Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Al Ross, cartoonist

Al Ross, a gag cartoonist with a tremendous body of work, died in 2012.  He is mostly remembered for his work in the New Yorker magazine.  Personally, I have a preference for his earlier work from the 1940s to the 1960s when he utilized a brush style paired with a sexy sense of humor.

Al Ross was born Abraham Roth in the village of Seletyn, Romania in 1911. He lived in Vienna as a boy. The Roth family settled in East Harlem in the USA after World War I. He studied at the Art Students League and began selling his cartoons in the 1930s. His three brothers, Irving Roir, Ben Roth and Salo were also cartoonists. According to a New York Times article, “He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and during the Depression worked as a messenger in the button business. In their 20s, the brothers all studied drawing at the Art Students League.” They worked together and broke into the comic book field from 1940-1941 with their Twist Turner feature that appeared in Prize Comics. They soon abandoned comic books in favor of doing humor/gag cartoons for the magazine market that they had already begun to sell to in the 1930s.

In the 1930s, Al Ross used a conte pencil for most of his cartooning work which at that time had a lot of shading and was more realistic in its illustrative qualities.  In the early 1940’s he still drew with a pencil but used washes for the shading.  This technique created a looser feel, giving more movement to his characters.  He eventually included larger black areas in his design, adding to the illustrative feel.

In the mid to late 1940s, he began to abandon these prior techniques and gave more of an emphasis to the appearance of movement in his cartoons.  Now his medium was primarily ink applied directly with a brush.  By being more spontaneous with his technique, his distinctive humor came alive. Ross was a featured cartoonist in Cartoon Humor magazine. He also illustrated for many popular cartoon booklets that were aimed at soldiers. The subject of Roth’s cartoons was the battle of the sexes. His drawings during this period were loose, but also sexy and displayed quick, inky linework distinguished by skilled variations that led the reader’s eye to various parts of the compositions.

By the 1950s, he was still using washtones but the application reflected the mood of the cartoon rather than artistic details. Roth was one of the most commonly used cartoonists in american popular magazines even though his subject matter was usually somewhat risque. Bill Wenzel was the only other gag cartoonist at this time that probably rivaled Roth’s output. These two were not as revered as people like Peter Arno because their subject matter was a bit more over the top and most likely deemed sexist by today’s standards. Roth illustrated a number of humor books for Rainbow books in the 1950s.

Starting in the 1960s, Roth switched from brushes to using pens exclusively.  This led to a looser, more sketchy style.  His pen was direct without any underlying pencil sketch. His subject matter seemed to veer away from women and on to more mainstream topics of the day…but still with his wicked sense of humor. He began to be published in more high profile magazines. At the same time, he was still contributing to the digests which at this time were becoming much raunchier. By the late 1960’s and 1970s, the Ross style became even more minimal.  He abandoned washes and his simple black pen line became pure expression.  Even at their simplest a Roth cartoon has a full composition and a humorous story to tell.

Roth continued to contribute to The New Yorker until the early 2000s when he was in his 90s.  He also wrote an instructional book on cartooning, Cartooning Fundamentals (1977).  This book outlines Roth’s approach to drawing.  His influences included modern artists such as Picasso and Klee as well as primitive and African art.

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