by Dmitry Kiper
The artist Eric Drooker is probably best known for paintings that have appeared on many New Yorker magazine covers since 1994. Those covers, which often portray Drooker's native Manhattan in all its wonder, humor, and menace, reflect his deep love of the city he began exploring as a boy. Inspired by social-realist art of the first half of the 20th century, Drooker is also the creator of three graphic novels: Flood! A Novel in Pictures (1992), Blood Song: A Silent Ballad (2002), and Howl: A Graphic Novel (2010). His friendship with the late poet Allen Ginsberg led to several projects, including, most recently, Drooker's animation for the 2010 film Howl, starring James Franco.
A third-generation New Yorker, Eric Drooker was born on East End Avenue in New York City. He grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, historically a working-class neighborhood that was home to many Jews and immigrants from Eastern Europe and, by the 1950s, migrants from Puerto Rico. Drooker grew up in the neighborhood's northwest section, which would, in large part through the marketing efforts of real-estate agents in the 1960s, become known as the East Village. Growing up on 14th Street, the dividing line between lower and midtown Manhattan, Drooker was constantly exposed to contrasts. "I would see homeless people—or bag ladies as we called them in those days—on the street, and I would see Cadillacs going by," Drooker told Rob Walker for World Art (Autumn 1998). "I would see these social discrepancies at a pretty early age, before I was able to understand what it all meant. But I'm convinced that it must have affected me." Drooker's mother, Nina, was a public-school teacher (and a painter and musician on the side), and his father, Harold, was a computer programmer. They both loved art and would often take the young Eric to art museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art. Drooker's maternal grandparents, with roots in Budapest, Russia, and Prague, were both born on Manhattan's east side, and had become Socialists in the 1930s; when Drooker was a boy, his grandfather showed him books by the Belgian artist Frans Masereel, a pacifist who had created several politically informed, social-realist, wordless novels composed entirely of woodcut prints, and Lynd Ward, who was best-known for his woodcuts and is considered today to be one of the pioneers of the American graphic novel. While the influence of Masereel's work on Drooker's art would manifest itself later, at the time Drooker was more interested in the counterculture-comics artist R. Crumb, whose work was then featured in Zap Comix. Drooker would also be influenced by the work of Francisco Goya and Diego Rivera; the work of pre-World War II social-realist artists such as John Sloan of the Ashcan School, an American art movement that sought to portray the physical reality of city life; that school's follower Edward Hopper, who focused on the psychological theme of urban loneliness; and German Expressionists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz, whose realistic/cartoonish drawings and paintings unromantically portrayed the after-effects of World War I on Germany's people and urban life.
The look of New York City, especially from above, also had a profound effect on Drooker. Growing up, he had to share a room with his brother, so he would often go to the roof of his building to be alone with his thoughts. He saw the city's skyline at all hours and under different lighting conditions. During his high-school years, he went to the roof almost every day before sunset to see the sun disappear beyond the Hudson River and then watch thousands of windows light up at dusk. Starting in the late 1960s, he watched the World Trade Center being built. After it was completed, in 1973, Drooker went there with his brother and saw New York City from a height of more than 100 stories. With a few exceptions—when he went to summer camp—Drooker spent his free time soaking up sights and sounds in the metropolis, which he understood to be entirely man-made. "But it occurred to me one day on the rooftop that, of course, this [man-made city] too is part of nature, because people are just animals, and it's part of nature the way a beehive is part of nature," Drooker recalled to Current Biography. Since then Drooker has continued to hold a paradoxical view of cities: that they are on the one hand a "cancerous growth" threatening the planet and on the other hand a "natural growth" that has evolved as humans have evolved. (The idea of the city as jungle would later be a prevalent theme in his New Yorker covers.)
In 1979 Drooker won a scholarship to Cooper Union, a very selective, college in Lower Manhattan specializing in art, architecture and engineering. He majored in sculpture. On the side he created political comic strips and posters, which he distributed and posted around the Lower East Side, where he was living. After he graduated Drooker continued to create and distribute his political art-black-and-white works that urged people in the neighborhood to fight unfair landlord practices and protest other injustices. He supported himself by making and selling lapel buttons on the street, which became illegal in the early 1980s; he told Chris Lanier for the Comics Journal (June 2008, on-line) that the police arrested him and confiscated his materials during that period. Around that time Drooker began contributing caricatures to such radical-left publications as the Daily World and the humorous porn magazine Screw. He also sold political comic magazines he made himself, which he titled Communicomix.
In 1988, on a hot August night, Drooker and many other Lower East Side residents gathered to protest a curfew placed on the neighborhood's main outdoor-recreation and meeting area, Tompkins Square Park. The demonstration turned chaotic, with some police officers taking violent action against the protesters, riding on horseback through the crowd and hovering in helicopters overhead. Those events, which lasted for hours, made a strong impression on Drooker. As the violence seemed about to escalate, Drooker saw the poet Allen Ginsberg getting out of a taxi. He filled Ginsberg in on what had happened and warned him that the situation was getting worse. (Ginsberg had been living in the Lower East Side on and off since the early 1960s. Drooker became aware of him at age nine, while on a bus with his mother, who pointed out the "famous poet.") The two talked briefly before losing each other in the crowd. The following year they spotted each other near Drooker's apartment on East 10th Street. It was then that Ginsberg discovered Drooker to be the artist whose posters he had been collecting. The artist and poet formed a friendship that years later yielded a collaborative work, Illuminated Poems (1996). Ginsberg wrote in the introduction to that volume, "I first glimpsed Eric Drooker's odd name on posters pasted on fire-alarm sides, construction walls checkered with advertisements, & lamppost junction boxes in the vortex of Lower East Side Avenues leading to Tompkins Square Park. . . . I began collecting Drooker's posters soon after overcoming shock, seeing in contemporary images the same dangerous class conflict I'd remembered from childhood, pre-Hitler block print wordless novels by Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward. Ward's images of the solitary artist dwarfed by the canyons of a Wall Street Megalopolis lay shadowed behind my own vision of Moloch [the malevolent presence in Ginsberg's most famous poem, 'Howl']. What 'shocked' me in Drooker's scratchboard prints was his graphic illustration of economic crisis similar to Weimar-American 1930's Depressions." Drooker and Ginsberg had planned to collaborate again, but Ginsberg died in 1997. The following year saw the publication of Drooker's Street Posters & Ballads, an anthology of the sociopolitical posters he put up around the Lower East Side in the 1980s. He decided to publish the poster anthology after realizing that the issues he was addressing in the flyers-police brutality, real-estate speculation, and the need for protest-were not only local but also universal. Part of his aim was to let nonprofit activist groups use the posters for free. "Drooker documents contemporary events, but renders themas part of the tragic continuum of human history," Sara Ferguson wrote in a review for the Village Voice (September 21, 1999). A decade later Drooker published another anthology of sociopolitical poster art, Slingshot (2008), a collection of 32 postcards. In the early 1990s, meanwhile, Drooker's political cartoons had begun to appear in the Village Voice, the Nation and other publications.
Drooker's graphic novel Flood! A Novel in Pictures, on which he worked for six years, was published in 1992. Flood! is divided into three chapters, "Home," "L," and "Flood." "Home" depicts a man who, after losing his job at a plant, goes home to find out he has been evicted. He then walks the city streets, rummages through a trash can, visits the zoo, gets arrested for pickpocketing, and eventually ends up homeless. The work's "tragic theme was informed by my experiences on the Lower East Side," Drooker told Lanier. "I'd literally climb over [homeless] people to enter my apartment each night. After Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, a tidal wave of homelessness overflowed onto city streets, on a scale unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s." ("Home" was originally self-published as a stand-alone work and sold in bookstores in Lower Manhattan.) "L," named for the 14th Street subway line, shows one man's subway ride, which turns into a fantastical dream involving primitive jungle visions. "Flood," longer than the first two chapters, is mostly autobiographical. It starts with the hero, an artist, emerging from a subway station; he walks the rainy streets of New York, draws in his studio, and attends a carnival, where he sees a man whose tattoos tell a version of American history, from Columbus's journey to modern-day capitalism. One of the book's major themes is existential alienation in a bustling metropolis. In an assessment of Drooker's book, Art Spiegelman—best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale—wrote for the New York Times Book Review (December 27, 1992), "Like his forebears, Mr. Drooker has discovered the magic of pulling light and life out of an inky sea of darkness. If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, this is one heck of a hefty novel."
Around that time, Spiegelman—who had recently joined the New Yorker as a contributing artist-encouraged Drooker to submit his art to the magazine. "The fact that I was born and raised in New York," Drooker said to Current Biography, "gave me a sense that it was somehow my birthright to be on the cover." Drooker's first New Yorker cover appeared on the magazine's September 12, 1994 issue, which depicted men in suits walking to work through the streets of New York on giant stilts. His second cover, the following year, was a painting of two homeless men warming themselves at a trashcan fire under the Brooklyn Bridge on a dark, snowy New York night. A cover he created the following year showed a man wearing a fedora, suit, and tie staring up at a bright-blue sky through a maze of skyscrapers at a bird in flight."One thing I appreciate about the New Yorker is it's pretty much the only mainstream publication that still has art—paintings or drawing—on the cover," Drooker said to Current Biography. One of his favorites among his covers for the magazine is a painting of a businessman walking and talking on his cell phone on Wall Street, oblivious to the man-hole he is about to fall into. The cover suggested a coming financial collapse; when Drooker submitted it, in 2007, one year before the global financial crisis, the cover was rejected. Still, Drooker asked the editors to hold onto it, and in September 2008, a week after "Black Monday"—the day the Dow Jones average fell 778 points, signaling the impending financial collapse—that painting made the cover. His latest cover, for the October 25, 2010 issue, shows a couple holding hands at night on a rooftop, silhouetted by buildings with hundreds of lit windows.
During the mid-1990s Drooker underwent a personal transformation, which was also reflected in his art. "As I look back over the stylistic change," Drooker told Walker in 1998, "you can see this trajectory: I was coming out of this very monochromatic, very black and white, kind of doctrinaire, stark, propagandistic, heavy-handed view of the world, to a more subtle, kind of nuanced expression of the range, the colorful range of experience. It's not just the politics. Over the years, I've consciously tried to be more subtle in the work, to not make the work look like propaganda [though] I'm still very concerned with trying to persuade people of certain ideas, educate them." A subtle, effective way to slip in a sociopolitical message on a New Yorker cover, Drooker said, is to make the painting beautiful or funny.
Following the appearance of a second edition of Flood!, in 2002, Drooker published his second graphic novel, Blood Song: A Silent Ballad (2002), a wordless fable. The work's heroine, first seen as a girl, lives in a jungle with her dog. One day, as a young woman, she returns home after getting water and sees her family killed and her village destroyed by faceless, heavily armed soldiers. With her dog by her side, the young woman flees and ends up in a modern metropolis, where she sees homelessness, police brutality, corporate logos, mannequins, and large TV screens with commercial messages. She then meets a street musician; he is later arrested, but not before impregnating the young woman, who then has to care for her newborn. In the opinions of various reviewers, there is depth behind the story's seeming simplicity. "I made the mistake of reading Blood Song before noticing the sub-title, A Silent Ballad," Andrew D. Arnold wrote for Time (November 2002, on-line). "That is, I read it like a graphic novel, with a novel-reader's interest in character and story. . . . But taken as a ballad-a narrative poem—Blood Song becomes beautiful and expansive. . . . The two big themes of Eric Drooker's work have always been the individual vs. the state and nature vs. technology. . . . In Blood Song, often these themes will overlap."
It was not until he was in his early 30s, only a few years prior to his work on Illuminated Poems, that Drooker read Ginsberg's poem "Howl" in its entirety. "It really hit me," he said to Current Biography. "It snuck up on me. The second chapter, the Moloch chapter, really got to me." In the poem Moloch is the embodiment of a chaotic, materialistic metropolis. "I started crying when I read the line 'Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows.' I'll never forget it because he was really describing where I grew up-that was my natural landscape. So that's when I really got hooked on his poetry." Years later, after seeing his art in Illuminated Poems, the filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman contacted Drooker; after meeting him and seeing his graphic novels, they asked if he would like to provide animation based on "Howl" for their film about the poem. "Howl" is a nonlinear poem, and Drooker had never done animation before, so he knew the project would present a challenge. "The only reason I wasn't completely intimidated by the project," he said, "was because I had already worked with Ginsberg and was friends with him and had the rabbi's blessing, if you will." For the next two years, with the official title of animation designer, Drooker led a computer-animation team.
The feature-length film Howl (2010), which starred James Franco as Ginsberg, mixed Drooker's animation of the poem with re-created scenes of an interview Ginsberg gave at his home, a reading he did of "Howl" in San Francisco, California, and the trial of the poem's publisher, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for "obscenity." In a review for the New York Times (September 23, 2010), A. O. Scott wrote: "Not quite a biopic, not really a documentary and only loosely an adaptation, Howl does something that sounds simple until you consider how rarely it occurs in films of any kind. It takes a familiar, celebrated piece of writing and makes it come alive." The film received many positive reviews, although many critics felt differently about the 3D animation. Scott observed that "both 'Howl' the poem and Howl the movie are strong enough to overcome the weakness of the cartoons, which come to seem less like offenses against art than like charming, fumbling tributes to its power." Drooker himself was not entirely pleased with the cartoon sequence. It was animated by a studio in Bangkok, to which Drooker did not travel (he had to communicate his ideas electronically) because of the film's tiny budget, so artistic control was difficult to maintain. However, many critics also praised the animation. In a review for the Los Angeles Times (October 1, 2010), Michael Ordona wrote: "Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker provides the creative paste that mashes all the pieces together with his disturbing designs for the poem's animated depictions. The often-gloomy images of imprisoning cityscapes and the monstrous embodiment of capitalism as a demon called Moloch combine agitprop with the horrifying grace of Gerald Scarfe's Pink Floyd animations." For the book Howl: A Graphic Novel (2010), Drooker selected his favorite animated images from the film, and the book became Drooker's bestseller.
In 1998, after living in the same New York neighborhood for 40 years, Drooker left the city for a calmer life in Berkeley, California. Despite leaving New York, he has become even "more obsessed" with the city in his art, and he comes back often. "New York is still my favorite place to be," he said. "My heart is there."