During his years attending Park School, Charlie Hankin put his drawing skills to use. Sometimes benignly, as in a nuanced portrait of famed pianist Leon Fleisher. Sometimes provocatively — one cartoon depicted George W. Bush in a crude light.
"When you're a teenager, you just come off as sarcastic when what you're attempting is to be brilliant," says Hankin. "There was a supportive atmosphere at Park for irreverence and a tolerance for being weird and snide and, hopefully, funny at the same time."
Now 29, the Baltimore-born, New York-based Hankin is definitely funny, a trait confirmed by the cartoons he draws regularly for The New Yorker. He'll be back at Park on Sunday to talk about the art of getting published by a magazine that typically accepts less than 20 cartoons per issue from hundreds of submissions each week.
Hankin's talk is one of many scheduled for the sold-out "Brain sPark," a four-hour event that brings together 80 alumni, faculty, relatives and others with Park School connections in 50 presentations and discussions.
Attendees can listen to the likes of Sen. Ben Cardin (parent of alum and former Park trustee); Tom Rothman, class of 1972, chairman of the Motion Picture Group at Sony Pictures Entertainment; and Fleisher, who will collaborate with his son, singer-songwriter Julian Fleisher, class of 1984.
During his middle and upper school years at Park, Hankin did much more than draw.
"He was quite a guy," says Susan Weintraub, Park's director of library services and information technology, as well as an adviser to the school paper, Postscript. "He was not just smart, but intellectual. He was a brilliant math student, plus he was a musician — he played the drums."
For Postscript, Hankin mostly wrote music and movie reviews. But, periodically, he would submit a cartoon.
"They were really terrific, so well drawn," Weintraub says. "He captured the essence of the school and skewered many obnoxious teenagers like himself. We like snide humor here."
The Bush cartoon, a commentary on the 2004 presidential election that included a suicidal Statue of Liberty, did give the paper's three faculty advisers pause.
"We talked about that one," Weintraub says. "The vote was two-to-one to let it go in."
These days, Hankin largely eschews political topics, concentrating instead on observational and off-beat humor, drawn in an unfussy style that keeps all the focus on the joke.
Among his New Yorker cartoons is one depicting two ants gazing up at a night sky brimming with stars. One says to the other: "Makes you feel small, doesn't it?" Another pair of gazers, this time two canines in street clothes, stare at a looming statue of a dog sporting a bow tie and suit: "He was a very good boy."
Hankin started "scribbling and drawing at a very early age," he says, encouraged by his parents. (His father, Craig Hankin, has long taught drawing and painting at Johns Hopkins University, where he is director of the Center for Visual Arts; he also collaborated on a comic strip called "Normal" that ran in the Evening Sun in the early 1990s.)
"When I arrived at Park in sixth grade, I was already passionate about drawing," Hankin says. "But after I graduated, I put cartooning on the back burner."
Hankin earned a math degree at New York University. While there, he continued to draw from time to time, often enough to put together dozens of cartoons that he mailed to The New Yorker. The magazine wasn't interested.
After graduating in 2010 and setting aside an idea to "be a fine arts painter," Hankin settled in Brooklyn and got into comedy, doing sketches and making videos (he also found time to tutor math students). That side of Hankin can be explored in an online series he does with fellow NYU-grad Matt Porter, "Good Cop Great Cop." The two also write, direct and star in a post-apocalyptic web series called "New Timers" for Comedy Central.
"It dawned on me one day [in 2013] that I could try to approach The New Yorker again," Hankin says. "That was the year I sold my first cartoon. My first attempt had been halfhearted. This attempt was serious. I obsessively worked out 60 or 70 cartoons before I submitted a single one. Bob Mankoff [the magazine's cartoon editor, who is stepping down from the post after 20 years] finally bought one from me after I had submitted 100 to 200."
The buying continued.
"The best cartoons are surprising," Hankin says. "I never set out to riff on a particular thing. What's helpful to me is to have the space and time to let my mind wander while walking around on foot, no phones or head phones, no distraction. Or sit in a cafe with a big cup of coffee and a blank piece of paper. That creates room for unexpected inspiration."
While comedians can get instant feedback on their jokes performing before an audience, cartoonists can't easily gauge reactions of readers across the country flipping through the pages of a magazine.
"You are creating this art form that is meant to provoke laughter and you are creating in utter isolation, sitting in silence," Hankin says. "It's nice when someone makes a comment on Instagram, which is a newer way to connect with people who see your work."
Can selling cartoons generate enough income to make a living?
"The short answer is no," Hankin says. "The longer answer is that cartoonists who are successful become interdisciplinary in some way, like working in animation. It's all very piecemeal. It's a bizarre thing not to know where your next paycheck is coming from."
Hankin's diverse pursuits have included writing pilot scripts with Porter for network television.
"We've never seen a project of ours get out of the script phase," Hankin says, "but it pays money, and that's good."
Whatever paths Hankin may try, he plans to keep producing work for The New Yorker.
"There is no higher place for a cartoonist," Hankin says. "Bob Mankoff calls it the 'Everest of cartooning,' given the pedigree of the magazine and the difficulty of selling there. It's incredibly gratifying to occupy even the tiniest corner of that space."