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An interview with Will McPhail: cartoonist for The New Yorker

ByHannah Robinson

Jan 30, 2019

My flattery battery is fully charged” were the words of Mr Will McPhail as he agreed to do an interview with me. Yep, I thought, this was a cool guy. Not only was McPhail a regular cartoonist for The New Yorker and 2013 winner of Illustrator of the Year, but he also used weird phrases like ‘flattery battery’. Nice. 

McPhail arrived at the cafe for the interview right on time.  As he cheerfully greeted me with a handshake, he apologised for his cold hands, and regaled, to my amusement, a fascinating conversation he had been having with a Mormon outside. A hot cup of tea was promptly ordered.

I began the interview with a retrospective look at his university life. Knowing his success, I was curious to know if cartooning had always been his career plan. Well, no.  McPhail had actually studied Zoology, of all things, at Glasgow University. “I realised about two weeks into my… degree, [that] I spent a lot of time just drawing my lecturers and not doing the work.” By the second year of university, he had already been published in Private Eye and would then move on to cartoon regularly for The New Yorker. Turns out making ones lecture doodles into a feasible career is clearly an option.

I mean, McPhail is good. His humorous cartoons are simple; they charmingly capture the funny little moments of everyday life and never stray too far from his roots in zoology. Indeed, animals feature heavily in his cartoons, as he took my precious question sheet and began drawing a pigeon on it (???). “Oh, I love pigeons… they’re incredible” he exclaims. “The relationship with these animals is complicated,” he continues, “I’m equally amused and disgusted… but I feel most comfortable when personal things are coming from the mouths of vermin.” Wonderfully put. But yes, many artists and actors would agree, the crafting of characters and facades is a good way to communicate more complicated opinions and personal feelings. 

Yet there is something refreshing about McPhail’s lack of explicit social or political commentary in his cartoons. “Naturally I tend to not be too barbed. There rarely is a target” he said. I have personally found his emphasis on light comedy amidst our ever-constant stream of bad news and political tensions to be a wonderful escape. Indeed, it seems to be part of a larger stylistic movement amongst the cartoonist community. Looking at the likes of Liana Fink, Jason Katzenstein and Sofia Warren, a more personal, escapist approach to cartooning is becoming increasingly common. Old-timer cartoonist Peter Brooks, with his cuttingly direct drawings of political figures, only ever addressing the increasingly depressing political climate was, according to McPhail, more “old school [and] we’ve kind of moved on from that; you don’t really need a target. I’m just mocking a guy for saying something stupid.” His cartoons have a different purpose; to grapple with what is everyday experience in a humorous way.   Perhaps less direct, they are nonetheless the product of careful observation and capture the ridiculousness and funny quirks of everyday life. Maybe I’m going out on a  limb, but the vibrant cartoonist community, to which McPhail belongs, is a marvellous break from the ever-constant stream of tense news headlines and edited photos.

Importantly, McPhail explained that he is extremely aware of the presentation of gender and race dynamics in his work. “I can talk about feminism in cartoons all day,” said McPhail, “I never go out intentionally to write feminist cartoons, but… if there’s some kind of power dynamic in the content of the cartoon… it’s just about the choices that you make… In the past I used to fall into the trap of portraying my female characters as just like, silent people, rolling their eyes at something stupid that a guy has said… but I realised, why am I denying my female characters the opportunity to be goofy… that’s the more powerful position.” Actually, according to an article written by Leo Benedictus for The Guardian, “In the 31-year history of the Edinburgh comedy award, there have been only two solo female winners, Jenny Eclair and Laura Solon.” With comedy at the core of McPhail’s success, his cartoons seem to appreciate the need for representation in comedy and are perhaps a little step in tackling the gap.

Diversity too, he explained, is something very important to consider. “All cartoons are white dudes and um, the real worlds isn’t like that.” We discussed how it seems that cartoons have a responsibility; they reflect and influence social trends and establish norms. In our diverse, multicultural society, it sure is time we pay attention to representation. It’s something western societies get wrong all too often in art, film and theatre. The interview actually highlighted the significant ‘whiteness’ of my own cartoons and shockingly,  how few BAME artists illustrate for this paper, a fact that needs to change; after all, The Student Illustrations are open to all styles and approaches to art. 

So, “has social media helped your career?” I asked.  

“Oh FOR SURE, Instagram is just like my WHOLE THING cause not a lot people read The New Yorker in the UK, or around the world, so it’s how people see my work.” 

But then here’s a crazy thing, I was amazed to find out that the majority of McPhail’s Instagram content was “the stuff that isn’t published.” “They’re just all rejects,” he said casually. That was hard to hear. The art world is bloody competitive and it really is true that rejection is a huge part of success. But in that sense, McPhail was a great example of persistence. With all of you ECA artists in mind, this is an example of just how much rejection is a stepping stone towards success. 

As we packed to go, I felt the interview had gone well. McPhail’s awareness of the importance of representation in cartooning was eye-opening, his small choices in terms of gender dynamics and diversity showed just how impactful cartoons could be in helping to set norms. Perhaps more so, it was reassuring to know just how much rejection goes into success. Persistence is key and it’s important to always keep a chin up. 

After all, it’s hard when one’s job is to get people laughing. But with wit and a flair for spotting the quirks of everyday life, McPhail’s cartoons are always a happy break from the stress of it all.  


Image Credit: Will McPhail

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