People & Places

Vermont Conversation: Legendary cartoonist Ed Koren on art, humor and his mortality

Ed Koren drawing cartoon character
Ed Koren continues to make people laugh even as he faces a serious predicament: he has incurable lung cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2020. Photo by David Goodman

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When the New Yorker published Ed Koren’s first cartoon 60 years ago, it marked the beginning of a relationship that has come to define both the magazine and the artist. Koren’s cartoons feature hairy, long-nosed characters that poke fun at issues from the serious to the mundane, ranging from rural life, to politics, consumerism, climate change, to encounters on the street — or in his case, on the dirt road where he lives in Brookfield, Vermont, his home since the 1970s with his wife, Curtis. He has been a volunteer firefighter in his community for over three decades.

Koren, 86, is one of America’s most celebrated and beloved cartoonists. He has contributed some 1,400 cartoons to the New Yorker over the past six decades. He was Vermont’s Cartoonist Laureate from 2014 to 2017, and his cartoons have also appeared everywhere from the New York Times to Vanity Fair to Sports Illustrated to numerous books. His latest collection of cartoons is Koren in the Wild.

Fellow New Yorker contributor Bill McKibben says of Koren, “Sometimes one thinks of the cartoonist as 'making fun.' But though Ed's drawings have long been the funniest thing in the New Yorker, it's because they're essentially kind, filled with the understanding that we're all trying hard. And that kindness, of course, is what makes him such a remarkable neighbor to all of us in Vermont.”

The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction recently launched the Ed Koren Scholarship Fund to support “an emerging cartoonist who is also looking to enrich the cultural and civic life of Vermont.” Koren’s work is also featured in an exhibition about the climate crisis at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., “Down to the Bone,” which includes his cartoons and the images of nature photographer Stephen Gorman.

Courtesy of Ed Koren

Ed Koren continues to make people laugh even as he faces a serious predicament: He has incurable lung cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2020. 

Koren, who I’ve known for many years, has long politely declined my interview requests, protesting that he didn’t think he was that interesting. I begged to differ, and finally, last week he agreed to talk. I found him in his studio at his home doing what he loves, drawing cartoons for the New Yorker.

“I'm an inhabitant of two worlds,” he tells me, sitting in a wheelchair in front of his drawing table in a room that overlooks a lush autumn forest. “My early work was based on the Upper West Side.” By contrast, “Vermont has always had its own milieu that I've drawn from, and I oftentimes mix and match.”

I ask him why he draws hairy creatures. “It makes it funnier. There's some cartoons that I've done that just aren't funny enough without hair. And I love hair. I love to draw hair. I can't suppress my hand. … The hand really is the key instrument here. It keeps working and keeps flying along.”

Koren’s advice to young people is to “find your own voice. It's what I tell young cartoonists. Don't accept situations where you have to work for so many decades of your life in something you really don't like. …Don't hesitate to change if it's not what you want.”

Koren has been a brilliant chronicler and satirist of the human condition. “I'm irrepressible when it comes to seeing other people's folly and missteps and kind of haplessness. So I just kept doing it because I love to do it," he said.

“I love my life. I love my work. I would hate to say goodbye to it.”

David Goodman

About David

David Goodman is an award-winning journalist and the author of a dozen books, including four New York Times bestsellers that he co-authored with his sister, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, New York Times, Outside, Boston Globe and other publications. He is the host of The Vermont Conversation, a VTDigger podcast featuring in-depth interviews about local and national topics. The Vermont Conversation is also an hour-long weekly radio program that can be heard on Wednesday at 1 p.m. on WDEV/Radio Vermont.


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