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Portland cartoonist ranks his own New Yorker cartoons for laughs and feline content

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Shannon Wheeler, cartoonist and cat man.

Shannon Wheeler's show "Forbidden Love" at Portland'5 Centers for the Arts features 60 of the many cartoons he submitted to the New Yorker magazine over the last decade. Wheeler is known in Portland for larger projects such as the opera "Too Much Coffee Man" and his graphic version of the Mueller Report (with Steve Duin), but his all-caps signature has appeared multiple times in the New Yorker's funny slots.

"Forbidden Love" refers to his cartoon where a snail is crawling toward a saltshaker, which Wheeler says is also a metaphor for the pain and agony of being a cartoonist. The rejection rate is high.

"Every week I submit ideas and every now and again they bite," Wheeler told the Portland Tribune in December.

COURTESY: SHANNON WHEELER - The titular Shannon Wheeler gag cartoon from his show at Portland'5.

The small cartoon with one panel and one joke that is popular in the New Yorker is called a gag cartoon. Cats, dogs and couples in strained relationships are classic themes, which suits Wheeler, but he likes to throw the odd meta curveball.

One gag shows a man looking at a shelf with a scrap of paper on it. His thought bubble, which has a time stamp "10 years ago," shows him putting down this piece of paper on the shelf. Within this another thought bubble has him thinking "I'll just put this here for now."

"I was catching myself looking at some piece of garbage that I'd put somewhere, and I realized I had put that there 10 years ago thinking it would be there for just a minute," explains Wheeler. "It's a little butterfly of thinking and you catch it and put it up on display, like, here's this little moment that's oddly universal."

COURTESY: SHANNON WHEELER - A Shannon Wheeler gag cartoon from his show at Portland'5.

Trolls

Another shows two kids standing at an upright piano. One little kid is standing on the stool looking at the sheet music. The girl behind is saying "What do the instructions say?"

For all the gags about productivity and procrastination that define comedy writers, Wheeler has had a productive pandemic.

"One thing I've done over the pandemic is I taught myself to read music. I bought some children's books and just started at middle C. I can plink out little tunes now on a 1920s upright piano from a roommate who took care of old people.

"When the New Yorker bought it (the cartoon) I redrew it, so the piano had 88 keys. They say submit roughs, then if they buy it you have the option of redrawing it."

These ink on paper originals are hung in the rotunda where people socialize before entering the theater. If a cartoon ran in the magazine, or perhaps in Forbes or Wired, Wheeler redrew them for this show.

COURTESY: SHANNON WHEELER - A Shannon Wheeler gag cartoon from his show at Portland'5.

These days all cartoon submissions to the New Yorker are done digitally. The days of FedExing art to 4, Times Square or even 1 World Trade Center, or schlepping portfolios into the office, are over. Wheeler loves the city and pre-pandemic would try to show his face there three times a year.

One gag is two trolls under a bridge. One troll is saying to the other, who is on a laptop, "You're a terrible troll."

Here's the author's take:

COURTESY: SHANNON WHEELER - A Shannon Wheeler gag cartoon from his show at Portland'5.

"Trolling used to be fun, but like so many things it got ruined in the last four or five years. It's been weaponized. Like conspiracy theories used to be great and now they're horrible. The Mueller Report, that was the worst case of trolling, where you had (Attorney General William) Barr come out and say the Mueller Report is this, and it was really just lying in a way that's vicious and self-serving, as opposed to being funny and bringing truth to power."

A cat in a bathtub is looking to one side to another cat, who's sitting on the tiles, and the cat in the bathtub is saying, "I got tired of licking."

"There was a time where you'd bring in your cartoons to the editor in person in New York, so I'd go out there. He bought a lot of cat cartoons, but he's going through them and he said 'You're dipping into that cat well pretty often, aren't you?' Uh, guilty! He was just making fun of me. I love cats." Wheeler adds, "They're very popular with the readers. They put out books of only cat cartoons. I think he was just trolling."

Wheeler often wakes up in the night to jot down an idea. If he doesn't get the visuals down, he can forget it. The bathtub cat cartoon came to him as he was going to sleep. "Then I have to turn on the light, write it down and do a little doodle. So, I remember the image and then turn off the light and go back to sleep."

COURTESY: SHANNON WHEELER
 - A Shannon Wheeler gag cartoon from his show at Portland'5.

GoFundYourself

Wheeler has a little crowdfunding fatigue. One gag shows a man on the scaffold about to be hung and the executioner, next to a sign saying, "Fully funded," is saying "I want to thank everyone who supported us in our Kickstarter efforts."

He almost didn't include it because it's not the light and happy antidote to 2020 that people apparently crave.

"I've gotten so sick of every day, I get emails from my friends that are doing their Kickstarters and oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, right … It's relentless. I really do like it, on the one hand, that people are doing these projects. But on the other hand, it's another comic book Kickstarter. Like, give me a break."

He does send the money though.

"These cartoons are a nice way to vent some of my grumpy old man feelings."

Salty II

"Forbidden Love" shows a snail crawling towards salt cellar.

"I have this love, a genuine love of cartooning, but I think it's caused me pain and agony. I'd done gone into advertising, I would have had a house in Hawaii right now," he jokes.

There was a changing of the guard at the New Yorker, from comics editor Robert Mankoff to Emma Allen, which gave artists a new tastemaker to play to. It was a chance to recycle old ideas and branch out into new ones.

Om

One cartoon shows a family meditating in their robes. The parents in the front-of-car position, the two kids in the back position. And the boy is saying, "Are we enlightened yet?"

"The robes are a little bit of a trope that's just playing with ideas of where are you trying to go with meditation."

The New Yorker didn't bite.

"I liked it, because I thought it was silly, but it's not quite Zeitgeisty enough for the New Yorker, which tends to buy things that are really a little bit sharper and more pointed. The new editor, Emma Allen, she's great, she has an emphasis on relationships, and animals."

Sometimes cartoonists were invited in to look through the analog submissions.

"What shocked me is that we went through every submission carefully, like we actually read it and thought about it. I always thought 'Oh, slush pile! This is all going in the garbage.' But there was real care in it. And we did not care about the fancy package: A napkin was as good as Bristol board."

And he can always laugh at himself.

A woman looking over her boyfriend's shoulder while he's typing on his laptop. She's not very happy. She's saying, 'Why can't you be more like your fiction?'

"Yes, some of these are probably more autobiographical than they should be."

Shannon Wheeler cartoons

"Forbidden Love"

Now through Jan 31, 2022

Portland'5 Centers for the Arts

1111 S.W. Broadway,

(503) 248-4335

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