I was fourteen in 1964, the year that the revolutionary The Underground Sketchbook of Tomi Ungerer was first published (reprinted in 1972). I don’t recall how I got hold of the book, but its ribald wit and rebellious humor touched a raw nerve. I spent a lot of time copying many of the images. I learned that expecting the unexpected (the slogan for Tomi’s ad campaign for the Villiage Voice) was a way of life for him—and hopefully for me too. Tomi’s work has influenced many people. This interview was conducted in 2015 when we spoke at his first U.S. retrospective at the Drawing Center in New York. He has been such an important figure in graphic humor that there is a museum dedicated to him. His influence on American graphic commentary and satire (not to mention children’s books and advertising) is incalculable. It was a joy to moderate a conversation with him. The following is an edited version of our hour-long conversation before a packed standing room only. Incidentally, the reason I am publishing this now is because after many decades I discovered my dog-eared copy of the “Sketchbook.” I’d say that’s cause for celebration. All the images here come from the “Sketchbook” (I can recall each and every one as though I copied them yesterday). Speaking of celebration you should see Brad Bernstein‘s documentary on Tomi: “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough“—a brilliant representation of a brilliant rebel.
Tomi, your work was on the street as billboards and in many magazines during the mid to late 60s; your advertising campaigns for the Village Voice, for The New York Times were brilliant, so why was it that you were essentially banned and had to leave New York?
These were the McCarthy years and the witch-hunt . . . . and actually I might just as well tell the story: General de Gaulle, the president of France was the first one to recognize Red China [in 1965] as a state and me being a French citizen, Newsweek was going to send me to China to make a reportage. I went to Paris and I got my visa, there but I was a telex from the State Department stating that if I went to China I would never be allowed back to the United States. So I gave up my trip and came back. In those days Kennedy was Idlewild Airport; I went through customs and I was in the middle of the hall and – this was just like a scenario out of a movie – there was one man on my right, one on my left, one in my back, really the caricature of these kind of guys, you know, with . . .
. . . Fedoras, and black suits.
… the same suit. And one says in my ear, ‘Drop your suitcases and follow us quietly.’ So I dropped the two suitcases, the guy behind grabbed them and immediately the other ones grabbed me on the arm and schlepped me into a car. I don’t know where they took me, I was brought in a white room with a lamp. . . , had to undress, even opened up the soles of my shoes because they were looking for hidden messages or something like that and then after that my telephone was tapped; that stopped but ever since then I remained in the customs book of unwanted people.
Were you doing work at that time that might be considered subversive?
I think I was already into my Vietnam posters. I’ve never had a great sense of time. For me a second can take the shape of an hour or whatever and as you noticed, I’ve never put a date on any drawings, and I never put a date on any letters, only on cheques or official documents.
When you came to the United States for the first time, you were looking round for work and you managed to do very well.
I came with a big trunk. I joined the army originally and in the army I had this big cantine in French which is this metal trunk that was full with drawings and books and ideas for books and even manuscripts as well that I came over with.
So, how did you catch on quickly?
It was very fast. The moment I arrived, I came off a Norwegian cargo boat and the next morning I was already out there, my first step was going to a newspaper kiosk and looking at all the papers I would like to work with and just write down the telephone number and the name of the art director. My office was like for many other people was a telephone booth because I lived in a basement, and there was no telephone there.
And who did you go to see first?
I can’t quite remember but everybody was so absolutely incredibly nice. At first they would tell me it was too European but someone advised me that I can sell this or that in America, and immediately someone like Jerry Snyder at Sports Illustrated said to me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to see Bill Golden and Columbia,’ and others also said, ‘Oh, go and see Leo Lionni at Fortune’ or ‘Go and see Henry Wolf at Esquire, everybody was like that.
That’s editorial, what about kids books?
The children’s books in those days were ghastly. But the biggest outfit was Golden Books, they still exist. I went to the editor there and he said, ‘Listen, what you are showing me here is not publishable in America, there’s only one person who would publish you and that is Ursula Nordstrom at Harper.’
Maurice Sendak said that as well.
And that’s when I met Maurice Sendak, we were embarked in the same boat like an Ark of Noah for illustrators. Ursula told me the book I had The Mellops, was a horrible story with the butcher that locked the brothers up and all this. But she said, ‘Why don’t you do another story? Why don’t you write another story with the same characters,’ and this is what I did and I was lucky because in a year I had a first book came out and it won, it was honour book at the spring book festival and the second one was Crictor
about the snake.
Regarding Crictor, I have a story you may not have heard. Fritz Eichenberg who was an amazing wood engraver and illustrator and who loved your work, was on the jury of the [The Herald Tribune] best books when Crictor came before him and the other jurors threw it out because it had a snake as its main character, and he brought it back to the table. He said snakes were as equal as any other characters and it won as one of the ten best books that year.
This was my whole point. I’m Alsatian, you know, and I lived with the fact that the French collaborated with the Germans, that we Alsatians never did and with my accent after the war I was literally ostracised as a sale boche, so I know how it feels to be different and I must say that all the children’s books I did after that were all actually ostracised animals. I did one about the rats, about a chauve-souris, a bat, about a vulture, there we are. It was only the other batch of other children’s books later which became really blatantly political or historical. Like Otto is about the Shoah, for example.
Is everything about making a point, about busting the taboo?
I don’t know, sometimes. I must say in the children’s books I did over the last 20 years, I wanted to make a point. Making Friends is the story of a little black boy that comes in a white neighborhood, I knew I wanted to do that and with the Otto, I realized there’s no book about the Shoah, and about the war. Everybody says no, you can’t show this to children. So I showed the war, I witnessed this, I saw the war, I saw everything. I know what it is to be in the last bridgehead of the Germans across the Rhine and being in the middle of a battle for three months without electricity, without water and all that. And I know what it is to be called to the Gestapo.
You saved many of those drawings from that time that are on view at the Drawing Center.
Very early, my path, which turned into a highway, was straight. I couldn’t stand injustice or persecution or violence.
It raises an issue that I always wanted to ask you because you did a cover for Monocle magazine, titled “Black Power, White Power” which depicts a white man eating a black leg and a black man eating a white man’s leg. I could never figure out if you were on any side or not.
A lot of my drawings are cryptical and can be interpreted in many ways, but this is, in a way, my version, that the two races are equal and that we will eat each other forever because as always there will be strife, let’s not have illusions about humanity. We can only survive because of exceptions.
The poster series in which this image was included posters was done on your own, right?
I decided I would print some at my own cost, sold them at a friend’s poster shops and they spread like mad. But one must not forget that in those early 60s, late 50s and all that, there was the United States and then there was New York, and New York was a fortress of refugees, that anybody who felt that he had to say something or state something or fight for something, they all came to New York. I arrived here as an immigrant, welcomed by the Statue of Liberty and realized only later on that the Statue of Liberty is turning its back on America . . . everything has its other sides.
You did a picture as an immediate response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings . . . .
It was drawn just before I arrived. A lot of my posters were conceived with anger. But I did the shooting of Charlie Hebdo with an incredible sense of sadness, really. Well, sadness for what happened, but as well for why it happened.
Why do you think it happened?
Well, that’s exactly why we have to atone. Excuse me, there’s no terrorism without roots, and it’s most likely too late now, but I think in France there’s a very strong racist current and this is where it’s ending now, and I do personally think that we are now at the beginning of a third world war. The First World War was in the trenches, you might say the Second World War was in the air and the third one is electronic and underground, it’s out of pure frustrations.
What was your sense when you heard the news about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo?
It made me sick because several papers called me and I couldn’t even formulate. I just couldn’t sort it out.
What about in relation to your own work, I mean you’ve done some very raw pieces over the years, you’ve taken shots at folly and hypocrisy but have you ever felt physically threatened?
I’ve always been very involved in the French-German reunification and peace which is a phenomenon that in the whole of world history has never happened, the two nations that have been really at each other’s throat at the price of millions and millions of people have become to collaborate and work in friendly terms. I’ve dedicated a lot into this project and in those days it was anathema, I got death menace letters from French patriots saying, ‘You come back, tu reviens en France, on va te descendre, you come back to France, we’ll mow you down.’
So it was as if you were still a child in Alsace?
I always say I’m Alsatian, but with Europe, what does it matter if you are French or German? Europe would not exist if it was not for the France and German reciprocity. I mean one must forgive but not forget, of course.
How do you feel cartoonists should act now?
It’s not only cartoonists, I think especially in children’s books, we need more children’s books, like I was saying, you know, I’ve been very busy in France kind of culturally-politically. I’ve been what you would call an adviser, chargé des missions to the Ministry of Education, and as the Ministry of Culture and I had set up a whole commission there to teach children already in kindergarten respect. You know, to teach respect of elderly people, of food, even money, of religion, and with some basic books. And we had a whole list of subjects like that of teaching respect through books and we had already authors lined up to bring up that special series but then there were elections and my boss Jack Lang, the minister, the éducation nationale, well in France it’s not, I don’t know how it is in America, but in France when you have the election, one minister has three days to move out of his office. They don’t sit down with the new minister to discuss, ‘Hey, we had already television spots for respect for children.’ And all that was stopped because everything the guy did before is no good. My book Otto would have been as an example of that, showing children what is war. And I had a book about hunger, a book about thirst, about all the major things that children should know about because this is reality. If it’s in the newspapers it should be in children’s books.
How was Otto embraced in France?
Oh, very well, everywhere. Very well.
You have written a lot about the Nazi past . . .
The book about my Nazi childhood. À La Guerre Comme À La Guerre, is used as a schoolbook in history and the book Otto is part of its for younger people. It’s part of the school teaching for the Shoah.
So it must pain you what’s going on right now, the idea that Jews may leave France en masse because of the anti-Semitic demonstrations?
We’ve reached a point where nothing can be repaired anymore. We cannot change the climate situation.
You’re not Jewish, but you told me you understand Yiddish.
Yiddish comes from Alsatian, so if you speak Alsatian, for instance in Strasbourg we have the only Jewish radio in Europe, Radio Judaïca, and I had interviews, you know, Yiddish and Yiddish-Alsatian so it’s just a step because the Rhine was one of the main mercantile really arteries in Europe and its Alemannic dialect and this is what then came and spread. But I will tell you, I will have much greater difficulties with the Russian or the Polish Yiddish, this is more difficult, but I published a book in Yiddish and German, with illustrations of the Warsaw ghetto.
A lot has happened in your life. Has anything changed in terms of your attitudes from when you were young to now that is a profound change in your point of view?
There’s one element I was able to eliminate: hate. And to hate hate because there were times when I was hateful. When I’m angry I lose my marbles, I get out of control, that’s really one of my worst aspects, but on the other hand, don’t forget, something like this is fuel – anger was for me fuel for my work because it’s really great for people like us to be able to express whether in writing or drawing, to just get it out of the system. For me everything was always something to fight for, like for eroticism too, this is another thing I fought for.
Well, that’s a very important point because you were banished from American children’s books. When you were doing those erotic pieces, I understand the children’s book establishment was not too pleased.
An editor at The New York Times responsible for the children’s books refused to review Moon Man. He said the guy who did the Fornicon had no rights to do children’s books. He terrified everybody at The New York Times. And it’s J.C. Suares who was working too in the book section who arranged for the Moon Man to be reviewed in the adult section. And the irony is that an independent jury had chosen it as one of The New York Times ten best of the year.
Well that editor was very powerful, but also the librarians were very powerful and your career as a children’s book illustrator, at least in the United States, was over.
Yes, but everything I do has always been a sideline. You cannot say just that I’ve been doing children’s books and all that. In America I would be more a children’s book author because my other books have not been published like Babylon … so it’s all relative.
Now you have a museum dedicated to you. There’s a wonderful film out about you. So how do you feel about these accolades, the museum, the film. . .
I’m very insecure. I love accolades and I love to be decorated. Now, in Europe I’m very heavily decorated, but not so much, not because of my books but because my cultural, political activism. Jack Lang gave me carte blanche for all cultural initiatives between France and Germany. And I didn’t do this alone, I mean all this political thing, you have always a team and people are working.
Every four months there’s another exhibition so it’s not a museum where you just go once. We had Saul Steinberg, R.O. Blechman, William Steig. I’m surrounded by wonderful people, my curator is Thérèse Willer, and she knows every drawing by heart, I wouldn’t know anything and she takes all these initiatives and it’s very handy if somebody wants to organize an exhibition.
Please talk more about your influences.
The artist is just like milestones on a big road of culture and every artist is a funnel from so many influences and then at last, you know, and it is, he leaves his own mark, but I would say that my mark is, for me the style is not the question, for me the question is to get an idea clearly on paper and stated, so for me a drawing is most of the time is an intellectual statement and this is where Steinberg has been most likely the most influential, I would say dessinateur, drawer, I don’t like the word ‘cartoonist’, that his greatest influence consisted in showing that you can take a whole concept, even a philosophical context or an opinion or something, and with the clarity of a few lines you can just settle it there, so I would say Steinberg was a great influence of mine, it was intellectually, it was intellectually and I still think he’s the greatest of the last century.
You’re working in collage now.
Well, I always did but now I have drawers and drawers of things I’ve cut out for use of collages and even for sculptures too and a lot of things is things I already brought with me via Canada from New York, as if I knew some day I would just need that element. And it’s very fun
ny, like, I do sculptures of objects which some think I, you’d say, ‘Why would he travel and carry that stuff? That garbage?’ Because I love garbage, I love leftovers. Even in food I think with leftovers you do the best meals. And as I said, I must say that this is really a show of leftovers. You know, and I as a person am a leftover of my leftovers.