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

Dec 3rd 2022
EXTRACTS: "As a portrait artist, I am an amateur at this compared to the technology gurus and psychologists who study facial recognition seriously. Their aplications range from law enforcement to immigration control to ethnic groupings to the search through a crowd to find someone we know. ---- In my amateur artistic way, I prefer to count on intuition to find facial clues to a subject’s personality before sitting down at the drawing board. I never use the latest software to grapple with this dizzying variety.
Dec 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "In the exhibition catalog Lisane Basquiat writes: 'What is important for everyone to understand… is that he was a son, and a brother, and a grandson, and a nephew, and a cousin, and a friend. He was all of that in addition to being a groundbreaking artist.' "
Nov 24th 2022
"The art of kintsugi is inextricably linked to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: a worldview centred on the acceptance of transience, imperfection and the beauty found in simplicity.....nothing stays the same forever." --- "The philosophy of kintsugi, as an approach to life, can help encourage us when we face failure. We can try to pick up the pieces, and if we manage to do that we can put them back together. The result might not seem beautiful straight away but as wabi-sabi teaches, as time passes, we may be able to appreciate the beauty of those imperfections."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was quick to congratulate Sunak, referring to him as “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians”. In the difficult waters of British and indeed international politics, all eyes will be watching to see how well the bridge stands."
Oct 5th 2022
EXTRACTS: "In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw eulogized Jean-Luc Godard as 'a genius who tore up the rule book without troubling to read it.' This is a fundamental misunderstanding." ----- " As had been true for Picasso - and Eliot, Joyce, Dylan, and Lennon - it was Godard's mastery of the rules of his discipline that made his violation of those rules so exciting to young artists, and his work so influential.  But perhaps these innovators' mastery of the rules can only be seen by those who themselves understand the rules."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For many of us, some personality traits stay the same throughout our lives while others change only gradually. However, evidence shows that significant events in our personal lives which induce severe stress or trauma can be associated with more rapid changes in our personalities." ----- "Over time, our personalities usually change in a way that helps us adapt to ageing and cope more effectively with life events." ----- " ....participants in this study recorded changes in the opposite direction to the usual trajectory of personality change." --- "....you might like to take the time to reflect on your experiences over the past few years, and how these personality changes may have affected you."
Sep 21st 2022
EXTRACTS: "It might seem like an obscure footnote among the history-making events of 2022, but the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s death coincides with the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith’s birth." ----- "As a committed Stoic, Smith had little patience for greed. The whole point of Roman Stoic philosophy was to use personal moral discipline to support the rule of law and constitutions, and to make society a better place." ----- "When we read Smith, we are better served to think of the example of Elizabeth II than of those driven by personal greed. It might sound archaic, but, as Britons’ response to her death suggests, these values still appeal to a great many people today."
Sep 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the former Prince of Wales was proclaimed King Charles III. Although it’s been known for decades that Charles would succeed his mother, there were rumours that he might, once king, choose the name George due to the contentious legacies of Kings Charles I and Charles II."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "An over-emphasis on looking for the chemical equation of depression may have distracted us from its social causes and solutions. We suggest that looking for depression in the brain may be similar to opening up the back of our computer when a piece of software crashes: we are making a category error and mistaking problems of the mind for problems in the brain. It would be wise to observe caution with drugs whose effectiveness is not certain, whose mode of action is unknown, and which have many side-effects, especially for use in the long term."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "China uses incarcerated prisoners of conscience as an organ donor pool to provide compatible transplants for patients. These prisoners or “donors” are executed and their organs harvested against their will, and used in a prolific and profitable transplant industry."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the first episode of season three of The Kominsky Method (2021), there is a funeral service for Michael Douglas’ character’s lifelong friend Norman Newlander (played by Alan Arkin). By far the most inconsolable mourner to give a eulogy is Newlander’s personal assistant of 22 years who, amid a hyperbolical outpouring of grief, literally cannot bring herself to let go of the casket. It is a humorous scene, to be sure, but there is something else going on here that is characteristic of employer-employee relations in this era of neoliberal capitalism. “Making him happy made me happy,” she exclaims, “his welfare was my first thought in the morning, and my last thought before I went to sleep.” That isn’t sweet – it is pathological. ----- Employee happiness is becoming increasingly conditional on, or even equated with, the boss’ happiness. As Frédéric Lordon observes in his book, Willing Slaves of Capital (2014), “employees used to surrender to the master desire with a heavy heart…they had other things on their minds…ideally the present-day enterprise wants subjects who strive of their own accord according to its norms.” In a word, the employee is increasingly expected to internalize and identify with the desire of the master."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "For three decades, people have been deluged with information suggesting that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain – namely an imbalance of a brain chemical called serotonin. However, our latest research review shows that the evidence does not support it."
Jul 13th 2022
"But is he “deluded”? " ---- "....we sometimes end up with deluded leaders because we ourselves can be somewhat delusional when we vote." ---- "David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University, associates this predicament with excessive positive thinking, or what he calls “Prozac leadership,” in reference to the famous antidepressant that promises to cheer people up without actually fixing what is wrong in their lives. “ ---- "In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future. When the public buys into a Prozac leader’s narrative, it is they who are already verging on the delusional." ----- "Another potential example is Vladimir Putin, who has conjured a kind of nostalgic dream world for his followers and the wider Russian public."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Many veterans, refugees and other people who have experienced trauma and have mental health issues spend little time thinking about the future. Instead, they are narrowly focused on the negative past. However, people who have experienced trauma and developed a healthy future perspective report being better at coping with life, having fewer negative thoughts about the past, and getting better sleep compared with those who have a negative future perspective. So, instead of dwelling on the past, people who have suffered trauma should be encouraged to think about the future and set goals that help them develop hope for a good life."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: " The devastation of war is a recurring theme in Turner’s work, and unlike his contemporaries Turner is willing to forego the occasion to bolster national pride or the patriotism of its fallen heroes. In “The Field of Waterloo” (1818), Turner’s great tragic vision of war, “The…  dead of both sides lay intertwined, nearly indistinguishable surrounded by the gloom of night.” Near the bottom center there are three women. The one farthest from us is bearing a child and in her right hand a torch which illumines the sea of mangled bodies. Beside her is another woman struggling to keep a third (also with child) from collapsing outright. Turner reflects not only on the dead and dying, but on the widows and orphans that war produces."
May 19th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Thus experimental creativity could be witnessed, but not verbalized.  When five leading Abstract Expressionist painters founded an art school in New York in the late 1940s, they offered no formal courses, because, as Robert Motherwell explained, "in a basic sense art cannot be taught." ------ "Conceptual artists are ...... more inclined to use written texts to accompany their works in other genres.  In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, "One of these days I will write you a letter;  I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unfortunately, it’s common for dark triad personalities to become leaders. ..... their ruthlessness and ability to manipulate means they attain positions of power quite easily. When a “dark” leader attains power, conscientious, moral people rapidly fall away. A government operating under these conditions soon becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrzej Lobaczewski called a “pathocracy” – an administration made up of ruthless individuals devoid of integrity and morality. This happened with Donald Trump’s presidency, as the “adults in the room” gradually headed for the exit, leaving no one but staffers defined by their personal allegiance to Trump. A similar decay in standards has occurred in the UK."
May 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "The proportion of US electricity deriving from wind and solar in the month of April climbed to 20%. Thus, the renewables total was 26.5 if we add in hydro. This statistic is unprecedented."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Every year, around 12,000 men in the UK die from prostate cancer, but many more die with prostate cancer than from it. So knowing whether the disease is going to advance rapidly or not is important for knowing who to treat." ...... "For some years, we have known that pathogens (bacteria and viruses) can cause cancer. We know, for example, that Helicobacter pylori is associated with stomach cancer and that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer." ....... "....we have identified five types (genera) of bacteria linked to aggressive prostate cancer." ...... "We examined prostate tissue and urine samples from over 600 men with and without prostate cancer," ..... "....men who had one or more of the bacteria were nearly three times more likely to see their early stage cancer progress to advanced disease, compared with men who had none of the bacteria in their urine or prostate."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTARCTS: "Steve Jobs dreaded turning 30, because he knew it would be fatal to his creativity: "It's rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to contribute something amazing." ....... "When Ford introduced the Model T, he was 45 years old" ...... "Ford’s Model T arrived only after a series of earlier cars – Models A, B, C, K, N, R, and S." .... "Sam Walton opened Wal-Mart No. 1 in Rogers, Arkansas, at 44, and discovered “that there was much, much more business out there in small-town American than anybody, including me, had ever dreamed of.” At 53, Warren Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that “your chairman, always a quick study, required only 20 years to recognize how important it was to buy good businesses.” "