How to Read a New Yorker Cartoon
If you think entering The New Yorker’s weekly Caption Contest is a hoot, try competing with a roomful of cartoon fans and an open bar. A live version of the Cartoon Caption Contest is among the more popular events of the annual New Yorker Festival, and in 2012 I found myself sitting at one of several tables in Condé Nast Publications’ executive dining room, where participants enjoyed executive snacks and the opportunity to have their captions judged by the pros: George Booth, Harry Bliss, Kim Warp, and New Yorker editor-cartoonist Robert Mankoff. The tables competed against one another for copies of the recently published The Big “New Yorker” Book of Dogs. Not coincidentally, all three of the captionless images we were required to enhumor also involved canine situations. A captioning newbie, I quickly got the hang of this kartoon karaoke and was soon amusing myself, if no one else. (The one about Laika and the dating service was especially killer.) What is wrong with these people? I thought, as lesser efforts were rewarded.
The Caption Contest is an immensely popular feature. Some five thousand entries a week suggest that a good portion of the magazine’s readers imagine that they could step up to the plate and knock gags out of the park with these Yankees of Yucks. But, of course, that’s only half the battle, insofar as relatively few of us can draw as well as quip. For much of the magazine’s run, outside writers supplied artists with their material. Today, however, drawing a New Yorker cartoon is rarely a two-person proposition.
In reality, cartooning for The New Yorker is mostly an exercise in rejection. Cartoon editor Mankoff and editor in chief David Remnick nix hundreds of cartoons for every one they publish in the magazine. One regular contributor, Matthew Diffee, has taken the iniquity in hand by publishing a series of Rejection Collection volumes devoted to “Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker.” And when I asked staff writer Calvin Trillin for his thoughts on the state of New Yorker cartooning, he prefaced his response by saying it would be prejudiced by the fact that not a single one of his many cartoon ideas had ever made it into the magazine.
Two days after the festival, I was in Lawrence, Kansas, recounting my afternoon of shame to Jack Ziegler, one of The New Yorker’s more inventive and frequently appearing cartoonists. I suppose I expected a little sympathy. Instead, Ziegler went about as straight-faced as I’d seen him get all afternoon.
“Now you know how I feel,” he said.
But there’s a lot more to a New Yorker cartoon than a clever caption, and it takes an artist like Ziegler to complete the equation. Like a pop single, every cartoon creates its own little universe in which you can linger. In fact, says single-panel virtuoso Dan Piraro, whose Bizarro comic appears in some 350 outlets daily, a cartoon is the only way certain ideas can be expressed. “You see a small slice of time, and a few words, and your mind must put together what has just happened to lead to this, or what is about to happen moments later. If you take almost any given single-panel gag and spell it out long form, be it a comic strip or actors fleshing out the scene on video, the joke is completely ruined.”
Ivan Brunetti, a cartoonist and a comics scholar to boot, insists that “whether it’s minimal or dense with detail, a cartoon instantly puts you somewhere, and you’re picking up so much narrative without even realizing it. You’re entering a world the cartoonist creates.” A cartoon is a collaboration between artist and reader and a tiny vacation from sad, boring reality.
The timing of the first New Yorker cartoons couldn’t have been better in this respect. The Roaring Twenties were about to give way to the Great Depression. In the magazine’s first issue—dated February 21, 1925—founding editor Harold Ross wrote, “The New Yorker starts with a declaration of serious purpose but with a concomitant declaration that it will not be too serious in executing it. It hopes to reflect metropolitan life, to keep up with events and affairs of the day, to be gay, humorous, satirical but to be more than a jester.” Little could Ross have imagined that he would be publishing an entire issue devoted to John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” just twenty years later. Or, for that matter, imagine Hersey marrying Charles Addams’s first wife, which he did.
The first New Yorker cartoon appeared on the same page as Ross’s credo. In Alfred Frueh’s drawing, a disheveled subway rider wearing an overcoat and fedora holds on to a strap with one hand (a lunch bucket draped over his arm) while the other assiduously wipes a clear view through a dirty window. Beside him, a sign implores please! help keep the “l” and subway clean. The cartoon’s caption consists of a single word: “Co-operation.” With a couple of small changes, that image might have been published in this week’s issue—perhaps swapping in a handlebar-mustached nostalgist from Williamsburg carrying a bento box. There’s a timeless appeal to the best cartoons, which this one, filled as it is with local meaning, still possesses.
Cartoons are essential to The New Yorker’s identity. They’re what—admit it—you look at first upon opening its pages, and they constitute what Roz Chast calls “a magazine within a magazine.” They’re a gateway (drug) to both the magazine’s long-form journalism and the world at large. Growing up in Oregon during the fifties and sixties, I learned everything I really needed to know about New York City from New Yorker cartoons and Howard Smith’s Scenes column in my closet-bohemian father’s copies of the Village Voice. Charles Addams’s famous drawing of a skier’s legs creating ünheimlich parentheses around an obstructing tree shattered my notion of reality as effectively as Jack Kirby. And here in Brooklyn, where I’ve lived for seventeen years, I fondly recall my two young daughters leafing through each week’s issue, annotating every image according to the quality and/or comprehensibility of its humor—e.g., funny, not funny, don’t get. Sadly, however, The New Yorker is the only general-interest magazine that still publishes single-panel cartoons on an ongoing basis, and the world is less charming for it.
Modern cartooning’s roots lie in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek friezes, medieval tapestries, and the British and French satirical-art traditions. At the turn of the twentieth century, cartoons and Sunday comics—the funnies—composed a mass medium that cut across age and class. By 1950, cartoonists could make a decent living drawing for the stag and wholesale gag mags and for general-interest outlets, such as Look, Collier’s, and the Saturday Evening Post, with The New Yorker at the top of the ladder.
For its first year or so, the magazine published illustrations large and small, caricatures, and cartoons. The latter consisted mostly of sequential narrative cartoons, with and without captions, and full- or half-page drawings. These included art director Rea Irvin’s Social Errors series, e.g., “The Man Who Used the Wrong Spoon” a...