She’s the reigning Queen of Worry. Without a doubt, Roz Chast, best known for her quirky cartoons in The New Yorker, knows what trouble is. Her award-winning graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” is a harrowing tale of the trials and tribulations she witnessed, and endured, as her 90-something parents faced “The End.” The story poignantly plays out on a long wall in “Cartoon Memoirs,” a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York featuring more than 200 cartoons from the last four decades of this funny woman’s career.
Chast, 61, was born and raised in Brooklyn, but not in the fashionable parts. She grew up in Kensington/Parkview, or, as she called it at a preview of her show, “deepest Brooklyn, in the middle.”
The only child of a public school teacher and an assistant principal, she was often on her own. Sketching helped her pass the time: “I was always drawing, always wanted to draw. It was an outlet.” She went to Midwood High School and graduated in 1977 from the Rhode Island School of Design, where she majored in painting.
The following year, she submitted an eccentric cartoon to The New Yorker — and it was accepted. “I thought I’d be lucky to go to The Village Voice,” she said about her good fortune. “It’s still thrilling when they buy a cartoon and depressing when they don’t.”
The piece, “Little Things,” is a collection of unrecognizable shapes with unrecognizable names — “chent”, “spak”, “kabe”, “tiv” and other nonsensical words. It caught the eye of famed editor William Shawn and launched her career.
The show begins with a selection of her covers for the magazine. Her first, dated Aug. 4, 1986, tells the story of “plain vanilla” ice cream, featuring a single scoop at the top of the drawing, with myriad permutations radiating out from the original scoop. It’s a family tree of ice cream, with descending sodas, cones, sandwiches, sundaes, pops — you name it. A “scientist” in a white lab coat taps a pull-down screen with a long pointer and explains it all.
More concretely, literally, there’s Chast’s Second Avenue subway cover, from March 2012. In her inimitable absurdist fashion, she maps the fraught project’s long and winding road to completion, from El Barrio to the Financial District by way of “Brighton Beach, the Yukon and Saturn.”
In his introduction to “Theories of Everything,” a compilation of her favorite cartoons, the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, calls her “an innovator” and marvels that “Roz is always creating something different: fake greeting cards, a triptych of fake Sylvia Plath poems ... . [She] has never fallen into set patterns.”
Her creativity, wry humor and sheer zaniness are in full force at the museum. A distinctly New York sensibility colors her view of the world. She explores universal themes (parenthood, phobias, illness, urban living, suburban living, the holidays, death), but through a New York lens — despite having left New York for Connecticut in 1990. As with Jerry Seinfeld, no topic is too mundane. There’s no subject that doesn’t have a funny side. And like Woody Allen, she specializes in neuroses. Anxiety is her beat.
Organizers have highlighted her city cartoons. At the museum’s request, she created “Subway Sofa,” a black-and-white mural in the anteroom that she painted on the premises in early April. It imagines a cozy living room in a New York City subway car, with “X” train commuters huddled on a sofa en route to “The Unknown.”
Look out for “The Greek Chorus of Apartment 7-H” (2004), a loony drawing of a middle-class mother, father and son seated on a sofa, watching TV, while an imagined Greek chorus intones: “While they are watching a reality show, polar ice caps are melting!”/“Also, many people are starving!!”/“What can be done about it? Who knows? Maybe nothing!!!”
Start worrying — or laughing, or both. When Chast is not fretting about doctors, elevators, water bugs and getting lost, she takes us to the “Planet of Lost Luggage” in Scottsboro, Alabama, where she went on assignment for now-defunct DoubleTake Magazine in 1998. But this is no imaginary place; it’s an actual warehouse for “stuff people left on planes,” with “a rack full of beige trench coats,” she explained to peels of laughter during the preview.
The darkly funny Charles Addams is her cartoon hero, but she’s also drawn inspiration from Edward Gorey, Winsor McCay (“Little Nemo”) and Alison Bechdel, among many others. She said that she “loves the cartoon medium. You can combine words and pictures, interweave the two, and can do anything in the panels. It’s a one-person operation.”