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Meet the Artist: William Haefeli

January 19, 2010

Haefeli, January 10, 2000

Haefeli, September 30, 2002

Growing up outside Philadelphia, the young William Haefeli pored over New Yorker cartoons by Charles Saxon and Peter Arno, whose work frequently chronicled the ritzy lives and intelligent repartee of the East Coast upper class. Today, Bill’s own cartoons for The New Yorker carry on that whip-smart tradition in a modernized atmosphere. Though his distinctive drawings regularly feature gay and lesbian characters and people of color, the first thing you notice isn’t always their identity; more often, it’s the uncanny talent for self-expression they all seem to share. Bill’s characters produce the kind of commentary that makes you burst out with a chuckle before you can stop yourself – incisive, honest, and just this side of wicked.

We caught up with Bill over e-mail recently to ask him a few questions about both his life and the lives of the people he puts on paper.

TCB: As a child, were you always into drawing, and did you always know you’d end up a cartoonist? What about your experience growing up influenced you to become a cartoonist?

WH: I always enjoyed drawing – except when teachers told me how I ought to draw. I always thought it would be fun to be a cartoonist, but I had no idea I’d end up one until I was almost out of college and the thought of doing anything other than cartooning made me very, very, very sad. As a kid, I was enchanted by the cartoons in The New Yorker. How could so much enjoyment come from one drawing and one line of dialog?

TCB: Did you ever consider any other career options? What were they?

WH: As a cartoonist, I had a number of very lean years at various points of my career. However, I never seriously considered other career options – although more practical minds might have advised otherwise.  Cartooning provides me with both a constant creative challenge and, more importantly, an ideal opportunity for self-expression. 

TCB: When did you get your first cartoon published in The New Yorker, and what was it?

WH: January 5, 1998 saw my first appearance in The New Yorker. The cartoon showed an over-eager woman talking to a man at a party, saying, “Teri tells me you’re ostensibly straight.”

Haefeli, January 5, 1998

TCB: How would you describe your drawing style, and how did it develop?

WH: When people meet me, they ask which New Yorker cartoonist I am. (It seems people rarely learn our names, but know our styles by sight.) I try to describe my drawings: “They’re relatively bold with a certain graphic element and areas of solid black.” (Since I have no control over how large or small my cartoons will be reproduced, I try to make them strong and clear visually.) I get a blank expression. “All my characters have a flesh tone?” (It helps them stand out against the white background I usually use and – side benefit – makes it easy to incorporate people of different races.) Nothing. “They look like they were colored in, like in a coloring book?” (I prefer dry, go-anywhere media like colored pencils.) Zip. Then I break down and say, “I’m the one with big pointy noses.” Bingo!

Haefeli, February 9, 2009

TCB: What led you to create the unusual noses you use for all your characters?

WH: My cartooning evolved over time, like handwriting. Originally my noses looked like a skinny finger sticking straight out of the faces. As my drawing style became more bold and angular, the noses you see now took shape. These noses initially attract attention to the faces and then, like arrows, start moving the viewer’s eyes around the drawing. I never consciously made a decision to do this; it just made my characters fit into the overall composition. It’s interesting you ask about the noses, which a lot of people do, but I also encounter many people who focus more on the gigantic ears (which balance out the noses), or the fact that my characters only have three fingers on each hand (since a fourth finger is superfluous for virtually all hand gestures). All cartooning involves both exaggeration and simplification.

Haefeli, May 30, 2005

TCB: Do you see yourself more as an artist or as a writer of jokes?

WH: Well, I’m not really a writer of jokes. I merely observe life and tweak it a little. (And sometimes life needs no tweaking at all to be funny.) The caption (or captionless idea) always comes first. Then, as an artist, I have to find a way to set the stage and tell the story visually.

TCB: Describe your experience as a creator of LGBT-themed cartoons for a more mainstream audience (like New Yorker readers). How have you seen gay/lesbian-themed cartoons transition from being purely niche offerings to something more widely accepted?

WH: It’s great fun having LGBTs among my regular cast of characters. Being gay myself, as I observe life for cartoon ideas, I naturally think of LGBT scenarios along with more mainstream ones. I don’t view or try to portray my LGBT characters any differently from my other characters. And I assume all readers have the capacity to extrapolate from their own personal experience. (If you don’t have to be stranded on a desert island to get a cartoon about being stranded on a desert island, then you don’t have to be LGB or T to get a cartoon about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.)

Haefeli, January 19, 2009

Often humor comes from looking at life from a slightly different perspective, and having LGBT characters gives me more angles to play with. With greater social visibility and more public discussions of LGBT issues over the years, the population at large, and thus mainstream publications, have become more receptive to LGBT characters in cartoons. In days of yore, mainstream publications only had a gay character in a cartoon if the punchline was that the character was gay. But in today’s climate, I can draw two men in a living room, and readers will correctly infer that they’re gay and be interested to read what they’re talking about. My cartoons would be impossible without all the individuals over the years who brought about this social change on many different fronts. And I consider myself lucky that New Yorker editors, aside from always being very receptive to my LGBT-themed work, have never tried to limit me to only doing LGBT-themed work – a fate that can still befall other gays in the mainstream media.

TCB: How has living on the West Coast influenced your work? Do you find that life in LA provides you with a different subject matter from what you found on the East Coast?

WH: I grew up on the East Coast (where I found great humor in the stuffiness of old traditions), spent my formative adult years in Chicago (where cold weather provided many ideas for cartoons), and now live in LA (where automobiles figure more prominently in my cartooning). But, by and large, I’ve always been more attuned to the tone of the times and mass popular culture than to any geographic region I’ve lived in.   

TCB: What work do you do besides cartooning for The New Yorker?

WH: At this point in time, I’m only cartooning for The New Yorker – and enjoying it completely.

Haefeli, February 13, 2006

Haefeli, September 3, 2001

  1. lambqueen permalink
    January 22, 2010 3:50 pm

    Re: Mr. Haefeli’s 11/9/09 New Yorker cartoon in which he talks about the various Kirstens out there:

    What about all the Alysas, Alissas, Alisas, and Alizas out there?!?


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