Ed Koren died Friday, April 14. It was a day after I saw one of his most brilliant cartoons published in last week’s The New Yorker (click to no. 5): A world-weary Moses emerges from clouds holding up the Ten Commandments, Moses-style, addressing a crowd of plain folks, Koren-style, with the caption that reads: “Time for an update.”
It’s a fitting farewell from this humanist humorist, whose work and life, for me, is epitomized in the title of one of my first books, Man Bites Man: Two Decades of Satiric Art, featuring his drawing as the cover.
Influenced by the master 19th-century visual satirists who used anthropomorphism to slyly disguise their respective barbs at authority of all rank, Koren’s cartoons did not disguise humor but rather enhanced it by symbolizing the quotidian. I’ll wager that every reader of The New Yorker could see at least a trace of themselves in his obsessively scratchy linear vignettes of the comedie humaine (this term may sound pretentious—and it is—but Ed spoke French, so this is for his benefit).
I learned he was ill around six months ago. A mutual friend suggested I call him. I’m glad we had a chance to speak briefly on the phone a few times. He had diminishing energy reserves and I could feel life escaping from him like a gradual leak of air from a radial tire. He advised me to call back between certain hours, maintaining that he’d have more strength. But those slots were filled fast with a long procession of friends queuing to pay their respects.
I had one pressing requirement: To thank him for many years of friendship that changed my life. Among the most consequential moments, he introduced me to my future wife, Louise Fili, a relationship that we decided to keep secret for months until our “coming out” at Ed and his wife, Curtis’, formal wedding party on a beautiful Fall day at their home in an idyllic Vermont town (where Ed was a member of the volunteer fire department). He nominated me as a board member (with David Levine, Ed Sorel, Jules Feiffer, R.O. Blechman and Art Spiegelman, among others) for the Swann Foundation of Caricature and Cartoon, through which I earned cred in the cartoon scholarship world. He not only drew the cover for Man Bites Man, he did numerous illustrations for me at The New York Times (which, owing to his sizable reputation, I could get past the editors’ gatekeeping without breaking a sweat). And as a favor to me, he drew two Santa’s jogging as a cover for The New York Times Magazine, which agreed to run a double spread of work from my first-ever book, Artist’s Christmas Cards, which Koren appeared in.
I wanted him to know that he left an indelible mark on my life through his generosity and wisdom. And that I deeply regretted my having lost touch over the past decade.
The last time I called him was a few weeks ago, responding to an email saying he was trying to reach me. The time before that he told me about feelings he had for me that I’ll always treasure. But when I called him, he was not up for speaking and requested I call again in the next couple of days. I stupidly put it off, ignoring the possibility that I would never have the chance again. When I heard of his passing, I was angry with myself for procrastinating. (What if there is no tomorrow?) After learning of his death, I went digging for evidence of another procrastination and uncovered an envelope with the drawings shown here—a project we had planned together, which never happened.
Ed Koren took great comfort in his gaggle of toothy, hairy, fuzzy creatures. I hope he’s hanging with them right now since he left this world for theirs.