Illustrator Profile - Drew Friedman: "Stick to your guns if you believe in your talent"

By Robert Newman   Friday December 2, 2016

Drew Friedman is an illustrator and book author based in rural Eastern Pennsylvania who specializes in caricatures. His illustrations have appeared in countless publications, from the cover of The New Yorker to a regular gig on the front page of the New York Observer. Friedman has created a brilliant series of books; his most recent—just published—is More Heroes of the Comics, an essential collection of portraits of legendary (and not-so-legendary) comic book creators from the 50s-70s. (A special shout out to Jesse Marinoff Reyes, who designed the striking book cover.) Friedman is also the subject of a planned documentary, Vermeer of the Borscht Belt, a tribute to his illustrated affinity for “forgotten Hollywood stars, old Jewish comedians and liver-spotted elevator operators.” A Kickstarter campaign is currently raising funds to finance the documentary; interested supporters can contribute here.  

I was born in 1958, I lived on Long Island as a boy, then Manhattan, and for the last 25 years, in rural Pennsylvania. I’ve always drawn, starting when I was small. I didn’t chose it; it chose me. My dad is an author. I have two brothers: my older brother Josh is a writer/musician, and younger brother Kipp is a writer/photographer. I’m married to Kathy Bidus, who is a frequent collaborator on concepts, ideas and scripts. No children, but we’ve raised champion beagles and now we have one rescue dog, a deaf beagle named Darla.

My dad, Bruce Jay Friedman, is a novelist/playwright/screenwriter, so I grew up with a literary and show business-oriented background. He also worked at a company called “Magazine Management” as a magazine editor of men’s adventure magazines in the 50s and 60s. It was the company that also owned Marvel Comics, so I occasionally got to meet the artists and Marvel’s editor Stan Lee, and hang around the Marvel offices when I was young, absorbing life at a comic book company. That pretty much helped to set my course.

I was the cartoon/comics editor at the National Lampoon in 1990-91 (during their unfunny years). Aside from that, I’ve worked pretty much exclusively freelance since graduating from SVA in 1981.

I was a cartoon major at SVA (in my graduating class, there was just one other cartoon major). I chose SVA simply because I saw in their catalog that Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman was an instructor, as well as Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman. All of them became my teachers.

I work in my home studio, which is in the lower level of our house. It’s basically the entire floor of the lower level. My desk is surrounded by my book collections, vintage toys, and my own art prints, but also included as a major part of the studio is what I call my “Jewseum,” which is my massive collection, acquired over the last 50 years, of Jewish comedian ephemera, posters, books, magazines, comic books, records, ads, toys, shoe laces, frisbees, etc. A portion of the collection was on display at the Society of Illustrators in 2014, as part of my “Old Jewish Comedians” art show, and earlier this year at the Center for Jewish Studies, also in NYC.


After first imagining the image in my head, I begin with a light pencil sketch where I'll make any adjustments using the reference photos I have to work from, then take it to a tighter pencil sketch, then finally paint directly on that, using various watercolor brushes and brands of watercolor, including Dr. Martins, Higgins, FW, a mix. The only illustration paper I work on is Strathmore Bristol, 500 series. I don’t do any work on the computer, aside from last minute cleaning up that my wife handles, just before it’s scanned and sent out.

I’m not sure there was one big break but a few things stand out for me:

Robert Crumb sending me a wonderful postcard of encouragement when I was 22 after I only had a few things published. He told me he had been following my work and I was “one of the best guys to come along lately.” After that he began running my work in his comics magazine Weirdo, and we kept up a correspondence. That was an incredible boost to my confidence as an artist.

1n 1985, the brand new Spy magazine hired me to create a regular illustration, “Private Lives of Public Figures.” Spy went on to be one of the most popular and influential magazines of the 80s, so my work got a good deal of attention through it being seen in there monthly.

The New York Times Magazine hired me to create several full-page illustrations in the early 90s, opening up the floodgates for other popular magazines to use my work.


Many, but the main ones at an early age were the Mad contributors, the usual gang of idiots. I adored the work of Mort Drucker, Al Jaffee, Sergio Aragones, Don Martin, Bob Clarke, Jack Rickard, and all the rest. Later I discovered the earlier comic book version of Mad with brilliant work by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Wally Wood, Jack Davis and Basil Wolverton, all of them my cartooning heroes. I loved Topps bubblegum cards from the 60s, mainly Ugly Stickers and Wacky Packs. I was obsessed with those and collected them all. The original Lampoon and all their artists were very influential, like Bobby London, MK Brown and Rick Meyerwitz.

I also loved and stared at the work of various caricaturists, some famous (Al Hirschfeld, David Levine, Ed Sorel, Robert Grossman), and some now forgotten, like Sam Berman, Bill Utterback, George Wachsteter, Louis Hirshman, Alan Jedla and others. Stephen Kroninger and I have lately championed the work of some of those forgotten artists, wonderful caricaturists who at one time were popular and in-demand, but who either due to bad luck or changing tastes are now all but forgotten, We’ve presented two visual talks entitled: “Forgotten Caricaturists Remembered” at the Society of Illustrators and the SVA theatre. We’re hopeful this might lead to a book.

Also many of The New Yorker cartoonists, including Peter Arno, Charles Saxon, Chas Addams, and Roz Chast. And the underground cartoonists had a strong influence on the type of work and comics I chose to do: Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, Jay Lynch, Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman.

I have several important cultural heroes, including my dad. Some I’ve been fortunate to meet over the years, including Groucho Marx, Jerry Lewis, Harvey Kurtzman, Mort Drucker and Howard Stern, but the cartoonist Robert Crumb has had the most profound effect on my work and outlook on art. I detailed his influence on me and our eventual friendship in a comic strip called “R. Crumb & Me.” It’s included in the newly released book Best American Comics of 2016, edited by Roz Chast.


It depends. Sometimes reading a biography will trigger some inspiration, like the wonderful recent Peter Arno book by Michael Maslin. After reading that I really wanted to draw Arno (I haven’t, yet). Or, seeing a film with a particular actor who I might then want to capture on paper. Or meeting with someone with a potentially interesting face to draw. After I met and appeared on the Marc Maron podcast two years ago, I returned home and was inspired enough by the whole experience to create an illustration of him in his home/studio environment, which I had just absorbed. He bought the original.

Also, what might be in the news at the moment. Recently I was really dying to draw Donald Trump in all his vile orange-ness. In fact, I submitted a few cover concepts to The New Yorker, something I rarely do. Of course, with an assignment you don’t always enjoy the luxury of inspiration. Tight deadlines give you little time to get inspired; the finished art appearing in print is the reward.

Years ago it could be a little nerve-racking if the phone wasn’t ringing with work as much as I’d like, but now I basically decide what I want to create. I make my own hours and for the most part decide what I want to work on. The solitude isn’t a problem because my MacBook is right by me at the desk, so I’m never really alone for too long—I’m always connected with my fellow travelers, that is, if I wanna be.

Drawing comedian Lewis Black for Andrew Horton at The Village Voice. When an art director trusts you enough with the assignment to say “no sketch necessary,” I can’t ask for more. The only direction Andrew gave me was to say “make him as apoplectic as possible”—that was it.

More Heroes of the Comics
is the sequel to Heroes of the Comics. I’ve always been interested in the creators who worked behind the scenes in creating comic books— the artists, writers, editors, letterers, publishers. There were hundreds, if not thousands of men and women who worked in that business during the early years of comic books, beginning in the mid-30s, when there was suddenly a huge demand for new talent. The business exploded in 1939 with the creation of Superman, and publishers were scrambling to cash in with similar characters. For both books I’m focusing on the “pioneers,” people who entered the business between the mid-30s to the mid-50s, which is when the Senate investigations equating horror and crime comics to juvenile delinquency put EC comics and others out of business. The “Comics Code” was installed and mainstream comic books became for the most part sanitized. I lose interest in mainstream comics at that point, with a few exceptions.

Everyone knows the iconic characters, but not much is known about the actual creators, or what they even looked like. I painted full color portraits of these creators, with short biographies. Kevin Dougherty was my research assistant. When I finished the first book I kept hearing from more and more people wondering why I had left out this one or that one, or their particular favorites. I was limited to 85 portraits for the first book, but the list kept growing until I realized I had enough substantial names to create a sequel. The new book also features many far more obscure creators; some I was unaware of myself when I began working on the book.

Drawing Shemp Howard for the cover of The New Yorker.

I’ve worked with many great ones. Andrew Horton, currently at The Voice is terrific. Over the years he’s gone out of his way to assign me illustrations that he knows would be right up my alley, including schlocky show biz types like Eddie Fisher, Donny Osmond and Tom Jones.


I’m a little leery about making these kinds of lists because I’m always afraid of leaving someone out, and feelings might get hurt. There are so many terrific artists with different styles and amazing talent, but off the top of my head… I always try to check out the latest work by Barry Blitt, Joe Ciardiello, John Cuneo, Steve Brodner, Philip Burke, Tim O’Brien, Ward Sutton, Stephen Kroninger, Philip Burke, Victor Juhasz, Lou Brooks, Rob Sussman, Rick Geary, Anita Kunz, Robert Risko, Brian Ajhar, John Kascht, David Cowles, and cartoonists and comic artists including Ben Katchor, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Mimi Pond, Renee French, the Hernandez Brothers, Mark Newgarden, Kaz... the list goes on. I admire artists whose work doesn’t remain stagnant, whose stuff is always evolving, changing, improving—like the above artists I mentioned.

I mainly try to work almost exclusively these days on my own book projects, featuring subjects I’m passionate about, rather than taking on too many assignments for the money, unless the subject matter is special to me, like creating the cover art to the recent Shout Factory DVD sets of Ernie Kovacs and the Marx Brothers, or the Lewis Black caricature for The Voice, or my recent cover of R. Crumb for the NY Observer, or the cover art to the new issue of the American Bystander, a great new print-only humor magazine.

In the last decade, I’ve created the following books:

Old Jewish Comedians, More Old Jewish Comedians, and Even More Old Jewish Comedians.

Portraits of vintage sideshow performers for my book Drew Friedman’s Sideshow Freaks.

Heroes of the Comics, and my latest book More Heroes of the Comics.

At this point most art directors or editors pretty much know what I do well and will seek me out if they think I’m right for a specific assignment.. But I’m not always in agreement. Again, I’ve been trying to concentrate on my own, more personal projects the last few years, which also includes getting back to creating comics, something I started my career doing with my brother Josh, but have not done as much in recent years. I’m working on a new, three-page comic strip about the late comedic-actor Lou Jacobi at the moment.

As far as reinventing myself, I actually did that a few decades back when I was known for drawing in a B&W “stipple” style. I finally grew bored and frustrated with that. I honestly felt I couldn’t take it any further, and slowly phased it out over the course of a year, so art directors would barely notice. At the same time I began working exclusively with a brush rather than a pen, and I also was determined to become proficient with color.

I’ve always felt the best way to promote yourself is to get your latest work out there in print to be seen, but of course that’s a bit of a Catch 22. Sharing my work on Facebook or my blog usually does the trick (for me) these days.

I’ll just relate how I felt when I attended SVA back in the early 80s. If you believe in your talent, despite indifferent teachers, the odds, the competition, the rejections, the BS, etc.—all of which I went through at various times starting out—that’s the main thing. I got flack from certain teachers and some art directors about the stipple style I began using around that time, “It lacks sophistication”…but my attitude was always “you’re only encouraging me, baby.” So, unlike Woody Allen, I’m not suggesting “Never listen to your teachers”—just file away the valuable advice you get and stick to your guns if you believe in your talent.

See more Drew Friedman illustrations, new work and updates:
Drew Friedman website
Drew Friedman books at Fantagraphics