Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Drawing on Life: For New Yorker Cartoonist William Haefeli Life Really Is a Laughing Matter

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Drawing on Life: For New Yorker Cartoonist William Haefeli Life Really Is a Laughing Matter

Article excerpt

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Nothing vexes out cartoonist William Haefeli quite so much as the demise of the cocktail party. He doesn't miss the polite conversation or the mood lighting or even the dirty martinis--he laments the loss of the perfect milieu for a New Yorker cartoon.

"Two people could meet who had never met before; a housewife could meet a general," sighs Haefeli. "There were all sorts of exchanges and social pleasantries."

At 54 years old, Haefeli doesn't look a day over 38, but he does oddly resemble the characters in his New Yorker cartoons. Not feature for feature, mind you--they have squinty eyes, big ears, big noses, and no chin--but in overall angularity and expression. Watching him enter a Los Angeles coffee shop one blistering summer day was like spotting one of his drawings come to life.

There's a certain amount of truth in every stereotype, and the New Yorker cartoon is no exception. It's sophisticated, wry, and at times incomprehensible. In a 1998 episode of Seinfeld written by New Yorker cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan, Elaine's frustration over an inscrutable cartoon of a cat and a dog chatting in an office compels her to go to the magazine to ask its cartoon editor why he ran it. His response? "I liked the kitty." Yet under that canopy of enigmatic privilege and sophistication, the cartoons are quite diverse, even progressive. "The New Yorker cartoon doesn't have to he funny. It doesn't need to make you laugh," says Haefeli, who regularly draws both interracial and gay couples into his cartoons. "It has to make you think."

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"When you start to know the cartoonists, you'll see it's a comic style and a personality," says real-life New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. "Sometimes it's commentary, sometimes satire, sometimes absurdity, sometimes what I call ludic, a mind play. It's someone communicating his ideas through the medium of humor. Bill is one of the best examples of it-his cartoons are social commentary."

Haefeli's childhood was very much the kind of existence mirrored in The New Yorker. He grew up in Philadelphia's prestigious Main Line neighborhood, the son of an advertising copywriter and homemaker. His father had gone to Princeton; he took the train to work each day and the family to Ivy League football games on the weekend. His mother had always considered them middle class, until she read an article on the middle class; then she considered them upper middle class. Haefeli calls his home modest and his parents unaffected, but when an 8-year-old Bill would read New Yorker cartoons of Charles Saxon and Peter Arno, it wasn't much of a stretch to envision his parents' friends wearing those mink stoles and smoking jackets.

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When he enrolled at Duke University in 1971, Haefeli already knew he wanted to be a cartoonist, particularly a New Yorker cartoonist. But he originally balked at actually making it a career. "It's like saying 'I want to be an astronaut.' So few get to do it," he explains. "I was always good at school. I thought, I have to get a 'real job.'" So he studied social psychology--a more academic way to exercise the cartoonist's eye for human nature. Eventually he yielded to his lifelong dream and switched to art. His professors were supportive of his cartooning, though it's likely they were envisioning something more like Roy Lichtenstein than James Thurber. After Duke, Haefeli enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, a commercial art school that encouraged him to embrace advertising, which he did for four months after graduation. …

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