Saturday, January 12, 2013

Single Panels from Wheeler and Gross

No, I'm not the Wheeler in question -- my lack of drawing skill nearly flunked me in a theater arts course back in college (and was one of the things that put the kibosh on my vague plans in that area). But here are two books of cartoons by men who can draw -- and be funny at the same time -- which I read in the not-too-distant past.

I Thought You Would Be Funnier by Shannon Wheeler

Wheeler is best known as the creator of Too Much Coffee Man -- one of those brilliant ideas that someone would have come up with eventually, but so intensely itself that afterward you can't imagine it in anyone else's hands -- but he's been trying to sell single-panel cartoons to The New Yorker for some time. (And with some success; I've seen his stuff there a few times.) This may in part be because New Yorker is almost the only market standing for single-panel cartoons -- I'll come back to that later -- but it's a damn good market, too.

(By the way, Shannon Wheeler is no relation to me, as far as I know -- Wheeler is a pretty common name. But I'm willing to pretend to some vague connection, since he's good at what he does, and even vaguely reflected glory is pretty nice. Also, I was somewhat grumpy about Wheeler's 2007 collection Screw Haven, When I Die I'm Going To Mars at ComicMix, and I note approvingly that he doesn't seem to have taken any of my advice, but is still advancing in his career and work while trying new things. Also also, what I read was is the first book of its name -- in true comic-shop-publisher style, there are already at least two subsequent volumes with exactly the same title.)

These are all intensely New Yorker cartoons -- moment of urban ennui, with lots of talking animals, couples in bed, men talking from behind desks, and all of the other usual furniture. If you don't like that sort of thing, you will not enjoy this book. Wheeler also uses a somewhat different art style here than the TMCM strips -- all black and white and looking like it was drawn with various markers, quite a bit like Matt Diffee's work in the New Yorker.

So these are all pure single-panels: one image, one line of caption. Cartoons like that have to work instantly -- show a scene and twist it, at the same moment; they're either funny right away or not at all. And they're all in a particular fairly narrow niche of that world; the New Yorker doesn't take cartoons too explicitly about sex, or with gross-out humor, or anything too corny, or representative of myriad other kinds of human behavior too far from their remit. Wheeler works in that milieu pretty darn well, running down the middle of the style -- not sarcastically commenting on it like Bruce Eric Kaplan or obfuscating it like Roz Chast -- and so this is a solid collection, full of funny stuff in that style.

So, again: if you like that style, this is a swell book. Since it was published by a comics-industry house (BOOM!), it might not reach the hardcore New Yorker-lovers as well as it should, but it's worth seeking out.

Your Mother Is a Remarkable Woman by S. Gross

This book, on the other hand, is from 1992, and shows the cartoon ecosystem we used to have, since it reprints cartoons from a period of more than a decade prior to that date. (The New Yorker cartoons here are dated, since that magazine buys copyright, and wants notice -- and some of those are back to the early '70s.) The front matter gives a long, fascinating list of places the cartoons originally appeared -- I won't list them all, but they include Science Digest and Psychology Today, Harvard Business Review and Good Housekeeping, Audubon and Teenage besides the usual suspects like New Yorker, Playboy, and National Lampoon. That meant that more cartoonists were able to make at least some money from the single-panel form, and that cartoons on a wider variety of topics were being created regularly.

On the other hand, for a cartoonist usually seen as being cutting and vicious (famously the author of I Am Blind and My Dog Is Dead), these are almost all sweet, inoffensive cartoons -- not bland, precisely, but pretty, and nice, and almost entirely suitable for your maiden aunt.

If you happen to be a maiden aunt, and are looking for amusing cartoons, I can highly recommend this collection. If not, it's still amusing, but it might feel a bit old-fashioned and same-y if you read it all through too quickly. In that case, I recommend putting it somewhere -- perhaps the smallest room in your house -- where you can read one or five cartoons at a time, be amused by them, and then continue on with your day.

(Of course, this book has probably been out of print for close to twenty years now, so the specific recommendation isn't all that useful. That's what you get for getting literary opinions off the Internet!)

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