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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 10/26/2010

In Memoriam: New Yorker cartoonist LEO CULLUM's warm and witty legacy

By Michael Cavna

leo1.jpg (courtesy of the New Yorker)

There's the stereotype of the gag cartoonist as a somewhat maladjusted shut-in, forever shackled to a drawing board and a deadline, let out only for book tours and comics conventions. Then, as the one-man counterargument to that enduring stereotype, there's LEO CULLUM.

Leo Cullum was a fighter pilot. Then he was a commercial pilot, trotting the globe and doodling during layovers. As New Yorker magazine artist Barry Blitt says to Comic Riffs: "He flew 200 [combat] missions in Vietnam! I thought all cartoonists were supposed to be meek, and stay in our room."


Fortunately for countless fans, Cullum didn't stay bound to his room: He was determined to become a friendly, genuinely funny cartoonist when not piloting the friendly skies -- and his creativity seemed to feed off his journeys. With ambition and accuracy, he targeted The New Yorker, breaking into the magazine's pages by writing a gag to go with a Charles Addams illustration. In 1977, he landed his first "Leo Cullum" cartoon in The New Yorker, becoming a reader favorite for 33 years, right up through his final cartoon appearing in the magazine's Oct. 25 issue.


Leo Cullum died Monday in Malibu at age 68, according to his family, it was first reported by the New York Times. We mourn the loss of the man. We also toast the cartooning legacy, raising a glass right where Cullum's beleaguered businessfolk and sophisticated canines so often found themselves: facing life's bracing little realities with a belly up to the bar.

Cullum reportedly drew more than 800 New Yorker cartoons. And true to his own nature, his cartoon creations slyly defied stereotypes and undercut cliches. In one of his better-known cartoons, in fact, a man stranded on a desert isle says to land-straddling fish: "This island isn't big enough for two cliches."

"Leo Cullum was one of the most consistently funny cartoonists that I knew," New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast tells Comic Riffs. "Even when he used the traditional set-ups of magazine cartoons, his take on them was always fresh. I will miss him and his work enormously."

cullumjacket.png Cullum's memorable post-9/11 cartoon.

Cullum liked drawing pets and loved rendering lions, and yet another way he defied cartoon convention was by the gentleness of the antagonism between his Man and Beast, or between critters -- no matter the animal, there was a trans-species civility as they endured their separate but equal rat races. And if a high-balling shorthair found himself commiserating with a laid-off human middle manager at a tavern, we had no reason to bat an eye at his world's inner logic. (And part of the deft visual magic of this all-animal democracy was that most of his characters, be they hound or homo sapiens, actually shared the identical type of eye. Neat trick, that.)

His style of subtle contrasts and easy lines were as approachably friendly as the faces on his sizably muzzled humans and dogs. His cartoons were a reader favorite for the magazine's caption contests, and very rare was the Cullum cartoon that puzzled readers: His gags were as clear as they were clearly brilliant.

Such cartoon craftsmanship also earned the genuine admiration of his fellow New Yorker contributors:

"A hilarious cartoonist," Blitt tells us. "His characters always looked like they had something really funny to say."

"He was one of the makers-of-the-funny-ones," Art Spiegelman says to Comic Riffs.

Drew Dernavich marveled at the mind of this former fighter pilot.

"I only met Leo twice," Dernavich tells us. "My impression of him was that, while many cartoonist personalities run from the paranoid to the curmudgeonly, Leo was a comfortable, well-adjusted guy, and free of that art-world angst that plagues so many of us. In other words, he was a pleasure to know. I always appreciated the fact that he was a pilot -- that he would draw cartoons one week and fly cross-country runs the next.

"What was remarkable about that was that it was so perfectly left-brain/right-brain," Dernavich continues. "You might expect that cartoons from the mind of a military and commercial aviator would have been either clumsy or from the '100 Jokes to Tell at Parties' school, but Leo's humor was both authentically odd and perfectly accessible. He was an expert gag writer and really will be missed."

Liza Donnelly particularly recalls Cullum's blend of wit and compassion.

"I found Leo to be a very kind man," Donnelly tells 'Riffs. "When I would see him at New Yorker parties over the years, he always showed interest in what I was up to. He was selfless that way. And when I asked about him, he often reverted to a joke.

"He had that unique combination of levity and caring. I shall miss his presence at New Yorker functions, and I will most certainly miss his singular brand of wonderful cartoon humor."

And fellow New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee grew to know Cullum through their work together, and was impressed by the grace of both the man and the talent.

"I learned a lot from him in the times I was privileged enough to work with him," Diffee tells Comic Riffs. "He was incredibly intelligent about his profession; acutely aware and in control of every nuance in both his captions and drawings and he had that remarkable knack for making perfection look effortless."

Diffee also underscores Cullum's supportive influence on his colleagues.

"Leo Cullum carried himself with such grace and ease that it made me think sometimes that he might not know how tall he stood among his peers. As a younger cartoonist, I thought I might feel intimidated to work with him, but instead, I always felt more confident and better about myself when I had that privilege and that is all because of Leo's generous spirit. He had the ability to make others immediately comfortable.

"He was, like his drawings, precise and sophisticated, but always welcoming and full of joy."

By Michael Cavna  | October 26, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Gag Cartoons, Interviews With Cartoonists  | Tags:  Art Spiegelman, Barry Blitt, Drew Dernavich, Leo Cullum, Liza Donnelly, Matthew Diffee, Roz Chast, The New Yorker  
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I first learned to love the New Yorker for the cartoons; appreciating the articles ame much later. Cullum's work always has stood out as amongst the best. He will be missed and his talent will stand the test of time.

Posted by: allenofwoodhaven | October 26, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

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