Sporadic Sequential
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Can anyone here tell a joke?

The latest issue of The New Yorker (Nov. 26, 2007) is "The Cartoon Issue" and focuses (as you might have guessed) on cartoons. The usual single-panel cartoons are scattered throughout the magazine, but then starting on page 138 is a special 19-page section titled "The Funnies" devoted entirely to cartoons. Things get off to an innocuous start with seven pages of slightly larger cartoons from the magazine's regular contributors, but then on page 145 the feature takes a jarring turn with a piece titled "Unsolved Mysteries of the North American Comic Strip" by Chris Ware. I think you can see where this is going. Things look like they may be improving with a two-page spread of amusing Gahan Wilson cartoons, but then there's a painfully unfunny segment titled "What’s So Funny About Red?" where all the jokes are forced around a distracting splash of red in otherwise black-and-white cartoons. (It's the cartoon equivalent of the girl in the red coat in Schindler's List, and just as subtle and effective.) Next we have “The Amazing Museum of Pages 150-151” by Roz Chast, whom I've never found funny, and "Where I Get My Ideas," a two-page segment where various New Yorker cartoonists respond to that eternal question in cartoon form. Finally, the whole thing closes out with a three-page tale by Aline & R. Crumb titled “Our Beloved Tape Dispenser” where they discuss the mundane intracacies of buying their old-fashioned tape dispenser (as well as showcasing others they have their eyes on).

So let's tally up what this special issue has to offer: something you'd normally see in The New Yorker anyway; a dense explication of some grand theory of comic strips based on just two thinly veiled samples; an all-too-short feature on a gifted cartoonist; a gimmicky attempt to "enhance" cartoons via color (and in the process hopefully refute something an old editor said decades ago); an all-too-long spread devoted to one of the magazine's unfunniest cartoonists; a self-indulgent platform for cartoonists to express their irratation at being asked the same question over and over again; and a mind-bogglngly dull investigation into the boring world of tape dispensers.

And this is what The New Yorker passes off as their special "Cartoon Issue"? Where are the laughs? Where is the humor? Aren't cartoons supposed to be funny?

While I enjoy wallowing in the misery and pointlessly of self-absorbed theory and in-jokes, the problem here, I think is that the history of great cartoons is full of the CONCRETE and that’s what missing from this special issue. When Charlie Brown tries to kick that football, but Lucy pulls it away from him so he lands on his back with a loud "THUD!" that's funny. When Ignatz throws a brick at Krazy Kat's head, that's funny. When Garfiled eats a whole pan of lasagna, that's funny.

Instead, almost all the cartoons in this issue are self-reflexive, thinking they're amusing because they allude to some obscure trait of cartoons that will pass right over the average reader's head. It's telling that he best cartoons are from Wilson, whose strips feature two essential elements of good cartoons: odd creatures and everyday objects. That surprising juxtaposition results in a wealth of humor, unlike many of the other comics that fall flat because they fail to capture the reader's imagination. (Would it be interesting to you if I spent three pages describing in detail how I'm trying to find the perfect barstools for my remodeled kitchen? Of course not. So why are we supposed to feign interest in the Crumbs' shopping habits?)

Of course, The New Yorker prizes itself as a literary tastemaker, so they're not going to reach out and feature popular mainstream cartoonists, such as Jim Davis or Jack Elrod. In order to maintain its status as one of the elite cartoon cognoscenti, it must elevate one form of cartoon above all others, regardless of how effective that type of cartoon is in making readers laugh. This bias is reinforced later in the issue in the reviews selected. Rather than focus on something populist, such as the stunning new Don Martin collection (too lowbrow, donchoono?), they cover: the complete works of an obscure Swiss cartoonist from the 1800s; yet another Winsor McCay collection (enough already!); another outdated comic of questionable historical interest; one more dreary, depressing book by comic legend Will Eisner that will probably read like a painful homework assignment; and finally a biography of the obscure Swiss cartoonist mentioned earlier.

I'm not sure who the next Bil Keane or Johnny Hart is. I only know that great humor is great characters and great situations, whether it’s Sarge pounding on Beetle, Cathy screaming at her scale, Andy Capp drinking another drink , Leroy belittling Loretta, Dolly scolding Jeffy, or the story twist at the end of last Sunday's Marmaduke. Or even Dagwood giving up a sandwich to save his marriage.

The current generation of cartoonists has amazing talent. But they are old. Great comedy takes some immaturity, I think. The grwon-ups need to lighten up. And they need some misdirection and bad influences. My hope is that they will continue to cast a shallow net for those influences. If they do, it’s quite possible that "The Funniest Cartoon Issue" really is yet to come.

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