list of places to move. And we stuck with it, planning for eight years, saying this is the one, this is where we're going, which is a real leap of faith for a couple living in Watertown, located on the eastern tip of Lake Ontario."
Their dream became a reality when they moved to Eleele, on the southwestern shore of Kauai, in late 2001. "Moving to the islands has been like dying and going to heaven," said Cheney.
The move also rejuvenated Cheney as a cartoonist.
"My work habits changed. I sort of cut back from the frantic pace I was keeping back in New York," he said. Inspiration for cartoons that he regularly contributes to the New Yorker magazine "comes flying in as I regularly prowl along the beaches here. They're like waves coming in." (Regularly trolling the Internet and reading newspapers online helps as well.)
For 18 months before becoming one of a select group whose cartoons are featured in the weekly, Cheney had sent an unsolicited cartoon to the New Yorker every week. His first deal was for an idea that was given to the legendary Charles Addams to illustrate. Cheney was paid $150, good money in the late '70s.
COURTESY TOM CHENEY
The caption for this Cheney cartoon says, "There've been reports of an increase in chatter among the women."
CHENEY has also been a regular contributor to Mad magazine since the early '90s, and to Nobleworks greeting cards. He's also done illustrations for Harvard Business Review, Saturday Evening Post, Barron's and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction.
But Cheney says most of his time is spent on material for the 80-year-old grande dame of magazines. "The New Yorker stands alone in mainly publishing the single-panel cartoon. And because of its readership, the cartoons can go ultrasophisticated. With other magazines, they depend on the dreaded pun. At the New Yorker, the pun is illegal. They want well-thought-out humor.
"I try to get 10 new cartoons a week to (cartoon editor) Bob Mankoff. ... But the thing is, after he meets with (editor) David Remnick, they buy only what they want. If I manage to hit at least one, I'm happy, but sometimes weeks can go by without a sale. I've been at it for 30 years now, and I'm used to most of my cartoons ending up rejections."
Cheney and the other New Yorker cartoonists get the last laugh, however, in a recent Simon & Shuster publication, "The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in the New Yorker," edited by fellow contributor Matthew Diffee.
"Matt lives in New York and has an office at the New Yorker, so he's been able to see all of this wonderful work being rejected ... a wellspring of work that would never be seen. So he came up with the idea for this collection that would strip away the magazine's conservatism and let the cartoons air out, so to speak."
Of Cheney's five cartoons in the collection, one has gained special attention: A nude couple are in bed, surrounded by humongous, friendly-looking sperm cells. The woman says to her partner, who's puffing on a post-coital cigarette, "So, how long have you been working at the plutonium plant?" (Trust me, it works as a cartoon.)
"I did that 15 years ago, and it was finally published in Penthouse, when they were still running cartoons. It later became a popular card for Nobleworks."
CHENEY SAID he owes his sense of humor to rigid Catholic schooling and his psychology degree.
"My parents, after two years of my being in the first and second grades in the local private Catholic school, pulled me out. They thought I would get killed! Back then, they definitely didn't spare the rod. I remember being consistently being hit on the head with a wooden stick by the nuns. With all the early conservatism being hammered into you through Catholicism, it sets up a tension in your life, and humor loves tension. It's a way to look at one's own inhibitions, and I play it off as a catalyst for humor.
"My earlier work in psychology is helpful, too. Studying human behavior, I feel I have a little bit of an edge over my fellow cartoonists, because I know what makes people laugh or feel sad."
And living on Kauai has certainly helped. "Since we've lived here, I have no need for caffeine and cigarettes in order to do my work. Hawaii has become extremely inspirational to me. The local people, their love of laughter is so close to the surface. With people in New York, they're a little paranoid and don't want to let things out. The local people, in comparison, are ready to use humor at any time, so I find the inspiration here much faster."