According to Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, Eric Shansby ’07 is “Meek looking. Totally unassuming. One detects, emanating from him, an eau d’ nerd. And yet this little schmo is bootlegging a colossal ego.” Once, Weingarten recalls, Shansby referred to his columns as “long, tedious captions for [his] cartoons.”
Beneath the banter, though, Shansby and his mentor clearly share a fruitful working relationship — and, yes, great mutual respect.
“Gene Weingarten is a genius,” Shansby said. “Everything he says is gold.”
For the past three years, Shansby has been providing the visual counterpoint to Weingarten’s weekly musings; when they first met, though, the budding cartoonist was just another ambitious student in a journalism class at Maryland’s Montgomery Blair High School. After Weingarten delivered a guest lecture, Shansby leapt at the chance to show his portfolio to the writer. Weingarten was duly impressed, and when the cartoonist who illustrated his columns retired a few years later, Weingarten asked the then-18-year-old Shansby to take his place.
But, though he became a professional in his freshman year of college, Shansby had seen himself as a cartoonist for quite some time. He recalls that his “first obsession” was the desire for his own comic strip and, in ninth grade, he assembled a package of sample work after reading a book on syndication. The only problem? “Sebastian and Tags,” Shansby’s chronicle of a blond boy’s adventures with his imaginary friend, had stolen its premise straight from the pages of Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes.”
Looking back, the philosophy major likes to think this teenage slip was akin to “Marx’s definition of ideology: ‘They do not know it, but they are doing it.’ That’s what ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ was for me. I had no idea what I was doing.” Of course, Shansby noted with some chagrin, he wishes he had been younger than 14 at the time.
Copyright issues aside, though, “Calvin and Hobbes” seems like a particularly appropriate starting point for the young cartoonist. Just as Watterson united the cerebral and the absurd by naming his cartoon tiger after a 17th-century philosopher and his malevolent preteen after a Protestant theologian, Shansby too appreciates the intersection of intellect and comedy in his work.
“Eric is as intense, and often as intellectual, about cartoons as he is about philosophy — and as precise and witty a philosopher as he is a cartoonist,” says Alice Philips ’05, a friend and fellow philosophy major.
This intellectual rigor is perhaps most strongly felt in Shansby’s editorial cartoons, whose goal, he said, is to challenge the basic assumptions that readers take for granted — an approach that he finds bears surprising similarity to a philosopher’s method. Shansby claims his field of study has been a major influence on his work.
“I once met a Canadian film director who had a Ph.D. in Post-Modern Metaphysics, or Post-Metaphysical Modernism,” he said. “I asked him if he ever used it, and he said, very seriously, ‘Every single day of my life.’ It sounds implausible, but I feel the same way.”
A political cartoon, in Shansby’s view, serves the same function as an editorial or an opinion piece. The forms are “distinguished only in the degree of criticism that is acceptable. You can say much harsher things if you’ve got a punch line.” While Shansby has taken a temporary break from straight political cartooning, focusing instead on illustrating Weingarten’s column and being a Yale student, he anticipates returning to the form after graduation. He notes, however, that he has become more cynical, and more critical of institutions during his time at Yale — a shift that he anticipates will have a major effect his work after college.
But providing the cartoons for Weingarten’s long tedious captions remains a rewarding job. Shansby plans to keep illustrating the column “until Weingarten is fired or goes senile, whichever comes first.”
Weingarten, too, continues to cherish his waggish relationship with the young cartoonist.
“Personally, of course, he is a disaster masquerading as a calamity,” Weingarten said. “Have you slept with him? You should. Well, SOMEBODY should, anyway.”