Stan Mack the Knife

Posted inThe Daily Heller

I’ve long been a fan of Stan Mack’s comics, notably his Real Life Funnies where he overhears and records verbatim ironic, sardonic and acerbic dialogue. With Bowie knife precision, he slices through the crap and turns banter into witty strips. I was recently reminded of one comic he did for the Times Book Review based on a real life quirk of mine (see above). It prompted this “re-connect” with Mr. Mack.

When did you start Real Life Funnies and how did the concept come about?

Two step process: I was an art director at the New York Herald Tribune where Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe and Dick Schaap were writing, and drawn to the idea of artists covering the news from a personal perspective, like those guys did.

Following up, I went with a New York Times reporter, Georgia Dullea, to illustrate an event she was covering. Along with sketching, I wrote down some participants’ comments. Later Georgia said, those quotes are good, but that’s my job!

Armed with the feeling that I might have an ear for snappy dialogue, I met with Milton Glaser at the Village Voice. I said I’d like to do a feature where I roam the city sketching and record what people are saying and doing. He and Clay Felker, the new owner of the Voice, were planning a page of ‘urban’ comics. They were looking for cartoonists.

I started the weekly strip in the Voice towards the end of 1974. Later added a similar weekly strip, out-takes, for Adweek, for Clay and Walter Bernard.

There is an art to capturing real life conversations. What was your technique?

The ‘art’ for me was a mysterious instinct that I learned to trust. Here’s a funny thought: I felt like a writer who’d lost his connection to his words. When I heard certain words, I recognized the quirky voice as my own and wrote them down.

The challenge was getting close to the words: edge towards talkers without appearing to. pretend to be someone else. Speak gibberish while listening to the people at the next table. I carried a small pad but sometimes it was safer to write on my napkin or shirt cuff. (I never trusted my memory.)

Obviously, the dialogue was real, but the context was edited? Did you ever make something up?

I usually filled my pad with more words than I needed to tell the story (one panel or ten, there was always a story). Editing was important—and tricky. I never made up words, it was my guarantee.

I didn’t guarantee the pictures. I drew New York like mad and set the stories in places that best captured the city.

What were your three favorite encounters in the strip?

Here are one each in three favorite categories:

Sex: spending the evening with the lifeguard at the pool at Plato’s Retreat [a sex club]. Politics: joining a protest and confrontation with police at the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Eccentrics: hanging out with the man who hid himself in a rolled up rug on sidewalks. he got his kicks when unsuspecting people would unavoidably walk on it and him.

Why did you stop the strip?

The Voice pushed a number of features out the door, including rlf, possibly in preparation for going free. Even Feiffer for god’s sake! But I and rlf were also evolving, becoming more serious, adding interviews. And I turned to longer projects — like my cartoon histories of the American revolution and the history of the Jews and the graphic novel, Road to Revolution, for young people.

Do you still overhear others?

It’s a luxury to hear funny lines (Earl Ubell called them epiphanies) and just enjoy them — like a civilian — and not have to write it down. Still, people continue to say, ‘I heard the funniest thing, it would be perfect for your strip.’

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