Paul Karasik’s many talents

The teacher, administrator, cartoonist, and writer Paul Karasik, in his West Tisbury home.
File photo by Lynn Christoffers

The teacher, administrator, cartoonist, and writer Paul Karasik, in his West Tisbury home.

Paul Karasik is a hard guy to pigeon-hole. He emerges as a simple man who applies a straightforward perspective to a variety of seemingly unrelated tasks.

Part of it seems to be his aversion to labels, and part of it is because he lives a wide and varied life, one that includes coming up with 10 cartoons a week for submission to The New Yorker.

He says, “Truth is, I send them 10 cartoons a week — every week — and hope to get one a year published. But that’s ok. The effort is important, it forces me to draw every week.”

Mr. Karasik’s talent (his anthology on the work of cartoonist Fletcher Hanks earned him a 2008 Eisner Award, the industry equivalent of an Oscar) brought him fellowship with comic and cartooning’s most stellar names: Harvey Kurtzman (founding editor of Mad magazine), Will Eisner (established the graphic novel) and, Pulitzer Prize winner Art Speigelman (author of “Maus”).

In a show opening tomorrow, Friday, Aug. 5, his cartoons will be displayed at the West Tisbury Public Library. The artist’s reception is at 4 pm at the library. Mr. Karasik will donate half of the proceeds from the sale of his work to the library’s expansion fund.

One of the cartoons being displayed shows a harried, luggage-laden traveler at an airport check-in desk listening to a bored clerk say, “Sorry, we now charge extra for emotional baggage.”

A perfect slice of life. Two figures in a minimalist drawing with eight words attached.

When you think about it, simplicity has to be the crucial skill for cartoonists who draw one picture, sometimes add a very few words, and produce a result that instantly represents a true aspect of the human condition to the reader.

But that’s just the beginning.

Mr. Karasik writes books and works on art projects that require years to complete to his satisfaction, and in what seems to require a different mindset, continues his long-time career as an educator. He is the development director for the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, and in a weekly commute to and from Providence, R.I., he teaches cartooning at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

“I really enjoy teaching,” he says. “I always regarded it as work to aspire to. I love driving to RISD every week, it’s like Christmas for a whole semester.”

He talks about teaching cartooning: “I’ve found over the years that the best drawers are not the best cartoonists. Those who can flip an idea, turn it on its head, always create the best work. The goal of a performer is to put the audience at ease. The goal of a cartoonist is to put the reader at ease.”

He continues: “The work is more about the thinking and construction than the art…I have more interest in the process…the mechanism of how things work, and I want [the students]to internalize what we’ve discussed. I don’t give weekly assignments. They go on for weeks. That’s how you learn to work.”

And he admits, “I was never great at drawing. My drawing has become passable in the last few years…I know how to stage a gag, to set up a comic page, and what the construction of a comic book should be.

“If you spend weeks redrafting the mechanism then put the face or the character facing the right way and the [text]balloon in the right place, the actual drawing becomes fun. Of course, that’s why it takes me too long to finish anything. I’m always pulling the work apart and putting it back together.”

He claims he has “a mountain of cartoons in my basement,” although his body of published work is small. “That’s ok,” he says. “I’m proud of it because it’s as perfect as I can make it.”

Mr. Karasik’s best-known work is “City of Glass,” a 1994 graphic novel adaptation he and David Mazzucchelli did of Paul Auster’s 1985 novel. The book had modest success in this country, but in Europe is regarded as a classic in its genre. “Chopped liver here,” Mr. Karasik says, “but it has a life of its own in Europe.”

Mr. Karasik, who also helps his wife Marsha Winsyrg’s art-based, Zambian relief effort, is convinced that projects find him.

“Whenever I try to think a project up, I end up wandering around…There are certain predictabilities in the universe — it’ll be hot in August and cold in January…But anomalies come along, and you start out on one path and end up down another that you never considered. Ultimately I feel I have no choice about the projects. My only choice is how to make it succeed.”

He cites “City of Glass” as a case in point. “I’d read it when it first came out and thought this would make a great graphic novel. I even made some notes about it and put them away. Then years later, Art Speigelman called me to make a graphic novel from it. I thought, ‘I better find my notes.’”

According to Mr. Karasik, many cartoonists use their cartoons as therapy, with humor that comes from frustration and anger, “particularly in The New Yorker,” he says. “There’s sort an expressionless patina while the characters are doing nasty things and revealing ugly things to each other. I have no ax to grind.”

When he gets going, the work can take years. His next book is about Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip “Nancy.” “How To Read Nancy” began as an essay co-written by Mr. Karasik and cartoonist, Mark Newgarden, and edited by Brian Walker. The book length version, also co-authored by the Mr. Karasik and Mr. Newgarden, will be released in 2012.

“I happened to pick up the August 8, 1959 panel and there it was: Everything you need to know about comic creation is in that single three-panel strip,” he says. “I’ve been studying it for two and one-half years, still seeing and learning. I didn’t realize it’s like some crazy Zen onion that’s eternally peelable.”

Correction:

In the print version of this story, novelist Paul Auster’s name was incorrectly spelled.