Cartoons, The New Yorker and a memoir all in one

August 28, 2015

Book Reviews

How About Never Is Never Good For You?
My Life in Cartoons
Bob Mankoff
Henry Holt and Company
285pp, $32
ISBN 978-0-8050-9591-3

Cartoon: Three men: Man on the left is wearing a deerstalker (yes, deerstalker) hat; man on the right is an older man; man in the middle is lying on the floor with a spear-length ink pen stabbed into his chest.
Caption: “Elementary, my dear Watson; the cartoonist did it.”

Do you get it? Yes, if you know who the man in the deerstalker hat is and if you know the man on the right is Dr. Watson and if you know that “Elementary, my dear Watson” precedes Sherlock Holmes’ verbal explanation of every crime he solves. In other words, if your brain already contains the information, the referent, necessary to understand both the cartoon and the caption, you’ll “get” it. You’ve got to know who Kim Kardashian is to appreciate cartoons about big rear ends. Or the cartoon titled “Hamlet’s Duplex.”

Cartoon: Side-by-side apartment doors labeled “2B” and “Not 2B.”
Caption: No caption.

And, as Mankoff reminds us, humor changes. What was hilariously funny decades ago may not even elicit a grin today. Personally, your reviewer, who has subscribed to The New Yorker since 1947, comes across cartoons which (with increasing frequency!) aren’t “funny” and, in some cases don’t seem to make any sense at all. That’s a function of not being “with it.” Kim Kardashian? A grandchild explained who she is. That’s how it is with cartoons.

And cartoons have impact. Take, for example, the commonly used phrase referring to something that doesn’t work the way it was planned: “Back to the drawing board.” Did you know that it comes from a New Yorker cartoon, by Peter Arno?

Cartoon: Huge plane crashing in the background, pilot parachuting down, people rushing toward the crash, and one guy walking away with a blueprint under his arm.
Caption: “Well, back to the old drawing board.”

You don’t “get” the title of the book? Then you’re probably not familiar with Bob Mankoff’s famous cartoon in the May 3, 1993 issue of The New Yorker.

Cartoon: Business man standing behind desk in high rise office with telephone pressed to his ear and a finger pointing at his appointment book.
Caption: “No, Thursday’s out.

How about never—is never good for you?” (You’ve got to see it to appreciate it fully.) How About Never (since you now know what it means we’ll use that for the sake of brevity), is “Dedicated to everyone who has ever done a cartoon for The New Yorker—the list (in very small print) covers the length and width of a page and a half and ends with “And To Anyone Who Ever Will.”

Bob Mankoff is the current cartoon editor for The New Yorker and from the first chapter, “I’m not Arguing, I’m Jewish” to the last, “The Kids Are All Right,” he treats us to everything we want to know about cartoon art (plus a number of things we may not have thought about at all). And as a bonus, it’s a memoir. Like the anecdote Mankoff shares about his mother (his Jewish Mother, of course) that made me laugh out loud (no spoilers!).

Have you ever thought about whether the cartoonist imagines the picture first or the caption first? Spoiler: There are cartoonists in each school of thought plus those who can do both. And Mankoff is very generous in sharing the book with wonderful examples of fellow artists who represent divergent aspects of the art of the cartoon. (There are 284 cartoons in the book.)

You’ll enjoy the book; you’ll learn something about yourself—wherever your referents are!

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.

Letter to the Editor