Soon after taking up residence in Lanman-Wright this fall, Eric Shansby ’07 heard a rumor about his room: some seniors insisted that Garry Trudeau ’70 had also lived there.
Although Trudeau later said he never lived in Lanman-Wright — he was in Lawrance Hall his freshman year, which then housed Davenport freshmen — what made the story particularly interesting for Shansby was that he, too, is a cartoonist.
Shansby is a cartoonist for the Yale Daily News.
Yale isn’t known for turning out cartoonists the way it does U.S. presidents. Besides Trudeau, famed New Yorker cartoonist and children’s book author William Steig is the only famous Yale-affiliated cartoonist — and he attended the Art School for a mere five days before dropping out.
On campus today there exists a somewhat scattered community of artists. Some, like Shansby, hope to follow in Trudeau’s footsteps. Others say they just want to draw for fun. Regardless of their ultimate ambitions, most cartoonists are seeking to ensure the existence of more outlets for their work and communities from which to boost their campus profile.
This current lack of any kind of organization for cartoonists inspired Linnea Duvall ’05 to start a club for people interested in comics.
“There are a lot of people at Yale who draw but don’t really have a place to do it,” Duvall said.
Duvall, like many other cartoonists at Yale, said the Art Department does not offer classes pertinent to her style of drawing. Instead, she makes a weekly comic strip with jokes drawn from everyday life for her friends. Nine club members also plan to publish a collection of their comics together at the end of the semester.
Not every cartoonist at Yale is a member of Duvall’s club, but many have other things in common. For instance, they often draw inspiration from their friends, with varying responses.
“Usually my comics are based only upon myself, though I do occasionally refer to my friends,” Chad Sell ’05, whose comic appears weekly in the Yale Herald, said. “This gets some people in a huff because they think I’m being exploitative. But I’m neither petty nor hostile, so I always get the approval of my subjects.”
Sell, like most of Yale’s cartoonists, said he has been drawing for much of his life.
“I made dorky little comics as a kid and then did a comic strip for my school newspaper,” he said. “However, my sense of humor wasn’t really appropriate for a rural Midwestern high school.”
Now that they’re at Yale, many cartoonists say the Art Department has not provided much support for their interests.
“Maybe it’s not a traditional art form, but I think it’s a valid one and I think a lot of people would benefit from some professional input,” Duvall said.
Ironically enough, it is the English Department that has paid the most attention to comics at Yale. Isaac Cates GRD ’02, who teaches English and serves as faculty advisor for Duvall’s club, has such an interest in comics as a means of artistic expression that in fall 2001 he decided to offer a college seminar on comic books. There was enough interest to teach the seminar again last spring, as well as a summer class on comics that he will teach again next year.
“Many university art departments don’t look favorably on comics or cartooning,” Cates said. “It’s fortunate that comics have found a niche — if an unlikely one — here at Yale.”
Trudeau encouraged aspiring cartoonists at Yale to take advantage of student publications.
“Student newspapers provide one of the few undergraduate opportunities to subject yourself to the same experiences and pressures of the workday world,” he said. “Set deadlines for yourself and meet them. Where else do you get to spend four years practicing your craft in a completely safe environment?”
In addition to the opportunity to publish cartoons in Yale’s student publications, Cates said the Sudler Fund is one of the best opportunities for cartoonists at Yale.
Jeff Seymour ’03, an English major, wrote an independent senior essay on comics and obtained a Sudler grant to produce his own comic book series.
“I showed them a small eight-page comic I’d done myself, and despite the hideous art, they gave me a lot of money to make more issues,” he said.
Cates works on several comics with friends. One, called “Tales from the Classroom,” is a guide for teaching assistants dealing with difficult classroom situations.
Mike Wenthe GRD ’04, who works with Cates on “Tales from the Classroom,” said he has had fun producing the comic, which has illustrated seven different case studies so far.
“I enjoyed portraying [undergraduates’] earnest, youthful enthusiasm, be it for classroom discussion, grade grubbing, mockery of fellow students, or flirting with their TAs,” he said.
Although the number of cartoonists at Yale remains small, both Duvall and Cates said they see potential for growth in their artistic community.
“It just seems like every time I turn around there’s someone interested in drawing,” Duvall said.
Noting the success of movies like “Ghost World” and “American Splendor,” which are based on comic books, Cates said it is possible that comics will receive more attention as a result of these films’ popularity.
Trudeau said there is also a large audience for comics published by Yale students, as he learned during his two years publishing “Bulltales” in the Yale Daily News. Trudeau described “Bulltales” as “the Yale version of ‘Doonesbury’.”
“People always read comics, especially if they’re about themselves,” he said.
While Duvall said she intends to continue drawing as a hobby, a few cartoonists here plan to take their interest to the professional level as Trudeau did — perhaps in hopes of adding to Yale’s very short list of famous alumni in their field.
“I definitely plan to be an editorial cartoonist,” Shansby said. “I’m pretty sure that I want to try and look for a job with a daily newspaper.”
Others feel a more pressing need to follow their dreams.
“I’m an art major, so I’ll pretty much have to do it after college,” Sell said. “That, or sell my body.”