In a field where the gag caption is king, magazine cartoonist Roz Chast has made a career out of locating humor everywhere but on a line below an image. Conventional speech and thought balloons abound in her work, but Chast’s signature style relies even more on labels and visual formulas for its charming and inimitable effects. In Theories of Everything, the coffee-table book that collects the best of Chast’s work, the range of devices is dazzling. Opening it is like entering a parallel universe of highly organized absurdity. “The Archaeology of a Sink,” for instance, employs the familiar figure of an excavated cross-section to display the fact that, beneath “today’s dishes,” “yesterday’s dishes,” and “dishes from last Tuesday” lie layers of fossilized dishes—not just “Grandma’s dishes,” but “dishes from Biblical times” and even “Pleistocene” and “Precambrian” dishes. Elsewhere, it’s the twin masks of comedy and tragedy looking strangely passive and eerily similar to one another, signifying “Botox Theater.” Whatever quirky route she takes to get there, you can be sure Chast will arrive at a place where self-consciousness and wry observation meet. I recently spoke with Chast in anticipation of her April 4 lecture at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 for tickets and info.
What did you find about yourself while choosing cartoons for this lecture? I’ve been drawing for a lot of years, and I did my own selection by getting a huge printout of everything and then going through it chronologically. When I started, I was 23 years old, living in Manhattan, and the autobiographical aspects are evident—so many of the observations are things I saw around me, like the attack of the young professionals, or the signs in the cab from hell. Later on, when I got married and had kids, my preoccupations change, and there are lots of things that come from observing that generation, like the IMs of Romeo and Juliet.
Have methods of organization always been favorite devices with you? Oh yes, I love categories, lists, charts, and graphs—all that kind of stuff. I was once at a meeting and the presenter had a PowerPoint that was full of pie charts, and I couldn’t keep a straight face. He was actually using a pie chart! I really thought they only existed in cartoons.