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Mort in studio, May 2009

Mort Drucker (1929–2020): One of the All-Time Cartooning Greats

When I was a kid living in my Mum’s duplex in Perth, I would get $4.49 per week from my paper route. I probably should have been saving it, but as soon as that cash hit my palm I would jump on my bike and zoom down to the corner store to blow all of it on the latest issue of MAD (Okay, it was $2.95 (cheap!), but I blew the rest on sweet, sweet candy).

It was exhilarating as a kid to discover that there was a magazine that was not only full of the best cartoons I’d ever seen but was full of funny and wildly irreverent writing. There was nothing like it. Including Cracked..

MAD informed not only my sense of comedy but so much of my visual style. I’d trace over pages to see if I could figure out how to draw like Sergio Aragonés, Don Martin, but most of all, more than anyone else, Mort Drucker.

I wanted to draw like Mort Drucker. Everyone did. He was every cartoonist’s hero. When you ask a cartoonist who influenced them to want to be a cartoonist, Mort comes up on the list 9 times out of 10.

In 1985, When Michael J Fox was asked by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show when he knew he’d really ‘made it’ in showbusiness, his answer was “When Mort Drucker drew my head in MAD Magazine.”

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The OddFather parody, MAD, December 1972

When I was a teenager, I would spend weekends sitting in my best friend’s basement, poring over his Dad’s old 1960’s-1980’s collections of MAD, replete with Mort’s parodies like The Oddfather and Star Blecch. If my eyes could get any closer to the pages, they would have stuck to ’em. My tiny young artist brain couldn’t fathom how someone could not only draw someone’s perfect likeness from one angle (without it looking like a goofy big head on a stick) but then on the next page draw them just as perfectly in profile, or 3/4 angle. It was mind-boggling to know that comic art could be this good. But it did set the standard for myself and thousands of other would-be artists over several generations.

Mort was a detail guy. His parodies would be packed-to-the-brim with what we call “Chicken Fat” — additional gags and hidden jokes that would make reading and re-reading the parodies so enjoyable. But Mort was very serious about his art. He liked it to be perfect.

Many illustrators would know of the “That Knob On Mort Drucker’s Lamp” detail that David Apatoff wrote about back in 2014. It’s the kind of thing that perfectly illustrates the kind of artist Mort was.

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The Knob on Mort Drucker's Lamp (Click to read)

The one he drew was probably perfectly acceptable, but Mort wouldn’t — couldn’t — let it just sit there. In an ornately illustrated spread set in an operating theatre, a scene with so much going on, he had to make sure the knob on the back of the lamp was perfect. He may well have been the only person in the world who would notice it, but it mattered.

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I first met Mort at the legendary Bunny Bash back in 2006, when I was just a 21-year-old kid visiting from Australia. The Bash was a huge cartoonist party hosted by the wonderful Bunny Hoest and John Reiner in their gigantic castle in Long Island. The event is technically for the Long Island chapter of the National Cartoonists Society, but all were welcome. And boy was I welcomed.

That day among some of the biggest names in cartooning, I bumped into one Mort Drucker, who very generously spent a long time talking to my girlfriend and I. Well, I was frozen and could barely speak, so he carried on talking, wanting to know all about her marketing career. I was awestruck that someone like Mort was just hanging around at this party I’d been lucky enough to get an invite to.

He took a photo with myself, Tom Richmond (left) and Ed Steckley (right) before we headed back to the train, and it hung in my studio from the moment I got back.

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(L-R) Tom Richmond, Mort Drucker, Yours truly, Ed Steckley. June, 2006.

As Tom Richmond (above) writes for the NCS blog today:

There are few cartoonists who have been more universally respected, admired, and loved among his peers than Mort Drucker. His talent was staggering and no less so than given the fact he had no formal training. He was a perfect storm of talent, hard work, and dedication.

…Mort went on to do over 300 movie and TV parodies for MAD, defining a genre that is cited by some of the greatest directors, actors, filmmakers and writers in cinema and television as both a source of inspiration and a badge of honor when being drawn by Mort in the pages of MAD Magazine.

Years later, the very generous Adrian Sinnott organised for a personal visit to Mort’s studio for me. When I arrived, he and his wife Barbara were very welcoming. Adrian had explained that I was here from Australia and, not anticipating that he’d know me from a bar of soap, explained that I was a cartoonist and — before Adrian could finish, Mort rang out, ‘Of course! I remember you from the Bunny Bash. How’s your girlfriend’s marketing career going?’

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I was dumbstruck. He had not only remembered who I was, but remembered our conversation from years ago. But that was Mort. The nicest guy in the world.

We proceeded to chat, talk shop and he pulled out all his old MAD and TIME covers to show me and talk through his process. We talked about how he learned how to colour after years of working in black and white, then he pulled out a blank sheet of paper, a pacer pencil and started showing me the expression you can get in drawing hands.

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If you ask any cartoonist about the one thing they admire Mort for (other than his obvious caricaturing prowess), it’s his ability to draw hands. He drew each of the knuckles, the segments of the fingers, the palms, showed me how to get motion and humour into every line, and all with just pencil roughs.

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Mort Drucker (1929–2020): One of the All-Time Greats

You know when someone shows you how a thing works and it just ‘unlocks’ something in your brain? That happened. I learned more about drawing that afternoon than in the whole time I’d been a cartoonist before that. My style and approach to cartooning fundamentally changed from that day forward, thanks to Mort’s time and generosity.

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In studio, May 2009
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From that day on, whenever I would sit down to draw a caricature, the first thing I would do would be to take a dive into my collection of Mort’s art, to fill my head with his decisions and try to encourage bolder ones from myself. You can imagine how excited I was when MAD finally released the full 5 decades of his work in book-form years later. (It’s the only book I packed in my suitcase when I moved to America.)

The afternoon seemed to fly by in the blink-of-an-eye. But, before I left, Mort signed a copy of MAD for me, not knowing I was a huge Spider-man fan…

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6 years after my visit, I was hosting the NCS Reuben Awards in Washington DC, and Mort was being awarded the NCS Medal of Honor that year. It was the first Reubens he had attended in a long time and it would turn out to be his last. He spoke at length that year about his work and career, and that night off stage when I said hello, he asked how I’d been and that I should come out and drop by again for a visit with Adrian. I did not expect him to remember me at all.

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King Mort holding Court at the last ever Bunny Bash

The last place I saw Mort was the first place I saw Mort: at what would turn out to be the last ever Bunny Bash in June of 2018. Mort was in fine form, talking to old friends, meeting new ones and generously drawing for adoring fans and their kids. Barbara wasn’t with him on account of her health but John Reiner had driven him over to be with everyone and he was the highlight of the party. I wanted to tell him I’d finally got into MAD, but all I could say was thank you. I was so grateful to him for sharing his work with the world.

Mort died yesterday at the age of 91. Every cartoonist who heard the news invariably said, “Oh, no. Not Mort!” I think we all kind of thought he was invincible. Like some kind of cartooning demigod. But, we all have to say goodbye to our heroes sometime.

I recently got to sift through ex-MAD Art Director Sam Viviano’s old studio in New York. We went through years and years of his illustration art, but we also found an old original of Mort’s that I proceeded to spent ages obsessing over. I had never seen a Mort Drucker original in my life.

In this particular parody, he had perfectly aped Ronald Searle’s style to fit the tone of the piece. It was absolutely pitch-perfect. Everything else about it was obviously brilliant, too- but that particular detail jumped right out at me. I had never seen this piece before.

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I’m forever grateful for the time Mort took to sit with me in his studio that afternoon. So many cartoonists had the same experience with Mort- a man so generous that without his wife, he’d be signing things and drawing things for free for anyone who asked — never having any time for actual paid work. He was a true gentleman and a genius talent. The world is lesser for him not being in it. We’re lucky to have his decades of work to enjoy.

Rest in Peace, Mort.

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I’ll leave you with a conversation John Reiner had with Mort for the National Cartoonists Society back in 2014. It’s a great look into his history, his approach to work and life, his ethos, and gives you an exclusive look inside his studio with a mesmerising demo of him drawing.

Jason is a cartoonist in New York City
His work has appeared in MAD, The New Yorker, WIRED, Vanity Fair, Airmail & The Weekly Humorist. He is the President of the National Cartoonists Society.

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🇦🇺 NYC Cartoonist/Writer for @NewYorker and stand-up comic. Syndicated daily in 34 countries. President of The National Cartoonists Society. #BlockedByTrump

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