Q&A: Benjamin Schwartz

New Yorker cartoonist Benjamin Schwartz on going from doctors to doodles and nursing stories back to life

Image: Benjamin Schwartz

Image: Benjamin Schwartz

You come from a medical family, and are medically trained yourself. Did medicine seem like a ‘default’ career?
Yes, it did – which is pretty silly, when you think about it. Who chooses a highly competitive career track that requires nearly a decade of training as the path of least resistance? And yet, I saw the fulfillment my father got out of being a doctor and thought, “hey, I guess I could do that, too.”

You seem to have enjoyed drawing from an early age, was this always an aspiration or consideration for you professionally?
Cartooning was always something I wanted to do professionally, but even as a little kid, I recognised that making a career out of it seemed pretty far-fetched. Self-doubt kept me from pursuing it too seriously (and pushed me towards the medical “default” path), until I reached a point where I realised I would rather try to make it as a cartoonist and fail than never really try at all.

Was there a favourite subject of your early drawing, or was it all doodling, etc.?
Lots of doodling, for sure. I always leaned heavily towards organic forms – people, animals, nature – things I didn’t need a ruler to draw properly. I liked (and still enjoy) playing around with body language and facial expressions.

Dare I ask, what is narrative medicine?

You dare! Narrative medicine is an approach to health care that extends from the premise that people don’t experience illness as the discrete set of signs and symptoms we record in their medical record but rather as one part in the larger story of their lives. From that perspective, health care workers are receivers of stories and storytellers themselves.
Classes like the one I teach take that thinking a step further, and seek to directly bolster the storytelling skills of doctors-in-training by studying them in the context of the creative arts.

How did you get that first break in The New Yorker?

I submitted 10 cartoons a week, every week, for about 6 months – until I guess they finally got tired of rejecting me.
I had done freelance cartoon work here and there (for a greeting card company, a pharmaceutical company, and several other random places), but that was definitely my big break.

What is the process behind making a cartoon?
I spend a few hours every week sitting in front of a blank piece of notebook paper, actively daydreaming and free-associating with myself in an effort to generate ideas. Sometimes they flow freely, sometimes…not so much. Once a solid idea is in place, though, the next steps – pencilling, inking, and adding in grey tones – are pretty straightforward.
I’m always open to suggestions, but it’s rare that I hear an idea that’s both developed enough to turn into a cartoon AND fits my particular sensibilities, whatever those may be.

Do you have a preferred topic for cartoons?
One of my favourite things about cartooning for the New Yorker is that they give their artists full autonomy to come up with the topics and content for their cartoons. I can have one that comments on the current political climate and another that explores the possibility of dinosaurs wearing slacks.

Would you say there’s much of a community among cartoonists of a certain level?
There’s a nice community of New Yorker cartoonists that spans generations, as well as a wider community of “gag” cartoonists that work in the same, single-panel format, but for other publications.

What would you say are the differences between cartoons and written pieces
I’m not so sure there’s anything you could put in a written piece that couldn’t be communicated in a cartoon and vice versa. At least in theory.
In reality, I think a lot of the differences stem from concerns like space constraints; a magazine is going to devote, say, a single page to a satirical piece. That page could comfortably hold an 800 word satirical essay and take it in several different directions.
Comics have a different density. If you want to fit more than six or so panels on a single page, you’re going to have to draw small, and you’re going to have to sacrifice detail and information. Subtlety and understatement are possible, but often the most effective laughs in cartoon form come from exaggeration and/or cutting to the core of a seemingly complex issue.

Do you tend to keep your teaching and cartooning separate?
I think they feed off each other to a certain extent. They both actively test my storytelling skills, but with the cartoons, I’m mostly working off of instinct, while teaching gives me more of an opportunity for reflection and analysis. The challenge is in being thoughtful about my work without becoming either too self-conscious or mechanical.
So basically I try not to think about it, except for when I’m thinking about it.

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