I’m three months younger than Elvis Presley and share my birth date of May 10—the very date, when I was five, that the Nazis invaded France—with Fred Astaire. An obsession with such time trivia has marked most of my life. For example, I’m now older than Noel Coward was when he died. Noel was decrepit by that time, but I’m not.
I began indiscriminately drawing and writing at age six or seven. They’ve always been interchangeable elements of a compulsion to record my thoughts on paper and I’ve happily veered back and forth between them all my life. Most of what I know about both, I picked up as a kid. For example, my art style links directly back to the golden age of American magazine illustrators whose work enthralled me as a boy: the late-forties and early-fifties heyday of Norman Rockwell, Robert Fawcett, Peter Helck, et. al., who so often graced the pages of The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s Weekly. As a high school dropout with no formal training in art (or anything else, come to that), I probably would never have become an artist at all without the inspiration of their weekly invasions of the living room via those magazines at a formative age.
It’s an ironic twist of history that just as I got old enough to go forth into the world and join these heroes in their noble calling, magazine illustration as a career had more or less evaporated. Television had almost overnight rendered the general-interest magazine obsolete. Illustration itself now suddenly seemed old-fashioned in the new Jet Age. The poor relation of advertising illustration would hang on for another decade or so before photography permanently banished it to the attic, and it was there—specifically in a tiny commercial art studio in Windsor, Ontario, specializing in advertising art for Dodge and DeSoto cars—that I hung on by my fingernails for the next few years, mulling my destiny. Commercial artists in those days worked exclusively in gouache, i.e., opaque watercolor; this was the first medium I was trained to work in, and it remains the only one I use today. Acrylics? What’s that?
Despite my artistic leanings and a genuine love of cars, I proved to be a hopelessly, stubbornly inept commercial automobile artist. Six years of day-in, day-out labor in that studio and I never managed to rise higher than the senior apprentice rung, seldom trusted to render anything more ambitious than the occasional spot catalog illustration. Then, literally from one model year to the next, photography took over automobile advertising. That little studio was rendered redundant overnight, and me with it.
I eventually found a humble job at a huge commercial art studio in Toronto, one vast noisy room as joyful as a blacking factory, but it was mercifully only a matter of time—two months, to be precise—before my ineptitude caught up with me and I was released again.
The following ten years marked a total blank in my art career. I turned from the drawing board to the typewriter in a move shrewdly designed to keep feeding myself, and to my surprise was soon scaling the ladder in advertising, first in Detroit and then in New York.
Had I not been bored and idle while convalescing in a hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, I well might have never picked up a brush again. But a friend and I began transatlantically exchanging rough sketches of fanciful World War II aircraft with mock-scholarly captions; within a month or so we’d produced so many between us that my friend had the bright idea of sending the sheaf to an editor acquaintance at Playboy magazine. The editor bit, and I found myself assigned to supply the finished art.
That ten-year layoff hadn’t rusted my skills in the least. Indeed, those airplane renderings were by far the best artwork I’d ever done. Better yet, the article won Playboy’s annual humor award for that year, against serious grownup competition. This went to my head, in fact rearranged its contents: on the basis of that one fluke success, I now felt entitled to see myself as a working professional humorist.
The next step in my meteoric career came after a year’s graceful pause when, back in New York from Germany, I stumbled upon a magazine called National Lampoon and discovered an entire, heretofore unsuspected culture of freakishly kindred humor spirits. They were all Harvard smart-asses and I was a Canadian high school dropout half a generation older, but these guys and I were on the exact same wavelength. In a matter of weeks I was working on major Lampoon pieces. It remains today the single greatest psychic updraft of my life.
I was a print guy to the marrow. It was time to beard The New Yorker, which loomed in my mind as the Everest of the magazine world, cold and distant and resistant to uneducated clods like myself, despite a lifetime of readership and persistent daydreams of glory in its vaunted pages. Another career surprise: they liked my stuff. They bought everything I could come up with—as a writer. It was only fifteen years after the first New Yorker sale that the then-editor, Tina Brown, offered me a chance to paint a cover. That was in l994. I’ve since painted over forty of them.
For somebody with no formal art training and little by way of formal education, I’ve been phenomenally lucky—particularly considering that the only things I’ve ever known or cared how to do are drawing and writing.
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Bruce McCall promotes his picture book Marveltown on The Late Show with David Letterman.
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