Wit and social commentary by cats

Malibuite Leo Cullum signs a copy of his newly released book of cartoons, "Cockatiels For Two," at Diesel, A Bookstore on Sunday. Pam Linn / TMT

To see Leo Cullum quietly signing his books at Diesel, A Bookstore, it’s easy to match him with the economy of his drawings, the spare captions for his cartoons. No scripted talk or literary discussion, he simply talks with friends who are buying books for themselves and for gifts.

It’s a low-key kind of family affair with his wife, Kathy, and two daughters out of college for the holidays chatting with Malibu neighbors. One would not guess this soft-spoken man to possess the biting wit that has made his work a mainstay of The New Yorker for decades.

“Cockatiels For Two,” his newest release published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., is a collection of cat cartoons. “The better portion of them first appeared in The New Yorker,” he says. “I filled in with some originals and reprints from Barron’s and the Harvard Business Review.”

Copies of his first, “Scotch and Toilet Water?” a book about dogs, and “Tequila Mockingbird,” which includes cartoons of all animals, were stacked on the table waiting to be signed. “These should put me back on the bestseller list,” Cullum quips.

“It’s the perfect gift,” LynRae McClintock says. “I keep one for house guests. It puts a smile on their faces.”

Since he retired three years ago from his career as an airline pilot, almost all of it for TWA before that company was taken over by American, he has more time to devote to books. Two are in the planning stage, with the next to be about relationships. “And I’m about ready to get into the modern world with a Web site,” he says, which will make it easier for readers to find him. “The New Yorker sometimes sends me letters that are a year old.”

Although he really liked flying, he admits it was the right time to quit. “Flying just isn’t as much fun as it used to be, with all the new security, ” he says. “We used to show up an hour before the flight, but now everything takes too long. There are new procedures. You have to check the IDs of people you’ve been flying with for years.”

One of his cartoons reflects these new regulations. A woman with her cat in a carrier is stopped by a uniformed screener with a wand in his hand. He says, “We’ll have to declaw the cat.”

Retirement, which was mandatory at age 60, has also freed up some time for promotional book tours around the country. “We also went to San Francisco with ‘The Complete Bmayook of New Yorker Cartoons,’ a book and two-CD set, and I’ll be going to Dallas with that one, too.”

Cullum works in a studio at his Corral Canyon home, which is quieter now than it was when the children were growing up. “It’s just Kathy and two dogs and a cat,” he says.

While his pets’ behavior can be the source for cartoons, he likes to take words and phrases from popular culture as the basis for captions to animal cartoons. An example is a drawing of a cat beside its litter box, looking up at its person who says, “Never, ever, think outside the box.”

Cullum often dresses up his animal characters in human clothes. In one, a cat sits behind an office desk interviewing a mouse. The cat speaks into his intercom: “Janet, cancel my Guido’s reservation. I’ll be having lunch in the office.”

Whatever sparks the creative process on any given day, Cullum doesn’t wait around for inspiration. “I like to go down to the studio, I just like writing and drawing,” he says.

When he’s not doing his regular weekly cartoon for The New Yorker, he works on illustrations, advertising and greeting cards, new outlets for his remarkable art and wit.

“I may also be a painter one day,” he says. “But it’s hard getting started.”

Cullum’s books are available at Diesel, A Bookstore in the Malibu Creek Shopping Plaza.