George Booth is 94 years old and still writing (and drawing) cartoons in the New Yorker. Booth remains, at his advanced age, the funniest cartoonist in that iconic magazine. I can think of NO cartoonist who can elicit a delighted laugh these days the way Booth can. I would also argue that Booth is one of the most talented illustrators in the New Yorker. I may get pushback here because there are so many technically stunning cartoonists and illustrators getting published in that magazine. The mark of a good illustrator, however, is to perfectly encapsulate a mood or an atmosphere with your pen. Booth has nailed that drawing talent down with a firmness that I have seen in few other artists. Nobody has captured the craggy, saggy, yet energetic 20th century lower middle class like Booth
Here are five reasons why George Booth remains the best cartoonist alive today.
5. That dangling lightbulb with the outlet and power cord hanging down from it.
George Booth loves dangling light fixtures almost as much as he loves scruffy, confused dogs. Many of Booth’s cartoons feature a light fixture set-up with one or two electrical cords trailing from a hanging lightbulb. I have never seen that either in real life or in any other cartoon, TV show or movie. Booth himself grew up in Depression-era Missouri and has talked about how his childhood interiors have influenced his artwork. His mother was also a cartoonist and taught in a tiny school “that was all eight grades. She had about fifteen kids in grades one through eight. I went out to visit her and she was delousing all the kids, which she did on the first day of school.”
I can well imagine that households in rural Missouri during the thirties had to do what they could if there was only one source of electricity. Still, there is something inexplicably HILARIOUS about that blatantly dangerous, ugly, unashamed hanging lightbulb acting as a Depression-era power strip. It hangs there in the upper center of each panel as Booth’s characters live their lives below it, utterly uncaring of how that lightbulb looks to the outer world.
4. The bric-a-brac.
George Booth is a child of the Depression. Booth has stated in interviews that he loves collecting various objects and random junk, a generation-wide habit meant to guard against future periods of poverty. “I’m fascinated by old typewriters,” Booth said in one interview, “I may have one, I’m not sure. If I do, it’s covered up. Broken stuff fascinates me too. I had this pulley wheel lying around for years. I don’t know where it is now.”
Booth’s cartoons frequently feature vast landscapes of broken machinery parts. It would be depressing if it weren’t so hilarious. In fact, the mark of a George Booth cartoon is that it features grim interiors and junk yards that SHOULD be sad but aren’t because the characters that inhabit these worlds don’t seem to consider themselves lesser in any way. In Booth’s world, everyone is pretty much content because everyone else around them also inhabits the same town of broken engine parts, busted cane-backed chairs and flat tires resting near sleeping dogs.
3. Mrs. Ritterhouse
Mrs. Ritterhouse, the eccentric old lady with the violin, was inspired by George Booth’s mother. “She had a good, healthy sense of humor,” Booth said in one interview. In Booth’s cartoons, Mrs. Ritterhouse lives by her own rules no matter how much low-level chaos she causes to the people around her. Her companions usually accept her shenanigans with a tolerant grace because Mrs. Ritterhouse is clearly fun to be around regardless of the occasional overturned music stand or frightened cat. Even her energetic fury is amusing.
Interestingly, Mrs. Ritterhouse was in the only cartoon the New Yorker ran in their issue after 9/11. As Booth later said during an interview “After 9/11, when thousands of people died in Lower Manhattan, the New Yorker said we won’t buy any cartoons this week. You may submit, but we don’t plan to buy anything. I submitted a drawing of my mother sitting like I’ve seen her sit, and they printed it. It was the only cartoon they bought and the only one they printed in the next issue. The cat can’t face it; his paws are over his eyes. And Mother’s praying. Her fiddle and bow are lying down properly, with the bow facing in, like she was taught at Stevens College.”
Even when Mrs. Ritterhouse is not technically in a cartoon, her presence is felt. When someone announces that a violinist has been arrested for “poaching clams,” no one needs to be named. It’s clearly Mrs. Ritterhouse.
2. The cats.
George Booth loves cats. He can’t stop drawing them. They’re like popcorn. What’s more, Booth’s cats behave like cats. The cats can sleep or suddenly burst into blurs of activity for absolutely no reason. The more cats Booth draws, the funnier the cartoon is. I have absolutely no idea why. My nasal passages get triggered by just thinking of all the damn dander that must accumulate in Booth’s 1950s rural American homes. Booth, however, clearly loves cats. Cats are the id of all of us, lazy, sleepy, easily startled and unabashed with expressing their opinions through their spiky fur.
It would surprise no one to know that George Booth and his wife Dione Booth own cats. “Just not that many cats.”
1. The dogs.
The George Booth dogs are iconic. They sit in the foreground in every cartoon, staring out at the reader and acting as a sort of Greek chorus for the shenanigans of Booths’ human characters. Booth’s dogs are unapologetically scruffy, scratchy, sleepy and accepting of whatever silliness our world brings them. Both Booth’s dogs and humans are pretty grungy but at least the dogs are honest about it. Booth, who fought in World War II, described in an interview how dogs were a huge part of army life and provided much needed levity during those days. “I took on a stray, in Pearl Harbor. When the war was over and the Marines would stand out in ranks, my dog would come running through, chasing a mongoose. They’d disappear, and then, pretty soon, they’d come back, but now the mongoose was chasing the dog!”
Us humans tend to put on airs and ignore who we really are, but even humans get a lot of affection from George Booth. There is no nastiness in Booth’s portrayal of the goofiness of rural 20th century America. Booth is drawing from his childhood and from the people who were his neighbors and friends and relatives and parents. Were they sometimes pretty ridiculous? Sure! But you gotta love ’em.