William Steig, an illustrator for The New Yorker, created the green ogre Shrek, who'd go on to movie fame with the DreamWorks films and hits the stage in a Broadway-bound production, "Shrek the Musical," playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre Aug. 14-Sept. 21, 2008.

Share story

When he sketched out the outsize stocky body of Shrek, in his book of the same title, the late William Steig never imagined his charming tale about a benign, swamp-dwelling ogre would become a phenomenon.

After all, Steig only began to turn out books for children at age 60. At the time, he was already a long-celebrated (and adult-oriented) cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine.

But children’s literature turned out to be a natural progression for the prolific Steig — and a boon for young readers.

“This was not disconnected from the rest of his career,” says Claudia Nahson, curator of “From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig,” a 2008 exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York. (The traveling show is now in San Francisco, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, through Sept. 7.)

Most Read Entertainment Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“Steig loved children, he loved to write, he loved to draw,” Nahson notes. “He said the secret to his success was that he never really grew up.”

Born in 1907, to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the baseball-loving, Bronx-bred Steig mined his talent for drawing to help support his family during the Great Depression. He made his first cartoon sale to The New Yorker in 1930, the start of his seven-decade stint at the magazine.

Steig’s New Yorker output: more than 1,600 cartoons and 120 cover illustrations. He refined a witty, whimsical visual style there, and you can see its influence on such current New Yorker cartoonists as Roz Chast.

As Steig’s obituary in The New York Times put it (he died in 2003 at age 95), his “squiggly” line drawings often depicted “satyrs, damsels, dogs and drunks.” And his world view was unsentimental but humane, playful, earthy and acerbic.

Fascinated by psychoanalysis, he also illustrated books by the controversial psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, then created book-length collections of drawings as well as humorous sketches for cocktail napkins and greeting cards.

During the 1960s, a colleague urged Steig to come up with a storybook for kids. “He was reluctant at first,” says Nahson, “because he didn’t like to draw the same characters multiple times. He liked to draw something, then move on.”

But beginning with the 1968 tome “Roland the Minstrel Pig” (about a lute-playing porker), Steig found an eager young audience for his fables — many of which featured animal characters, including “Doctor DeSoto” (about a dentist with a fox patient), and “Abel’s Island” (about a mouse swept away in a storm).

Out of more than two dozen titles, Steig’s most popular kids book today is surely “Shrek!”(The title, ironically, is a Yiddish word for fear or terror). The 1990 tome originated the story of a misanthropic, green-headed ogre befriended by a donkey and beloved by an ogre princess.

“Shrek is an anti-hero, and Steig always said the perfect hero is a flawed hero,” says Nahson. “He always identified with the underdog.”

When DreamWorks wanted to make a feature film of the book, Steig agreed — and, in a Boston Globe interview, said he received $500,000 for the rights, less than he expected. (The first “Shrek” ultimately earned hundreds of millions of dollars, and spun off two lucrative sequels.)

Intrigued with the project, Steig “wrote notes to the producers, which I put in the museum show, sharing ideas he had for the script,” Nahson explains. “The first of the ‘Shrek’ movies is really the closest to his work.”

Lesser known films were made earlier of several Steig books (“Abel’s Island,” “Doctor DeSoto,” “Pete’s a Pizza”). But the huge critical and commercial response to “Shrek” (released in 2001), amazed the artist.

He even became a fan himself. Recounts Nahson, “Steig was very old by then, in his 90s. But he went to see the movie and was asked his opinion. He said something like, ‘It’s vulgar, it’s disgusting — and I love it!’ “

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com