NEW YORK — Ed Fisher, whose culturally savvy cartoons, featured in The New Yorker for nearly 50 years, made wry sport of modern life, frequently matching images from history or folklore with captions in an up-to-date mode, died April 3 in Canaan, Conn. He was 86.
Mr. Fisher had advanced dementia; he learned he had Alzheimer’s disease in 2000, his son, Mark, said.
An ancient history buff with a capacious memory and a keen observer of social behavior, Mr. Fisher created cartoons that managed to be erudite without being pretentious, requiring both a general recognition of the history of the world and a healthy appreciation of irony. He contributed to The Saturday Review, Harper’s, The Antioch Review, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications, but he was most closely associated with The New Yorker, which published more than 700 of his cartoons, the first in 1951, the last in 2000.
His images were full and fleshed out in a 1950s style — ‘‘as though drawn in charcoal,’’ said Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker — often with an elaborate background but simple faces. Many of his cartoons depicted characters who were likely to be New Yorker readers, which is to say sophisticated urbanites who relish a witty lampoon of their own recognizable universe.
‘‘Pam here is the winner of our ‘How small a salary can I live on?’ essay contest,’’ the boss says to his gathered staff. ‘‘The rest of you are fired.’’
A husband says to his wife as they watch a talking head on TV: ‘‘When did everything essential become quintessential?’’
But what most distinguished his work was the melding of the past, particularly the folkloric past, with the present, bringing one to bear on the other with anachronistic glee:
■ A princess gazes into a mirror and asks: ‘‘Who is the fairest one of all, and state your sources!’’
■ An ancient king on his throne receives the report of a bearded messenger: ‘‘The Athenians are here, Sire, with an offer to back us with ships, money, arms and men — and, of course, their usual lectures about democracy.’’
■ A family waits for Santa Claus on a snowy rooftop carrying protest signs: ‘‘Respect Reindeer Rights.’’ “End Night Work For Diurnal Animals,’’ “Return the Kris Kringle 8 to Their Natural Habitat.’’
■ One robed Egyptian to another, sitting glumly at a makeshift real estate office in front of a windowed pyramid: ‘‘If the occupancy sign-up rate keeps dropping, we may be forced to remodel the whole . . . thing for just one luxury-class tenant.’’
In an interview Friday, Mankoff summed up Mr. Fisher’s sensibility.
‘‘To get the captions, you had to have a real liberal arts education,’’ he said. ‘‘They were educated cartoons for an educated audience.’’ He paused, then added, ‘‘They had a timely timelessness.’’
Edwin Zalmon Fisher was born in the New York in 1926. His father, Lee, was a chiropractor; his mother, Betty, was a semiprofessional choral singer. He sold his first cartoons while he was at Antioch College in Ohio, from which he graduated, though his college career was interrupted by World War II. He served in the Pacific in the US Army Air Forces.
Mr. Fisher returned to New York after college with a wife, the former Ann Sharp, and settled in Upper Manhattan, where he lived for decades.
“He had the same phone number for 60 years,’’ his son said.
At first he tried to find work at graphic design studios, telling potential bosses that he had sold cartoons to The New Yorker, after which, according to family lore, he would not be hired because, he was told, he was overqualified.
Collections of Mr. Fisher’s work include ‘‘Ed Fisher’s First Folio,’’ “Ed Fisher’s Domesday Book’’ and ‘‘Maestro, Please,’’ a 1992 volume of cartoons about musicians. He was the author of a 1960 satiric novel set in ancient Rome, ‘‘Wine, Women, and Woad,’’ and until he lost the ability to write, his son said, he had been working on a historical novel that he had begun in childhood.
Mark Fisher said that years after his parents’ marriage ended in divorce, they remarried when his mother was ill with cancer; she died in 2000. In addition to his son, Mr. Fisher leaves a daughter, Nancy Rupert; a sister, Carol Romano, and two granddaughters.
Mr. Fisher’s final cartoon for The New Yorker was indicative of his gift for tapping into enduring themes. In it, two robed priests are walking among the empty pews of an imposing church. One says to the other, ‘‘It seems to me that ordination of women might brighten the place up a bit.’’