Sunday Mailbag

March 14th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: When you draw crowd scenes, are all of the people who make up the people in the crowd faces you doodle out of your imagination, or do you often fit in friends/family/random people you see on the street?

A: I often talk here about how much I’ve learned working for the folks at MAD, and especially from MAD art director Sam Viviano. I can’t even begin to list all of the important things he’s taught me over the years in art directing what I turn in for the magazine. However one particular bit of wisdom he imparted on me early on when I was trying to break into MAD sticks with me as one of the most impactful things I’ve ever learned. Sam was making observations about my early work, and he noticed that there was a big difference between the real people I was drawing caricatures of and the people that were just background or secondary characters. He pointed out how easy it was to tell the difference in the drawings, and how cartoony and odd the “other” people looked compared to the caricatures of real people. He said I should strive to make my secondary characters look as detailed and full of life as the caricatured people look.

There was only one way I knew to do that… use real people as the basis of all those secondary characters.

So, I started throwing my family and friends into my MAD parodies as background or supporting characters. Here are a few examples:

The four kids behind Harry and Neville are my kids circa 2001.

The couples above in the yellow and red shirts from the parody of “Trading
Spaces” are my neighbors.

The guy on the right is my friend, Illustrator James Hungaski, who I drew
as the straight guy in the parody of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”

The two guys oogling Mischa Barton are Joe and Luke McGarry, the sons of my
friend Steve McGarry, a terrific cartoonist and former NCS president. The parody
is of “The O.C”, and the McGarry’s live in Orange County.

The pointing cop here is my brother-in-law Joe Voss.

There are a LOT more examples of my putting in people I know for fun… too many to list here.

When I don’t want to take the time to get reference and draw a specific someone I will draw “generic” people but I still usually base them loosely on some reference of some kind. In my studio I have a dozen or so catalogs full of stock photos and model head shots. I will often page through those just to get a type and look of someone specific to use as a basis for a character. Things like head shapes, hairstyles and other specific features are easy to end up drawing too similarly unless you can get some specific and different samples in your head. I don’t draw caricatures per se of these people, in fact I will use bits of one and bits from another, and almost always draw them in a totally different pose and with a different expression than the typical smiling head shot gives me. It’s the individuality of the person I am trying to glean from the reference.

The end result (hopefully) is that all the characters I draw have a similar feel of completeness and individuality about them.

Thanks to Ed Placencia for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar,¬¨‚Će-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. JWB says:

    Many (indeed many) years ago my high school art teacher said, “Jim, you should be in Mad magazine!”.I replied,”Yeah, it would be great to draw for them!”. He fired back, “Not as an artist, as a character…like a Don Martin cartoon guy!’. Well I didn’t become a cousin of Captain Klutz, but I was very honored to be in the big splash double page spread for the first “Spider-Sham” piece(Mad #418). That’s me on the far left side holding a Marvel comic book(of course), pointing up, and saying,”Why is that jerk climbing the outside of that skyscraper?’. It’s reprinted on page 300 of Mark Evanier’s Mad Art. Thanks again, Tom!

  2. jonas says:

    Hi, tom! i have trouble contact u by this site therefore could u tell me ur e-mail so that i can contact u directly?

    • Tom says:

      Just click the mailbox icon at the top of this page for an email link.

      • jonas says:

        well i know that this must be annoying but i couldn’t find the mail box icon that u said all i could find is contact us is that the one?

  3. Mike Wade says:

    Tom, once again you have gone “above and beyond” in answering a simple question from one of your readers! (I have had the same question.) Most people would have said, “Yes.” or “a little of both”, but you have educated us with your answer. Thank you very much!!!


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

Workshops Ad

Dracula ad

Doctor Who Ad

Superman Ad

%d bloggers like this: