Chapel Hill News

Oh, the places he’ll go: Cartoonist Mark Dubowski

Mark Dubowski starts his workday at the drawing table at 4 a.m.
Mark Dubowski starts his workday at the drawing table at 4 a.m. courtesy of Mark Dubowski

Two coyotes stand on their hind legs together at a cocktail party, nursing drinks.

A man observing them comments to his companion, “That’s the problem with coyotes. After two drinks they completely lose their fear of humans.”

The scenario, a cartoon on the Chapel Hill News’ editorial page, was a nod to local residents who were finding themselves increasingly sharing home turf with the wild canines.

“A lot of gag cartooning is based on shared insider information,” Mark Dubowski, the writer and artist behind the cartoon, said. “It’s a wink to the reader, ‘You’ve been there.’”

There are places where Dubowski’s cartoons haven’t been yet.

The destination he most aspires to is the rare air within the pages of the New Yorker magazine. The New Yorker, a 92-year-old publication that serves up a weekly brew of journalism, gossip and fiction, maintains a reputation for delivering shrewd cartoons, bon mots tucked inside text.

Dubowski said the cartoons he has enjoyed the most in the New Yorker all capture a moment.

“Life’s a struggle, so … why not laugh it off?” he said.

In an article about cartoonists who contribute to the New Yorker, the magazine’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, wrote:

“Every week most of them submit ten to fifteen ideas. Jack Ziegler, who has published more than fourteen hundred cartoons in The New Yorker, once remarked to me that he finally started getting the hang of it after about the three thousandth one.”

Dubowski, who can reel off the names of New Yorker cartoonists like a sports fan, estimates Mankoff has a pool of around 500 submissions per week to sift through.

“Many people have said to me, ‘You should submit to the New Yorker,’” Dubowski said. “But the only person who hasn’t said that is Bob Mankoff.”

Dubowski can’t recall his first attempt at cartooning. His first published “gag,” however, was in his Millbrook, North Carolina, high school newspaper. The cartoon featuring a post-hippie era, anti-establishment leprechaun named “Kosmos.”

Later came “Clam Dip,” a comic strip for a community paper in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where crabs, gulls and other seaside residents would complain about tourists. Dubowski said the cartoon resonated with locals.

“You have to put a local spin on it,” Dubowski said.

“Jones and Blount,” a comic strip for The News & Observer, featured a liberal cat and conservative dog, both lobbyists, who fought over legislative issues. Dubowski currently writes and draws “Murphy and Manteo,” an educational cartoon series for the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.

Dubowski has been creating editorial cartoons for the Chapel Hill News’ Sunday edition for about a decade. Because his weekly deadline is Wednesday, he typically waits until the last minute to commit to a topic. He said he felt special pressure on the Wednesday that fell the day after this year’s national election.

“There are slow news weeks,” Dubowski said. “That wasn’t a slow news week.”

Dubowski said he wanted to come up with a concept about the election results that would resonate with Chapel Hill’s liberal voters. He ended up drawing a Mt. Rushmore with the four president’s mouths hanging open.

Ted Vaden, former editor and publisher of the Chapel Hill News from 1994 to 2004, said Dubowski’s cartoons supplanted syndicated cartoons in the publication.

“The main reason (he was hired),” Vaden said, “was that he was doing locally focused cartoons. … It best suited our mission of local and state coverage.”

Dubowski said his workday starts at 4 a.m. with a brain dump into a notebook.

“It’s about finding a different perspective on a familiar something,” Dubowski said.

Dubowski sat inside a fast-food restaurant with a large cup of coffee at hand. Using a pen and legal pad he had brought with him, Dubowski sketched a potted plant sitting nearby. He wrote, “pot” and “plant” below the drawing, then pointed out how both words can easily be taken out of context.

“It’s more about language than draftsmanship,” Dubowski said. “I do it because they’re one-liners – literally.”

The first time Dubowski submitted his work to the New Yorker in earnest, he sent cartoons with an executive theme. The work was rejected, and Dubowski decided the publication had the business genre covered.

The second time, he submitted artwork that was stylized to look like children’s drawings, but captioned with adult sensibilities. In one cartoon, a baby displays a missing front tooth to another baby, who responds, “It makes you look older.”

The cartoon earned Dubowski a typed response from the New Yorker.

“‘That one was pretty good,’” Dubowski said, paraphrasing the letter, “but unfortunately…’

“Y’now: the ‘unfortunately’ letter,” he said.

It’s about finding a different perspective on a familiar something.

Mark Dubowski

His third attempt at breaking in featured characters drawn in the style of ancient Egyptian tomb art, with the characters commenting on contemporary life. This time, Dubowski did not receive a rejection letter.

“Now you get an email saying, ‘We don’t like it,’” Dubowski said.

And how do you get the New Yorker to like you?

“That’s a good question,” Dubowski said. “I don’t have the answer to that one yet.”

Dubowski’s wife, Joan Troy, said she is not aware of there being much celebrity – or payment – associated with having a cartoon published in the New Yorker.

“I’m not counting on the New Yorker to tell me that my husband is gifted,” Troy said.

Dubowski’s voice brightened a little when he recalled an instance where his work was published in the New Yorker – sort of.

He attended a cartooning class taught by a longtime contributor to the New Yorker, Dubowski said. Sometimes guests would chime in what they liked and didn’t.

The guests were established cartoonists invited to review student work, one of whom, according to Dubowski, expressed admiration for one of his cartoons.

“Two months later, I saw it in the New Yorker,” Dubowski said. “But that’s OK. We steal from each other all the time – that’s the nature of the business.

Dubowski took a sip of his fast food coffee.

“We don’t call it stealing – we call it, ‘inspiration.’”