Comic Relief: Ben Schwartz’08

By Sharon Tregaskis

Every Tuesday morning, Ben Schwartz’08 packs up a sheaf of 9x12 Bristol paper featuring 10 original cartoons and heads for the New Yorker’s headquarters. In the magazine’s Cartoon Lounge, he swaps tall tales with the competition—15 or more fellow artists, from first-timers to industry veterans—as he awaits his turn with Bob Mankoff, the magazine’s cartoon editor.

Their meeting lasts just minutes, as the editor considers each of the drawings. The editor sets aside his favorites for discussion with the magazine’s editorial staff and hands back the rest. With as many as 300 proposals on any Tuesday and slots for just 10 cartoons in each issue, the competition is stiff. On a good Friday, Dr. Schwartz gets word that the venerable weekly intends to purchase one, perhaps even two, of his sketches.

Dr. Schwartz made his first foray into the cartoonist’s inner sanctum in 2011. “First thing Bob said was, ‘Well, you can draw,’” says Dr. Schwartz. “That wasn’t particularly a compliment, just an observation. But it was profoundly moving. It’s one thing for your medical school classmates to say, ‘Hey, you’re a pretty good artist’ but another thing for an incredibly accomplished cartoonist to offer external validation.” The New Yorker has since purchased 90 sketches by Dr. Schwartz, each with the artist’s angular signature in the corner.

In his fifth-grade yearbook, Dr. Schwartz listed his professional trajectory as “a comic book artist or a doctor” and he landed his first paying gig as a cartoonist at age 15 (for a necktie ad campaign). Academically, he excelled, earning an MD from P&S and landing an internship at NewYork-Presbyterian. All the while, his misgivings multiplied. “I kept hoping that I’d flunk out,” he recalls, “that someone would identify me as a fraud and say, ‘You can’t be here. You’re not one of us.’”

At the end of his internship, Dr. Schwartz opted to forgo further medical training to start drawing in earnest. Sometimes in the Cartoon Lounge, another scribbler will introduce him as a physician. Dr. Schwartz corrects them. “I say a fake doctor, or kind of a doctor—doctor-ish, maybe,” he says. He is equally cautious about the sources from which he draws inspiration. “Doctors and medicine are good fodder and I definitely have a handful of pieces about that stuff,” he says, “but I try not to let that define me as a general gag cartoonist.”

In 2012, Columbia’s Department of Ophthalmology invited Dr. Schwartz to work with a member of the faculty to supplement the standard introductory curriculum with a series of interactive, online learning modules presented in a humorous, comic book format. More recently, Rita Charon, MD, PhD, director of the narrative medicine program, invited him to teach a course on the graphic novel. He is now included on Dr. Charon’s faculty for the narrative medicine elective taught at P&S every spring. He also teaches first-year P&S students in the “Foundations of Clinical Medicine” course and has mentored students on visual arts as part of their scholarly projects.

Last fall, Deborah Cabaniss, MD, director of the P&S Virginia Apgar Academy of Medical Educators, engaged him to develop a series of training videos with academy members. The first two, on planning effective learning objectives and on giving feedback in the clinical setting, were posted on YouTube in July. “One of the reasons I wasn’t happy on the traditional doctor path is that I just felt disconnected from the work I was doing,” he says. Blame it on artistic ego, says Dr. Schwartz, but he craved a professional path to which he alone was uniquely suited. “Now,” he says, “I feel like I am doing that.”