Thursday, September 4, 2014

How About Never--Is Never Good For You?

It is probably not fair that I read and loved Roz Chast’s cartoon memoir of her last years with her parents before I read Bob Mankoff’s similar reflections on his life in How About Never—Is Never Good For You?: My Life in Cartoons (Henry Holt and Co., 2014).  Both are great cartoonists; Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor at The New Yorker while Chast is one of many in the humorous illustration business at the magazine.  Both books consist of drawings and prose, making them unique in the way they tell a life story.  However, that is also where the two diverge dramatically.  Chast’s memoir was both sad and funny in equal measure and focused on a specific time in her life.  Mankoff goes for a mix of autobiography and an analysis of cartoon humor and specifically, humor at The New Yorker.  In this way, his book is less funny, although there are some classic cartoons reprinted here, many from other cartoonists that Mankoff has edited over the years as well as from Mankoff himself.  It is a primer for those who want to be cartoonists (a dying breed, according to Mankoff) or those who have always been intrigued by The New Yorker wit and humor.  In the latter group I count myself.  I’ve even used the cartoons in my classroom to have students analyze what makes them funny.  It is a subtle and nuanced form, as is the case with most great art.  In the end, I valued Chast’s work for its poignant honesty about how we grow old while appreciating Mankoff’s work for its insight into the life of The New Yorker.  It is interesting timing that both books have been released recently, and a sign that cartoons can be literature and function as hybrid nonfiction storytelling.

Because of his desire to not only illuminate his own life, but the cartooning process, Mankoff’s book has a didactical component.  He takes the reader through the process of selecting panels for the week’s issue, something done in conjunction with longtime editor David Remnick, who, according to Mankoff, is no slouch when it comes to humor and cartoon analysis.  Mankoff gives us a history of cartooning as well as a deconstruction of cartoons that have appeared in the magazine.  He explains how he started The Cartoon Bank, which has taken what he calls “leftovers” and licensed them out to other magazines, ad campaigns and miscellaneous venues resulting in a lucrative second opportunity to earn income for Mankoff and his cartoonists.  He also explains in detail how he culls the 500 cartoons he looks at each week to the 50 he takes to the editorial meeting on Wednesday afternoons.  It really is an interesting process, and the book feels like it gives more attention to cartooning and humor than to the life story of the editor.

One of the more intriguing processes he focuses on is the development of captions.  The few words that accompany each panel are often studies in humor-poetry, almost haiku-like in their brevity, but every word has weight and heft in generating laughs.  He cites examples of cartoons that did not make the cut and what was wrong with each of them, as well as captions that did not work.  Of course, worth the price of the book alone, he tells us how to win The New Yorker weekly cartoon caption contest found on the last page of each issue.  His insights will not necessarily result in a slam dunk win, but he makes clear what he is looking for when his assistant wades through the submissions.  Even noted film critic Roger Ebert tried the contest, 107 times before he finally won, so competition is fierce.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, especially since I have no talent in drawing.  I love The New Yorker and thoroughly enjoy the pithy cartoons, but drawing them is a mystery to me, or at least it was until I read this book.  It did not make me draw any better, but it did explain the creative process of a cartoonist.  If anything, Mankoff may try too hard to be funny, but he mounts what really is an academic study of humor and cartooning, so a little dose of fun goes a long way to keep things interesting.  How About Never—Is Never Good For You? is both entertaining and funny as well as being a graduate study in a disappearing art form:  the magazine cartoon.  Bob Mankoff is a good teacher, combining just the right touch of memoir, art, humor and education to open a window on the way things work in the life of a cartoonist at The New Yorker.

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