The King Of Cartoons

William Steig's MUSE HAS ALways been the wolf at the door. As a young man growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., his dream of running away to sea and beach-combing in Hawaii was rudely interrupted by the Depression, when Steig suddenly found himself saddled with supporting his parents and younger brother. "My father was a house painter, and he lost his work," the 87-year-old artist recalled last week in the rambling, light-drenched Boston apartment he shares with his wife, the sculptor and writer Jeanne Steig. "My father said, 'I'm afraid it's up to you, Bill.' So I did the only thing I could: I'd done some drawing for my high-school paper and I'd been to art school, so I went out and peddled drawings." In his first year as a cartoonist, the 23-year-old artist made 84,000, "and the four of us lived splendidly." There was even a sale to The New Yorker, then as now the premier market for comic art. Artistically, he was launched but it was his sense of responsibility that kept him bent over the drawing board. As he once put it, "I flew out of the nest with my parents on my back."

Since that first New Yorker cartoon in 1930, showing one prison inmate telling another, "My son's incorrigible, I can't do a thing with him," Steig has produced 117 covers and more than 1,600 drawings for the magazine. There he was encouraged to give free rein to his increasingly elliptical humor and his feather-light but incisive take on human foibles. Steig's kingdom of satyrs,suitors, hectoring spouses, childlike damsels, clueless dogs and out-of-work jesters, all laid down in spidery, baroque pen and ink, have cemented his reputation as perhaps this century's most innovative cartoonist. Moreover, the visual narrative sequences that he developed for The New Yorker helped pave the way for his second, equally successful career, as a children's book writer. Since 1968, when he was 60, Steig has won every children's book award in sight, including the coveted Caldecott Medal for his second storybook, "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble," and has sold dose to 2 million copies of his 25 titles. "I wouldn't just classify him as a cartoonist," says George Booth, whose own cartoon style tips its hat to Steig in every line. "He's an artist."

Steig's latest book, Grown-Ups Get to Do All the Driving (Harper-Collins. $15), provides an excellent chance to see how far he's come. A series of variations on the theme of how children see adults ("Grown-ups make you go to the dentist," "Grown-ups are always weighing themselves"), the book harks back to Steig's 1944 collection, "Small Fry," a series of conventionally drawn comic visions of childhood. In the new book, Steig is not looking at childhood; his identification with kids as underdogs ("Kids have to live with adults," he points out) is complete. More important, the deceptively relaxed drawing, somehow both knowing and innocent, carries more than half the load. You can look at these pictures and never read a caption and still crack up, "Small Fry" is the work of a talented funnyman. "Grown-Ups" is the work of a master.

Steig dislikes his publisher's decision to market "Grown-Ups" for both adults and children. "That book's not for kids," he grumbles. In his mind, there has always been a clear division between his two careers. The drawings embody his art. The kids' books were undertaken to make a living. Anxious to escape the advertising work that he did to help pay the bills (advertising, for Steig, "wasn't a clean thing for an artist"), he turned to kids' books as a more savory way to support his increasingly extended family, which by 1968 had grown to include three children and three ex-wives.

The drawing in Steig's children's books, magically illuminated with watercolor washes, is a simpler, more straightforward version of his work for adults. The big surprise is the stories themselves. Animal tales mostly, they are told in language that somehow manages to be both sophisticated and unpretentious. "His use of crazy, complicated language is what's so charming, because kids love the sound of words," says Maurice Sendak. Steig's readers get to flex their verbal muscles on words like minuscule, odoriferous and avail, but they also get to enter a world that is often dangerous but more often wonderful, not to mention funny. Boris, the beached whale in "Amos & Boris," looks "breaded with sand." In "Shrek!," the ogreish Shrek accosts a peasant "singing and scything. 'You there, varlet,' said Shrek. 'Why so blithe?'" In "Dr. De Soto," a fox with a toothache visits the eponymous dentist, a mouse. "On his way home, he wondered flit would be shabby of him to eat the De Sotos when the job was done."

One of the best explanations of Steig's success with children is that he refuses to be sentimental about them. Asked if he gets many letters from his young readers, Steig says, "Oh, millions of them, but it's not spontaneous. They're made to do it by teachers. And they all say the same thing: 'Dear Mr. Steig, I read your book. I liked the part where the pig does this and that. Sorry, I have to go now'." Sendak praises Steig's stories for being "marvelously untouched by adult experience," and Jeanne Steig notes a "childlike" quality in her husband. But when the question is put to Steig himself, he just rolls his eyes. "If I say I feel like a child," he mutters, "it just means I'm a little stupid." Spoken like a true kid.

His steely blue eyes are still shrewd; his battleship-gray hair is still bushy; his voice remains firm. But creeping deafness and an emphysemiac's cough are heavy-treading hints that age is catching up with Steig. Still, although he calls himself "retired," he continues to draw, and he has another children's book in the works. And every day, this disciple of the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich still climbs into his "or-gone energy accumulator," a metal-lined wooden cabinet designed by Reich to capture "orgone energy," a natural atmospheric force that, according to Reich, can treat ailments ranging from cancer to impotence. A Reich disciple since the '40s, Steig has lately acquired an orgone blanket, and soon, he reports happily. "I hope to get an orgone vest."

About Reich, Steig never kids around. On almost any other subject, you can never be sure. For example, what of his insistence that he is an artist, not a writer, or his claim that be does the kids' books just to make a living and that "it's not a result of inspiration"? Is he serious, or is this sly old artist just doing what he can to keep the gods of pomposity at bay? But he's not finished. "I see very little of kids' books," he insists. "And I'm not interested in the other guys as competition." "Well, you're not a very competitive person," his wife says sweetly. And it's this comment that brings the mask down at last. "Well," he responds, with a sheepish grin, "I do like to be the best."

Cartoon: Grown-ups get to do all the driving by William Steig