Leo Cullum dies at 68; prolific New Yorker cartoonist

Leo Cullum dies at 68; prolific New Yorker cartoonist
Cartoonist Leo Cullum is photographed in 2008 on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. The longtime Malibu resident died Saturday. (Kathy Cullum)

A woman holding a martini turns to a garishly dressed man in a bar and says, "I thought I'd never laugh again. Then I saw your jacket."

Through that cartoon — the first published by the New Yorker in the grim weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — Leo Cullum gently gave the magazine's readers permission to laugh again.

His role "was to tell us that laughter was not only permissible but necessary," Robert Mankoff, the New Yorker's cartoon editor, told The Times in an e-mail.

Cullum, a longtime resident of Malibu, died Saturday of cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his wife, Kathy. He was 68.

Although he was a celebrated New Yorker cartoonist, Cullum was also a commercial airline pilot who retired in 2002 after 34 years of flying.

Cartooning "looked like something I could do," he once said, so he bought some how-to books and taught himself the craft between flights.

Since 1977, the magazine has published more than 815 of his cartoons, which lean toward absurd gags and often feature cats and dogs. They also excel at the marriage of image and words, a New Yorker hallmark.

Cullum was known as one of the most consistent and accessible gag-men in the magazine's history, according to the online publication the Comics Reporter.

"Cullum is one of the great cartoonists not merely because he was so consistently good," Mankoff said. Although "you will like some better than others … rarely will you find any that are not funny. That is very hard, and he makes it look easy, which is my definition of great."

Often Cullum would pair an extraordinary image, such as a buffalo using a cellphone, with an ordinary phrase: "I love the convenience, but the roaming charges are killing me." He drew sheep in business suits that told the human at the head of the conference table, "Hey, we're sheep. Everything seems like a good idea."

One classic Cullum cartoon shows a man speaking to the family cat near the litter box with a caption that reads, "Never, ever, think outside the box."

The easygoing Cullum was "funny in a quiet sort of way," his wife said, and always kept a small notebook nearby in which he wrote down phrases he thought he could turn into a cartoon.

Leo Aloysius Cullum was born Jan. 11, 1942, in Newark, N.J., and grew up in North Bergen, N.J., where his father ran a trucking company.

After earning a bachelor's degree in English in 1963 from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., Cullum joined the Marine Corps and underwent flight training in Pensacola, Fla.

By 1966, he was serving in Vietnam and eventually flew 200 missions, mainly in support of ground troops. He also flew nighttime missions over North Vietnam to attack the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Cullum told Holy Cross Magazine in 2006.

In 1968, he became a pilot for TWA, which gave him the then-rare opportunity to pilot international flights. During layovers, Cullum began drawing cartoons and sold his first one to Air Line Pilot Magazine.

Initially, the New Yorker bought his cartoon jokes and had cartoonist Charles Addams illustrate them.

After Cullum broke through on his own in 1977, his simple yet pointed cartoon style became a magazine fixture. He also regularly contributed to the Harvard Business Review and Barron's.

On a TWA flight to Boston, Cullum met his future wife, who was a flight attendant. They married in 1979 and lived in Malibu, where they raised two daughters, Kimberly Cullum Berry and Kaitlin Cullum, former child actors who live in Los Angeles.

Many of his cartoons were collected in four books. Dogs starred in "Scotch & Toilet Water?," cats in "Cockatiels for Two" and assorted animals in "Tequila Mockingbird." His last book, "Suture Self," poked fun at medicine.

When Cullum struggled with ideas for cartoons, he would "read, birdwatch, eat, play with the dogs, phone friends," he wrote in his final book, and "wonder if this is any way for a grown-up to make a living."

In addition to his wife and two children, Cullum is survived by his brother, Thomas, of Reston, Va.