May 14, 2011
I look at you and I see that today is a day of rejoicing, a day in which you want to bask in the attention and pride of your families. It’s a day to celebrate your accomplishments, so from the depth of my heart, bravo!
But, at the same time, I know that many of you must be terrified. I sympathize: you are going out into a world in the midst of a recession, when there are few jobs and openings for cartoonists. Everyone talks of doom and gloom. “Print is dead,” they say. I’m deeply flattered that James asked me to talk to you today, but I’m terrified too – how can I inspire you in the face of such an uncertain future? You have been asked a hundred times today: ”what will you do after graduation?” and for those of you who don’t have a ready answer, the question must only fuel your anxiety. You don’t know where you’ll go next, and I can’t tell you where you’ll go next. But I can tell you what I know from my own experience: that sometimes it’s only when you are totally, utterly lost that you have a chance to discover something new.
Way back in 1974, I was a student myself, studying architecture in Paris. My boyfriend and I lived together, and when he broke up with me, I was literally left with no place to live. I decided to go to New York, which I knew nothing about except that it was very far from Paris, and all I wanted to leave behind. My Mom said: “in New York, if you take a cab, lock the door from the inside. Otherwise thieves will open the door and cut off your hand with a machete to steal your jewelry!” This was the New York of the seventies, the New York of Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, and it had a reputation to match. I was terrified. I landed at JFK, on September 2, 1974, with $50 in my pocket and a reservation I had mailed to the YMCA. Thanks to misinformation from a French guidebook, the YMCA was not, as I had expected, a youth hostel but, instead, more of a shelter for transient men. Needles to say, they hadn’t received my reservation. They did their best to shoo me back onto the street – they wanted nothing to do with a white girl who didn’t speak English. I couldn’t afford anything else, so I pretended not to understand–that was easy enough Finally, they relented and locked me from the outside into a room – a room that had the size, comfort and feel of a run-down jail cell. That’s where I spent my first night in New York.
The next day, I went for a walk. I didn’t have a chance to get my bearings and I ended up in Hell’s Kitchen, which was the hangout for prostitutes and truck drivers on their way to the Holland Tunnel. My first taste of the great city of New York was the devastated, stinking, garbage-strewn streets of the Meat packing district. As I walked, all the events of the past day and night, all the fears and questions suddenly came together into one thought: “I could get killed right now, and no one would know. There would be no way for anyone to identify my body (I wasn’t carrying ID), and it would be weeks or months before my family or friends would even be notified that I had been murdered.” That fear was so intense that it stopped me right in the middle of the street. I was looking into darkness, but, just as suddenly, I felt utterly liberated. Because the flip side was: “If no one knows what happens to me, not even if I die, then I’m only answerable to myself. Whatever I do, it’s not for my parents or my teachers, or my friends. I’m accountable only to myself.”
In that moment of being totally lost I was able to find myself. Even now, years later, when I’m immersed in six projects at once, enmeshed in ties to artists, family and friends, what I do for relaxation is to go get lost in the woods. Before I go, I look at contour maps, older maps for grown over paths, any map I can find, and once there, I pay attention to all the trees and rocks, keep track of the position of the sun, watch where I put my feet, and I make constantly shifting mental maps. It’s not about getting from point A to point B–the roads are much more efficient for that–It’s about getting over one’s fears, and, in the process, charting unknown territory. The other day I discovered a stream bathed in sunlight, not too far from the cabin, that I never would have found if I only followed the trails. it’s that kind of magic breakthrough I’m searching for.
I have had many moments in my life when I didn’t know what would come next, and each was a useful turning point. The first couple of years in New York, I kept going back to Paris to resume my architectural studies. Each time I was told “Design a school, a neighborhood, a new city!” The assignments seemed preposterous to me. I couldn’t take them seriously when I knew the reality was much more prosaic: the best an architecture diploma could get you was work in an agency repeating the same old cookie-cutter designs. So I’d keep returning to New York, not knowing in the slightest what I wanted to do with my life, but loving the yielding and unchartered streets of the city, trying to remain open to the sense of possibility I had felt that first day. I took whatever job presented itself: I made models for a Japanese architecture agency, I sold cigarettes in a kiosk at Grand Central Station, I trained as a plumber and an electrician, I was an actress in a Richard Foreman play.
Then I met Art. He had a day job at a bubble gum company, but he was at his core a cartoonist. At the time, he was putting together an anthology of his work called Breakdowns. Each of the strips was a new invention, each was done in a radically new style. Art showed me the classics, the comic book masters: Windsor McCay, George Herriman, Lionel Feininger, Chester Gould, Harvey Kurtzman. No one else at the time knew or cared about comics. It was very far away from the pretentious discourse of the architects in Paris or of the artists in New York (my roommate was a would-be artist.) But Art’s work and that of the other cartoonists resonated and felt true to me, and that was all that mattered.
I fell in love with Art and with the magic of the medium for which he was such an eloquent spokesman. And I also found one more thing to fall in love with: I cut hand separations in zipatone for the color pages in Breakdowns, and found my metier in printing, print production, making things with my hands and creating books. It satisfied a deep longing. I took classes in a vocational school and bought a printing press, which I then had to hoist in our 4th floor walk-up loft. Here was a medium which allowed me to wake up one morning with a thought and put it down on paper. I’d work long hours and get my hands very dirty, but I had booklets I could bring to a store by the evening. It was a dream I didn’t even know I had had, a power I was giddy with. Architects at the top of their game can be part of a team that gets a building built. But we, as publishers, writers, artists and cartoonists can build a whole city, a whole universe, just by putting our ideas on paper. I could publish and print booklets, then bring them to local stores and collect money if they sold. I also realized then the enormous privilege of having an audience, of being read.
I threw myself into the field. To earn a living, a friend suggested I put together a map of my neighborhood. Soho was new and everyone was getting lost in it, and a map was an easy task for a former architect. I had to sell listings to the local businesses – and that was not an easy task. I hated the thought of making cold calls. I tried to steel myself against each rejection, to learn from each mistake, and, quickly, because I couldn’t fail once I started collecting money from some of the stores, because I had to find some way out of the thicket I had lost myself in, I pulled it off. I published the Soho Map for thirteen years, before selling the business to someone who is still publishing it to this day. It was the financial backing for all my publishing, but maybe even more important, I realized that if I could do door-to-door selling, I could do just about anything.
So once I had given myself the funds and the means to publish what I wanted, I was intoxicated with the thrill of all the possibilities. I dragged Art into publishing a magazine (he had edited one before, so he knew the pitfalls), and we cobbled together something that would show the world how great comics could be, what’s now called the legendary RAW magazine. Then in 1993, Tina Brown came into the RAW offices, and offered me the job of art editor at The New Yorker. I was completely lost again in this glamorous magazine world – I had to buy a whole new wardrobe to replace my ink-stained overalls. But Tina Brown’s mandate for me was open-endded. She had just published the first New Yorker cover by Art. It was a huge success and had stirred a lot of controversy, and she simply knew she wanted “more of that.” It was up to me to discover what that was, and over the past 18 years I’ve found it, carved that path and given New Yorker covers a clear voice. But of course, I couldn’t stay found for long. Twelve years ago, I decided to lose myself in the world of children’s books, fueled by a desire to create comics for children like the French language ones my cildren had been raised on. Now my company, TOON Books, is working on the publication of its 14th and 15th books.
When I look back on it now, and I look at all that I have done over the past thirty years, I it’s easy to see in retrospect a clear path that led me from one thing to the next. But I confess to you, here and now, you who are about to embark on your own adventures into unchartered territory, that at all these junctures, I was totally lost. Each time I started something, I was hacking through the thickets with only the vaguest notion of what I was aiming at and how to get there.
Throughout all of it, I was battling people who were telling me that it couldn’t be done. At the time of RAW, I was told that comics were a gutter medium, best printed on newsprint, meant only to be read while on the toilet and then thrown out–that was the attitude of many of the underground cartoonists; that New Yorker covers had to be pretty and witty comments on the pleasures of tea in the afternoon and anything else was of the utmost vulgarity – that was most of my colleagues at The New Yorker; that children’s books could only be illustrated books, with a manuscript written by a real writer and illustrated by someone else.
When I turned to others, when I went to see publishers, I was told over and over again that there was no good reason to veer off the paved road. Why go explore impenetrable territory when there was already a way to get from here to there?
I couldn’t explain where I was going or how I intended to get there. All I knew was that I would figure it out step-by-step, one wrong turn at a time. I learned to embrace the terror, and as the chorus of nay-sayers grew, it made it clearer in my mind that this was my thing, that if I didn’t do what had in mind, no one else would try. To focus on doing your own thing, and to give yourself the means to do it even if you don’t know precisely what it is is a heady feeling.
The same goes for you, graduates. the world will tell you: “Print is dead and the economy has crashed. Why even try?” I say step off the path and find the unchartered clearing in the woods. Don’t listen to the nay-sayers, listen to yourselves. Each one of you is a cartoonist: your pens and pencils are magic wands and you get an infinite number of wishes. You are cartoonists and you can build your own worlds. Put all of your research, your thoughts, your emotions into your work with confidence – because if you don’t write your stories, no one else will. Stay true to yourself, and you will find your voice. Find your voice, and the readers will come. You can and you will create work worthy of all your efforts, of all the trust and support that your family, James, and your teachers have invested in you.
Here, now, is your diploma. Think of it as a map and go get lost.