Why New Yorker Cartoons Make no Senseon August 28, 2014 at 6:34 pm
I know many of my readers enjoy watching 60 Minutes every Sunday evening. But for those of you who missed it last week, they did a light segment on the New Yorker cartoons and the process by which they are chosen. It was fun seeing cartoonists on TV. It was fun seeing them vying for a spot in the magazine. And it was fun seeing them get in. For a lot of cartoonists, the pages of the New Yorker represent the top of the top, the highest you can go in comics. To use a food analogy, they’d be like the Michelin stars of the comics world. Personally, it’s something I often fantasized about when I was starting out. The thought of me, an Oakland boy being represented in the magazine whose name is synonymous with culture and sophistication would be a dream come true. But after watching last weeks segment, I have to say, fuck them!
To recap the segment, The New Yorker chooses it’s cartoons in a really weird freakin’ way. Basically, they’re all submitted in person at the New Yorker office, so that the cartoonists can kowtow to this one dude. Who is this dude? Well that was what the segment was mostly about. He’s the cartoon editor for the New Yorker and suffice it to say, it all comes down to this one senile old man and his bizarre taste in comics. During the interview, he started recalling his favorite cartoon about a couple vacationing in Tuscany and being impressed with the quality of the wifi at the Hilton. Something we can all relate to!
The funniest part of the segment was when they showed one cartoon featuring a cat playing cat’s cradle with some yarn coming out of a mouse hole. The caption said, “Have you no shame?” A real knee slapper, right? Except nobody knew what the hell it meant. Not Morely Safer, not the editor, probably not the cartoonist either. As I learned, the a cartoonist will submit 700 comics over the course of a year and they’re lucky if 20 are chosen. Roz Chast said at one point, “The cartoons where I think I hit it out of the park never get picked.”
To me, this is pretty much the definition of a gatekeeper. I’m sure this editor is a nice dude. But here’s why this is a horrible process for choosing comics. First, you’re limiting yourself to people in the New York area. I know you want to see the person explain their cartoon to you in person, but not everyone reading the magazine will have that option. Furthermore, let’s just say it’s not the most representative sample of the New York population, so you’re limiting yourself even further. And thirdly, you have really bad taste in cartoons!
Now, I’ve talked before about the frictionless meritocracy of comics. It’s not perfect, but I do feel a good comic book will eventually find its audience. Unlike a lot of other industries, you don’t need connections or money or a degree. It doesn’t matter where you live or who you are. Really all you need is about $5 in raw materials and you’re good to go. By contrast, I’ve heard stories of actors, moving to LA and after months of unemployment trying out for a 10 second part in a sitcom as a Chinese waiter with a thick accent, only to have the part go to one of the 40 other people at the audition.
I don’t feel there’s any royal road to comics. If there was, you’d think Shia Labeouf would have a contract with Drawn and Quarterly by now. The fact is, Craig Thompson has a book called Blankets with his name on it because he drew every page of that book himself. I know webcomics have their problems too. But at least Tim Berners Lee isn’t individually telling us what comics we can and can’t print on the web.
CORRECTION: September 5, 2014
Some readers have taken me to task for incorrectly describing the cartoon editor of the New Yorker as a senile old man who only accepts submissions in person and also has horrible taste in comics. In fact he’s only 70 years old, and he accepts submissions via email and post as well.