Thursday, March 11, 2010

I'm Sad To See You Go, John Kane

A couple of years ago I started showing up to the New Yorker to try and pitch cartoons. I was understandably nervous. I didn't know any of these people milling around in the storage room known as the "cartoonist lounge". They were names I had heard of now attached to human beings standing alongside strangers and we all cued up to show our gags in Bob Mankoff's office. It was there that the sorting process occurred and after the carnage, a group of us eventually gathered together and made our way to the Pergola De Artistes for lunch. At first I had no affiliation. I was a free agent and was just observing as I was sort of out of range for direct conversation. But then I was drawn in. There was and still is a lovable diehard circle of cartoonists that meet damn near every tuesday for lunch. John Kane, Sam Gross, Sid Harris, and sometimes Mort Gerberg, and Gahan Wilson. But mostly it was John, Sam, and Sid.

Most people had about ten gags to show but John would come in armed with 20 or so cartoons, many of them approaching jokes from different angles or were fascinating executions of an idea constantly working itself out. You'd see an idea germinate and resolve to its final limits within his batch. I'd look at John's work, I'd look at Sid's work, and I'd look at Sam's work. Every tuesday, for well over a year. I learned quite a bit from that. And, these guys would always give me encouragement and I took their opinions and advice most seriously. John and I usually sat together and we'd always have some discussion within a discussion as sometimes I'd venture forth a question about The New York School movement in design which he had emerged from and worked in. That was one of my favorite periods of design and his pre-New Yorker graphic designer days were always a source of fascination for me. He knew or had stories about all the designers, art directors, or illustrators I loved. He'd draw diagrams and grids on the placemat for me and casually mention some mind blowing annecdote about inventing some strange device that came in handy for a client showing.

John may have been getting up there in age by the time I caught up with him, but he was more animated and on the ball than any twelve youngsters combined. He was always going out to exhibitions, learning about some new technology, or improving himself via activities like judo. One of his most recent passions was taking up the uke. He had five models last time I remember. He'd watch Youtube clips and learn from the masters. I know he drove Sam and Sid nuts with all of his uke talk as there was usually something happening in that realm that he was very enthusiastic about. After lunch we'd walk down to the subway and talk music shop or just shop about guitars. He always had a unique theory he was thinking about or a new way of experiencing something that he'd often share. More often than not, I'd come home from The New Yorker luncheons, thinking I was one of the luckiest bastards in the world to be in the court of these fascinating gentlemen. Eventually our friendship became quite solid and if I didn't make it one tuesday for lunch, either John or Sid would get ahold of me to ask me what the hell happened. I can't really express how much that meant to me.

One time while looking through John's cartoons, I saw one that really struck me. It was a re-incarnation joke, and probably the 6th version of this particular gag, but in my mind the most successful iteration. It was either a seal or a walrus in a zoo cage and a dumpy looking woman standing opposite of the cage staring back at him. The caption was something to the effect of "Mildred, it's me". The way the expression on both of the subjects tied in with the gag really appealed to me. It was delightfully weird and of course it was rejected. Most people have no idea how many gags live and die every tuesday.

One day John came in and said he was feeling dizzy. The last time I saw him ever was the week after that. He turned to me during lunch and said "Derek, growing old is a bitch." He looked me in the eyes and I tried to shrug it off. I imagined he'd return the following week back to his normal self but that didn't happen. John was always in good health but this was the first time I detected that he was genuinely worried about something. His illness rapidly took hold and for a long stretch he wouldn't take visitors or phone calls. Today he passed away and it was Sid that told me. I have alot of fond memories of John and I only knew him for a brief period. He was both fascinating and enigmatic. I was truly lucky to have met him. Rest In Peace my friend.


Mike Lynch said...

Derek, this is a great remembrance of a true gentleman. Thanks for writing it. I must have read it a couple of times. John will be missed.

Kate Duke said...

What a wonderful "in memoriam" for a really nice man. Wish it could be read at the funeral.

mira said...

Hey how come you didn't tell me about this post at lunch today? Very nicely written. John would have liked it too I'm sure!

Saul said...

In September 2008, historian Tony Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease or Motor Neuron Disease. ALS is a degenerative neuromuscular disorder of the motor neurons: it is related to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as lesser known neurological disorders.

Tony is my former university professor, mentor and close friend. Like so many, I have benefited from knowing him in more ways than I could begin to list. In the eighteen months since receiving his diagnosis I have watched Tony transform from a fit, healthy, active, independent man to a frozen body in a wheelchair. I have witnessed the frightening speed of his physical deterioration: first, losing the power of his fingers; then his arms; then his legs; and, within eight months, becoming confined to his present state: shriveled and paralyzed from the neck down, able to breathe only with the aid of a machine.

I am writing to you today about Move for ALS. On May 15th I will embark on a cycle ride from Seattle to New York to raise awareness of ALS and to raise money for Project A.L.S., the charity that supports scientific research seeking a cure to the disease. To date, Project A.L.S. has raised over $53 million, directing 82% to scientific research programs, including the foundation of the Jenifer Estess Laboratory for Stem Cell Research at Columbia University, the world’s first and only privately funded lab dedicated exclusively to ALS stem cell research.

In collaboration with Tony Judt and Project A.L.S., we have built a campaign website ( which has already received substantial attention from web and print media, as well as professional medical organizations. In under two days since the website was launched we have received over $2000 in donations and countless pledges of support: it has been a quite incredible response. But this is only the very beginning.

We appeal to you to join the campaign. Donations of any kind can be made easily on the Move for ALS website, with attractive gifts on offer to substantial donors. Checks can also be sent directly to Project A.L.S. (be sure to reference Move for ALS): 3960 Broadway, 
Suite 420,
 New York, New York, 10032, USA.

Publicity is equally important to the campaign. We would be especially grateful if you would forward this letter to friends, relatives, colleagues and anyone else: we want to offer people all over the world the chance to take part. If you have access to media or web outlets (e.g. blogs or heavy-traffic Twitter or Facebook pages) where you could give further publicity to our campaign, it would be particularly appreciated.

I believe that, during my lifetime, a cure can be discovered for this catastrophic disease. It will come only from expensive scientific research: and when it does it will be a joy to know that we had helped a little along the way.

Please join us and Move for ALS!

Saul Goldberg

Mr. Ron said...

John Kane was always known by the nickname "Micky". I met him around 1950 when I moved with my family from Manhattan to Jamaica, L.I. Our house was on the corner of 181st street and 90th avenue. On the other side of Hillside avenue was Jamaica Estates where I recently discovered, Donald Trump lived; although much after I left there to strike out on my own. Micky lived down at the end of 181st street a couple of doors up form Jamaica avenue. I met him and we became inseparable friends. We saw each other just about every day for the next 8 years. That's when I left New York to work in Boston at the shipyard. There I met my first to be wife and from then on, Micky and I grew farther apart. Over the years, I tried to keep in touch with him, but he had his own commitments. This is just a brief history of a much longer relationship that we had. I was watching a story on TV the other night about the great cartoonist Gahan Wilson and there was a scene that showed several cartoonists from the New Yorker at the restaurant for lunch. As the camera recorded the event, there was Micky. It immediatedly brought back much nostalga. I started to remember the great times he and I had spent together. He and I were the same age. I just turned 81 this month. I miss him a lot.