For cartoonist John Reiner ‘78, joining The Statesman changed his life.
In his freshman year, Reiner’s contributions to the student newspaper gained the attention of a wide audience, including Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America. After seeing one of his cartoons, Simon called and offered him a job on the spot. This moment would mark the start of what would become a fruitful freelancing career.
Today, Reiner is best known for his work as the illustrator for The Lockhorns, a job he took over after its creator, Bill Hoest, passed away in 1988. But despite his tie to the beloved Long Island-based cartoon, his portfolio is extensive, including work with Marvel Comics legend, Stan Lee.
Your life took an exciting turn when you joined The Statesman. Can you tell us a bit more about your career path?
It’s an interesting story, because I was originally interested in psychology. Being a student at Smithtown High School East, my friends and I decided we wanted to go to Stony Brook, which was close by and had a really impeccable reputation, not to mention that it was more affordable than most of the other colleges. It was really our first choice. In April of that year, I met Mort Drucker of Mad Magazine, a fantastic caricaturist and illustrator. He really encouraged me to get into illustrating and join the Statesman.
I was a freshman when I got a call from Joe Simon, who was the co-creator of Captain America. He actually lived right off of campus. His son, Jim, was a student at Stony Brook who had seen my work in the school paper. He liked my work and wanted to hire me. So, at age 17, I was already working professionally for Joe Simon on humor magazines. I would go drop off my work at his house and we’d sit and chat in this huge mansion right on the water. I did that for four years for Stony Brook and when I graduated in 1978, I already had a freelance career. At that point, getting into cartooning was pretty easy; I already had a job. That’s when I started working for Marvel and other companies who were putting out humor magazines and advertising illustrations. It was really just a path that started out as one step in front of another- and it all started at the Statesman.
You mentioned that you had the opportunity to work for Marvel. What was that like?
I have to give Stan Lee an enormous amount of credit. He really reinvented the comics, reinvigorating them when they were kind of lagging in the early 60s. He was a wonderful guy and extraordinarily talented. We were doing humor material and then we started doing art as well and experimenting with other stories. There were a whole bunch of other cartoonists on Long Island who were working with him as well – Mort Drucker, Stan Goldberg, George Booth. It was so varied and eclectic and I loved every part of it. There was not one thing that I liked more than another. The 70s was really full of a lot of different work in a lot of magazines because the magazine industry was really exploding. Everyone was either involved in magazines or wanting to start a magazine.
So, how did you find your way to working with Bill and Bunny Hoest?
Mort Drucker was starting a comic strip back in 1984. He had asked me to assist on it because he was still working on Mad Magazine. We would go to lunch once a month with the other cartoonists on the Island. Cartoonists like Stan Goldberg and Frank Springer would attend – and that’s where I met Bill and Bunny Hoest.
In 1986, when Bill turned 60, he was diagnosed with cancer. At that point, he decided that he needed assistance and offered me a job. At that time I was also working with Mort Drucker and doing work for Newsday. I had a burgeoning freelance career. I was getting involved in more cartoon work and less illustrations. As time went on, Bill began to rely on me more and more. Towards the end, he asked me if I wanted to continue doing his work and I accepted the offer. That was in 1988. Here we are 31 years later and we’re still going strong.
What has it been like continuing Bill Hoest’s legacy?
Continuing his legacy has been something of a daunting task. He was actually quite prolific. He had done six features at the same time. There was The Lockhorns, Agatha Crumm and What a Guy!, which are daily comic strips, and Parade Magazine, Howard Huge and Bumper Snickers (which is a weekly column for the National Enquirer). So there were six features being done all at once and it was necessary to continue, not just his sense of humor, but also the art styles that were varied and different depending on the publication. So, it was a pretty daunting task and I’m glad to say that Bunny and I were able to maintain it and the audience was very happy with the result. I’d have to say we did the best that we could under the circumstances.
Artistically, how much room do you have for your own vision in working on The Lockhorns, while still being faithful to Bill’s creation?
The only changes that I really wanted to make were in the contemporary neologism (a newly-coined word or phrase) and trends. It wasn’t necessary to try and maintain the old style of both the art and the writing when it came to changes in the culture. For example, landlines and corded telephones obviously had to be eradicated to make way for cell phones and more current technology. The humor remained the same in the basic concept, but there had to be at least an updating – and that’s all I wanted to do. There wasn’t anything specific. Most of the cartoonists that have taken over strips have said that all of the bugs had already been worked out. There’s really no need to try to reinvent the wheel, so making changes wasn’t really necessary. I still had an active freelance on the outside, so I could do what I wanted to do creatively. I was feeling perfectly satisfied in the variety of work that I was doing.
Like you, the cartoon itself has Long Island roots; from the locations inspired by the town of Huntington to the original title, The Lockhorns of Levittown. How important is it in your work on The Lockhorns for you to have grown up around here?
Very much so. I started reading The Lockhorns in 1968 when it was printed in Newsday. I was a big fan of the comic before I met the Hoests, and before I even got into cartooning. At that point, I was still in junior high school. As I got older and met the cartoonists, I realized it was important to have that kind of reference. Bill Hoest had lived in Levittown when he first got married. He bought a house there when the development was still being built. He was a GI in the army and he was able to buy a house on the GI bill. Levittown was the first real well-known community being constructed on Long Island. For those of us living on different parts of the Island, it resonated with us – the kind of suburban life, mowing lawns and having houses on a quarter acre of land. Everyone in the area seemed to identify with that kind of lifestyle. So, it was important to me because I could then write jokes or draw something that had a resonance with the audience. Being on Long Island really made a difference for me and it certainly made drawing the comic much more pleasant.
The elements of your work have certainly remained timeless from those days when Levittown was first being built to the Long Island we know today.
I will say that if you read the New York Times, they have the section on modern love or relationship advice and that’s because relationships are forever. There’s not much that changes, regardless of the dynamic of the relationships, whether its a same-sex couple, an interracial couple or whatever the case may be. Couples are couples and people have the same basic issues of being together and arguing, each wanting his or her own way. In the years that I’ve been doing The Lockhorns, people still say that that they identify with the characters and most of the humor that we do is identifiable. Someone can look at the cartoon and say ‘my wife and I were just arguing able that.’ I don’t think it’s aged in the same way that something else might. If you start with a gimmick, at some point it’s going to run out of steam. There has to be something that universal and timeless.
With such a relatable cartoon, do people often approach you with ideas from their own relationships?
Sometimes, and sometimes it’s observation. I had a friend turn to his wife and point to the menu and ask if it was ok to order something and his wife is told no because he’s not going to like it. I’m laughing witnessing this because it’s out in the open that people have their relationships and people identify with it. So, most of it is from observation, you see the way that people interact and that’s usually where we get our ideas. I did a cartoon today where a couple is arguing in the street and Leroy walks by and says, “That reminds me, I have to call my wife.” There’s always some element of identifiability that I find compelling, so that’s what I get from observation.
What are you most proud of in your career?
That’s a very good question, because I haven’t had the time or inclination to look back and reflect. The journey has been wonderful and I’ve had no regrets. There’s been nothing about this forward motion that I’ve regretted, no projects that I resent. There were a few times that people have made ridiculous offers. I’ve been offered work for things that were adult-oriented and I’ve said no. There are some things I will not do. More or less if I have anything that I’m proud of, it’s that I’ve maintained my integrity.
I will say, it’s been an enormous amount of fun with great people. The greatest part of this journey for me has been the social circle of really wonderful and talented people.
What advice would you give to students looking to follow in your footsteps?
Stony Brook University was an extraordinary experience, especially in the 1970’s. It’s like a self-contained society, [where] you have everything that you can possibly need or want. I certainly understand if you want to get off campus from time to time, but my advice is to take advantage of everything that’s on campus, because it’s just an extraordinary thing. Really, there have been wonderful plays that I’ve seen on campus, not to mention the concerts that I would see in the 70s. We would see cars that were backed up on Nicolls Road with all the people who wanted the see the great concerts. We had Zappa, the Grateful Dead, Blue Oyster Cult. There were so many great, great concerts. If you look back at the yearbook, you can see just how lucky we were. Even the opening acts were artists who went on to become famous.
The campus offers so much, so it’s really important to take advantage of as much as you can. Everything leads into everything else. If I hadn’t gone to The Statesman, which was an extracurricular activity, I wouldn’t be in this position, because I don’t think that I would have had the opportunity. It’s because I was published in The Statesman that someone called. So, my advice is to take advantage of everything that Stony Brook has to offer.