Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Two Themed Books of Single-Panel Cartoons

So I read two books of themed single-panel cartoons this past week. Since it's hard to write about a bunch of random single-panel cartoons anyway ("Some are funny, some are not. Some are by this person, while others are by this completely different person."), I decided I might as well stick them together into one post to maximize the awkwardness and minimize the number of actual posts on this blog.

I didn't say it was a good decision.

So first up is the clearer model: Books, Books, Books, edited by cartoonist S. Gross and handyman writer/editor Jim Charlton, published by Harper & Row in 1988. The edition I read was paper-over-boards, though I suspect it also exists in paperback form.

Books, Books, Books collects something like a hundred and fifty cartoons, roughly one to each of its un-numbered pages. One is from Playboy, a bunch are from the New Yorker, and the bulk are from places that didn't demand credit here and so didn't get it.

And, yes, they're all about books. Reading them, writing them, shelving them (at home, in libraries, in book stores), thinking about them, and mentioning the names of famous writers in passing. These were mostly contemporary cartoons at the time: there's a lot of Roz Chast, Sidney Harris, and Jack Ziegler, with some Eldon Dedini and at least one Charles Addams reaching back further.

There are obviously no gags about ebooks or Amazon here -- this is more like the world I started working in just a few years later, where the bookstores have big tables up front with stacks of books. I found this mostly funny, in a slightly New Yorker-y way: a few cartoons are arch, or require some knowledge of an author or the book world, but most are just jokes readers would get. It does what it sets out to do; this is what I'm saying.

The other book was a bit weirder: National Lampoon's Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted Cartoons, published in paperback by contemporary Books in 2002 with no imprint on the spine, no price anywhere, and no editor listed. (So this may have been a special publication for some reason -- maybe one of the periodic attempts to revitalize the eternally-dying NatLamp brand.)

From the copyright page and internal evidence -- viz: the fact that page numbers start from 7, run to 128, disappear for about 120 pages, start up again at 7 and ruin to 128 again -- I believe this is a compilation of three books originally published in 1992, 1994, and 1995. So my guess is that it incorporates '92's Truly Tasteless Cartoons, '94's That's Sick, and '95's Truly Twisted  Cartoons. The book itself explains none of this: there are three cartoons on the back cover, a title page, and a copyright page, but otherwise no text. (The first numbered page -- that first "page 7" -- is actually page 3 of this book.)

And, yes, the theme here is bad taste, as was traditional for NatLamp. The first book (section?) has the best of the '70s era -- not that it's all good, but it's memorable and generally the strongest work from that era. The second book is second-tier stuff from the same era, mostly -- what was left in the vault for a second go-round. And the third book is rougher and newer work, with a bunch of things that don't quite gel but are clearly trying to be offensive. I thought NatLamp was solidly dead by 1995, but these could easily be cartoons from the sputtering last days of the magazine in the 1980s. (I thought I kept reading it to the end, and I don't remember these cartoons or, mostly, their cartoonists, but that doesn't prove anything.)

So what we have here is a book created for a now-unknown commercial opportunity, out of three earlier books that were pretty much just ransacking the vaults of a basically-defunct magazine. The stench of product is all over it -- but if that makes it any more tasteless, how could we possibly complain?

Most of the jokes are juvenile, though many of them are at least arguably funny. They run the gamut, starting with lots of sex jokes (particularly deviant sex and a fair bit of oh-ho-aren't-gay-people-hilarious) and running through bodily fluids, death, and dismemberment. Once again I'm reminded how much Rodrigues focused on amputees and S. Gross on blind men: both are well-represented here.

If you're too young to have read NatLamp in the '70s, there are many things in this book that will offend you. If you did read NatLamp then...you'll probably still be offended by many cartoons, though more likely the half-baked ones towards the end that lazily poke a sensibility without making a good joke out of it. No matter who you are, many of these cartoons will not strike you as funny now, and some of them were never funny for any conceivable sane human being.

But they all are "Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted," which is what we were promised. So good work to the entirely uncredited drones who assembled this in '92 and '94 and '95 and '02. You did your jobs, boys -- oh, you know they were all boys, whatever their ages -- and produced what you were asked to produce. Can we all say the same?

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