Marisa Acocella Marchetto is going through a rebellious phase. After years of over-plucking her brows, she’s decided to let them grow.
“Beauty is a little bit confining,” she said, speaking over lunch in late January. “There are certain pressures to keep the manicured look, the brows up, the contouring thing. I hated that.”
Marchetto, an illustrator, The New Yorker cartoonist, and New York Times best-selling graphic novelist, is familiar with those codified aesthetic constraints because her work is obsessed with detailing the absurdity of the beautiful people of Manhattan fashion, society, and media, and it’s that whip-smart, sardonic eye she’s bringing to W with a new regular column called “Tongue in Chic.” (Her debut is here.)
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“I’m not really about being buffed and manicured,” she said. “Right now, this is me.” After a career that’s spanned a tenure as a cartoonist for Glamour and The New Yorker and three graphic novels (including the acclaimed Cancer Vixen and Ann Tenna), Marchetto was in a reflective mood. It was the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration and two days before the Women’s March on Washington swept across the country, becoming the single-largest demonstration in American history.
“It seems like the ’70s all over again,” Marchetto observed. She had been friends with Bella Abzug, the lawyer and congresswoman who championed the Equal Rights Amendment. “She was such a powerful voice for women back then. She was exactly who you’d think she was—a loud-mouthed, brassy woman with the biggest heart in the world.”
Marchetto, a staunch feminist herself and a breast-cancer survivor (a saga detailed in Cancer Vixen), established a foundation for women undergoing treatment at the Mount Sinai Beth Israel Comprehensive Cancer Center that offers free holistic care like yoga, meditation, and arts and crafts, and that helps fund mammograms and screenings. In her work, too, her protagonists tend to be women, whether of the society or supernatural variety—there’s also a strong science fiction current running through Marchetto’s catalogue. A fan of all the classics—Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey—she recently re-watched the original Star Trek series, and she was adamant that Captain Kirk’s ankle trousers, turtleneck, and black boots are having a moment.
Marchetto approaches her work with an anthropologist’s analytical eye. “I’m obsessed with people,” she said. “I love finding out what people are doing, what they’re thinking, what they’re wearing, why they’re wearing it.” Then, she writes about it—either fictitiously, as in the science fiction-inflected graphic novel Ann Tenna and her myriad cartoons, or autobiographically, as in Cancer Vixen. Though her illustrations often satirize image-obsessed celebrity and society culture, it’s always with a loving, playful eye—the eye of a woman who is at once a part of, and apart from, the world she observes.
Marchetto has never not had a pen in her hand. Her mother, Violetta, designed shoes and illustrated a style report for Delman, and Marchetto grew up imitating her style—doodling lithe, ’60s supermodels, and, of course, shoes. Even now, there’s one shoe she keeps coming back to—an embellished, square-toed slide her mother designed for Jackie Kennedy, which the first lady wore, paired with a custom Oleg Cassini design, to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration.
“Whenever I feel stressed now, some people eat—of course, I do too—but I’ll do drawings of shoes to calm down,” she said, pulling out an inky black pen and unlined Moleskine notebook to sketch the shoe she referenced. As she drew, a few brusque lines quickly came together in the shape of a mule, a block heel, a pearl-embellished upper, coming together in a clear image of a shoe Alessandro Michele has since adapted at Gucci—like Pictionary, if the answer were given clearly instead of to be divined.
To Marchetto, though, these static drawings weren’t quite satisfying. They didn’t say anything, she told me. She eventually entered corporate advertising—she tells a story about the creative director on the Burger King account, Jim, who would rise at 6 a.m. to work on his novel before work. No one at the office took his aspirations particularly seriously; turns out, Jim would become James Patterson. And while Jim pursued his art, Marchetto felt stymied.
In 1969, Marchetto’s family had taken a vacation to Bermuda, staying at the Lantana resort—in a house on the outskirts of the property that had once been home to New Yorker cartoonist James Thurber.
“I saw these drawings with the captions, the cartoons,” she said, tearing open four packets of sugar and dumping them into her cappuccino, “and realized that these women could talk.” She had always drawn powerful women—whether literally super-powerful, like the superheroines she had admired on television since she was a child, or pop cultural hallmarks of the ’60s and ’70s ranging from Twiggy to Mary Tyler Moore to the detective series Honey West, all of which have proved fertile inspiration. But it wasn’t until she stumbled on Thurber’s work that she realized her characters might also have voices.
So when she grew frustrated by her office job, she turned instead to art—first exorcising that frustration with a drawing of a woman placing a gun to her mouth, captioned “She was a little upset during the meeting.” Much like her creative process—she starts with a character, rather than any kind of storyboard—it was spontaneous, quasi-spiritual. (She lit a votive candle and called upon every higher power in the book before she turned to her sketch pad—and in return, she accidentally set her hair on fire.) Then, her second career took shape.
This year, Marchetto is entering something of a third movement, on her own for the first time in a while, with a new column and the prospect of her first film: In 2013, Cancer Vixen entered development with Julie Delpy attached to write and direct. But, Marchetto told me, she’s not sure what comes next.
“I do totally fly by the seat of my pants,” she said. “I don’t mind,” she added with a laugh. “At least I’m flying.”
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