The New Yorker is famous for its incisive, engaging journalism, but somehow it’s the inky black-and-white “gag cartoons” scattered throughout each issue that form the core of the magazine’s iconography. The cartoons, though not necessarily unserious, offer relief from hundreds of columns and thousands of rows of classic serifed typesetting.
For almost 60 years, Sidney Harris has drawn science-related cartoons for magazines ranging from The New Yorker to National Lampoon, to American Scientist and Physics Today. For the last twenty-six years, Harris has worked out of the Elm City, where he lives with his wife, children’s book author and illustrator Kate Duke. They moved here when American Scientist was headquartered in New Haven, and stuck around even after the magazine headed south to the Research Triangle in North Carolina.
Walking through Harris’s Westville home studio, it’s clear that the dual viewpoints of science and art have driven his work. In one room, he keeps files of clippings from various magazines for inspiration, “often science magazines” and The New York Times, he notes, keeping an eye out for subject matter and ideas to riff off of. Several other rooms have been converted into additional studio space, with sketches, partially drafted ink cartoons and photocopies of completed works strewn about.
After asking Harris about his process and inspiration, he demurs—which is something he does a lot—with a quick, “Well, I don’t know.” Instead, by way of explanation, he offers up the art that he admires. His favorite, he declares, is André François, the Hungarian-born French cartoonist who drew cartoons for Punch and The New Yorker and designed the haunting 1965 UK cover for Lord of the Flies. Harris becomes visibly excited discussing François’s work, admitting he’s “obsessed with” the artist—or rather, “not obsessed, but he’s always with me.” Some fifty years ago, Harris spent a week’s worth of salary on his first François cartoon, intrigued by what he describes as the piece’s roughness and scratchiness. He describes with regret, too, the time he and his wife were in France and narrowly missed an opportunity to meet the artist himself.
Harris’s most recent project is a self-published book of cartoons about food, Aside from the Cockroach, How Was Everything?: Cartoons on the Dangers of Eating. After penning numerous other cartoon collections, most recently one on global warming, he mused, “Well, food—everybody eats food,” and the collection was born.
The book is constructed of satirical one-panel cartoons. In one, a waiter inquires of a dining couple, “Some fresh-ground sodium propionate to retard spoilage?” In another, the sign in a shop called Fine Candies tells customers that “Healthy eating is our number 6 concern,” the 6 having recently replaced some other, perhaps higher, perhaps lower, number. Harris tackles numerous aspects of the food industry of concern to the mindful eater, including genetically modified food, additives, irradiation, and fad diets, as only cartoons can: quickly, cleverly, pointedly, prompting both a laugh and an earnest thought about the contents of your burger.
Given recent shifts in the publishing industry, and buoyed by friends’ successes with self-publishing, Harris has created and distributed the book himself. As to the cover design, he left that to Duke and her friend Martha Bradshaw. When asked how he chose from the array of covers Bradshaw designed, he shrugs and says, “Oh, I don’t know, I think the ladies did,” and digs out the pile of options to recall the process.
Harris wears many artistic hats: beyond being a cartoonist, he also paints and sculpts, recently exhibiting at City-Wide Open Studios in Erector Square. He’s focused largely on street scenes of New York City: one painting brightly shows Broadway and 41st Street under construction, while another depicts the subway. His cartoons and paintings have much in common: in both, he favors active views—of streets, diners, restaurants. In contrast to the cartoons, which are relatively simple ink drawings, nearly always black and white, his paintings are vivid and crowded. They’re also full of motion: in one painting of the New York subway, the frame is tilted, giving the sense of a train banking on its track. He admits that this is at least partially a result of the photograph he took for reference, which he shot from the hip while riding the train.
Between Open Studios and the new book, Harris has kept pretty busy lately. When asked what’s next, he points out that he’s still working on getting the word out about his new book, then adds, smiling wryly, “Anyway, I have so many cartoons I could do a hundred books.”
In the meantime, short of getting the new book, we’ll just have to keep flipping through our New Yorkers.
Aside From The Cockroach, How Was Everything?: Cartoons on the Dangers of Eating
by Sidney Harris
Author Website | Buy the Book
Written and photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg.