The Playful Art of Arnold Roth

A Cartoonist Who Takes His Good Times With Him

For over forty years Arnold Roth's often bizarre, always hilarious cartoons have seemingly popped up in just about every magazine worth mentioning. As an dyed-in-the-wool Harvey Kurtzman fan, I first became acquainted with Roth's work through Kurtzman's short-lived (but funny!) Humbug magazine. Fortunately for Arnold Roth's career, the cartoonist didn't have to rely on just satire comics to make living: his work has been published in Punch, Playboy, National Lampoon, TV Guide, Esquire, Help!, Sports Illustrated and Smithsonian Magazine, to name just a few. Of all the cartoonists associated with the Kurtzman circle, only Jack Davis has come close to being as prolific.

Arnold Roth was born (at a very young age!) in Philadelphia on February 25, 1929. He was drawing what his parents called "monkeys" at the age of two, and as he grew older he was encouraged to continue his interest in drawing. When he was eight years old he won a graphics art prize and began attending the Graphic Sketch Club that same year, as well as WPA classes at a local art museum. He also won a Professional Art Prize in his senior year at high school.

With all that attention on art education, it's somewhat surprising that Roth was expelled from art school in 1948 (for tardiness --Roth spent many a night playing sax in a jazz band). Afterwards, the 19 year old went into business with two other men, packaging a TV proposal called Matt ("an animated adventure very much like Clutch Cargo, except we didn't have the moveable mouths."). The venture was short-lived, interrupted when Roth contracted tuberculosis, forcing him to go into a sanitarium.

After recovering, Roth freelanced around at nickel and dime jobs, even painting lampshade designs to get by. One of his early influences was Mad comics, which he learned about when a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Paul Desmond, showed him a copy. His first big break as a cartoonist came with an assignment from Holiday magazine, followed by work for TV Guide, the most widely read magazine in the United States and a publication which continues to use Roth's work up until the present day, a working association of 50 years.

Five years after Roth had discovered Mad, he was working with Kurtzman on the ill-fated Trump magazine, a gorgeous, lavishly illustrated magazine fronted by Hugh Hefner. Roth was only to appear in the second issue (March 1957), with "Great Russian Inventions we Invented First," and "Movie Scenes You Must Have Seen" before Hefner was forced to fold the magazine when his bank called in a loan.

Roth and Kurtzman had a longer run with the more modestly produced Humbug magazine, where Roth did the bulk of his work (including a marvelous satire of Dickens' A Christmas Carol). First published in August 1957, Humbug lasted 11 issues, and, like Trump, is a collectible that commands healthy prices (from $13 to $180 as valued in the 1999 Overstreet Price Guide). It had been rumored that Kitchen Sink Press was planning to reprint Humbug but with the lamentable demise of that company we can only hope that someone else will take up the project (hint, hint).

Roth, not so coincidentally, had helped finance Humbug with money borrowed from the Brubeck band and their record company. Luckily, he was able to pay back to loan within a year thanks to his comic strip Poor Arnold's Almanac, which had a first syndicated run from 1959 to '61. (A collection of the strip was published as a 112 page volume, complete with an introduction by John Updike, in 1998 by Fantagraphics Books.)  Deciding on a one year stay in England, due to interest in English artists, Roth was also able to pick up work at that country's oldest humor magazine, Punch (est. 1841) at about the time when Poor Arnold was canceled.

Later the cartoonist was able to enjoy a three-year run with National Lampoon (which seemed to end around the time he did a spoof of the editors), followed by the first of many Playboy assignments, "A History of Sex." Poor Arnold's Almanacresurfaced at the Creator's Syndicate and ran from September 1988 to January 1990.

During the course of his career Roth has written and drawn a number of children's books, illustrated book jackets, revived Esquire's "Mr. Esky," appeared on the The Tonight Show, and even finds time to play the saxophone. In 1984 he received the Reuben Award, has been President of the National Cartoonists Society (1984-86), won the NCS' Silver T-Square Award in 1995, worked in the animation field, and fathered and raised two musician sons. The secret of his success? "I don't feel a drawing is good because of me. The pleasure is in the doing -- to really get into it and see how it goes. That's the fun of it. Playing, I call it."

--Steve Stiles