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

Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."
Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.
Jul 22nd 2019
It’s worth remembering, then, that we are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Postulating that there is no such thing as happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you human.
Jul 10th 2019

 

The eight-mile ‘river of flowers’ that grows alongside a motorway nea
Jul 5th 2019
"........since World War II, 97% of unimproved grassland habitats have vanished from the UK. This has contributed to the loss of pollinating insects – and the distribution of one third of species has shrunk since 1980."
Jun 25th 2019
"For many of us, eating a meal containing meat is a normal part of daily life. But if we dig deeper, some sobering issues emerge. Every year, 66 billion terrestrial animals are slaughtered for food. Predictions are that meat consumption will rise, with increasing demand for meat from China and other Asian countries as their standards of living increase. The impact of grazing animals on the environment is devastating. They produce 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and livestock farming is a major contributor to species extinctions."
Jun 22nd 2019
"Throughout history, people who have gained positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with it. A desire for power often correlates with negative personality traits: selfishness, greed and a lack of empathy. And the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and lacking in compassion."
Jun 21st 2019
"In this era of Trump, it should perhaps come as no surprise to find supposed experts lacking in historical perspective. Yet it is still disappointing to find this deficit in the New York Times, which prides itself on clinging to a pursuit of the truth. So it is a bit sad to read the plaintive cry of Allison Schrager’s op-ed of May 17, lamenting that the domination of art markets by the super-rich will somehow force smaller galleries to go out of business, and imperil the careers of young artists."
Jun 17th 2019
Extract: "ust as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, it falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists. The idea of America isn't theirs. It's bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalized world."
May 28th 2019
Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 
Apr 23rd 2019

 

“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market