I’ll admit it: the first thing I do when the newest issue of The New Yorker arrives is flip through and read all the cartoons (this ritual has been made much easier thanks to the digital version of the magazine). I will also admit that there are usually a couple of cartoons each issue that I just don’t “get”. Luckily for me, cartoon editor Bob Mankoff has a new book that examines the process behind creating -and appreciating- the magazine’s unique brand of visual humor. It turns out Mankoff takes takes this funny business pretty seriously.

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Named after one of Mankoff’s own, very famous, cartoons, How About Never-Is Never Good For You?: My Life In Cartoons is more than just a typical memoir. Rather, he uses his own history with cartooning to explore the history of the art form as well as The New Yorker‘s reputation for erudite doodles. Obviously, as the subtitle implies, Mankoff’s life is one devoted to cartoons, and his enthusiasm and knowledge makes the book as educational as it is entertaining.

As Mankoff points out in his introduction, his background in psychology -he was on his way to a Ph.D before quitting school to become a cartoonist- has helped him understand how humor works, and he approaches the topic with academic authority. Fortunately, he also has a humorous and engaging writing style which avoids the dry, clinical style that plagues most academic analyses of humor. It’s a unique gift to be able to explain why something is funny without ruining the joke, and Mankoff is thankfully able to do so, as evidenced by the TED talk he gave last year on the subject.

Mankoff’s own career itself is, in some sense, an attempt to understand how cartoons “work”: that alchemical relationship between words and pictures that makes the medium unique. As he outlines in the book, his quest for being published in The New Yorker -the ultimate goal for any cartoonist- involved finding his own style to make him stand out from the pack. In fact, his use of “stippling” -or dots- was influenced by fine arts rather than cartoons, although it’s easy to see why cartoonists would avoid it since it’s such a time-consuming process. By explaining his own career -both the learning process and eventual success- Mankoff offers a history lesson on cartooning and the importance of The New Yorker as a showcase for thoughtful, sometimes challenging, work.

The New Yorker‘s reputation for high-brow, erudite cartoons was famously the subject of a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine tries to get a cartoon accepted by the magazine. Mankoff offers his own analysis of that episode and the selection process he goes through as editor. Unlike the editor in the Seinfeld episode, who admits that one cartoon doesn’t make sense (he just likes the way the cats in it look), Mankoff takes his job very seriously. The magazine receives nearly a thousand cartoon submissions a week, from which about 17 are actually printed. The editors have the daunting task of choosing topical, humorous cartoons that reflect the magazine’s standards. Occasionally, however, some end up being more confounding than funny, and Mankoff offers a thoughtful explanation of some cartoons that proved too esoteric for more readers. As someone who has always appreciated the skill and art that goes into crafting cartoons, I found Mankoff’s analysis of style and humor fascinating.

While explaining the history of the magazine’s evolving brand of humor, Mankoff mentions Tina Brown’s controversial tenure as editor without going into detail. I would have liked a little more information about just what made it so controversial, but since this is a memoir and not a history of the magazine, I understand why he avoided delving into the subject too deeply. Again, it speaks to Mankoff’s skill as a writer that he makes such thoughtful and detailed analysis entertaining. One way he is able to do this is by incorporating cartoons into the text. Not only do they serves as examples, but he often uses them as punchlines for the text’s jokes, which again shows just how well he understands the way words and pictures work together. More often than not, he is able to make his points by letting the cartoons “speak” for themselves, but the context in which he presents them allows for the unique styles of the featured artists shine. Even though it’s his memoir, Mankoff is clearly more excited to talk about cartoons them himself.

If you’re already a fan of The New Yorker, this book is an invaluable peek behind the curtain to see just how much work goes into those little drawings. Mankoff even offers some hints on how to “win” the magazine’s famous cartoon caption contest, which I’m sure most readers will greatly appreciate. For those often confused by, or even unfamiliar with, the magazine’s cartoons, Mankoff makes a strong case for why they are important and, hopefully, entertaining. Anyone interested in the theory and history of cartoons will find this book a rich and thoughtful examination of the art form. And, most importantly, it will make you laugh.

How About Never-Is Never Good For You? is published by Henry Holt and Company and is available in hardcover or digital versions through Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Overall Score
95 %

Bob Mankoff offers an entertaining and insightful look at how New Yorker cartoons are made and what makes them funny. Turns out that humor is pretty serious business.

About The Author

Paul R Jaissle is a philosopher, collage artist, and musician. In his free time, he enjoys reading comics (especially ones with Batman in them), listening to power pop, and watching wrestling.

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