Mad Men recaps take a picturesque turn with Penelope Metcalf’s New Yorker cartoons

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Artist Penny Metcalf works from her kitchen in Sydney. Photo: Michele MossopWhen Martin Frawley’s band Twerps got a brief but favourable write-up in the Night Life section of The New Yorker in March – the Melbourne quartet being praised for its “upbeat, carefree sound” and “excellent vocal melodies” – his mum Penelope was understandably proud.
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A month later, she has herself joined the pantheon, with her comic-strip recaps of the final season of Mad Men – illustrated by her, with dialogue by American writer Heather Havrilesky – being published on The New Yorker website.

“I so wanted to be able to say to him, ‘Hey guess what … ‘,” Metcalf says. “Because we have this joke that I’m just trying to get on his bandwagon.”

The strip was born when Metcalf, a painter with a Masters degree from the Victorian College of the Arts, visited the US earlier this month. In Los Angeles, she caught up with her “very sassy” writer friend Havrilesky, an occasional contributor to The New Yorker’s humour page, Shouts & Murmurs.

Havrilesky raised the idea of doing something on Mad Men; she suggested Metcalf try her hand at some character sketches; she shopped the idea around and, soon enough, The New Yorker bit. The first two strips – each recapping one episode – debuted on Tuesday.

For Metcalf, who sketches the panels by hand in the kitchen of her Sydney home before reworking them on an app on her iPad, it was a leap into the unknown.

“Heather wanted line sketches originally and that’s not really what I do,” says Metcalf, who is more used to painting domestic landscapes (towers of cups and jugs jostling for cupboard space) and suburban architecture (1960s streetscapes that suggest a mash-up of Howard Arkley and Edward Hopper). “In the end I just said, ‘I’ll do these beautiful portraits and you can be as disrespectful as you like with the text’.”

Her Don Draper is, she says, “as dumb as a thumb, and he’s shaped a bit like a thumb – it’s a thumbnail sketch”. She’s slowly building a library of characters – each picture takes eight to 10 hours to create – and may do a few variations – Roger with and without moustache, for example, Stan with and without beard, a glamorous Megan and Megan “in her Lady of the Canyon mode – I keep on thinking they’re going to do a Sharon Tate thing there”.

Of course, there’s every chance we’ve seen the last of Megan, and Metcalf knows that what she creates will be dictated by what happens on the show. Which, incidentally, she is a little ambivalent about.

“All the men in it are utter duds and all the women get completely done over,” she says. “They set up all this stuff and never do anything with it, which is why I don’t mind taking the piss. There’s all this detail without much meat being made of it.

“They could have done more with the lying you do in advertising versus the lying you do in real life; they could have had more fun with it. It’s a strangely dissatisfying effect the show has.”

Soon enough it will all be over, which is part of the appeal. “I like that it’s finite.”

Havrilesky is already wondering what they may tackle next – “she’s saying ‘what about Game of Thrones?’ but it’s hundreds of characters” – but one show is certainly off-limits.

“I think Parks and Recreation is the most perfect beast there is,” Metcalf says. “You can’t recap that because it’s already so funny. You could only do it as a homage.”

On twitter: @karlkwin

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