Send in the clowns: Carter Goodrich has made his mark on the cartoon world

An early image for Despicable Me.

From a classic Trump image to children’s cartoon characters, US illustrator Carter Goodrich has made his mark, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

AMERICAN illustrator Carter Goodrich remembers the moment when his career took a decisive turn for the better. After studying at art school in Rhode Island, Goodrich spent about a decade working as a freelance illustrator for magazines in New York City.

His colleague Peter de Seve, who will join him later this month for the inaugural Kilkenny Animated festival next weekend, persuaded him to try for a cover on the New Yorker magazine.

The sketch Carter submitted — which showed Santa Claus and his reindeers jammed between cars on a packed intersection of city traffic — was used for the New Yorker’s cover the week of Christmas 1994.

“I’m pretty sure the reason they took a shine to it and said, ‘Go ahead. Take it to finish’ was because I had one of the drivers in the traffic jam giving Santa the middle finger,” says Goodrich. “They were trying to break some rules, which was something they were starting to introduce in the magazine, and that appealed to them.”

Carter Goodrich: In Kilkenny this weekend

Goodrich says there are no rules, per se, when it comes to cover artwork for the New Yorker. It’s a blank canvas. In times past, there used to be an unspoken brief to keep it topical or related to an undefined New York sensibility. That is no more.

For magazine illustrators, it’s the Super Bowl arena they all want to play on. It’s always an illustration on the cover never a photograph, and never anything but the image and the masthead — no distracting headlines or inset photographs. The content is left to flourish inside the magazine, and the cover artwork is never attached to a story within the magazine. The cover is a forum for the artist.


Goodrich’s illustrations have now adorned upwards of 20 New Yorker covers. He says his cover titled ‘October Surprise’, which came out on the eve of Halloween last year and showed a clownish Donald Trump peering out from a shadowy thicket of trees, generated the most excitable reaction from his pantheon.

“I had actually done about a year earlier — when Trump was running for office — a sketch of him as a clown. It was another Halloween cover and I had him outside the Oval Office window looking in with his little hands on the windowpane because nobody thought he was ever gonna get in. I actually never sent them that sketch.

“Halloween rolled around again and here he was as president. They had also released this big movie version of Stephen King’s It about the terrifying clown, and lately in the United States there has been this terror of clowns in general. People playing pranks, hanging out as clowns on the fringe of the woods, and people are spotting them and taking pictures of them. Trump was the perfect candidate for that tableau.

“One thing I didn’t want to do was to focus on a caricature of him. It helped to make him as a clown and not have to worry about that. I’ve noticed that nobody has figured out how to do a really effective caricature of Trump. When a politician arrives on the scene it takes a little while for the political cartoonists to find him. Once they have it, they all begin to do it that way. Somebody finds the shorthand. That hasn’t happened with Trump. Nobody can figure it out.

Prostitute Desert Flower.

“For the younger George Bush somebody did a brilliant connection of him and the character Alfred E Neuman from the satirical magazine Mad and they made an iconic piece where they married the two images. It informed all the elements of Bush – how to find him in shorthand. There were a few characteristics of his face, his features which were prominent that could be used to anchor the caricature. Everybody then seemed to work within that framework.”

Goodrich believes cartoonist never quite ‘got’ Barack Obama. “They sort of landed on how his ears stick out. Everybody used that as a cheap and easy way to do him. With Bill Clinton, it was his nose. They would lean on that device. With Trump, other than his hair obviously, with his face there is something odd and non-distinct and yet very distinct at the same time. There is no one feature that commands the face, just an evil countenance. The eyes that tip in — they’re satanic almost.”

The elevated profile that Goodrich’s early New Yorker covers provided led to him being lured to Hollywood. He now lives in Los Angeles, and has worked in character design on almost all the most notable animated movies of the last two decades, including Shrek, Ratatouille, Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo and Despicable Me.


An image for The Croods

Goodrich says ‘distortion’ is one of the keys to a good illustration, using exaggeration to get to the heart of a character. “When you’re stylising these characters,” he says, “there has to be a reason in each one. Instead of just doing a character because this is a nice loopy way to do this face; I’ll elongate this bit. The choices are not arbitrary — they have to be located in, who that character is. What’s the reason for creating giant ears? Is it because you’re creating a ‘cartoon character’ or because it has something to do with who he is?”

He cites an example from his portfolio – Desert Flower, which is a funny, humane illustration of a hoary old prostitute from the Wild West. “In her case, it was what I imagined a prostitute in that age might have looked like — not what we consider a raving beauty today. A woman who has seen hard times, who has many years on her, who is not shapely in the way we imagine she should be, but still game.

“There are many levels to doing one of these pieces. One is the broad shapes — it shouldn’t be too fussy, too many little shapes. Within those, there should be more detail. The hard part is keeping it distilled, simplified, finding the correct series of shapes and details and nothing more.

“In her, and all the characters, regardless of whether they’re villainous or not, it’s important not to be unnecessarily cruel to the character — to have a level of sympathy for who that person is. I try to abide by that. I never want to take a cheap shot — to be mean for the sake of being mean. In her case, I don’t think it’s an unkind portrait.”

Carter Goodrich will join Peter de Seve for a discussion on ‘The Art of the New Yorker’ at Kilkenny Animated: A Festival of Visual Storytelling, 9.30pm, Saturday, 24 February, Cleere’s Theatre Bar, Kilkenny. Goodrich’s work will also be on display.

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