JB "Bud" Handelsman, Cartoonist for The New Yorker and More

July 27, 2007

     Imagine making your career choice as a young boy. Picture yourself creating humorous sketches, hilarious barbed gag lines and poking fun and insolence at politics and celebrities, injustice and unfairness, as your work. Hopefully, you enjoy it because you'll be doing it for the next 60-some years of your life. So it was for J. B. Handelsman, extraordinary cartoonist for The New Yorker, Punch, Playboy and other publications, until his death just last month at age 85. Judging by his fine work and superior reputation, it was the right career move for him.

     John Bernard "Bud" Handelsman was born in the Bronx district of New York City on February 5, 1922. Of Hungarian descent, his mother and his father were both teachers. He was one of those kids that loved to draw cartoons, "and was famous at family functions for producing likenesses of Popeye to order," noted Martin Plimmer of news.independent.co.uk.
Comic strips were the thing for him, he decided, so he honed his skills at the Art Students' League from 1938 to 1942.

     Spending a short time with the US Army Air Corps during World War Two, Handelsman left the service because of asthma. He took up electrical engineering for a year, studying at New York University. Apparently, engineering wasn't the right choice, and he returned to art. Finding work at ad agencies, he worked as a typographic designer and commercial artist. While involved in these other pursuits, Handelsman was cartooning on his own and sending out submissions to The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and Playboy.

    Handelsman's work was not cuddly and cute; he considered his cartoons as a type of journalism. He made sharp jabs at the political situations of the Ku Klux Klan, the War and Nazis. "I did a lot of angry things," he told an interviewer years ago. His work continued in that vein, not to be nasty but to make an intellectual, thoughtful point. "You can see the latest dumbness as just the end of a long line of dumbnesses that have been taking place for thousands of years."

handelsman 2

From the book written by John Cleese
and Robin Skynner, 1994 by Norton & Co.

     With his cartoons bringing in sufficient income, Handelsman became a full-time freelancer in 1960. But, he found his sense of humour was more appreciated in Great Britain and in 1963 moved his family across the Pond to the village of Leatherhead, south of London, England. The irreverent Punch Magazine became Handelsman's British home. For eleven years, he produced a comic strip entitled "Freaky Fables" in which he rewrote fables and lore, and created regular cartoon instalments and covers for the popular magazine. His art also displayed his skill in creating caricatures, and appeared in The Observer, The Statesman, Look, and other publications during that same period.

    Still living in England, Handelsman joined The New Yorker magazine in 1967, and from that post, his work illuminated readers for the next 40 years.

Over that time span, he drew nearly one thousand cartoons and many covers for the popular magazine. His body of work also included children's book illustration, Illustrations for "Families and How to Survive Them" and "Life and How to Survive It", both written by John Cleese and Robin Skynner, and The Mid-Atlantic Companion, by David Frost.

Handelsman also wrote scripts for plays, humour articles and produced an animated film for television. He and his wife returned to the United States in 1981.

Writing and cartooning must have been Bud Handelsman's calling - he was still creating and publishing the sharp humour that made him famous decades earlier, up until just a few months before he died. He passed away on June 20, 2007 in Southampton, New York. He was 85 years old.

Handelsman 1

Written by Jean Fritz, 1998by Putnam Juvenile

     Handelsman's focus was on intelligent writing more than on the art. His gag lines carried the weight of the cartoon, and the drawings were spare, flowing and elegant. One of my favourites of his cartoons depicts an audience enjoying the music of a tuxedoed string quartet. The line said, "It's dull now, but at the end they smash their instruments and set fire to the chairs." His work was such great fun. He was quoted once saying, "I think cartoons are very important. I think they are essential. I just don't think they are an art form." (Some, I'm sure would disagree on that point.) India Ink in a Hunt 107 nib, Dr. Martin's Watercolour on Bristol Board or watercolour paper were Handelsman's tools of choice for his wonderful comics.

     Using humour to poke, inspire, provoke thought and entertain was Bud Handelsman's strength. He will be missed by many dedicated cartoon readers. He is survived by his wife Gertrude, two sons, one daughter, several grandchildren and great grandchildren.

See a selection of his great comics here.
News Independent in the UK
Tom Spurgeon's Comics Reporter:

© Susanna McLeod 2007