For Kansas City Cartoonist, 'The New Yorker' Meant Success — Even After Hundreds Of Tries

May 8, 2017

For many people, it is a career change, a promotion, or maybe an industry award that propels their professional life to the next level.

For Tom Toro, it was the first time he sold a cartoon to The New Yorker.

"It happened in a very modern way," says Toro. "My life changed via email."

It seems like a somewhat underwhelming email. The subject line, Toro says, read simply, 'Okay.'

Since then, his work has appeared in the magazine more than 140 times, and was recently included in the Daily Cartoon section of their website, which tackles politics and current events.

This was the first cartoon Toro sold to 'The New Yorker,' but it certainly wasn't the first he submitted.
Credit Tom Toro / The New Yorker

That crowning achievement, though, came after a lot of soul-searching, a lot of work and not a few failed attempts.

Toro, who would pause Disney movies as a child and draw his favorite still frames from them, studied filmmaking at New York University, but found himself more drawn to solitary creative pursuits.

"It was probably the moment when I realized that the storyboards that I was drawing for my films were better than the films I was making from my storyboards," he told host Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date.

After dropping out of film school and moving back home (he is originally from the San Francisco Bay area), Toro struggled to find direction.

It was a stack of old The New Yorker magazines at a library overstock sale that helped him turn the corner.

"It almost came to me new, this idea that the cartoons were in there and that they were heightened to this sort of respectable, sophisticated art form," he says. "That really attracted me."

Despite his work now regularly appearing in 'The New Yorker,' Toro says professional cartooning is a tough road to hoe. "The only thing a little bit less hard than selling the first [cartoon] is selling the second," he says.
Credit Luke X. Martin / KCUR 89.3

So Toro went to work sketching, writing captions and brainstorming; sketching, writing captions and brainstorming; rinse and repeat, ad nauseam.

He even went to New York to meet Bob Mankoff, former cartoon editor at The New Yorker, in person​. Mankoff's advice was to use the cartoons as a form of personal expression and stop trying so hard to draw funny.

Toro finally sold a cartoon to The New Yorker in 2010.

"I perversely went back and counted how many times I had submitted prior to that," he says. "They bought my 610th."

Even after that breakthrough, cartooning for a living is a challenge.

"You have to be comfortable with rejection," Toro says. "I submitted last year somewhere on the order of 650 sketches for then to consider and they bought 24."

And that's a successful year, he says.

Now, Toro has released a collection of cartoons, drawn from his work in The New Yorker's Daily Cartoon website, called Tiny Hands, a not-so-subtle reference to the president.

The pace of the news cycle can challenge editorial cartoonists, says Toro. "You have to be constantly on your toes, ready to adapt to whatever idea comes along."
Credit Tom Toro / The New Yorker

"Trump is challenging because there’s a plethora of material to choose from," Toro told a KCUR producer before the Up To Date broadcast. "You can just quote what he says back to him, with an image of him in the drawing."

It seems like a good problem for a professional cartoonist to have.

Toro tends to agree. "Thank you, Mister President," he says. 

You can listen to the entire conversation with Tom Toro here.

Luke X. Martin is the associate producer of KCUR's 'Up To Date.' Contact him at luke@kcur.org.