Galleries : Laugh Lines
Paul Karasik sidesteps the large black cat that's lying across the doorway between the kitchen and main room of the West Tisbury home he shares with his wife, Marsha Winsryg. With surprising speed, the cat shackles both paws to Mr. Karasik's leg.
"See? Looks cute on the outside, but there's something else going on in there," Mr. Karasik says.
One might say the same about the soft-spoken educator, cartoonist, and author of graphic novels (he prefers the term "comic stories"). While he claims most Vineyarders know him only as Ms. Winsryg's husband, dad to three daughters, and the director of development at Martha's Vineyard's Public Charter School, Mr. Karasik's accomplishments include having taught in Brooklyn for 20 years, being one of the founders of the charter school, and currently, teaching at Rhode Island School of Design. "Like so many Islanders, I do half a dozen things at once. I just try to keep those balls aloft without one hitting me in the head. Off-Island, I'm probably more known for my different types of writing and cartooning."
"Drawing has never come easily," he explains. "I've had to work and work to become a decent draftsman. I don't have a single way or approach - which is a mixed blessing. I develop a style for each project. I subscribe to the architectural philosophy: 'Form follows function.'"
Photos by Lynn Christoffers
Yet, it is Mr. Karasik's artistic accomplishments that are particularly impressive: his cartoons have been featured in The New Yorker and his book, a graphic version of Paul Auster's "City of Glass" was voted One of the 100 Best Comics of the 20th Century by The Comics Journal and has been translated into at least 12 languages.
In 2003 he collaborated on a book with his sister, Judy, "The Ride Together: A Memoir of Autism in the Family," in which his comic story chapters alternated with his sister's prose chapters. Mr. Karasik's motivation for creating the book with his sister was twofold: He wanted to give his austic older brother David a public voice as well as help dispel some of the feelings of isolation he experienced as a boy growing up with an autistic sibling. Shortly after publication, the Autism Society of America named "The Ride Together" the Best Literary Work of the Year.
Perhaps some of the depth found in Mr. Karasik's work, as well as his passion for education, can be attributed to his older brother. In drawing for the book he worked to construct a comic style that would appeal to adolescents, with contour drawings and a pared-down text.
He was recently invited to a Wheaton College psychology class to speak about "The Ride Together." "One young man approached me after the lecture and said he had Asperger's," Mr. Karasik recalls. "He told me at first he didn't want to read the book. He thought it sounded stupid. But he did read it, and felt it was accurate and that he'd really gotten to know my brother. I got tears in my eyes. This was the ultimate compliment, to know I created an authentic voice to someone who shares my brother's characteristics."
Mr. Karasik's recent collection of comic stories about mysterious 1940s cartoonist Fletcher Hanks is in its fourth printing and he's begun work on a second volume. "He did 50 stories in three years and then, poof! He disappeared. And I know what happened to him," Mr. Karasik says happily. Karasik tracked down Mr. Hanks by contacting collectors around the globe, and finally found and contacted his son, Christy, which led to solving the mystery of Hanks's untimely disappearance. "It's all revealed in the book," he says provocatively.
But there was still one dream unfilled. As a child, Mr. Karasik, whose family subscribed to The New Yorker, developed an early fascination with its cartoons. It was these cartoons that fueled his desire to tell stories through pictures, and created an ambition that followed him from childhood to adulthood.
"I never thought I could be a cartoonist until I met Art Spiegelman," says Mr. Karasik of the man who became his teacher, mentor, employer, and friend. He took a "life-changing" class with the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist at the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1981. Within two weeks of their first class, Mr. Spiegelman hired Paul Karasik as an associate editor at his magazine, RAW, where Mr. Spiegelman's acclaimed book, "Maus," was serialized.
Mr. Spiegelman explains how he came to hire Mr. Karasik so quickly, saying, "One simple fact was that he was older. He was coming back and studying after having already launched into life. He was more steady and focused than some of the other bright talents in the class who were still growing up. Also he is very, very, very intelligent, articulate, and learned fast. I was grateful to have him in class."
He encouraged Mr. Karasik to pursue his dream. "Paul, as a cartoonist, is still coming into his own," says Mr. Spiegelman, "but he really thinks through each project. It's a pleasure to see him in action. He has that love for works of both the past and present. This is the only way great comics get made."
But often it takes more than talent alone. When asked how he accomplished his childhood dream of having cartoons published in The New Yorker, Mr. Karasik recounts how years ago cartoonists could be found taking their portfolio around to magazine editors on Tuesday mornings, adding that The New Yorker still observes that tradition. So he regularly attended, waiting in a small anteroom with up to 30 other artists for a few minutes with the cartoon editor. At one point he remembers sitting filled with awe on a couch between legendary cartoonists George Booth and Gahan Wilson.
Perseverance paid off. Mr. Karasik has had a half dozen of his "gags" published, as well as having two covers accepted, although they have not run. "It's a crazy journey," he says. "It's a golden key that opens doors. People hear you're a cartoonist and they don't care, but once you're in The New Yorker they want to pour you a glass of wine. And it was one of the most thrilling moments of my life to be in the art director's office looking at my drawings on the wall as potential covers next to work by Art Spiegelman and Sempé."
Currently, Mr. Karasik is working with Mr. Spiegelman researching a treasury of great comics for children.
"I assembled a group of top-tier comic scholars, - is that an oxymoron?" jokes Mr. Spiegelman. "I needed Paul's intelligence combined with earnestness. His work comes from someplace deep, not a recipe."
Elissa Lash is a freelance writer living in Vineyard Haven.