A tribute to Howard Danziger

Volume 122, No. 5May, 2022

Thomas Scott Roberts

I was very sorry to hear about Howard Danziger’s death a year ago. I had recently been thinking of him, so I searched for him on the internet and sadly found he had passed.

I first met Howard in the early 1980s, through a mutual friend, Chuck Spies. Both of them were musicians, but I was not one. Both were working on cartooning projects, and that was where I came in.

On Chuck’s recommendation, I called Howard, and learned that he was a gag writer. He’d had a series of small, illustrated gag books out. These were the kind you could find on a spinner-rack in an airport bookshop. Some quick laughs for the flight, and you could slip ‘em into a pocket. Howard wanted to do something the next level up — a bigger, grander book, but still based on having a few good yuks. He wanted a new artist — would I be interested?

Yes, I was interested, and Howard sent a batch of gags for my audition. In cartooning, just as in theatre, you have to try out. He liked what he saw and he hired me. So into NYC I went (I lived out in the green, grassy suburbs) to meet him and start the project. Only after I was at Howard’s apartment did he tell me that he had been trying out other artists, and he explained why he hired me over them.

I was the only one, he said, who knew right away what was funny about the gags, and needed no explanations from him. He didn’t have to guide me. In fact, young and naïve as I was, I had the temerity to suggest a few gags of my own. Howard would have been perfectly within his rights to say “Knock it off, kid. I’m the writer, you make with the drawings.” But that wasn’t Howard.

Howard was generous, and encouraging, and he loved tapping the talent in others. He encouraged me to suggest all the gags I wanted. When he saw ones he liked, he said to draw ‘em up. In the end, when the book was assembled the way he wanted it, about 10 percent of the gags were mine. He was like that.

Sadly, the book was never picked up by a publisher. Within a few years, some of the gags would have been dated and needed replacing. Someone in his family may still have all the art. I haven’t seen it since then — it was 40 years ago — and I don’t know if I want to. We don’t always warm to our own early work, and I might now see everything that’s wrong with it. It was a training ground, working with a pro and getting to sharpen my knives on his whetstone.

We went off to follow our own things. People do. Once in a rare while, I would contact him or vice versa. I called him in 1998 and, although he was happy to hear from me, he had the sad duty of telling me that Chuck Spies had died. After that more time went by, too much more, and I wondered every so often where Howard was in this year or that.

I wish I’d sated my curiosity a year or two earlier. We allow time to slip away from us while we’re looking the other way — there’s always another shiny thing — and then when we turn back again, what we thought we’d see is not there anymore. I’m saddened to know that Howard has gone. I’m glad I knew him when I did.

— Thomas Scott Roberts

(Also see the tribute to Howard Danziger published in February 2021)