Ali Solomon is a cartoonist, writer, and art teacher. She’s a regular contributor to the New Yorker. Her cartoons, comics, and humor writing also have been featured in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Air Mail, The Believer, and the Washington Post.
I first “met” Ali in an online writing group in 2019. I was looking for feedback on a humor piece about teaching, and Ali offered to share notes. Her notes, much like her own writing, were and continue to be insightful and witty.
In addition to being a generous giver of feedback, Ali is a delightful collaborator. She brings so much joy to our shared Google Docs. Once, when we were revising a humor piece with a third writer friend, it came time to make a final decision about how many illustrations to include. We settled on eleven. “I love odd numbers!” Ali affirmed. But then we thought of another joke to add. Ali was on board, writing, “I love even numbers, too!”
In 2019, she collaborated with humor writer Janine Annett on an illustrated piece for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency called “I Am ‘Why Do I Need Venmo?’ Years Old.” The piece was a hit and led to a book of the same title. Each page follows the setup of “I am _____ years old” and fills in the blank with a joke accompanied by a funny illustration. Some favorites include “I am ‘excited about composting’ years old” and “I am ‘the dim lighting makes me look good but makes it hard to read the menu’ years old.”
As someone who is forever “in awe of Ali Solomon” years old, I was thrilled to connect with Ali over Zoom and email to discuss gag cartooning, short conceptual humor writing, and turning a viral humor piece into a book.
The Rumpus: You’re an accomplished cartoonist, illustrator, comic artist, and writer, but I know that cartooning was your first love. I’d love to start with how you got into cartooning.
Ali Solomon: I feel like I got into cartooning the way many kids do. I started off trying to draw a flower, and it ended up looking like Garfield. I was a rabid Calvin & Hobbes fan, and always used up my one Scholastic book purchase on a collection of those strips. Around seventh grade, my parents signed me up for a cartooning class that met on Saturdays at Hofstra University, taught by famed Disney animator Al Baruch. I was not a particularly standout artist, but I drew lots of doodles of Al, turning him into a cartoon character. He was already quite the character.
Years later, maybe when I was a junior in high school, Al Baruch called my mom to offer me a job as his assistant. To this day, I have no idea why he picked me—I was probably the weakest link from the class, artistically. But it paid way more than my job at a local drugstore, so I hopped on board. When Al was asked to start a cartooning program at a local arts camp, I went with him. Eventually the class grew popular, so they added a second class, which I took over.
After teaching at the arts camp for a few years, Al Baruch eventually retired to Florida, and brought in a young man he knew from other cartooning circles to take his place. I married that young man, and we’ve been together for sixteen years.
All thanks to Al Baruch, and that cartooning class from forever ago.
When I first began to consider cartooning seriously, I decided I wanted to create comic strips. My first few were just blatant rip-offs of Calvin & Hobbes, but I created a daily comic strip for my college newspaper, and grew to love the storytelling potential and lack of copyright infringement. But the timing of when I graduated and began to submit comics to the newspaper syndicates coincided with the decline of newspapers. Of course it did! So, I followed a lot of other cartoonists to the interwebs, and created a string of barely-read webcomics. I made ‘zines, peddled my wares at festivals, and tried to draw eyes to my website, but I got to the party too late, and webcomics were losing steam. By then, I was married and had my first child, and decided to create a parenting blog for my cartoons. I got lost in the glut of parenting blogs, and eventually decided to explore storytelling on a much smaller scale: gag cartoons. I found gag cartoons much harder than any of the other storytelling forms, and it’s only taken a thousand cartoons to feel like I’m not an utter garbage artist, but here I am. Now, if only magazines will stick around forever and buy cartoons… wait, where are all the magazines going?
Rumpus: Now you’re a regular New Yorker cartoonist. What is the process for submitting cartoons to the magazine?
Solomon: Basically, we all submit a batch of cartoons every Tuesday. We can submit up to ten cartoons, but my sweet spot seems to be seven. By Friday, if we’ve sold one, we’ll get an email with “O.K.” as the subject heading, and we then submit the finished art afterward.
I try to be diligent about submitting, since I’m afraid if I take a week off, it’ll turn into two, and I’ll spend my nights binge-watching crime dramas instead of drawing. I also try to submit finished cartoons rather than sketches or drafts. Mostly it’s because my drafts look like mashed potatoes, but also once a cartoon is finished, it’s easier to submit it elsewhere. If I’ve taken the time to ink and paint a cartoon, I’m going to push to find it a home.
We can also submit two or three ideas for Daily Cartoons each morning by 9 a.m., and if the editors pick yours, you find out by 10 a.m. and have to turn in the final art by noon. Because of my teaching schedule and the quick turnaround required, I find it hard to submit Daily Cartoons, and try to submit Dailies during holidays and summer. Sometimes Daily Cartoons are a good opportunity for a re-caption.
Rumpus: How do you come up with ideas for cartoons?
Solomon: My process is all over the place! It changes every day. But basically, I use the Notes section of my phone to jot down joke ideas. Sometimes it’s just a funny word or phrase. Sometimes it’s a fully formed idea. It’s a riot going through old lists and trying to decipher what the hell I was going for. “Bat wings. Trigonometry. Dog holding a ball but on a bike.” Sure, okay. Sometimes it’s just “htwenm at the hoabnojw” because I was typing fast in the dark at night, and autocorrect didn’t jump in and help.
Once I have a few solid joke ideas, I sketch and ink the images, edit them, add a gray ink wash, then scan the drawings and type in the captions.
I like to mess around with my rejected cartoons. I love to re-caption things, so it’s a challenge I give myself to see if I can change the caption and completely alter the idea of the cartoon. I do this a lot when I’m particularly attached to the art in a drawing and don’t want it to go to waste. It makes me feel the same way I do when I think of a snappy comeback weeks after the conversation, except now I actually get to test out my witty rejoinder!
Rumpus: That’s the dream! You’re also a talented writer. When did you start writing and creating illustrated humor pieces?
Solomon: Right after I had my first baby, I found myself experiencing what so many new moms go through—isolation, loneliness, exhaustion, and (eep!) boredom. To try and connect with people, I posted a picture of my newborn on Facebook once a week, with some glib observations of parenthood. They got a good response (which could’ve been because my daughter was adorable), so I started writing longer humor pieces and submitting them to parenting publications. I started a blog because everyone in 2012 had one, and posted cartoons and humor pieces regularly. Alas, I built absolutely no audience, but it gave me an outlet.
Eventually I wanted to move away from parenting humor, since every other aspect of my daily life was consumed by motherhood. On my brother’s recommendation, I began reading McSweeney’s Internet Tendency regularly, and other conceptual humor sites. I found an online community of female comedy writers, and took an online class on satire writing at Second City. It was a game-changer. Before, it was like I was trying to play Settlers of Catan without having read the rules: I’d try to follow what everyone around me was doing, and occasionally I’d catch on, but mostly I was just pretending. Taking the satire class, reading constantly, and getting peer feedback moved me to another level, one where I’d read the instructions and it was much easier to play the game.
I think McSweeney’s was the first place I submitted an illustrated piece to. I collaborated with another writer and illustrated her humor piece, and realized that the site would be a supportive outlet for illustrated humor. Pretty soon I was submitting illustrated humor pieces everywhere, and found that more often than not, online publications were interested, but print ones less so.
Rumpus: Your book with Janine Annett, I Am Why Do I Need Venmo? Years Old, started as an illustrated conceptual humor piece on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. What inspired the original piece?
Solomon: The first piece Janine pitched to me as a potential collaboration was a spoof of the expression “I am ____ years old,” using some trait or life event in the place of a numerical age. She’d originally envisioned it as a book, but as we narrowed the focus, we decided to try it as a short conceptual humor piece. The beats were all pretty much inspired by things in our lives like being unable to digest dairy, loving dogs, and being psyched about kitchen appliances.
Rumpus: What was your collaborative process?
Solomon: Janine is one of the easiest people to collaborate with. She’s always super enthusiastic about the topics and very open to taking them in many directions. We created a Google Doc, and she’d throw ideas in it as they came to her. I’d start to pull the ones that best lent themselves to an illustration. We found ourselves communicating aspects of our daily lives in “I am ___ years old” phrases, like she’d text me “I am ‘fixing water damage in my basement’ years old,” and I’d text back “I am ‘going to open houses in earnest’ years old,” and so on.
Rumpus: As a reader, I find jokes about day-to-day life to be some of the funniest. The piece was very popular on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, so it seems like the internet agrees. How did you and Janine decide to turn the piece into a book?
Solomon: It’s interesting because the idea started as a plan for a book, and we shortened it to a humor piece. When we saw that the piece was resonating with people we thought, well, how many more idiosyncrasies of aging could we come up with? The answer was: a billion. Aging is not glamorous, but it is universal.
Rumpus: What advice do you have for writers and illustrators who want to turn their short humor pieces into books?
Solomon: I feel like the advice I would give to others doesn’t necessarily apply to our book, but to other books that emerged from short humor pieces. What seems to work for others is to find a narrative thread, even if it’s loose, to give the book a trajectory and structure. Otherwise, if it’s the same joke over and over, it can be hard to sustain interest.
Which, of course, is exactly what Janine and I didn’t do with our book. We had originally created themed chapters to categorize the cartoons, but after discussing it with our editors, we found it didn’t really work, and the book held together better without a narrative structure.
So… maybe this isn’t the best advice? Oh dear.
Rumpus: Speaking of advice, I imagine that you receive informal cartoon pitches all the time from people you know.
Solomon: Ha, oh yes. So often, I’ll just be hanging out with friends, and something funny will happen and they’ll turn to me and say, “You should make this into a cartoon.” My dad is notorious for commenting, “This would make a great cartoon,” every time someone (usually him) makes a joke. He’ll even email me joke ideas. I’ll try to explain to him that his joke idea is more of a paragraph, with multiple characters and dialogue, and would work better as a screenplay than a gag cartoon, and he’ll just wave his hand and be like “Well, I’m sure you can do something with this.” I love it. I hope he keeps ‘em coming.
Rumpus: I’ll be on the lookout for your future screenplay. Something I admire about you is how supportive you are of other artists. As a middle school art teacher in New York City, what advice do you give your students who want to be professional artists?
Solomon: There are several middle school students every year who want to pursue art at a specialized high school for the arts. My advice is usually to save everything, even drawings they don’t think are that great, sketch a ton from observation, because it reflexively becomes part of their drawing repertoire, and to make sure they’re having fun. The minute they get hung up on fixing every line, or putting in a hundred windows on a building, or the details get tedious, it’s time to move on.
I also suggest casting a wide net when pursuing a career in the arts. “Art” isn’t just having paintings in a gallery; there’s graphic design, medical illustration, architecture, filmmaking, interior design, fashion design, advertising, textile-making, and yes, also teaching art. There are unlimited jobs where you get to be creative, often in unexpected ways.
Rumpus: You’ve taught cartooning at summer programs, and you incorporate it into your studio art curriculum at school. When you teach students who are new to cartooning, what are some of the key elements of craft that you highlight?
Solomon: If I told the whole class to “go make a comic book,” three kids would run with it, and the rest of the class would stare at me and go, “I don’t know what to draw!” So the first things I always start with are game-like activities that help students generate ideas: ideas for characters, settings, and stories. At the beginning, I usually provide one or two of these things, to give them practice. For example, I may give them a character in a setting, and they have to come up with the story. I’ll say, “A zombie in a dance class. Go!” Or I give them a character and they have to put it in an unusual setting. For example, I’ll say that they all have to put a giraffe somewhere. Maybe it’s taking the SATs, or working retail, or skiing. Or I give them a line of dialogue (a story) and they have to interpret it with their own characters and setting.
Once they have ideas for types of characters they like to draw, I introduce comic storytelling and have them generate motivations and possible storylines for their character. Coming up with a story is definitely the hardest part. Later, we can focus on drawing techniques, lettering, pacing, angles and shots, inking… but without a story, long or short, there’s no comic.
Photograph of Ali Solomon by Joseph Mainhart.