Sunday, January 04, 2015

Funny Ladies by Liza Donnelly

Like Gaul, the story of women cartoonists in the New Yorker is divided into three parts. There were a number of strong female voices in the magazine in the first decade or two, led by Helen Hokinson, Barbara Shermund, and Mary Petty, who appeared regularly, did popular covers, and were well-known. And there has been a new and continued flourishing of women cartoonists -- with Roz Chast, Victoria Roberts, and Liza Donnelly at the head of the list -- after Lee Lorenz took over as cartoon editor in 1973.

But the time in between was different: the early pioneers started getting frozen out in the 1940s, and no cartoons by women appeared at all in the New Yorker from 1959 to 1973, which is frankly appalling when you realize it. There are potential explanations -- the New Yorker went more political in the post-war years, the cartooning world was shifting to the more lascivious cartoons of Esquire and then Playboy, the culture pretty explicitly drove women to marriage and motherhood and domesticity right after WWII -- but there clearly was some element of choice on the part of William Shawn (editor-in-chief) and James Geraghty (art editor) in those years, and they chose to entirely exclude women. And they should definitely be judged based on that choice.

That story, in all three parts, is told well by cartoonist Liza Donnelly in her 2005 book Funny Ladies, published to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the magazine. At that point, Donnelly had been selling cartoons to the magazine for more than twenty-five years, so she knew the modern players well and had great access to dig into the histories of that earlier period. Donnelly likes and respects the New Yorker, so she somewhat soft-pedals the appalling middle of that history, but it is a big hole in the middle of the history she tells here: women were unwelcome at the New Yorker for almost a third of its run.

Donnelly, though, primarily wants to celebrate and appreciate the great work by that long list of women who did cartoon for the New Yorker -- contemporaries like Carolita Johnson and Marisa Acocella Marchetto and Kim Warp, early voices like Nancy Fay and Nora Benjamin and Alice Harvey, quirky standouts of the Lee Lorenz era like Nurit Karlin and Ann McCarthy and Hughette Martel -- and so her book combines the through-line of the magazine (editorial changes, the changes in captioning policy and style) with thumbnail sketches of the work and careers of all of those women cartoonists, in as much detail as she could find out and would fit. She gets in at least one cartoon by each woman cartoonist, with several for the major names like Hokinson, Petty, and Chast (and herself, of course), but Funny Ladies is primarily an illustrated narrative, not just a book of cartoons.

There are a lot of talented women to celebrate here -- and that three-part story has some very obvious lessons for women and feminism and the importance of keeping pushing forward -- which makes Funny Ladies into a thoroughly engrossing book to read. And Donnelly is the absolutely perfect woman to tell this story.

1 comment:

Liza Donnelly said...

Thank you very much for this nice review! I loved working on that book, it was a pure pleasure to discover the women and their artwork.

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