April 08, 1991 12:00 PM

Like many young bartenders working the watering holes of New York City, Danny Shanahan had grander ambitions. Broadway? Movie scripts? Hardly. He aspired to establish a New Yorker record for Elvis cartoons. Like the one he drew of a chicken decked out in a white jumpsuit and sporting a swirly Elvis pompadour and muttonchop sideburns. The caption read, “Chicken à la King.”

Instead the cartoonist seemed to be heading toward a New Yorker rejection record. Starting in 1986, the magazine said no to 13 batches of drawings. Then in 1988, shortly after he and his wife, Janet, 31, a dance teacher, struck out for a new life in Corrales, N.Mex., the 14th submission came back. This time it was accompanied by an editor’s Spartan message: “Holding two.” One, published the following spring, depicted a drowning man calling to his collie, “Lassie! Get Help!!” and then, in a second panel, the dog holding forth on a psychiatrist’s couch. “It’s amazing you can make a living doing this,” says Shanahan, 34, who recently published his first collection.

The fourth eldest of 11 children raised by Bernie and Kay Shanahan in a rambling Bethlehem, Conn., farmhouse, Danny became a cartoonist in the ninth grade when he and a friend created “Man Cat,” a creature with a human body and the head of a saber-toothed tiger. He skipped college and knocked around in a series of menial jobs but kept drawing. “I just didn’t know what path to take,” he says.

Nowadays his imaginary world is populated by precocious children, surly animals and balding men who, like the one clutching the spire of the Empire State Building (“Kong for a Day”), are baffled by life. And yes, four Elvis cartoons have been published in the New Yorker so far. In case anyone should doubt Shanahan’s quest, the cartoonist will be glad to introduce his year-old son, Renny, by his proper given name: Render Elvis.

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