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Posted at 4:00 PM ET, 12/16/2010

'Riffs Best Books of 2010: THE NEW YORKER's Bob Mankoff offers a comic window into the year

By Michael Cavna

mankoff1.jpg Self-portrait of The New Yorker cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff (Special to The Washington Post / courtesy of Bob Mankoff)

Men, women and tykes are stripped down to their birthday suits, a tarmac of naked backsides waiting patiently to board their plane. Casually, the fellow in the foreground -- grinning and baring it -- says to the nude woman by his side: "It is humiliating, Alice, but it is foolproof, you'll have to admit."

This cartoon commentary on airport-security measures and invasion-of-privacy concerns was rendered by Ed Fisher and ran in The New Yorker.

In 1972.

"I blogged about the TSA changes," says Bob Mankoff, longtime cartoon editor and longer-time contributor at the New Yorker, "and it's clear that the '70s anticipated this. ... The cartoon really tells you about how we reprise these same sorts of issues.

"With New Yorker cartoons, it's like time-traveling."

The New Yorker has previously released collections that encapsulate most of the magazine's 85-year history in cartoons. But for the first time, Mankoff tells Comic Riffs, the New Yorker has now collected its Best of the Year cartoons -- for the class of 2009-10 -- in a special magazine. Yet one trait remains constant: Then as now, The New Yorker cartoons mine most of their humor from truthful reactions to the human condition.

The title of the new softbound book -- what Mankoff terms a "book-a-zine" -- is "The New Yorker: Cartoons of the Year," and it features more than 300 cartoons from nearly 60 cartoonists. What it spotlights especially is the tantalizingly eclectic range of styles that is the magazine's cartoon signature. From the Roz Chast introduction through to Charles Barsotti's in-house ad gag, the book is a trove of brilliant, split-second treasures.


The silver-maned Mankoff -- who was in town this month to give a Georgetown University talk on the past, present and future of humor -- says The New Yorker cartoons' dominant focus on deeper truths over trends helps the humor transcend the politics of the moment.

"Whether it's Obama or Sarah Palin, we're not really involved in [political cartooning]," says Mankoff, who has been the magazine's cartoon editor since 1997. "For us, it's not about whether the emperor has any clothes. It's, for example, whether the emperor spent too much on those clothes."

Similarly, Mankoff says, a New Yorker cartoon won't take a pointed stand on gay marriage. Instead, he says, the magazine's take might be: "Gays and lesbians getting married -- haven't they suffered enough?"

And then there's Mankoff's most famous cartoon, a gem that resonates as relevant today as when he created it in 1993. In the oft-quoted classic, a stipple-coated businessman says into the phone: "No, Thursday's out. How about never -- is never good for you?"

"That's now in the Yale Book of Quotations," Mankoff says. "Someone sent me that. I had to buy the book, just to make sure that yes, it's still there."

mankoff2.jpg cartoon by Bob Mankoff

Mankoff does see the value of true political satire -- "Humor opens us up to questioning authority," he says. In the cartoons, it just isn't The New Yorker's stock in trade.

"I love all types of humor," Mankoff says. "I like [Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert. But their general attitude is: 'I'm smart, you're a jerk.'

"Compare that to a Roz Chast cartoon," he notes. "There's not the same self-satisfaction. The humor is deeper than that."

mankoff7.jpg "One-Day Cartoon" introduction by Roz Chast

Case in point: Mankoff is proud of Chast's three-page illustrated introduction for the new book-a-zine. "Roz's introduction was commissioned specifically for this book," Mankoff says. "With this and the amazing frontispieces by Lee Lorenz, we wanted to add some things that haven't been in the magazine."

One panel in Chast's season-by-season introduction, titled "One-Year Cartoon," reads: "Finally, everything culminates in an explosion of polar fleece, wrapping paper, candy canes, cards from people you don't know, eggnog, guilt, and disappointment."

Could anyone else have penned that sentiment besides the brilliant Chast? David Sedaris perhaps, but then, he wouldn't have also illustrated it so eloquently. Her introduction also features what New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik once dubbed "Roz Chast's slope-shouldered, high-pantsed, hopelessly post-modern misfits."

And by design, Mankoff and Chast say, the best-of-the year collection actually begins in the fall of 2009 and wraps the next summer.

"I knew I didn't want to write a generic introduction," Chast tells Comic Riffs. "The cartoons in the collection speak for themselves. So I did a cartoon about what a year feels like to me: How the new year always begins in mid-September with the freshness of new school supplies (or their adult equivalents) and a sudden cool breeze, and wraps up with the exhaustion that comes at the tail end of summer when you're sick to death of everything."

mankoff3.jpg (cartoon by Paul Noth)


The supreme salesman, the old comic line goes, could sell ice to the Eskimoes. Mankoff, by comparison, could not only sell ice to the Eskimoes; their sparkling-new ice-cube trays also would probably be emblazoned with classic New Yorker cartoons.

That is to say: Mankoff has proved adept at growing the marketplace exposure of an already superior product.

"I was the founder of the Cartoon Bank in the '90s," Mankoff says of the New Yorker site that not only sells originals, but also peddles T-shirts, desk diaries and our your-favorite-cartoon-here tchotchkes. "I was interested in finding ways for cartoonists to supplement their incomes."

(Mankoff's economic empathy for his fellow cartoonists runs deep. After seeing thousands of his ideas rejected, Mankoff first cracked the pages of The New Yorker in 1977, and has drawn for the magazine ever since.)

Since succeeding Lorenz as cartoon editor in 1997, Mankoff -- ever the juggler -- has constantly sought new ways to increase the presence of New Yorker cartoons beyond the magazine's pages.

"It's my mandate from The New Yorker and from myself," Mankoff says. "I've worked on developing new ways to spread the cartoons, from RingTales [animations] to cartoon apps, and there's more stuff coming down the line."

There has also been the popular weekly Caption Contest, an idea for which Mankoff credits Editor David Remnick.

In championing the cartoons, Remnick wrote several years ago for a New Yorker collection: "What has certainly not changed is that the cartoons are essential to The New Yorker. ... They are, in fact, the emblem of the magazine and, as far as I can tell, the longest-running popular comic genre in American life."

Mankoff says that the Caption Contest receives 5,000 to 10,000 entries a week, and that New Yorker cartoons are reprinted "many thousands of times a year" through the Cartoon Bank -- all as part of the larger effort, he says, of "trying to expand their influence and reader interaction."

Of course, Mankoff says, "The New Yorker didn't invent the magazine cartoon, but it did really establish it. Unfortunately, there aren't many [publications] that do it anymore. We're almost the last magazine standing."

mankoff4.jpg cartoon by Tom Cheney


So just who decides which the "best" cartoons are -- especially given the routine excellence of the illustrations at The New Yorker?

"Everybody looked at it, but I decided," Mankoff says. "I showed it to other people, and there are cartoons I know that were very popular. There were things that I liked and cartoons that other people liked."

This, the editor says, is all part of the magazine's tried-and-true methods.

"It's a process that has a lot of integrity," Mankoff says. "We don't do any focus groups. We respect the readers and the viewers."

It's also a process that encourages multigenerations of talent, as Mankoff keeps an open door every Tuesday to potential new talent.

"We want all the cartoonists to do the best they can -- to be true to their style. This works with everyone from Roz to newer talents like Zach Kanin.

The flurry of submissions amounts to "about a thousand a week, counting people who send in unsolicited," Mankoff says. "Our regular cartoonists probably account for 400 to 500 cartoons. But at one time, they, too, were unsolicited. Each year, cartoonists sell to the magazine who have never sold before and some of them may become regulars."

That results in a 2010 book that includes everyone from the great Sam Gross -- "who seems like he's been here forever," Mankoff says -- to the '70s crop that included Mankoff, Chast and the recently deceased Leo Cullum (whom Mankoff memorialized in print); to the newer talents such as Matthew Diffee (smartly observed truths told in deft draftsmanship) and Drew Dernavich (whose strong cartoons have the wonderful weight of woodcuts).

Add to the mix such other individual talents as Danny Shanahan (one of the magazine's best pure gag writers); Alex Gregory (clear lines match that lucid wit); the legendary George Booth (does anyone do dogs better?); and Bruce Eric Kaplan (his people forever leaning as if they're walking upwind into the brisk face of Life) -- to cite just a few in an all-star lineup -- and that mere sampling alone makes for an uncommonly commendable book.

mankoff6.jpg Cartoon by Leo Cullum


In The New Yorker's encyclopedic 80th-anniversary collection, rightly cited is The New Yorker founder and institutional visionary Harold Ross, who was passionate about cartoons from the magazine's 1925 inception.

Says a foreword to the collection: "Harold Ross intuitively recognized that a good cartoon ought to be a little window on the world."

Thanks to Mankoff and scores of his fellow New Yorker cartoonists, the new 2010 "book-a-zine" is an engaging architecture of such little windows -- each a single pane into the truthful absurdities of the human condition.

And when human frailty and vanity and a host of other eternal traits are spotlighted, then TSA screenings, it turns out, have nothing on The New Yorker and its cartoons that, philosophically, lay us so bare.

IN MEMORIAM: New Yorker cartoonist LEO CULLUM's warm and witty legacy


By Michael Cavna  | December 16, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Gag Cartoons, Interviews With Cartoonists, This Riffster's Reading List  | Tags:  Bob Mankoff, Roz Chast, The New Yorker  
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