Stan Mack and the Delicate Art of Eavesdropping

« There’s nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head. » — Thornton Wilder

I’ve always been drawn to the more observational areas of cartooning, and Stan Mack (b. May 13, 1936) surely counts among the preeminent practitioners of the form, thanks to his long-running strip (in the pages of The Village Voice for a couple of decades!), Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies.

Therein was to be found the cartoonist’s bold pledge: « Guarantee: All Dialogue Reported Verbatim ». Oh, it might seem easy, but I’m quite convinced it was anything but.

In point of fact, here’s some insight on Mr. Mack’s modus operandi, from the horse’s mouth:

« Carry a little pad and pencil. Dress to blend in quietly. Get to the destination with enough time to case the joint. It helps to be not too tall, not too short, not too dark, not too handsome, not too ugly, not too old and not too young.

When I arrive, if I find that everybody knows each other, I make a quick exit and forget it. Otherwise, the system continues: smile and keep your ears open. Find the men’s room (always good for a line), find coffee and food, which is very helpful unless you are trying to take notes. Look for a few convenient corners in which to hide. Learn to walk backwards in order to get closer to groups. Learn to stand in the middle of a mob and like it. And, finally, learn to change direction suddenly in order to follow a good line floating by.

Appear preoccupied. If you are engaged in conversation, pay no attention to what you are saying. Say anything. Fake it. You can’t listen and think at the same time. Float through the event. Each has its own particular current. Professional wrestlers and East Side gallery-hoppers move at different speeds.

When I start to draw a strip, I sit with my deadline approaching and a pad full of quotes and doodles. I try to draw the kind of people who actually said the lines.

I don’t know why some comments seem important and others dull, but I know that it isn’t until I begin to edit that material that the story emerges. It’s often a surprise.

It’s the unexpected that makes it work. Therefore it helps to approach everything with an open mind and no preconceptions, whether it involves policemen or transsexuals or frisbee addicts. »

« I hear words I couldn’t make up. I think, ”that’s something I would never have thought of. I’ll just write it down.” I work out of other people’s heads. »

Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies, The Divorce (March, 1977, The Village Voice).
Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies, An Art Sale in Suburbia (April, 1977, The Village Voice).
Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies, Sex Accessories (October, 1977, The Village Voice).
Stan Mack’s Outtakes, The Sting (Adweek, 1983)
Stan Mack’s Outtakes, What a Bummer (Adweek, 1983)

« So, what’s he done lately? », you may ask. Well, you will nowadays find him in the pages of The American Bystander, where the cream of America’s extant cartooning geniuses gather to keep warm. Rick Geary, R.O. Blechman, Sam Gross, Drew Friedman, P.S. Mueller, Tom Hachtman, M.K. Brown… and these are just some of *my* favourites. Do them (and yourself) a favour, check it out!

Stan Mack’s Chronicles, Up His Alley (The American Bystander no. 7, Winter 2017).

Astute Mack-o-philes (and I’ve every reason to believe that they are astute) might point out that I neglected to bring up the artist’s splendidly surreal early ’70s National Lampoon feature, Mule’s Diner; fear not, its time in the limelight will soon(ish) be at hand, so stay tuned.


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