Sunday Mailbag

December 10th, 2006 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I was wondering how do you design your background characters? I’ve noticed that you occasionally use real people as secondary characters in your illustrations. Is there a reason?

A: I’ve learned a lot from MAD art director Sam Viviano in the 6 years I’ve been regularly working with MAD, but if I had to pick one thing he told me that helped me the most, it would be the advice that provides the answer to that question.

Sam told me that great cartoonists create a coherent, believable world with their art. It’s the world seen through their eyes, and in it all objects, people and environments fit neatly into that world. In other words, a chair drawn by Paul Coker Jr. looks like a Paul Coker Jr. drawing, just like the cars or paper boys or chocolate bars or lampposts all look like Paul Coker Jr. drawings. They look like they all belong in the same world. Call it “style” if you want, but it’s really drawing things as you see them. They naturally take on the artist’s view of the world.

Sam noticed that when I drew caricatures of actual people, there was a certain look to them that was missing when I drew someone out of my head. Something was more specific about their features, whereas the people out of my head had a generic, cartoon feel to them. He advised me to make the people in the backgrounds look like they were ‘real people’ also, otherwise there was too much of a difference and it was distracting. My “world” wasn’t coherent. The only way I knew how to do that was draw caricatures of actual people as my background characters.

I often use people I know just for fun, if they fit the need of the character. Other times I grab one of several head shot model books I have in my studio looking for “types”. These are all promo model shots, but they are grouped by sex and age, and vary by race. They also are not all beautiful people by far… many of them are normal looking and some are even funny looking. I don’t draw caricatures from the photos as much as I take details like hair, features and such from a picture and use it on the secondary character I need to draw. I’ll draw profiles or people yelling or crying or whatever I need to do, but plug in the details from the picture. I find this adds that level of cohesiveness Sam was talking about.

Thanks to Piotr Walczuk for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. pokedachef says:

    Thanks for responding, I finally registered here. And please check out a project some of the NCN members are joining in on:

    Always an inspiration Tom!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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