Apr 14th 2014

Cartoon life at the New Yorker

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

One of the biggest events in Robert Mankoff’s life was the day Nancy Pelosi stole a caption from his cartoon and used it without attribution. But Mankoff, editor of the New Yorker cartoon desk, was over the moon when it happened to him. “It’s my most famous one,” he trumpets on the opening page of his new memoir, How About Never — Is Never Good for You? : My Life in Cartoons.

Mankoff produced this panel for the New Yorker showing a business executive on the phone dodging an offer for a luncheon date. The exact caption was, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?” A pretty good joke, I thought, and a fine-honed caption. Pelosi adapted the line for a quip on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show: “When the Republicans came in (to control the House of Representatives) they said to the president, ‘How about never? Does never work for you?’”

It was clumsier in Pelosi’s delivery but still went down well with Stewart’s audience.

Writing of his career triumphs, Mankoff makes up for the lack of that credit line by reminding us repeatedly of his notoriety. His one-liner, besides popping out of Pelosi’s mouth, ended up on T-shirts, decals and on the crotch of ladies’ underpants. “The popularity and attention of the cartoon cemented my relationship with Tina (Brown, then-editor).… It’s by far the most popular cartoon I’ve ever done… and became part of the American vernacular.”

It did? Not my vernacular. I had never heard the quip till I read Mankoff’s unashamed version of his streetwise life in New York. The anecdote is typical of the hubris on display throughout his story. Perhaps anticipating reader reaction, he explains what this book is about: “Long story short, me. Look, it’s a memoir, and you can’t spell memoir without themoi.”

At the new New Yorker, Mankoff has been given such an unusual degree of freedom to pump up his department that the old liberal weekly seems to want to put the spotlight on its humor rather than its reporting, writing, and thinking. Standup comic Andy Borowitz also does a regular email feed under the New Yorker banner. It’s hard to avoid the emphasis on laughs.

It used to be different. Editors were invisible and readers would settle in to very long, erudite articles interspersed with a cartoon or two unrelated to the text. The cartoons were the only art breaking up the acres of grey type. Turning the pages, the reader was rewarded with some low-key drollery, like a dog biscuit, for trying to stay interested in 10,000 words on the history of Central Park. (There is more art now but the cartoons are still crucial for leavening the mix.) To hard-line intellectuals, skipping ahead to see the cartoons before tackling the articles was considered infra dig.

Now, with all our computer technology at hand, we are being encouraged to get right to the laughs. Thousands of readers sit at home and open up Mankoff’s weekly email of the cartoons from the current issue. No need to buy, much less read, the magazine. If you really get into cartooning, you can enter the magazine’s cartoon caption contest every week, which thousands do.

To borrow one of Mankoff’s cutesy locutions in a different context, this seems to me to be “wrong, wrong, wrongety wrong”.

But maybe I’m the one who is wrong. Mankoff is one of the survivors from the magazine’s shifting leadership. Tina Brown (1992-1998) and current editor David Remnick both come in for high praise. Ms. Brown is well known for loosening up the editorial formula after the departure of editor William Shawn in 1987. The sexual revolution was in full swing and “thanks to Tina it finally made its way into the pages of The New Yorker,” Mankoff tells us. Articles on a dominatrix and another piece on the pornography industry (“The Money Shot”) shocked the traditional audience. “When David took over in in 1998 he pushed the pendulum back — not all the way to Shawn’s era but out of Tina Territory.”

Apart from the magazine’s history, the main appeal of this book is Mankoff’s lifting of the veil on how cartoons are selected for publication. Beware, though, if you aspire to impress him, for your chances are close to zero. Mankoff passes instant judgment on about a thousand cartoons every week, of which 50 he takes along to his weekly meeting with the editor. Remnick whips through the pile and picks about 17 panels that he judges sufficiently benign for the next issue. Inevitably, much good work is passed over; Tina Brown’s edgy choices would never fly.

Meanwhile hopefuls turn up at Mankoff’s office every week with their batch of gems, leaving with enough rejection slips to “wallpaper the bathroom,” as Mankoff describes the early days before his talent was recognized.

The most poignant passages in the book are memories of the first sale from several now-established contributors. Roz Chast remembers being asked into the office of art director Lee Lorenz, Mankoff’s predecessor. “I have a vague memory of a lot of old guys standing around. I was very, very, very, very anxious. I went in to see Lee and he told me they were buying a cartoon. I was pretty flabbergasted.”

Jack Ziegler, another regular, remembers being paid the odd sum of $305 for his first acceptance. When his second brought only $215 he questioned it and was told payments were calculated by the square inch. The formula has changed today but Mankoff declines to reveal how it works. Just as oddly, he calls it a “proprietary trade secret.”

For our benefit, Mankoff attempts a definition of his criteria: “New Yorker cartoons are not meant to be an IQ test, but they are intelligent humor, which requires a certain amount of cultural literacy to appreciate.” Oh, so that’s why I miss the point in about half of them.

Ms. Brown was unapologetic during her reign. She once told an interviewer it would be a mistake “to be too prissy.” One that ran during her tenure shows a White House aide knocking at Clinton’s Oval Office door and saying, “Are you decent?” Ms. Brown explained: “There’s really nothing we don’t allow. It’s all about whether it’s funny.”

Mankoff, sensing the shift in the wind as Remnick took over, takes a stand: “Actually there’s plenty that we didn’t allow, still don’t and still shouldn’t.”

The New Yorker, prissy or not, has by default ended up as one of the last outlets for professional cartoonists. Other major magazines — Saturday Evening Post, Saturday Review, Esquire — folded or stopped using cartoons. Mankoff has helped rescue some artists by creating the Cartoon Bank, now a Condé Nast property, that scans and archives all New Yorker cartoons, plus its rejects, and makes them available for publication at a modest fee. One cartoonist told me, however, he still has to “scramble” to make a living, and a lot of talent goes begging.

Chip Bok, the conservative cartoonist who does four news-related panels a week for the Los Angeles syndicate Creators.com, tried a few times to crack the New Yorker but did not persevere. “It’s maddening,” he told me. “Cartoons are more popular and less profitable than ever.” He lost interest in the New Yorker after a few rejects. “It’s not something I aspire to. I’m more interested in commenting on the news.”

Personally, I miss Tina Brown’s edge. I’ll laugh at anything so long as it’s funny. I await the day that Remnick and Mankoff will creep back toward Tina Territory.

First posted on The American Spectator. Posted here with their and the author’s kind permission. For The American Spectator, please click here.




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "English artist Damien Hirst’s latest project, “The Currency”, is an artwork in two forms. Its physical form is 10,000 unique hand-painted A4 sheets covered in colourful dots. In the same way as paper money, each sheet includes a holographic image of Hirst, a signature, a microdot and – in place of a serial number – a small individual message. The second part of the artwork is that each of these hand-painted sheets has a corresponding NFT (non-fungible token). NFTs are digital certificates of ownership which exist on the secure online ledgers that are known as blockchains. ---- The way that “The Currency” works is that collectors will not be buying the physical artwork immediately. Instead, they will pay US$2,000 (£1,458) for the NFT and then have a year to decide whether they want the digital or the physical version. Once the collector selects one, the other will be destroyed. ---- So what is going on here, and what does it tell us about art and money?"
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ellison was an abstract expressionist painter, who, having come to New York City from West Texas in 1962, was as he said “unable to find traction” as a painter. At the same time, he began collecting ceramic objects and educating himself about this field of art as he went along. In 2009 he bestowed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art over 300 extraordinary examples of American ceramics, spanning the years 1876 through 1956. Since then, Ellison has gifted to the Museum over 600 works – including a significant collection of European art pottery in 2013, and most recently over 125 modern and contemporary clay vessels and objects – making the Museum one of the most significant repositories of Art Pottery in the world. ---- The current exhibition presents nearly 80 pieces drawn from Ellison’s latest donation, and it is a thoroughly captivating show; even where (or perhaps especially where) the works are outlandish, bizarre, sometimes almost monstrous, but nonetheless enthralling."
Jul 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the course of England’s journey to the Euro 2020 final, one of the most fascinating plays has been happening just off the pitch. Whenever the TV camera cuts to the team’s manager Gareth Southgate, he is occasionally seen standing alone on the edge of the field, urging his team on. ---- But most of the time he is deep in conversation with his assistant Steve Holland. ---- A recent study of English football culture points to a shift away from what the authors term “Beckhamisation”, after the former England captain and Manchester United star player David Beckham – a popular and instantly recognisable symbol of that period of football history (though, it is not suggested the culture was his creation). ---- During the 1990s, the study claims, this “Beckhamisation” saw high octane management practices imported from the corporate world into football. ---- In recent years, this has been replaced by “Southgatism”, a leadership style which that study describes as “modest, self-deprecating, down to earth, diverse and progressive”. "
Jun 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "New York’s Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting an exhibition devoted to an in-depth review of Paul Cézanne’s drawings. If there is any criticism to be made of this extraordinary show, it is that it is frankly overwhelming: with roughly 280 pencil, ink and gouache drawings and watercolors (and even a handful of oil paintings), there is so much to take in that two or three visits to the exhibition may be required to do it justice."
Jun 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Cognitive flexibility provides us with the ability to see that what we are doing is not leading to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it." .... "Flexible thinking is key to creativity – in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and make new inventions." .... "The good news is that it seems you can train cognitive flexibility."
Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.