“Heartfelt humor and a heartfelt approach to life”

Whether it’s national issues like the economy, a moving tribute to a feminist icon, or simply the ways that an everyday couple relate to each other at home, Liza Donnelly’s cartoons on issues of the moment bring a comic and subtle sensibility to modern life, often with a feminist slant.

Here, Donnelly speaks with Absolut Art about the way she thinks (or doesn’t think) about her audience, about when to be sincere and when to tickle the reader’s funny bone, and about the power and responsibility of artists in our fraught moment.

If we go all the way back, your cartooning career started when your earliest drawings made your mother happy. Do you ever imagine that you are drawing for a specific person? Do you imagine an audience at all?

That’s a good question. I do not think of a specific person. That much I know. Most cartoonists would probably not be telling the truth if they said they were not thinking about their audience. We have to on some level, since we depend on an audience, who we try to make laugh, or think about an issue, or smile. So the audience is there and I’m well aware of them. But I don’t think about them consciously anymore. I’ve been doing it so long now that I just draw. I don’t think, “How can I make people laugh?” It’s more like, “What’s going on that I want to make a drawing about that I can make other people understand or find humor in?”

You’ve mentioned that after getting lots of rejections from the New Yorker, you learned that you have to draw for yourself. Can you say a bit more about that concept and what it has meant to you?

The process of submitting to the New Yorker is a funny one, and it’s been like this since the beginning of the magazine, I think. You come up with the ideas you want them to consider, and you submit a number of cartoons every week, and they buy one, or they don’t. You get a lot of rejections as a result. You do six a week and you don’t sell any for maybe a month. That’s lots of drawing and lots of rejection. You can’t go about it by trying to figure out what the editor wants; you learn their sense of humor but not totally. The best thing to do is just draw what you think is funny or interesting. The best cartoons are the ones where you can sense the artist’s voice, their particular way of seeing the world. Drawing for yourself helps to create heartfelt humor and a heartfelt approach to life. It’s not always just about the joke.

Your drawing Onward pays tribute to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who spent her entire career advocating for equality for women. Many of your cartoons deal with women’s position in society, sometimes pointing out inequality, sometimes gently poking fun at women or the relationship between men and women. Can you talk about how sometimes you use a serious and heartfelt tone in your drawings, as with Onward, while sometimes humor is the tool you need?

It’s not something that I can always put into words. It’s a feeling. If we’re talking about women’s rights, a lot of the New Yorker cartoons I’ve published over the years are subtly feminist in the way that they’re drawn or in that the woman is speaking, or there’s a feminist slant that’s not obvious. I’m motivated by the issue but also by humor. Then there’s the harder issues. When I began publishing more cartoons on the internet for other publications, I started forcing myself to be stronger in my opinions. Those drawings get at, say, the feminist issue or the gun issue in a more serious way.

Sometimes I combine the two. There’s a New Yorker cartoon I published right after 9/11, when I actually thought I might stop cartooning. In it, a little girl asks her father, “Can I stop being worried now?” It’s not funny but it hits the issue. Recently I did a cartoon on my daily live drawing on Instagram after Trump said that the economy’s fine. I drew a harried-looking woman with three kids screaming and food everywhere, and she’s dumbfounded, listening to him say this on the TV. It hits the issue head-on.

You grew up drawing in the late 1960s, during the Civil Rights struggle, political assassinations, and the women’s movement. We are again in times of great challenge and upheaval worldwide. What can cartoonists and other artists offer that is unique in this incredibly difficult moment?

For me, I always see cartoons or other drawings as a way of connecting with other people and sharing our common humanity, whether it’s making someone smile but also making someone think about an issue, or share in a problem, or realize that we have something in common. It’s about a dialogue, less about me sharing my opinions.