‘Alta Live’ Recap: Kate Isenberg’s Comedic Touch

The Altatude cartoon contributor’s artistic process often begins with a dog walk and ends with a published gag.

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A crucial part of cartoonist Kate Isenberg’s creative routine is her daily walk with her dog, Cleo. On one of these walks, Isenberg snapped a picture of a garden gnome and a flamingo that became the inspiration for her first Alta Journal cartoon. “I saw a relationship between the two characters that I found interesting,” Isenberg said. “I took a picture of it not knowing what it was going to yield but knowing that there was something in there that I wanted to play with.”

A Bay Area native, Isenberg is a regular contributor to Alta and is known for snappy and smart cartoons that reveal the humorous—and sometimes macabre—aspects of everyday situations. She joined Alta Live’s Beth Spotswood to chat about her sources of inspiration and to flip through a step-by-step slideshow detailing Isenberg’s method, from blank page to published cartoon.

Isenberg was an English major in college and didn’t set out to be a cartoonist. “I was always drawing in the margins of my notebooks in class, but I think that studying literature was the perfect way to jump in and swim around in our culture’s stories,” she explained. In cartoons, she’ll pair an observation from a walk around the neighborhood with a reference to myth or literature or the current political moment, asking herself, What else can I bring to that? What other piece of culture can I bring in?

Asked by Spotswood about her relationships with other creators in the highly competitive cartoon industry, Isenberg said that she’s found her fellow artists to be a friendly group. “There’s a real synergy among people’s work,” she said. “We’re all sort of looking at the culture together, and we all have a different perspective.” She’s also collaborated directly with friends, songwriters, and illustrators, sometimes unexpectedly. “As artists, we all are contributing to each other’s work all the time,” she said. Isenberg also mentioned Mimi Pond, Adrian Tomine, Lynda Barry, William Steig, and Julia Suits as cartoonists whose work she admires.

Isenberg is a relative newcomer to the top ranks of cartooning, having published her first cartoon in the New Yorker just over a year ago. But she’s been drawing her “artistic muse,” a half-horse, half-unicorn aspiring poet named Stewball, for decades, and she wore a T-shirt emblazoned with his image to the Alta Live event. The cartoonist described attending the UCLA Animation Workshop and noted that she is still developing a distinctive illustration style. When Spotswood asked how Isenberg had honed her comedic edge and voice, the artist recalled a conversation with fellow cartoonist Suits, who told her that she “needed to go down the basement steps and really muck around in a more raw kind of emotion.”

Isenberg estimates that she places only about 5 percent of her finished output with publications. “It’s a good day,” she remarked, when a submission is accepted by an editor. “I’m not only connecting with my own art, which I always want to do, but I’m communicating something,” Isenberg said. “What I want at the end of the day is to be able to communicate with more people and be part of the conversation.”

And her best trick for getting over a pile of rejected cartoons? “Starting on the next batch.”•

Alta Live is a weekly event series hosted by Alta Journal’s digital editor, Beth Spotswood. Each week, Alta invites innovators, academics, change makers, and artists to share their work with our readers in this free virtual series. Join us next Wednesday for Alta Live: Artist Anita Kunz.

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