An Interview with Cartoonist Henry McCarthy

(This interview was originally published on

Henry McCarthy’s unique cartoons, comics, and fine art illustrations take place often in every-day settings. Like rainy coffee shops, during commutes to work, on the bus.

Henry’s art ranges from sci-fi surrealism with giant turtles to portraits of an artist daydreaming at his desk.

Andrew Cheek: How did you first get started as a cartoonist and illustrator?

Henry McCarthy: I had a love of drawing since a very early age, and I was lucky to have parents that encouraged it. My brothers and I grew up with our own characters and little comic books we would create, and one day I discovered the joy of making Post-it Note flipbooks. I continued animating with the flipbooks throughout middle-school and early high-school but recently moved to the much faster and economic digital animation.

Most of what I have learned about design and the various techniques of drawing I taught myself through trial and error, scribbled in the margins of countless notebooks through school, and then clipboards and sketchbooks. I have always had a love of the human form, specifically faces and hands. I love how much emotion and character they can portray, and I try to illustrate character and personality in every sketch I make.

Andrew: Your cartoons and comics have many of the same characters and settings throughout (coffee shops especially); are there any specific ideas or themes you seek to portray?, if so, what are they?

Henry: I have always loved animated short stories, and if it were up to me it’s all I would ever make. I love the ones especially that have zero dialogue, where the whole story is portrayed through the visuals and the movement. I always kind of saw the McCartoons series as visual poems, or sentences. Some of them have more direct “story-lines,” where others are more like visions of the different aspects or struggles of life with the bar for absurdity or surrealism stretched out a bit more. Others I make just because I want to tell some silly joke. Some have specific emotions I try to portray, but I try to leave at least a little bit of it up to interpretation (much like poetry).

I try to keep at least the character or the feelings somewhat realistic, yet set in a world where the rules are changing and unpredictable, and time itself seems to operate differently. Obviously there is an order of events, only because I can only finish one after the other, but I never really saw it as a serialized, over-arching storyline. Maybe the hypothetical order of things is just jumbled, or maybe all of these events are happening at once, and maybe the timeline simply doesn’t matter.

“I have always had a love of the human form, specifically faces and hands. I love how much emotion and character they can portray, and I try to illustrate character and personality in every sketch I make.”

Henry at home: a cartoonist’s workplace

Andrew: What plans do you have in the coming months for your art? Any new comics or projects you’ve been working on or would like to pursue?

Henry: I’ll keep on working on the McCartoons series as the inspiration comes and evolves, including both the animations and the comic strips (though moreso the animation). I have been working on a project with my older brother for more than two years now, it began as a comic book but has turned into an animated short that will hopefully lead to a cartoon TV show. Other than that, I also have been offered some other cartoon show “pitch short” projects, and I hope to pursue expanding my commission and freelance artwork in graphic design, illustration, storyboarding, and animation.

“Something Red” by Henry McCarthy

Andrew: What book(s) are you reading right now and, perhaps more generally, what inspires you?

Henry: I have been trying to get through Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media for at least a year now, and I recently started re-reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, where he dissects and examines the media of comics in a very McLuhan fashion, but much more digestible and articulated (McLuhan is a very smart man, not the greatest writer). I will also read just about anything by Isaac Asimov, fiction or not.

As far as animation inspiration goes, my favorite directors include Hayao Miyazaki, Shinichiro Watanabe, Satoshi Kon, Andrew Stanton, and Katsuhiro Otomo. Two of my biggest influences in animation are currently “Cowboy Bebop” by Sunrise animation studio, and the recent Cartoon Network miniseries “Over the Garden Wall” by Patrick McHale. They continuously inspire me with their execution of visual and emotional storytelling through the use of music, conservative dialogue, character design, and the appreciation of the hand-drawn medium.

I enjoy a mix of both western and eastern animation. Some influential western shows like “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and “Batman the Animated Series” feature many eastern animation studios like TOI Animation or TMS Entertainment. Recently however, more western animation studios like Frederator or Titmouse, and of course Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, have begun to grow domestically in terms of hand-drawn animation, and the rise in quality of western cartoons inspires and motivates me to continue pursue animation as a career.

Drawing of a Cave, by Henry McCarthy

My comic strip series was started in high-school, and were very much inspired by a series of strips called “The Bus” by Paul Kirchner, originally published in Heavy Metal Magazine. “The Bus” features many surreal and almost Escher-esque situations, parodying or poking fun at multiple media and life experiences, while consistently featuring the character of the bus. Gary Larson’s “The Far Side,” and Bill Waterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” also inspired much of the comic strip character and style.

Andrew: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Henry: I take a lot of inspiration from music in most aspects of my life, but especially in animation. The pairing of visual movement with music can be very effective at telling stories or eliciting certain emotions. Things like “Fantasia” come to mind, but also just things like music videos. I always have a song in my head, and I began the McCartoons series because I had Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” stuck in my head for about two weeks straight at the time (not complaining), and it just turned into a silly joke about loving coffee, with the set-up of the pretty waitress being the one assumed to have been “loved for too long.” After I finished the first cartoon (took about eight hours in one sitting to complete), I began to search for other songs that I could write little stories to, giving myself the boundaries of about 30–45 seconds, or one musical “paragraph” to write a short story.

I tried to pick songs that had some meaning to me, or songs that I just really enjoy, or I just went with songs that stayed stuck in my head for a long time (“My Prayer” by The Ink Spots, used in the cartoon titled “linger,” and “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears For Fears, used in “world” would very often find themselves stuck in my head). Being that within the last two years I have begun to experiment with digital animation software, I am now able to animate alongside sound and music, having previously only had access to Post-it Note technology.

I’ll listen to all sorts of music, and after finding a moment in a particular song that I can envision some sort of premise, I listen to it on repeat a few times and work out the rough timing and compositions of each shot.

Then, as I spend more hours and hours listening to the same ten seconds of a song, I’ll notice more about each of the different layers: the instruments, the timing, the patterns. After the rough “storyboard” has been timed out, and I begin to draw each frame, different objects and characters begin to respond to the different layers of the music, and each small movement becomes in some way related to the sounds.

To see more of Henry’s comics, cartoons, and illustrations check out his: Instagram or visit his Website.

Enjoy this conversation? Read my latest interview with pianist Seymour Bernstein here.

Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.