The New Yorker Cartoon Takeover
by Travis Hedge Coke
December 30, 2019, The New Yorker turned its entire issue over to comics and commentary about comics. Emma Allen, John Updike, Veronica Geng, Javier Jaén, Dorothy Parker and more! They roped in work from across the ages for a playful, packed seventy-four page anthology.
The funniest thing, to me, is on the cover, which illustrates the “cartoon takeover” by figures representing cartoonists whitewashing a page of solid text away, but replacing it with hand-lettered writing. So, the comics takeover is still strongly dependent on text, on prose, but contextualized by visuals and affecting, in its handwriting-like type, hand-creation over simulating typewritten text.
Cover artist R Sikoryak, who did The Unquotable Trump in homages ranging from early 1990s Jim Lee to to early ‘70s Dick Dillin, chooses to render each figure and element on this cover in the style of a different New Yorker cartoonist, but outside of interviews, the names of the cartoonists in their place, goes unwritten and assumed.
The snake that will eat itself. Comics are neither words nor pictures, but the implication of both, featuring one or both or neither. And, credits? Credits are where you can find them.
Are comics cartooning? What, if there is a different, is that separating factor?
Cartooning, for our purposes, is the act of exaggeration. Cartooning is not making comics, but making exaggerations, in comics or in any media, but the act of visual cartooning implies both caricature and comics. The New Yorker, regardless of the number of comics, has been a cartoon magazine since inception.
Jonathan Lethem’s Super Goat Man, being a prose story with a single illustration, and not a comic, is a broad, insightful cartoon, present a naturalist growing up story peppered with the names of superheroes and of non-superhero writers; Walt Whitman, Norman Mailer, and Spider-Man. It is superheroes, and it is here because superheroes = comics = cartooning, and because these are naturally conflated interests of Lethem’s, earnest interests. But, the superheroes are presented as author-less, no writers, no artists, no creators. It is an unintentional content hierarchy.
Coyote vs Acme, a 1990 Ian Frazier story, also has only one spot illustration, but by engaging cartoon character Wile E Coyote and the fictional Acme Company that constantly sell him dangerously defective equipment, the story stays firmly rooted both in animated cartoons and in being a cartoon story.
The more traditional multi-panel comics of Ebony Flowers are deliciously emotive and unambiguous in their content, while Saul Steinberg and Nurit Darlin got for wordless, slippery images, and Michael Maslin dives in the salty end of the sea with a beach scene whose black waters derive from an offshore upturned ink bottle and the bears the caption, “There’s been a massive ink spill!”
There is no weak work. Not every comic, every story may be your cup of tea, but Emily Flake, John O’Brien, Victoria Roberts, everyone shines here, in part because this is a curated best of the best. Not best of the best of the world, but more or less of this magazine’s nearly hundred year cache.
Sections entitled Cartoonist Pick Their Favorite Cartoons and Non-Cartoonists Pick Their Favorite Cartoons, featuring primarily New Yorker cartoonists and, for the non-cartoonists, stand up comics and a few observational writers, provide a breadth of styles and a wealth of tones and tastes, by divvying up the curatorial duties to over a dozen idiosyncratic minds. They could have hired Stuart Moore and he probably could have done the same thing, but then you couldn’t stick Steve Martin or Mindy Kaling next to the comics, and it is fun to see what attracts these celebrity or celebrated selectors.
John Updike’s Lost Art, supplemented by his own cartoons, is a John Updike piece I actually like, a novelty on its own. He considers his love of comics, his ability to identify artists by their stylistic tics and structural tendencies. “I loved cartoons,” he says, “almost any cartoon that met a modest standard of professional crispness.” He details the “voluptuous thickness,” of Al Capp’s line work, “when limning the curves of Daisy Mae or Moonbeam McSwine.” “When I drew,” he says, “my nose had to be close to the paper, though I was not generally nearsighted… the entering in required close examination, as though I were physically worming my way into those panels.” Geez, Updike, if you had never written every piece of fiction of yours I have ever read, I might have a real soft spot for you, now.
Barbara Smaller’s “All I ask for is a chance to ruin my life in my own way” and Sam Gross’ fantastic, yet weirdly ableist comic of an airborne penguin telling others, “We just haven’t been flapping enough,” are New Yorker enough I can feel the criticisms of some Batman or Sex Criminals fans, because my brain default generates bad comic book fans to haunt me now. This is under-hatched, this is over-egged. The comics are funny, delightful, likely to pop back up into your mind a day or two after reading, but they’d never get you a job on whatever X-Men character has a teenage doppelgänger this year. Even if they brought back Raw, you probably wouldn’t be the third call to fill out a November issue. They might also not be able to afford some of these cartoonists’ pay rates or working conditions.
Television audiences do not necessarily like all programs on tv, painting audiences are not all in for all painters and paintings, but if you are a day in, day out painting enthusiast, you probably know the names or the earmarks of a number of styles, yet comics…. with comics, most of us know our stuff, our niche, and just about just our niche. This is not necessarily an anthology issue for all comics fans. It is aimed at New Yorker readers, their fans. But, it would behoove some of the author big comics audiences to crack the issue open and take some mental notes. Or, to turn off the note-taking and just read two or three comics.
Do not read Cartoon Takeover cover to cover, pages in numerical order. Throw the magazine open and read what you land on. Let your eyes do the walking.
Although, do read Emma Hunsinger’s How to Draw a Horse start to finish. It is fantastic, romantic, and will remind you to practice drawing horses.