Shit My New Yorker Cartoons

All about New Yorker Cartoons, in intelligent, unsparing detail.

Mar 25

More about this blog, in our reasonable voice

More about this blog

SMNYC is about looking at the current cartoons in The New Yorker magazine, which has owned the title of Standard-Bearer for Single Panel Cartoons in America for a good number of decades. I think The New Yorker, as standard-bearer, deserves some scrutiny now and then. I think they have allowed the art form - the particular art form of the single panel gag - to falter. They frequently publish sloppily considered and technically amateurish cartoons, something they would never ever do in any essay, story or journalism piece, or even an illustration elsewhere in the magazine. (I can’t speak about the poetry or Shouts and Murmurs, because of my lack of expertise and my disinterest, respectively.) The New Yorker, in terms of writing and illustration, is the best general interest magazine in the country. It rewards and celebrates intelligence and curiosity. 

For reasons I can’t understand, none of this is consistently true of the cartoons. They hit their high points now and then, but this is a standard 100% of the essays and illustrations are held to, not just some now and then.

I’m not advocating a return to the “good old days” of the magazine;  I suspect the good old days had their share of mediocre or half-witted cartoons as well, and I want to research this. If I find a similar proportion of badly drawn and mundane comics in issues going back 30 years, 50 years, 80 years, then I’ll admit defeat. But I suspect that on the level of craft: that is, succinctly writing jokes and combining them with witty drawings with originality and technical verve, that I will find my thesis correct: things were better than. Surely in those earlier decades there are bound to be topical gags that fall flat now, and heaven knows, sexist gags that are not only sexist but banal. 

But, at risk of sounding like an old crank, a whole cartooning culture is at risk of going down the tubes. Comic strips in the newspaper, for instance, are all but dead. A good number of popular webcomics have picked up the audience-slack, but these are often amateurish. What happens is that new generations of young artists think that these are what comic strips can be and then they copy bad copies of copies. They will never see a Pogo. They will never see a Krazy Kat.

I think this is happening in The New Yorker as well. If a young and funny single-panel cartoonist in his teens opens The New Yorker, he or she should see the best the form is capable of. He/she should aspire to that. If this cartoonist can’t tell what his or her options and tools are in creating this form, if he/she can’t tell what makes a good drawing from a bad, or a good gag from a bad, then we’re failing as culture-keepers. The culture WILL go down the tubes. Decades from now someone will find a Booth book or a Searle book or even a Chast book and be surprised that they’ve never seen cartoons so original. It’s already happening with Gary Larson, and most kids who would love a Charles Addams cartoon have never seen one. It would blow their minds! I digress.

Anecdotal and some empirical evidence tells me that today’s New Yorker cartoons are designed to fade into the background, to be invisible, to inspire a chuckle. A cartoonist friend believes the problem is that “The New Yorker believes humor can be genteel, but it cannot be.” He may be right. I’m not sure.

The word on the street is that the method of submitting cartoons to is so grueling that the best cartoonists are submitting the best they could do in the time they had. But I doubt they would allow that of Malcolm Gladwell.

Some of the empirical evidence that tells me that the magazine itself is shooting for middlebrow (again, something they do not do with their essays and journalism), is the abundance of cartoonists publishing their “rejected gags.” And good for them. These gags are often much funnier than the ones that are approved. Why? I don’t know. But with this blog, we’re trying to get at some of the issues.

I say “we” because I want your feedback. Though I can’t figure out how to get endless comments on  Tubmlr, click TALKBACK above and continue the conversation. Or have it elsewhere, reasonably.