John Caldwell has been very busy as a cartoonist and humorous illustrator since the early 1970s. He has created many classic cartoons for The National Lampoon; his comic panels have been syndicated internationally by King Features Syndicate and turned into a cartoon-a-day desk calendar; his book of faxable cartoons and messages, Fax This Book, has been a great success and spawned a follow-up book, Faxable Greetings. Now John is probably best known for being a member of Mad magazine’s famous “Usual Gang Of Idiots.”
Caldwell never received any actual training as a cartoonist, but did attend the Parsons School of Design, where his general art education helped him prepare for his cartooning career. “You first learn the rules, then you learn how to break them” is how John explains the value of art school to a comic artist. “Since cartoonist is such a broad term, there are specific areas where training would be essential-if someone were interested in animation for instance. But as for pure drawing style, I think that comes from within. Your brain takes in a blend of influences and the result eventually comes out the tip of whatever implement you happen to be holding in your hand. It doesn’t happen overnight, so get some sleep.”
Despite more than twenty years in the business, the creative process is still a challenge to Caldwell. “The stuff I do for Mad generally starts with a single premise. For instance, a while back I did an article titled ‘Gross And Beyond Gross.’ That started from a single thought: ‘Gross is guys who don’t trim their nose hairs … and beyond gross is guys who braid them.’ I liked that premise so I wrote and did rough
sketches for another twelve or fifteen and submitted them to Mad. They narrowed it down to eight and I had a two-page spread. Although I see the concepts in my head, I usually start with the writing.
’to help me get going I like to exercise and drink caffeinated beverages. I ride an exercise bike for about 45 minutes in the morning. I usually use that time to read the paper or a book or magazine. I try to get myself thinking funny. As I read I’m looking for something I can use in a cartoon. Actually, I think exercising your brain at the same time as your body may actually burn more calories than using a Nordic Track while listening to George Jones or watching professional wrestling. If I’m having a hard time thinking funny I also like to read certain humorists like S.J. Perelman or Woody Allen. I find that generally snaps me into a reasonably goofy mood.”
Despite some gloomy predictions by others, Caldwell is optimistic about the future of freelance cartooning. “I used to say the gag cartoon markets are drying up. In fact, that’s not true. They’re not disappearing as much as they’re changing form. Today’s periodical may end up on tomorrow’s computer network. A book idea may instead take the shape of a CD-ROM. The point is, it’s a good idea to be aware of which direction the communication industry is headed. Whether we resist the change or not, we’re going to be swept along with the rest of humanity. Might as well try to benefit from it. Another thing, be diverse. Try different media, different markets. Don’t hang all of your hopes on a one-trick pony.”