Several years ago, I asked The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff, to tell me about Edward Steed, a recent addition to the magazine’s regular lineup of artistic humorists. “He’s English,” Mankoff emailed back, “twenty-five years old, and anyplace he puts his hat is home—although he doesn’t wear a hat. Last I heard from him, he was traveling in Mongolia. You’re right, he is amazing, a once-in-a-generation talent.”
While Mankoff has since moved on, Steed still contributes regularly to The New Yorker. Born in 1987, Steed was raised in the rural county of Suffolk in eastern England, has indeed traveled the world for work and pleasure, and recently received a US visa.
There’s a dark hilarity to Steed’s scratchy drawings, which guide the eye across the image in a puzzle-solving dance, as secondary and tertiary characters grim up the background. For someone who took up cartooning as an adult, Steed draws like an old master (perhaps Pieter Bruegel the Elder). His work is wise, funny, angry, and melancholic beyond his years, and as this trenchant drawing from the May 29, 2017, issue demonstrates, with its disturbing accuracy and multiple foci, there’s really nothing else like it around.
“I don’t feel I’m at my mature style,” he told me one afternoon in the Queens, New York, sublet he was temporarily calling home. “I still feel I’m working it out.”
THE BELIEVER: Why did you choose this particular drawing to discuss?
EDWARD STEED: It seems like a high point of how I’ve been working for the last few years. I can’t imagine writing or drawing this joke three or five years ago. I thought it was great when I drew it, but it doesn’t seem to be particularly popular. It generated quite a lot of hate mail at The New Yorker. Penises in drawings always elicit hate mail, and there are two in this one. I heard from a lot of men’s-rights groups. “So you think all men should live in prison?” they said, and “You think men should live in a zoo?” Ridiculous stuff.
BLVR: How did you come up with it?
ES: For three or four years I’ve been generating ideas in a particular way in order to get to a certain kind of joke. Four or five days a week, ideally, I’ll go to a café in the morning with a stack of plain paper and a pen, and just start making lines and shapes, maybe a face or something, and see what emerges. I start with the visual side of things and try to craft a joke. It probably sounds quite difficult to somebody who’s never written a joke before, but over the years you acquire an instinct for where jokes are going to come from, what kind of things are going to work, and how to create tension between characters and objects in a scene. So I sit and draw for an hour. Sometimes I get three or four good ideas; sometimes I don’t get anything.
BLVR: How did this particular image emerge?
ES: I remember quite clearly drawing the eager man’s face—with that big smile, half-closed eyes, and thick eyebrows. That face is a fairly common doodle for me. A face like that’s not a joke on its own, though, so you have to imagine some kind of contrast to it. Maybe you draw it behind the bars of a jail. You’ve got this interesting, eager man, but he’s enclosed. There’s some kind of drama going on.
BLVR: And he’s naked.
ES: Nudity is my default unless there’s a good reason to put clothes on someone. It seemed interesting that he’s in jail and nude, but he’s smiling at something outside the cell. There’s probably a joke here, somewhere. After that, I probably started drawing other jail cells while thinking about the ways a character might relate to being in prison. Then I might have noticed there were these different categories of people, different universal types. It’s only a short logical step to have people looking in at them. Only instead of jail, it’s a zoo, pet shop, or something like that. Since we don’t know where it is, it can be anywhere you want it to be.
So I have a group of people looking in. What if I make those people women? That might be more interesting than a mixed group, and if I make them young women it takes it in another direction. Maybe it’s a school trip. The older woman could be a teacher or instructor. You don’t want to get too specific. You want readers to interpret it in their own way. The kind of cartoon I like to do only exists in that moment. I don’t know what the rest of this room is like, the backstory of any of these characters, or how anybody got there. It’s just a drawing.
BLVR: The white space almost balances out the dark idea.
ES: My default is not to draw things. I only draw what I need to, and if I can imply space with whiteness, I will. The perspective in this drawing is unusual for me, but I couldn’t avoid it, and it’s pretty basic. I generally dislike lines that don’t go anywhere.
BLVR: You also broke The New Yorker cartoon penis taboo.
ES: The first [penis] I had in the magazine was an Adam and Eve cartoon, with Adam reaching for a larger fig leaf. But that was a very small penis. Someone actually did cancel his or her subscription, citing that penis as the reason. To me it demonstrated the power of a cartoon. I mean, they’ve used the word penis in The New Yorker for years, but somehow a drawing made it unbearable, which I consider a compliment. A drawing is more powerful than the word. The New Yorker’s fiction has some quite freaky language. People swear and have sex and it can get quite graphic.
BLVR: Another one of my favorite Steed cartoons is two guys on separate generic desert islands, each with a single tree. One has made an escape raft out of his tree, while the other has built a swing set for himself.
ES: That could be another types-of-husband joke. I’m interested in the visual aspect of every cartoon I do. I would never draw one where it’s just two people chatting and the whole joke is in the caption. Jokes occur when things are in a state of tension with each other, when someone is in a superior position and someone else is in an inferior position. I would never have come up with something like this by writing the caption first. I haven’t come up with a gag first since I began working the way I do now, and now I only work this way. I never try to come up with ideas outside my hours of work. I gradually realized there was a kind of joke I wanted to get to, this was the way to get to it, and the other ways were just cheating. [Chuckles] This is the hardest, most difficult way.
BLVR: I believe you. Do you think you’ll work this way forever?
ES: I’m starting to think I might change my way of working. In 2017, I did the album cover for Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy. He saw my work in The New Yorker and thought it would fit. I’d never heard of him before, actually, but the album’s quite satirical. I was living in Taiwan at the time, and he would send me tracks from the studio as he recorded them and I’d doodle things to them. His concept was a landscape with a changeable colored sky behind it. He told me to do whatever I wanted in the foreground. I spent about a month sketching little characters, ideas, and scenes. I used the same doodling method I use with cartoons, but for the first time I wasn’t constrained by either being in The New Yorker or having to make typical jokes. After an intense month of generating ideas this way, I was a bit exhausted. I started to think about changing the way I work, and I have a hunch about different ways to start coming up with ideas, but it’ll take a while to get there.
BLVR: What sort of “hunch”?
ES: It’s very vague, just a feeling. As I said, you get an inkling that a joke might be down a certain avenue and you follow it. The single-panel cartoon has a certain visual language every cartoonist has fluency with to varying degrees, and if you learn to speak that language well enough, you could almost get rid of the concept, or joke. I’ve sketched a few things that seem to be heading in that direction. One problem is that I think the better my jokes get, the less likely they are to be published. There isn’t necessarily a direct relationship between quality of idea and popularity of joke.
BLVR: Do you do roughs?
ES: Yes. The sketches I come up with are only the basic versions, and the finish is when I really put in the effort. You’ve got to make sure something like this drawing reads as clearly as possible, because it’s a complicated idea with quite a few things to take in. Coming up with an idea is way more time-consuming than drawing the cartoon. Doing the finished drawing is fun. Coming up with ideas is painful.
BLVR: How do the secondary characters emerge?
ES: I don’t know. Once I get the finish to do, I break it up into its component parts. I usually work with a fairly minimal background that’s either empty or very basic. So I treat each component individually and do maybe three or four sketches. I’ll try a man as a woman or try a different type of outfit. Then I’ll bring the pieces together with Photoshop or just pieces of paper glued together. Size and proportion make a big difference in a joke. If you made these girls slightly taller, or made the older woman slimmer, the joke would change slightly.
BLVR: You were a latecomer to New Yorker cartoons, weren’t you?
ES: I saw my first one on the magazine’s website about five years ago. I was looking for a new job—or a career change, I suppose. I’d been working as an architectural assistant for three years in London, Beijing, and London again, and was tired of working for people. So I saw these cartoons and felt right away it was something I could do.
BLVR: How did you go about it?
ES: I couldn’t draw, but I felt I’d be able to come up with ideas. Like in most creative industries, that’s what it’s all about: producing ideas consistently. I thought I could teach myself to draw at least well enough to come to New York. I was working in London at the time. During the evening I’d go home, draw cartoons, and send them to no one in particular at The New Yorker. They must have piled up. Around the end of 2012, someone called me up and said, “We want to buy three of these.” I quit my job, started doing it full-time, and moved to New York.
BLVR: Which ones did they buy at first?
ES: There’s a man on the phone, and it’s saying to him, “This call may be recorded for sentimental reasons.” The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were in another one. Famine is pointing to a highway service station and one of the others says, “Forget it. We’re not stopping again.” I forget the third one.
BLVR: Did you have any role models for New Yorker cartooning?
ES: When I started out, I learned a lot from looking at Charles Barsotti’s cartoons. He taught me what a New Yorker cartoon is. I never met him, but looking at his work was like viewing a diagram. He distilled cartooning down to its basic parts. He had a perfect and complete understanding of what I was talking about: how to build dramatic tension between characters by placing them higher or lower, by making them fatter or slimmer, or by putting one character behind a desk and the other in front of it. And you can do that without any of these silly faces or hairy chests, just with a couple of lines.
BLVR: When I look at your drawings, I feel like I get a glimpse of your real personality, dark side and all. Few cartoonists other than, say, Roz Chast open themselves up to their audience like that. Is it intentional?
ES: The only way I can write jokes is by drawing and seeing what comes out. Everything’s kind of a glimpse of my subconscious. At times it’s quite revealing, and I do hesitate sometimes. Not that you can tell everything about me from them, but they add up to a certain vision of my self, which I don’t think most cartoonists’ work does. Most cartoonists are more in control and can choose a certain style or character. For me, this is just what comes out, and it changes over time. Certain kinds of jokes emerge when I’m in certain moods and other kinds in other moods. It’s not literal—I don’t draw jokes about suicide when I’m feeling suicidal—but it’s still some kind of fairly revealing insight. As for what the insight is, that’s for the viewer to figure out.