I first noticed William Steig’s covers and cartoons around 1970, when I was a teenager and would page through my parents’ New Yorker magazines. His drawings didn’t look like the rest of the cartoons in the magazine. They didn’t have gag lines. There were no boardrooms, no cocktail parties with people saying witty things to one another. His men and women looked as if they were out of the Past, although I wasn’t completely clear as to what era of the Past they were from. Sometimes the drawings made me laugh, and sometimes they didn’t, but I always wanted to look at them. I had a sense that these cartoons were made by someone who had had to create his own language, both visual and verbal, with which to express his view of the world.
His subjects? Animals, both real and imaginary. Also cowboys, farmers, knights on horseback, damsels in distress, gigantic ladies and teeny-tiny men, grandmas, clowns of indeterminate gender, average joes, families, old couples, young couples, artists, deep thinkers, fools, loners, lovers, and hoboes, among other things.
Steig’s drawings seem to flow effortlessly from his mind to his pen and onto the paper. I doubt he ever looked at a blank sheet and thought, “I have nothing worthwhile to say today,” or “I can’t draw a car as well as Joe Shmoe, so why don’t I crawl back into bed and wait for the day to be over.” Steig gave himself permission to be playful and experimental. One of the many wonderful things about looking at his drawings is their message, especially to his fellow artists: Draw what you love and what interests you. Draw it how you want to draw it. When we are children we do this instinctively. But somewhere in our passage from childhood to adulthood, the ability to be truly and fearlessly creative is often lost. To quote Pablo Picasso, Steig’s favorite artist, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
William Steig produced more than fifty books, from early collections like Small Fry (1944) to children’s books like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) and Shrek! (1990), which he wrote and illustrated late in his career. Unlike many artists who find a style early in their lives and then spend the rest of their careers perfecting it, Steig changed his style over the years. His work from the forties and fifties is fairly conventional. In the drawings of his middle years, his style is more angular and geometric. And in his last decades, his line becomes very fluid and playful, and there is an explosion of color, especially in his children’s books.
Steig, who was a follower of Wilhelm Reich, was deeply interested in psychology. Much of his work looks at society from an outsider’s point of view, observing with humor and compassion the compromises we make when we grow up and try to conform to society’s expectations. His earliest collection (and one of my favorites) was About People (1939). Each page contains a drawing representing a different emotional state, with a caption written underneath in his handwriting. Some combinations of drawing and title are fairly obvious, like the man sitting in a chair calmly smoking a cigarette. Behind the chair is a huge octopus with four tentacles wrapped around the man. The caption is simply “Poise.” But some of the drawings are not of people at all. One contains a roughly drawn spiral, and in the center of the spiral is a black blot with a tiny white dot in the middle. The caption is: “Father’s Angry Eye.”
These are not your typical cartoons, and especially not typical of cartooning at the time. They’re offbeat. They’re also about something otherwise intangible: actual emotions.
Steig’s interest in psychology continued with Persistent Faces (1945), which explores a variety of visual types, like the “Hostess,” who has alarmingly twinkly eyes and teeth, and a worried man’s face, captioned “Straw in the Wind.” The Agony in the Kindergarten (1950), which he dedicated to Reich, is filled with drawings of children and accompanying statements like “I need that kid like I need a hole in the head,” and “Stop asking so many questions.” Perhaps Steig’s most famous cartoon of this period is “Mother loved me but she died,” from The Lonely Ones (1942). These demonstrate Steig’s ear for language, and also demonstrate his ability to look at life through a child’s eyes.
Steig was an exceptionally gifted colorist, and he used color in a luminous, instinctive, and expressive way. Even when the goings-on are terrifying, as they often are in Rotten Island (1984)—my favorite of all of his children’s books—they’re never depressing. His dark colors are about a gleeful darkness, the darkness children feel when they know their most trusted adult is going to tell them a spooky story. The color isn’t over-fussed or second-guessed or muddified.
Steig loved pattern. Rugs, sofas, chairs, wallpaper, ladies’ dresses, and men’s shirts were all miniature canvases where he could make up designs—diamonds or flowers or spirals or something that looks like an upside-down banana peel. Even a sky could be patterned with lines or brick-like shapes or decorative cloud puffs.
In the preface to his collection Dreams of Glory (1953), Steig writes, “We can laugh at the pretense and pose and foolishness of an irrational ideology and at the same time feel the pity and love—for a living being—that should be ingredients of all humor.” Sometimes I think of the Cartoon World as a big house with a Magazine Panel Cartoon Wing, a Newspaper Daily Strip Wing, a Graphic Novel Wing, an Underground Comics wing, a Superhero Comics wing, an Animation wing, and lots of other wings I don’t know about yet. Steig’s drawings throw open a bunch of windows and let in some fresh air, for which I am deeply grateful. He saw the world of human beings as absurd, hilarious, terrifying, mystifying, and infinitely worth observing.
Roz Chast’s cartoons have been published in magazines such as The New Yorker, Scientific American, and Mother Jones. Her next book is What I Hate: From A to Z. A longer version of this essay will appear in Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies, & Clowns: The Lost Art of William Steig.