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.