Thursday, July 17, 2008

New Yorker cartoon event

Went to a wonderful talk given by Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, held in conjunction with the William Steig exhibit at the new SF Contemporary Jewish Museum. He told funny anecdotes about how he got started (when he told his parents he wanted to be a cartoonist, his father said, "They already have people who do that"), and presented a lecture, with slides, on the history of cartoons and cover art in the magazine, along with a detailed analysis of how humor works, the latter appropriate from this editor who had come close to getting a PhD in experimental psychology before turning to cartoons.

The elephant in the room was the infamous Obama fist-bump cover. Mankoff mentioned it a few times in passing, but it wasn't until the audience question period in the end that the focus really turned to the topic. I was disappointed that so many in this audience (more than half, by a raised-hand estimate) agreed with the lefty blogosphere sentiment that the cover was a mistake that would reinforce the prejudices of a hypothetical irony-deficient person in Ohio. (When someone made that point, Mankoff replied, "Do you actually know such a person? Be honest!") I had expected a different reaction from people who would come out for this kind of event, who presumably were quite familiar with the magazine, its cartoons, and its covers. I thought Mankoff made a lot of sense when he said that having the flag burning in the fireplace and the picture of bin Laden on the wall made it obvious that the picture was meant to be over the top. Things started to get tense when a few people in the audience shouted their disagreement on this point, though, and everyone was relieved when the next questioner changed the subject.

Overall, Mankoff seemed a bit defensive on the subject, seeming to think the cover was a failure because so many people didn't get it, but defending failures as necessary for creative work. He also thought that David Remnick hadn't anticipated the reaction, and that if he had, he wouldn't have run the cover. Tina Brown enjoyed creating controversy, but Remnick, according to Mankoff, does not.

Also on the stage for part of the program was Owen Smith, an illustrator for the magazine. He's the one who did the wonderful covers in pulp-detective-novel style for the fiction issues. Those covers too, by the way, generated a stack of subscription cancellations. Just goes to show that you can never please everyone.

As for the current cover controversy, I think Jon Stewart got it right.

Starting the program was an eight-minute preview of a documentary film that's still in progress about the New Yorker cartoonists. It was fascinating to see the faces, and drawing hands, behind some of the magazine's most familiar cartoons. The film looked like it was very well done, and I think it could turn out to be the most entertaining documentary since Wordplay, which is saying a lot! The filmmaker is Leah Wolchok, the flim is called Laugh Lines, and there should be more info here at some point.

When someone asked how she could get a cartoon into the magazine, Mankoff answered, "the same way you get to Carnegie Hall." He himself submitted 2,000 cartoons before having one accepted.

I guess persistence pays off -- except when it doesn't.