The Pen-Ultimate Arnold Roth: 60 Years (and Counting) As a Freelance

January 04, 2013 - March 09, 2013



Arnold Roth has been a humorous illustrator and cartoonist all hislife and, for most of that time, has freelanced, snatching a living by hustling one assignment after another in a highly competitive market,the wolf kept at bay by ingenuity and energy. And talent. And luck, Roth readily admits—even proclaims—lots of luck.

Roth had the luck to be born in 1929 on the cusp of the dawning GreatDepression, so he learned the survival value of scrambling for gainfulemployment while growing up in Philadelphia. He and his older brothershared the same interests and frequented the Philadelphia Art Museumand the Philadelphia Library. They went to exhibitions and shows. Veryearly, Roth fell in love with jazz and learned to play the saxophone.He also drew pictures and even sold a few.

Upon graduation from high school in 1946, Roth was awarded a fullscholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts, buthe was expelled at the end of two years because he was always arrivinglate—he was playing sax in jazz bands until the wee hours of themorning and couldn't get out of bed in time for class. He startedfreelancing artwork in the summer of 1948, but until the mid-1950s,his saxophone was a more dependable source of income than his pen. In1952, he started to get lucky: he got in on the ground floor of TVGuide, married Caroline Wingfield and met the Dave Brubeck Quartet,which soon led to assignments doing record album covers. He wasselling regularly enough to such magazines as Glamour, Charm and TVGuide, that he was making a living as a cartoonist.

Roth's big breakthrough came in 1957 when he started working on Trump,Playboy's satiric magazine, and on Humbug, a more penuriousproduction, both the inventions of Harvey Kurtzman, founder of MADmagazine. For these enterprises, Roth did what he called "purehumor"—ideas executed solely for the sake of comedy and satire. Healso began doing illustrations for Playboy and cartoons for England's Punch magazine, and he sold a cartoon into newspaper syndication.

Called Poor Arnold's Almanac, it ran for two years, beginning in May

1959. In each installment of the Almanac, the opening panel announced

the topic for the day, and Roth played variations on the theme in the

manner of a jazz musician, turning the subject this way and that,

inspecting it from every angle and finding inconsistencies in human

behavior and naked emperors everywhere he looked.

From the mid 1960s on, his work has appeared regularly in majormagazines including Sports Illustrated, Esquire,Holiday, Time, TheNew York Times, The New Yorker and countless others. In 1983, Roth waselected president of the National Cartoonists Society and the nextyear received the NCS Reuben award as cartoonist of the year. He haswon many gold and silver medals in the Society of Illustrators’ annualshows and was inducted into the SI Hall of Fame in 2009. He appearedon the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson several times and on David Letterman's LateShow. He has lectured at Princeton, Yale, the Philadelphia College ofArt, and at other art schools.

For Roth, every drawing represents an artistic challenge as well as anarrative one. “I try to give myself little problems," he said.“Brubeck, years ago, was on a symposium and somebody asked him, ‘Wouldyou describe what playing jazz is?' And he said, ‘It's gettingyourself into and out of trouble.' “I thought that was a good way toput it. If you're not doing that, you're really hacking it, doing thesame thing over and over. I always want to push it a little."

—— Adapted from Robert C. Harvey, Author, The Art of the Funnies: AnAesthetic History