I Am Curious (Shit My New Yorker Cartoons)

Hello Internets,

Though the blog has only been up a few weeks, it's gotten a lot of positive feedback and though the cat and mouse game has been fun while the blog has been getting more and more attention, I'm announcing that I am that blogger, or Tumblr or whatever. I don't want to play mystery man, I want to get at the issues at hand.

The Issues at Hand

The quality of The New Yorker cartoons of the past few years has been The Thing Everyone Talks About That Nobody Talks About. You hear it at parties, you hear it in casual conversation. I hear it among cartoonists and I hear it among creative people of all stripes. People in publishing, people in the arts, yet also in more "mainstream", everyday-America: everywhere people will tell you that they don't get the cartoons, and they often don't read them. 

It's the creative people I'm mostly concerned with, because they are the base readership of the magazine. Every person curious and smart enough to be a New Yorker reader has a store of creative thought in their career or life somewhere. Whether they use it in finance or publishing or puppeteering or pickle-making, these are people who engage and want to be engaged. 

And The New Yorker engages. As I've said in some posts, the magazine is terrific, and rewards your intelligence and curiosity. Yet the cartoons do not seem to be a part of this mission. I don't know where in the System of Weekly Content Acquisition the problem lies, but something has been causing the New Yorker to consistently run lackluster if not downright badly executed cartoons for quite a long time.

Types of New Yorker Cartoons and Cartoonists

There are several types of cartoons The New Yorker runs. At their least problematic, the cartoons reward the readers' social self-awareness, rewarding the smart reader who knows his or her own neurosis, and his/her own particular brand of social game-playing. 

These cartoons which reward readers' social self-awareness often come in the form of a verbal quip. Not much of a picture is needed, and so if it's drawn reasonably well, we can see the characters saying it and understand who they are, then we get the joke, we see ourselves in it, and we move on.

There's much to be gained in this type of cartoon.  Changing society is hard- we have almost all dreamt about it; whether to make it more equitable or to make it work more in our favor. Since we can't change it, at least we can joke about it. I applaud that. And The New Yorker has a long history of these kinds of cartoons, witness almost anything by Peter Arno.

But the problem of late is lazy visual choices (technique, composition) and bad drawing that don't serve the gag. Anything that pollutes the gag or makes it difficult to comprehend is a problem that would never be allowed in other corners of the magazine. The New Yorker is a place of excellence. Not a single cartoon should fail to communicate. I think in the mere handful of issues I've critiqued, I've found a half dozen that are cluttered or visually incomprehensible, let alone the ones that if you ask me, don't try hard enough.

Which brings me to the next type of New Yorker gag. This would be the type of cartoon that actually shows you something happening in the panel. Real characters, real relationships, real happenings. To me, I find these the most rewarding cartoons. Maybe because I am a visual person or that I like the theater and see the panel as a sort of stage, but I also believe it is where you have the most opportunity for surprise. Look in any book or adage about humor and you will find surprise is always at the heart of it. A good, fresh visual can offer a surprise quickly and at a subconscious depth that the 140-character captions rarely can (but sometimes do.)

But a surprising image isn't enough. What must be inherent in every single visual in The New Yorker (and it is there in every illustration and cover image) is an inviting quality that draws the eye in and which brings the mind in with it. I know this is allusive, but bear with me. I'm saying the artist should give you a visual that is unthinkably rich and surprising. Turn the page in your New Yorker, look at an illustration by Tamaki or Banyai or Shimizu or Blitt or heavens, Tom Bachtell. These artists make pictures made to be seen. You bring your perceptions with it, your preconceptions (Maybe I don't know anything about The Yeah Yeah Yeahs or I hate T.S. Eliot) but you get an experience seeing that picture. You're a changed person. That's what art does. It changes you. 

The drawing in a New Yorker cartoon should invite you in, surprise and leave you changed, (even if it merely leaves you a little lighter.) They create big little worlds. George Booth images do this. So do Gahan Wilson, B. Kliban, Charles Addams, Price, Arno, etc. And let me again say the visual can and should be unthinkably or rather, indescribably rich: describing it at the dinner table a night later should fall short, because the drawing isn't there to pull you through the idea. 

Every artist, every cartoonist is different. Gary Larson told jokes in a much more nerdy, stiff way than say Lee Lorenz, who draws with a great joie de vivre, but Larson, though minimal, cleared everything out of the way so you could get to the gag, and what surprising and smart gags they were. There are a few New Yorker cartoonists who draw in a simple, uninflected style that gets the joke across, but I would argue that right now they need much more surprise in the mental/verbal part of the game to make their cartoons great. Sam Gross is someone who fits this bill: his ideas funny and original, his drawing simple and it doesn't get in the way. In the current stock of newcomers, I think Karen Sneider fits this. Her humor is terrifically original, and a stylistic push towards visual originality would help her cartoons soar.

To the artists who, through some enforced style make their drawings inviting and interesting, then finding the right balance in the tone of the caption is imperative. This would include PC Vey, cartoon editor Mankoff, BEK, and the cartoonist who signs his/her work Dd. They all do consistently good work in a heightened, mannered style.

Then there are the cartoonists who directly from their nervous systems, as I've said before discussing Maselin. This would certainly describe Booth and Wilson, as well as Koren, Lorenz, Roz Chast. These cartoonists are the equivalent of those singers who you say could "sing the phone book" and you would still listen. Their unique and genuine visual intonations give their cartoons a leg up on the merely verbal ones or the stylistically heightened ones- you engage with these drawings on a physical level.

The cartoonists who can do none of these things should not even be in the magazine.

There are three essential problems with many of The New Yorker cartoons these days:
  1. Bad craft, visual: Cluttered drawings, uninspired and inappropriate compositions, choice of technique which drags down the surprise/gag/joke, or makes the drawing difficult to read. In all instances, the idea is sacrificed and the cartoon suffers.
  2. Not trying hard enough, verbal dept. Boring quips, which sound familiar because you have already traded them over coffee or g-chat with your friend across town. In a content-heavy world, The New Yorker has to compete with thousands and thousands of other outlets for clever quipsters. Theirs had better either be very very good or have surprising, strong visuals to support them.
  3. Not trying hard enough, visual dept. As I continue to argue for more happening in the stage/window/panel, I realize this is subjective. I prefer a little more detail, more drama, more happening. I know the New Yorker likes to keep it understated. I'm not arguing for flagrant or gratuitous detail, I'm arguing for deeply imagined and perceived visual detail.
A note on craft. Visual craft for our purposes I would define as either of two traits, preferably both:

1. A complete subservience to the story, the gag, the narrative etc. Sometimes this needs a Larson, Weyant, Ziegler-like straightforwardness or it might need a PC Vey-like askew visual sensibility to heighten the gag.   
2. Recognizing your own unique visual style and honing it and becoming undeniably yourself. This is Roz Chast, for instance. Or Lorenz, Smaller, Sipress. 

The best artists do both, and in their cartoons the idea and visual almost seems inseparable. Again I'll mention Booth, Wilson, George Price, Steig, Kliban, (who as far as I know was only in the New Yorker once.)  
The lack of craft in today's New Yorker cartoons isn't merely a complaint about returning to the good ole days. I think Peter Arno's work might look grotesquely out of place today. No, the lack of craft is often ruining the jokes, and sometimes it's just failing to give the reader anything unique or excellent. The New Yorker is about excellence. It pays very well for those cartoons. Give readers cartoons that have earned their place.

Bottom line: The New Yorker should be trying harder to get great cartoons in there. This is the The Thing Everyone Talks About That Nobody Talks About. I started Shit My New Yorker Cartoons to talk about it.

Please check it out, and feel free please to comment, disagree, whatever.




K. Thor Jensen said…
I'm shocked by this revelation!
amy beth said…

sometimes i think critique is just what art school taught and it has no place in real life, but i think a forum such as tumblr is perfect and you're right about so much of what you say.

i have yet to read a really funny recent one.

i live in flyover country, so a lot of it is unrelateable to say the least.

you're great.
corin said…
I'm really glad you're doing this. And that I agree with you most of the time. Brave of you to reveal yourself!
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