Sunday Mailbag

July 29th, 2007 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Does anyone ever get angry or offended by a live caricature you’ve done? And if so, how do you handle it? You seem like such a diplomatic and eloquent guy on your blog, but maybe that is the result of thoughtful editing. Tell us some stories!

A: These days I have little problem with people getting angry over their caricatures when I draw live because after 22 years I am pretty good at reading a person’s tolerance for caricature and exaggerate only when I think they can handle it. I always err on the side of caution if I am unsure, and frankly my style of caricature isn’t the mean-guy type of exaggeration anyway. If I get rejects these days it is mostly because someone doesn’t think it looks like them… sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong. They get a refund either way. Now that I’m “The Boss” I set an example by being extremely accommodating to customers who did not like their caricatures… it’s just part of being in business.

Back when I was a young punk I had more of an attitude about caricature. The company I worked for fostered a “the customer’s are morons and don’t know what is good art” mentality among it’s artists, which was kind of a carte blanche to rip people new ones and then dismiss their reactions as “not understanding caricature”. Not good business and not good customer relations, but we were all young and full of ourselves. Back then I would wildly exaggerate people and did get some angry customers. The rule was that they did not have to pay for it, so if you wanted to play those games you had to accept that you would get some rejects now and again. You were supposed to handle them with some professionalism, but that did not always happen, as evidenced by the following story:

I was drawing during spring break one day at Six Flags Atlanta in 1990 or ’91… can’t remember which year, when a large group of frat boys came up to the booth. They were all fat guys from some area school who were joking about how it sucked they were at Six Flags for spring break when they should be at some tropical beach. So, I drew the first guy with his fat head on a buff body, with beach babes drooling over him. They loved that and each successive drawing got a little crazier with exaggerated faces and buffer bodies, etc. They were really yucking it up over these, until the last guy sat down. Unlike the rest of them, he actually was a pretty buff guy… the good looking jock of the group. He didn’t want to get drawn but the other guys razzed him until the did. I gave him the same treatment, although I was tempted to draw him with the fat gut the rest of his group had rather than a six pack. I refrained, and I actually did not exaggerate him as much as I could have. I showed him the drawing and he just threw it back at me saying it sucked and walked off without paying. His buddies started railing on him but he just kept walking. They apologized to me but I just said not to worry about it. They all left for other parts of the park.

Unfortunately, after that we had a long lull in business. You know what they say about idle hands and the devil…. well I made some alterations to that rejected drawing. I put Mr. Vanity in a girl’s bikini, added makeup and long eyelashes and changed the girls oogling him into flamboyantly gay guys. Then I replaced one of the samples on the wall with this revised drawing. Later a couple of the frat guys came by and stopped to again apologize when they spotted my new “sample”. Their eyes got really big for a second before they started laughing, screaming and pointing. I thought one guy was going to pass out because he couldn’t catch his breath. They went to find their buddies and eventually they all were behind me laughing their asses off at the drawing. The good looking guy turned a shade of purple and started threatening me, trying to get into the booth and tear down the drawing. I just calmly sat in my chair and smiled at him as his friends, who all went well into the mid two hundred pound range, held him back and mercilessly chastised him for being a vain jerk. He started walking off promising to meet me in the parking lot later. I winked at him and blew him a kiss, which earned me another effort on his part to get at me. His buddies stopped him cold and dragged him off. I never saw him again.

The best part is those guys all pitched in and bought that revised caricature of the jerk, and took it back to school with them. If there is any justice in the world for self centered, vain pretty boys, that guy had to live that drawing down for the rest of his college days and was tortured about his lack of a sense of humor for years afterward. One can only hope.

Thanks to Paul Yamagata-Madlon 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. Eddie says:

    Ah, those were the days. I think I drew 3 people that summer.

    Don’t hash my expit!

  2. quikdraw4 says:

    Great story. I remember when I was starting out in the business and had to work as a tuxedo salesman to help pay bills. No one knew I could draw.
    One of my coworkers Steve at the shop was constantly busting my chops.
    I got even. I went to my studio and drew this guys caricature much like in the fashion Tom did. The guy was depicted as a drunken drag queen with other adult insulting references.
    I got to work early and ran off 75 copies of the drawing on the Xerox machine then hid them all over the shop where people would come accross them. I had to deliver tuxedos to the other 5 stores that morning and repeated what I did earlier at those shops.
    I got back and Steve held the drawing fuming while the other coworkers and my boss were laughing hysterically. “Great Steve you found one-welcome to your Easter Egg hunt you’ve got 74 more to find in this store good luck!”
    Other stores called in laughing over the drawings and months later they were finding these hidden ball busting drawings so I got lots of mileage out of it.
    No one ever punked with me after the Caricature Hunt payback.

  3. JWB1 says:

    Ah yes I remember that incident (in 1990 I believe) . Those Atlanta folks certainly were tough to please sometimes.
    As can be the folks of St. Louis. Had a return yesterday. After I’d sealed it in a drawing protector! I’ve mellowed out on it, too. What still irks me a bit is when they say, “It doesn’t look a thing like me”. C’mon with all the features (nose, eyes, mouth, head shape, etc.) I know I’ll at least hit a couple of them. I suppose if they said, “I don’t care for it” I wouldn’t get as miffed. Guess it’s like when you hear a recording of your own voice for the first time. Usual first responce, “That’s not me!”. I guess a lot of people have a pre-conceived image (and sound) of themsevlves in their heads.

  4. pmcmicheal says:

    WOW…I was going to ask that VERY same question! Tom, I learned early on, that doing caricatures of girls is EXTREMELY dangerous, a great lesson on the fragile female vanity!!!
    My instinct was always to make them CUTE in some way…but let’s face it…not ALL girls are adorable……If you make them TOO cute, then you are steering too far from their likeness…If you actually pin-point their smallest “imperfections”, they BLAST OFF!!!!! If you drew them TOO HOT, you might offend them…or…flatter them!!!
    TOM, Could you please find time to go into this subject further??? How do YOU handle those little flaws that are critical to their likeness? How do you handle things like BOOBS and larger figures? I wonder what all your professional years have taught you on THESE (sensitive female) matters? – Patrick

  5. Tom says:

    Patrick- Teenage girls might be the worst at accepting their caricatures. No matter what you do they hate it because they have to put on a big act about hating how they look. I approach women in general with softer lines, less angles and the suggestion of features where ever I can get away with it. The less lines the better. Think 40’s glamor shots where the lighting and soft focus literally washes out the nose and most of the features, leaving the eyes and lips as the focal point of the face.

    Comments above are by Eddie Pittman and Jim Batts, who were both caricaturists at Six Flags Atlanta while I was there and are veterans of the caricature trenches. Rejects are part of the game, no matter how cautious you are or how well you draw, as both these guys can attest.


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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