When Liza Donnelly moved to New York City from her native Washington, D.C., in 1977 to pursue her career as a cartoonist, she hit the ground running. While working a day job at the American Museum of Natural History, she soon began freelancing for Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and National Lampoon before landing her first assignment at The New Yorker in 1979. Three years later, she got another new gig: Habitat. Donnelly, whose drawings accompany this feature, has been gracing our pages ever since.
She still remembers that first assignment. Asked to illustrate an article about getting elected to a co-op board, Donnelly drew a cartoon showing a shareholder making a stump speech with a building as the podium. “I love drawing things that are very clear, like a leaky ceiling, but I also love more oblique stories like that one, where you have to take a concept and make it visual,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of those for Habitat over the years, like buildings talking to each other or people interacting with buildings as if they’re actual objects they can hold in their hands.”
It is a lot tougher coming up with clever ideas for our monthly legal column, Case Notes. “Half the time I’d read the articles and not understand a word of what they were saying,” says Donnelly, who often turned to her husband, Michael Maslin, a fellow New Yorker cartoonist, when she was stumped. “I’d say, ‘I can’t come up with a thing.’ And he’d say, ‘But you always do.’”
Donnelly, who has been a staff cartoonist at The New Yorker since 1982, is also a contributor at CBS News and CNN, creating political cartoons and live digital drawings that she posts on social media from her iPad. She has also penned 18 books, including her latest, “Very Funny Ladies,” an anthology of cartoons and biographical sketches of female cartoonists at The New Yorker from 1925 to the present day. “When I wrote the first edition of the book in 2005, I wanted to find out about the women who came before me and why there weren’t as many women drawing cartoons as men,” Donnelly says. “Now they’re pretty much equal. I want to show these women to the world, but not to say they’re different from men. We’re not. We’re just cartoonists.”
Habitat, of course, is honored that one of the country’s most renowned cartoonists has stuck with us through all these years. “I’m dedicated to the magazine because you supported me for so long and have always given me creative freedom,” Donnelly says. “I don’t live in a co-op, but I love this city, and I love drawing about it, even if it’s a strange subject like legal disputes. It’s still about New York.”