Ivan Ehlers ’04 on Drawing in The New Yorker

Ivan Ehlers ’04 is a cartoonist, writer and illustrator whose work has appeared in publications as varied as The New YorkerMAD Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. His How to Hold On to Your Last Shred of Sanity on Election Night is an original work created for LMU Magazine. As an undergraduate, Ehlers was a psychology major in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. But he was drawing long before then. Ehlers was interviewed via email by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch. Follow him at @IvanEhlers (Twitter) and @ivan_ehlers (Instagram).

How did you first break into The New Yorker? 

You’re probably expecting me to make a joke about physically breaking and entering into The New Yorker building, but you’re going to have to try harder than that to get a confession out of me. As I told the judge and the detectives: Some swell cartoonist friends helped me put together a portfolio, my wife convinced me New York was not as scary as it was in the cinema of the 1970s, and the cartoon editor wasn’t completely disgusted with my work.

What’s your usual process? Does knowing the subject matter precede the visual image?

I make a big list of funny ideas from the week’s news and plug them into the Artist’s Formula for SuccessTM to determine which ones are worth spending about an hour working on. The formula itself is of course proprietary and a union trade-secret, but its fundamental modelling components are: “How funny is it?” vs. “How hard is it to draw?” modulated by “When is my rent due?” For me, the most powerful variable is “How hard is it to draw?” To borrow from Mitch Hedberg, if the drawing is too hard to do, “I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.”

How many pieces do you produce in a week, whether published or not?

I’d say roughly 10 pages-a-week, and that would be either 10 gag cartoons or a longer-form piece (10 panels). When working as a joke writer, the expectation is 20–40 jokes per day.

As far as jokes per week, you do the math. I’d do it, but there’s a reason I was a psych major.

How does a psychology major turn into an illustrator?

By crushing my family’s dreams and refusing to assume any more student loan debt from going to law school. I was doing illustration work long before university, so the difficult part was turning an illustrator into a psychology major. Reverting to drawing and making jokes was easy and fun!

 You can create the most delightful cartoons but if they don’t quite fit, they won’t quite sell.

Would you say that any comic illustrator would be helped by knowing something about psychology?

Artists face near-constant rejection, where a 10-percent success rate is considered phenomenal. So, they’d do well to study up on our gentle science with a particular focus on coping mechanisms and the addictive dangers of intermittent reinforcement.

What’s the most challenging thing about producing work for The New Yorker, on one hand, and for MAD Magazine on the other, and LMU Magazine on the other?

Besides getting my anatomy right, the challenging aspect for these (or any client, really) is to figure out who the audience is. Once you understand that, you can focus your energy and tailor your work to something they’ll like. You can create the most delightful cartoons but if they don’t quite fit, they won’t quite sell. In the off-chance a publication does purchase your work and it’s not a fit for their audience, you can expect an even higher volume of hate mail than you’re used to receiving.

How old were you when you drew your first illustration?

I terrorized my teachers with drawings all over my notes, homework and exam papers, so I’ve been drawing as long as I’ve been bored in learning environments. My first illustration gigs started when I was about 15, and I pay good money to keep those terrible drawings from ever surfacing.

Was your first illustration funny?

It wasn’t meant to be, but some close family members have yet to stop chuckling about it.

Who has influenced you the most?

I’ve only had a handful of art classes, but one of them was at LMU with Professor Carm Goode, who taught me a great deal about design: specifically, how a great idea can elevate a great drawing — and a great drawing without a great idea behind it just isn’t that great. It almost makes me wish I wasn’t so darn insufferable when I was in his class.

Who makes you laugh out loud, regardless of her or his craft or medium?

Donald Trump. If you’re asking about someone making me laugh intentionally, then Jack Handey gets me every time!

If you could apprentice under any artist in history – painter, illustrator, cartoonist – who would it be?

One of my favorite artists ever is Sergio Aragonés. In addition to being one of the greatest cartoonists to have ever lived, he’s just a joy to be around and it would be amazing to study under El Maestro.