Cartoon by George Booth, The New Yorker, 5 April 1976. 

George Booth was an American cartoonist and a longtime contributor (1969-2022) to The New Yorker magazine. His cartoons are often set in messy households, with all kinds of objects, junk, cats and dogs in every corner. His trademark English bull terrier character became a mascot for The New Yorker. Booth also made use of other recurring characters, such as the flamboyant Mrs. Ritterhouse and several other senior citizens. Booth's cartoons are memorable for their whimsical, subtle comedy, lengthy captions and occasional use of the comic strip format. In addition to magazine cartooning, Booth created the short-lived syndicated cartoon panels 'Spot' (1954-1955), about a dog with human thoughts, and 'Local Item' (1986-1987), about elderly people.


Cover for The New Yorker of 4 November 1985 and of 30 January 2012.

Early life and career
George Booth was born in 1926 in Cainsville, Missouri. His maternal great-great grandfather was Cherokee. Booth's parents were school teachers. His mother, Irma Booth, was also a painter and one-panel cartoonist, signing with the pseudonym "Swindle". The family had their own farm in Fairfax. Living through the Great Depression, the Booth family endured severe poverty. Their house only had three rooms, consisting of a living room, a kitchen and one bedroom where everybody - two parents and three boys - slept together. The disorganised rooms made a strong impact on Booth. In his later cartoons, he would revive this type of imagery countless times.

From an early age, George Booth showed a talent for drawing. Encouraged by his parents, he finetuned his skills. His mother frequently had her son participate with her "chalk talks", lectures where the audience was entertained with aid from chalk board drawings. One of his main inspirations was the spontaneous, instinctive drawing style of Pablo Picasso. Later in life, Booth also expressed admiration for the cartoonist Shel Silverstein and for comic strips like Scott Adams' 'Dilbert', Brian Crane's 'Pickles' and Patrick McDonnell's 'Mutts'. Booth was additionally influenced by classic Hollywood comedians like Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers and the British comedian Peter Sellers.

Originally, Booth worked as a printer's operator in a linotype store in Fairfax. His life changed in June 1944, when he was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps to serve his country during World War II. As he enlisted, he was asked what he hoped to do as a Marine. Booth answered in all innocence that he "wanted to draw cartoons". Much to his surprise, they actually wrote this reply down. Booth served in Hawaii, fighting against the Japanese near the Pacific Ocean. When the war ended in August 1945, he expected to be dismissed and be able to return home. Yet, remembering his original request, he was asked by telegram to work as a staff cartoonist for the army magazine Leatherneck. The only requirement was that he should reenlist. Booth accepted the offer. After all, the war was over and for now he was in no danger of being sent off to combat.


Drawing for the 'Parting Shot' column in America Legion Magazine.

In 1948, Booth moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he studied on the G.I. Bill at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He later also attended the Corcoran School in Washington and the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where Burne Hogarth was one of his teachers. During this period, Booth's most satisfying job was illustrating fashion catalogues. When the Korean War (1950-1953) broke out in December 1950, Booth indeed redrafted, but spent most of his military service drawing cartoons for Leatherneck again. In 1953, Booth left the U.S. Army for good and moved to Stony Brook, on Long Island, New York City, later settling in Brooklyn, where he'd spent the rest of his life. Through a fellow recruit, he got a job as freelance cartoonist for Railway Progress, a specialized magazine for train fans. Booth also managed to sell some of his cartoons to more mainstream magazines, including Collier's, Look and Saturday Evening Post. For the 'Parting Shot's column in American Legion Magazine, Booth drew cartoons in a silhouette style. Meanwhile he also picked up his art studies again, this time at Adelphi College and the School of Visual Arts, but finished neither.

Spot
Between 2 April 1956 and 9 February 1957, Booth made a newspaper gag-a-day panel, 'Spot', syndicated by United Features. The title character is a dog who thinks he's human. This delusion leads to many witty confusions and misunderstandings. Nevertheless, the feature was apparently not very popular with readers and cancelled after only a year.


'Spot' cartoons from 18 December 1956 and 4 January 1957 (Wilmington Daily Press Journal).

Bill Communications
From the late 1950s until the mid-1960s, Booth worked as an art director for Bill Communications Inc., a publisher of business magazines. He livened up the pages of various niche magazines, namely Fast Food, Floor Covering, Modern Tire Dealer, Rubber World and Sales Management. Booth not only provided cartoons, but also covers and interior editing. Although he worked for Bill Communications for seven years, the job didn't pay well enough. In 1965, he decided to quit and once again jumped into the deep to try and become a full-time freelance cartoonist.

The New Yorker
In the late 1960s, George Booth managed to get himself hired by The Saturday Evening Post, unfortunately only a few issues before the magazine ceased all publication in 1969. However, one of the editors showed his work to The New Yorker, the magazine Booth always dreamed of appearing in. They invited him over for a job interview. Much to their surprise, Booth was a middle-aged man. Based on his shaky drawing style and the elderly characters in his cartoons, they had assumed he was a senior cartoonist, possibly already with one foot in the grave. Thankful that he presumably still had a couple of years in him, he was hired. In 1969, The New Yorker ran its first George Booth cartoons. He remained a regular contributor to the magazine for more than half a century, still publishing new material up until his death in 2022.


Early cartoon for the Saturday Evening Post.

Style
Booth's early decades as a cartoonist were a long struggle. It was tough to find a well-paid job in a nationally syndicated publication with high circulation. At first, he merely imitated other cartoonists, until by the late 1960s he developed his own, more personal brand of drawing and comedy. Now standing out from the crowd, he was picked up by the Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker. For his cartoons, Booth took inspiration from his Missouri childhood and later, his more luxurious life in New York. He loved collecting tools, gadgets and other objects. Even non-functional or broken devices were of interest to him. The same messy households can be found in his drawings, which are often set in untidy kitchens, living rooms, farm houses, garages or sheds. Junk is scattered all over the floor. Typically, there is one light bulb on a cord on the ceiling, with the string attached to another electrical appliance. Within this utter clutter, there is often an elderly man, woman or couple. Dog or cats, usually several of them, are their companions.

In his cartoons, Booth often made use of recognizable recurring characters. The garage company in his drawings, for instance, is named Bohaty's. Their regular customer Leon is an elderly man who lives together with his equally befuddled wife, named "Youbetcha". Another old woman, Mrs. Ritterhouse, was based on Booth's mother. A feisty character full of energy, Mrs. Ritterhouse puts her very soul into everything she does, especially playing the violin. Her environment is less pleased with her energetic behavior, especially her long-suffering cat.


Cartoon by George Booth, The New Yorker, 1980s.

Cats and dogs are favorite background characters of Booth. He often portrays them following their instincts. Some are fighting, others are scratching or licking themselves. Often they just sit or lie about, not particularly interested in the human characters delivering their punch line. This very naturalistic behavior only adds to the amusing atmosphere. Booth and his wife owned several cats, which helped him observe their unintentionally funny actions. Several sources have erroneously claimed that Booth never owned a dog, despite often using these pets in his cartoons. In reality, he did adopt a stray dog during his military service on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He remembered that during V-Day, he once observed this dog running behind a mongoose until they both ran out of view. When they suddenly returned, the mongoose was now chasing his pet.

George Booth's cartoon dogs are equally comical. For a while, he simply drew a dog from memory in his cartoons, until a reader asked him whether this specific dog happened to be an English Bull Terrier. Unfamiliar with this breed, Booth looked it up in the local library. From that moment on, he started modifying his dog so that the animal bore a closer resemblance to real-life English Bull Terriers. The dog never received a name, but in one cartoon he was referred to as a "skittish dog". Booth's dog became somewhat of a mascot for The New Yorker, appearing on several covers.

Many of Booth's cartoons feature observational comedy. Interviewed on The New York Radio Hour in 2015, Booth felt that recreating what he saw in real life made people recognize and love his work: "They laugh at themselves." He therefore spent a lot of time on the background details and tried to capture specific facial expressions. William Shawn, chief editor of The New Yorker, felt that Booth's "rough drawings" had more appeal than his final, cleaned-up ones. Booth therefore tried to maintain this spontaneous look in his work. He often started out drawing on napkins, paper tablecloths, newspapers, envelopes or other scrap paper. Instead of throwing these preliminary sketches away, he cut the images out. Sticking them on a new piece of paper, Booth sprayed fixative on them to get thick lines. He deliberately didn't use glue, only Scotch tape. Drawing around these cut-and-paste images, Booth's cartoons were effectively collages. With aid of a copy machine, he duplicated his preferred images, so he could move his little scenes around to find the perfect composition. The end result were cartoons that looked as if it had simply rolled from his pen. The only downside was that, whenever he picked up his old cartoons for reprints or exhibitions, the pasted images would sometimes loosen and swirl to the ground.


George Booth cartoon with heavy caption, The New Yorker, 26 June 1978. 

Booth's cartoons also stood out for their subtle, often quirky humor. His characters find themselves in laughably chaotic surroundings, with dogs and cats galore. It's not clear how their rooms ever got so messy, but they don't particularly seem to care either. The imagery itself is often the real joke, not the more bewildering captions underneath, which Booth sometimes loved to stretch out to more than five sentences. His colleague Henry Martin once placed a bet which one of them could print the longest caption in the magazine. According to cartoonist Robert Leighton, Booth won the contest by simply using several sentences lifted directly from a letter Martin had sent him. Such inside jokes always amused Booth. Many of his close friends and relatives stated that he could often be seen or heard laughing at his own cartoons. This joy also radiates from the pages.

Despite his reputation for light-hearted observational comedy, Booth could also be more moving and poignant. Once he received the honor of being the only cartoonist featured in the pages of one specific issue of The New Yorker. On 11 September 2001, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing over 3,000 people. In the light of these tragic events, the editors of The New Yorker felt it would be inappropriate to run humorous cartoons in their upcoming issue. The cover of their 24 September issue did feature a drawing by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman, but it was a black silhouette of the Twin Towers, set to a black background. Nearly all other pages were reserved for serious articles, columns and photographs. Except for one cartoon, submitted by Booth. It depicted the otherwise happy and energetic Mrs. Ritterhouse sitting in sad prayer. Her fiddle lies on the floor. Even her cat mourns, holding its paws in front of its eyes.

Book compilations
George Booth's cat cartoons were compiled into the books 'Think Good Thoughts About a Pussycat' (1975) and 'Pussycats Need Love, Too' (1981). Selections of his dog-related cartoons can be found in 'About Dogs' (2009) and 'They Moved My Bowl' (2007), which also includes New Yorker cartoons about dogs by Charles Barsotti. More general compilations of Booth's work were 'Rehearsal's Off!' (1977), 'A Friend is Friendly' (1981), 'Omnibooth: The Best of George Booth' (1984), 'Booth Again' (1989) and 'The Essential George Booth' (1998), most published by Dodd, Mead & Company.


'Ip Gissa Gul' comic strip (The New Yorker, 20 January 1975).

Comics in The New Yorker
Some of George Booth's cartoons in The New Yorker are notable for using a comic strip format. One of the strangest was 'Ip Gissa Gul', printed on 20 January 1975. The two-page comic features a caveman trying to find a woman, until they become a couple and have children. Other cavemen observe them and misinterpret the children as "puppies" or "apes". Part of the comedy is that all the speech balloons of this two-page comic are filled with made-up words, resembling primitive Neanderthal talk. Originally, Booth wanted to make more comics about these jibberish talking cavemen, but editor William Shawn rejected the idea. In his opinion, 'Ip Gissa Gul' was an instant classic, which Booth would never be able to top, so drawing follow-up comics would only hurt its uniqueness.

Some comics by Booth are thematic one-panel cartoons grouped together. In 'Keeping Warm' (23 February 1975), for instance, he shows various wacky ways of how people can avoid feeling cold. Some include using cats as a blanket or putting chickens on your feet. Other thematic cartoon series, like 'Golden Years' (7 December 1986) and 'Retirement Benefits' (7 December 1986), offer a witty look on childhood anecdotes or the prospects of being able to retire. Several of Booth's cartoons about cats or dogs also make use of sequential illustrations. They typically feature these pets reacting to something they don't fully understand and behaving according to their animal instincts.


The New Yorker, 22 February 1993.

Local Item
In 1986, Booth launched another short-lived newspaper comic strip for the Universal Press Syndicate, 'Local Item' (1986-1987). The feature was based on his high school experience working at a local newspaper, and was presented as short news messages from a fictional newspaper, The Mercy Trumpet. The feature contained his familiar hallmarks: elderly people, dogs and chaotic surroundings. But the average newspaper reader found the series too eccentric, and 'Local Item' only ran little over a year.

Graphic contributions
In addition to magazine cartoons, George Booth also illustrated greeting cards and co-designed a 1993 animated TV commercial for Pacific Bell. In 1993, he designed the poster for the black comedy film 'Ed and his Dead Mother'. He was also active as a children's book illustrator, livening up the pages of Dr. Seuss' 'Wacky Wednesday' (1974), Nancy Van Laan's 'Possum Come A-Knockin' ' (1992), Jean Conder Soule's 'Never Tease a Weasel' (2011), Kate McMullan's 'School! Adventures at the Harvey N. Trouble Elementary School' (2012) and Sandra Boynton's 'Here, George!' (2018). In the latter case, it even marked the first time that Boynton didn't illustrate her own books, but instead asked Booth, of whom she was a great admirer, to draw the story. Booth also illustrated 'Dogs' (1976), a humor book written by Henry Morgan, and two books by comedian Bill Cosby, namely 'I Am What I Ate... And I'm Frightened!!!' (Harper Collins, 2003) and 'I Didn't Ask to Be Born: (But I'm Glad I Was)' (2011).


'Local Item' from the Arizona Daily Star of 23 November 1986.

Recognition
In 1993, George Booth won the Gag Cartoon Award, followed by the Milton Lifetime Achievement Award (2010), both handed out by the National Cartoonist Society. In 2003, Booth also received an honorary doctorate from the Stony Brook University. As a joke, he had sprinkled talcum powder on the pages of his written statements. Every time he turned the page, a cloud of dust rose, making it appear as if he was using dusty old documents. Between 24 October and 30 December 2017, Booth's cartoons were subject of the exhibition 'George Booth - A Cartoonist's Life', held at the Society of Illustrators. On 3 November 2022, a mere two days after his death, he was posthumously inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.

Final years and death
Shortly before his death, Booth was subject of a documentary, 'Drawing Life' (2021), sponsored through a Kickstarter campaign and directed by Nathan Fitch. In 2022, the cartoonist died from complications of dementia, at the age of 96. His wife Dione had passed away six days before him. After Edward Frascino, who survived him, George Booth was the second longest-running cartoonist in The New Yorker.

George Booth was a strong influence on Roz Chast, Clive Collins, Glynnis Fawkes, Peter Kuper, Maggie Larson, Jane Mattimoe, Andy Singer, Tom Toro and Eddie Ward.


Sequential cover for The New Yorker, 24 January 2022.

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