The Passing of a Giant: Roy Doty, 1922-2015

Roy Doty’s line is immaculate, naked and unadorned and therefore vulnerable. With a more complex line—one that waxes and wanes with great flexibility, say—little mistakes in the drawing are overlooked, ignored amid the flash and filagree of virtuoso linear flourishes. But with a “clear line,” there’s no room for mistakes. A clean, uncluttered line is unforgiving: every tiny flaw in composition or anatomy leaps out, shrieking for attention. But the pictures Roy Doty drew are silent and well-behaved. No shrieks. Just sheer unadulterated competence.

Doty, too, was unadulterated. But not silent. In declining health since suffering a stroke late last year, he died March 18, defiant, I like to think, to the very end.

He was 93. He always scoffed at the idea of retirement. “Retire from what?” he’d say. “You have to have a job first.”

He was a proud freelancer and had been all his working life. “I have an unblemished work record,” he’d say. “I have never held a job in my life, and I intend to keep it that way.” He was a cartoonist, artist and illustrator, creating humorous pictures in books and magazines, packaging, advertising, comic strips and television.

The bare facts of his life can be sketched in a few sentences. Born in Chicago, September 10, 1922, Doty grew up in Columbus, Ohio. He graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD) in 1942, served in World War II as a cartoonist, and, upon discharge in 1946, began his freelance career in New York—selling as well as drawing: he never had an agent. He persisted and prevailed for the next 69 years.

That’s the short of it. The mid-length of it is a little more festooned.

In 1953, from May 10 to October 4, he hosted the Sunday morning DuMont network television children’s program, The Roy Doty Show. He wrote and drew the syndicated strip Laugh-In, based upon Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In tv show.

Doty’s longest gig was his Wordless Workshop, a full-page comic strip guide to do-it-yourself home improvement that ran for fifty years, starting in Popular Science in 1954 then finishing in Family Handyman magazine. His work appeared in The New York Times, Field & Stream, the London Daily Mail, Newsweek, Fortune, Business Week, Elle and most other major magazines and many, many minors. A list of his ad clients reads like a “Who’s Who of American Business”— Buick, Black & Decker, Ford, Macy’s, Minute Maid, Mobil Oil, Texas Instruments, Ovaltine, Coca-Cola, Perrier and others, many others.

He illustrated more than 170 children’s books and wrote 27. A continuing (not to say persistent) presence in the National Cartoonists Society, he won its advertising and illustration awards ten times and is one of only a dozen inductees in the NCS Hall of Fame.

For greater length, we lace the ensuing chronology with Doty’s quips and comments, ample purfle (see below) yielding insights into his life and career.

The long slog began right after high school. Doty (rhymes with “jokey”) went to art school (CCAD) on a two-year scholarship.

“When I was in high school, I drew like every budding cartoonist,” he said in a 2011 interview in Image magazine in Columbus. “Fortunately, I had a good art teacher in high school who thought I was a genius painter, so she sent my paintings to what is now CCAD, and they awarded me a two-year full scholarship, which meant a lot then. After all, this was the Great Depression. But I had the same problem at CCAD that I had when I was in high school: they all wanted me to be a great painter—because back then there was only a fine arts major—but all I ever wanted to do was draw cartoons. I drove them crazy because I was so sure of what I wanted to be.”

He graduated in 1942, just a few months after Pearl Harbor, “and two days later I ran off with a classmate, Louella Vance, to Chicago to get married. By the end of the year, though, I had been drafted into the Army.”

The Army spent months training him for various assignments in the Signal Corps. Among other things, he was denominated a radar man, “part of a top secret division.” And then, as he told Frank Pauer in the March-April 2011 issue of NCS’s Cartoonist newsletter, he was re-assigned. While waiting for radar to be contrived, he had produced a comic strip, Corporal Qwerty, for the base newspaper at Robbins Field, Georgia. His effort evidently attracted the attention of Higher-Ups, who promptly transferred him into a more convivial billet: he was spirited away from Georgia to New York, then to England, then to Paris, where he found himself in the office of Stars and Stripes, Yank, Overseas Woman and Army Talks.

“My rank,” Doty noted, “had been changed from radar expert to army cartoonist.”

He was in Paris long enough, he said to Pauer, “to see the British and French cartoonists, whose work I had never seen. With their thin line, that was my milieu right from the start. That’s the way I’m going to go, I thought. I threw away my brushes and found Gillott pens.” Doty drew for Stars and Stripes “when they wanted something odd and decorative and funny. I did Overseas Woman [because] I was the only one who could draw women who had little feet and little noses, instead of [bigfoot women].”

For the London Daily Mail, Doty drew a weekly cartoon called A Yank in Paris and met a woman editor who knew a woman who was starting a new magazine in Paris and introduced him. “I did all the illustrations for the first issue of Elle,” he told Pauer with a chuckle.

Once exposed to European cartoonists, “who were doing totally different things than I’d ever seen,” Doty found his metier doing humorous illustration. “Didn’t do a comic strip or gag cartoons. There was something [that absorbed his interest] about a page full of what I do now. Purfle—that lovely, decorative inlaid border on a guitar. Purfle. I do decorations, humorous purfle. ... Clean, simple line without a caption. Ever. Without a word balloon. Ever.” (Well, not quite: word balloons often invaded his Laugh-In, as we’ll see anon.)

When the war was over, Image reported, Doty was discharged with “a nice portfolio and $350 in pay.” Doty went to New York, he explained to Pauer, because “all the publishing was there.” At first, no one understood his approach—only Europeans. But Europeans weren’t in New York.

Doty made the rounds, visiting eight to ten art editors a day. After seven weeks, he was about to run out of money when he started getting phone calls and assignments. The New York Times Magazine, CBS, Seventeen magazine.

Doty never looked back. “It never stopped. I got busier,” he went on with Pauer. “The fifties were a great time to be in New York. In the fifties, I was working for everyone, plus turning out books galore ... and for three years doing one of the early kids tv shows daily on Dumont, making 40 half-hour movies.” In those movies, Doty told stories and illustrated them at the same time, drawing in chalk on a blackboard.

Living in Stamford, Connecticut, Doty took the 9 a.m. train into the city every day, “ran like a frightened deer all over New York, picking up, delivering.” Then he returned home and worked on new assignments until midnight or 2 a.m.; then back to New York the next morning.

“I never shared a studio with anyone, never have,” he told Pauer. “Always worked at home. Still do. It’s a great place to work but it costs you a lot of wives.” (He’s been married and divorced four times.)

The National Cartoonists Society formed the year Doty commenced his career, but despite being put up for membership by a couple distinguished Connecticut neighbors, Alex Raymond and Ernie Bushmiller, he wasn’t accepted at first. The NCS ensemble saw him as an illustrator. So Doty applied to the Society of Illustrators, who turned him down because they saw him as a cartoonist. “So I said a pox on both your houses,” Doty said.

But in the mid-1960s, ironically, he was asked to make a presentation at an NCS meeting and was forthwith inducted into membership by acclamation. The Society of Illustrators then asked him to join.

“I told them to go to___,” he said to Pauer, inserting a profanity in the blank. “I always thought of myself as a cartoonist.”

After arriving at NCS, he won the NCS Advertising and Illustration division awards nine times, and the Greeting Card award once.

Despite the honors from his colleagues, said Doty in Image, “The truth is, I’m still trying to be good. No piece is ever good enough. I finish it, and I look at it a year later and say, ‘Why the hell didn’t I do this?’ Or that. Or some other. Deep down, I’m still trying to be good.”

Avuncular and rumpled and sometimes ironically albeit smilingly caustic, Doty was a fixture at NCS’s annual business meeting, which, for years, he enlivened with some cranky but good-natured criticism of the organization. Since almost nothing else happens at the business meeting, the event could well be called The Roy Doty Hour except that the Roy Doty part takes place at the end when “New Business” is solicited.

His remarks were usually more satirical than practical, and when he arises to speak, his comments are preceded by hoots of joyful derision from the attending multitudes, convivial catcalls, bad jokes, and the other enconiums purporting fame and affection from a mob of satirically inclined wags and scallywags. But sometimes, his suggestions were valid. One year, he wondered why the winners of NCS awards don’t get more publicity, particularly in their home town newspapers. The next year, a procedure was initiated that addressed his concern.

When the news of his death reached NCS, the notice at its website began by calling him one of the Society’s luminaries, adding simply: “Roy Doty was a giant in the field of cartooning.”  Doty1

Doty started his Wordless Workshop series in 1954 when Popular Science commissioned him to illustrate an article that photographs couldn’t. And when he heard the art staff complaining about the tedious work of meticulously diagraming a “how to” home improvement article, he did one himself, as a full-page comic strip, and showed the editor.

“It took them about a minute to tell me that I had it,” he said to Pauer. And it ran every month for 35 years. Suddenly, as Doty tells it, they took him to lunch one day—unprecedented. Good restaurant. Unheard of. There, they told him they were discontinuing the feature. He got up and huffed out without having dessert. Then he sent copies of Wordless Workshop—which he, not the magazine, owned—to every magazine he could think of. “Six days went by, and the phone rang,” Doty said. “It was the editor of Family Handyman, asking me when I could start. And he asked if I could do it in full color.” And it ran in Family Handyman for the next 15 years.  Doty2

An inventive handyman around the house himself (he lived in a glass house he built), Doty developed the projects that he illustrated in the strip for the first few years. Then readers started writing the magazine, offering their own suggestions. Eventually, the magazine paid $50 for every idea Doty used. In a 1985 collection of Wordless Workshop, he lists all the contributors whose ideas were used in the strips in the book.

A fan of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” Doty with the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate arranged to use the show’s title for a comic strip, which started September 23, 1968, running until March 1972. Doty4 Although inspired by (and enjoying popularity because of its association with) the Rowan and Martin production—“Here Comes the Judge,” “Sock It To Me,” etc.— Doty’s strip was not otherwise a product of the show. He worked on it himself, unaided by the tv staff.

“I did the first three months of gags,” he told Pauer, “and then the well ran so dry even I couldn’t believe it. I started sending out the word: ‘You gag writers, wherever you are, have I got a market for you: I pay in cash, on acceptance.’ It wasn’t much, but back then money went a lot further, and, boy, did they come pouring in.”

By contract, the strip quit when the TV show ended. And Doty went back to spinning through the rest of his repertoire.

“I think design and composition are what makes my stuff work,” he said to Pauer. “I mean, it’s not the raison d’etre or the main thing you remember, but there’s that detail. Which I don’t have to do, but it’s the little things that make it fun. I love the decorativeness of it. I just got hooked there in Paris where I got to meet a lot of artists. Not only did they turn out funny stuff—and I watched them labor overnight just getting the idea across—but they made it attractive at the same time.”

At the NCS website (reuben.org) in a “Spotlight” feature of 2010, the reporter observes: “The mind-boggling thing about any Roy Doty illustration is how effortlessly he tackles a HUGE crowd—and manages to have every person engage in an individual activity or pose.”  Doty7 Doty8

Doty elaborated, referring to a mob scene he’d done surrounding a caricature of Arthur Gofrey: “I got the assignment for this series of drawings in the form of a thumb-nail sketch and a stern admonition to fill the spread with people—not just shapes but people drawn in complete detail.” He paused. “I was completely enthusiastic about the idea.”

Had he thought about retirement, Pauer wanted to know.

“From what? You have to have a job first,” he quipped; then got serious: “I would go crazy. Not on your life. Sit on some porch deck somewhere watching the waves roll in and out? And in and out. And in and out. And in. I don’t broadcast my age, but I also don’t give a damn anymore. It doesn’t show in the work, I don’t think. Without a pencil in your hand, life can be dull for us [cartoonists]. The work can be a slave-driver. But a nice one.”

Writing the Introduction to a catalogue for a show of Doty art in 2011 at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus, emeritus curator Lucy Shelton Caswell said:

“The only artwork Roy Doty really cares about is the work that is currently on his drawing board. This is not to say that he does not enjoy looking at finished work. He takes great pride in what he has done. The fact is, however, that the act of creating now, in the present, brings him such pleasure and satisfaction that he cannot imagine doing anything else. ... At age 89, he has recently completed a book contract that required more than 130 full-page, four-color illustrations.”

In his interview with Pauer, Doty said: “I’ve never had a bad year, a slow year. I’ve never been ‘unbusy.’ I’m still busy, and I love it. I work seven days a week. I went to bed at midnight last night, and I’ll go to bed at midnight tonight. What do I have to complain about? As long as I am drawing pictures, I am totally happy. Until I drop dead, I’ll be drawing pictures.”

And he was. He was drawing pictures all through 2014 until late in the year when he had a stroke.