Monday, February 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #48: How About Never -- Is Never Good for You? by Bob Mankoff

First up, a quick consumer note: Mankoff at no time in this book discusses the use of "Christ, what an asshole!" as the all-purpose caption for any New Yorker cartoon, and he only obliquely touches on the idea that New Yorker cartoons are deliberately hard to understand. (He does have a chapter on the Seinfeld episode where Elaine complains about them, but that turns into a discussion of E.B. White's dictum about frogs, humor, and dissection.) So anyone hoping for an official ruling on that caption will be disappointed.

People who actually like the cartoons in the New Yorker, though, will be much more satisfied with Mankoff's memoir with cartoons, How About Never - Is Never Good for You?, and that's for the best, as New Yorker cartoon-haters are vastly less likely to buy a book by the New Yorker cartoon editor to begin with.

How About Never is subtitled "My Life in Cartoons," and that's exactly what it does: combine a conventional memoir of Mankoff's life with a look at what it's like to be New Yorker cartoon editor, all copiously illustrated with cartoons from Mankoff and others, plus other art when appropriate (such as fumetti of important scenes from that aforementioned Seinfeld episode). So the text is shorter than you'd expect from a book of about 300 pages, but it also functions as a collection of New Yorker cartoons that illustrate Mankoff's life and work.

The memoir part kicks off the book, taking our author from birth (New York, 1943, to a very Jewish mother and father) through schooling, breaking into the New Yorker in the late '70s, starting The Cartoon Bank (a licensing service for cartoons, along the lines of the Bettmann Archives) in the early '90s, and then succeeding Lee Lorenz as New Yorker cartoon editor in 1997 at the tail end of the Tina Brown years. The end gets more convoluted than that: the Cartoon Bank was primarily designed to market New Yorker-style cartoons by New Yorker cartoonists, and so got involved directly with the New Yorker to license the actual cartoons from the magazine, and that led the magazine's parent company, Conde Nast, to buy The Cartoon Bank about a year before Mankoff got the cartoon editor gig.

In any case, the memoir portion is primarily focused on Mankoff's career: after a bit on how his parents gave him the traditional comedian's need to excel and entertain, it's all about humor and cartooning, with only brief mentions of his first two marriages and his personal life. And that's just perfect: anyone picking up How About Never cares primarily for Mankoff as a professional cartoon guy.

The last third of How About Never gets into that Seinfeld episode -- turning it into an exercise in comedy theory and applied cartooning -- and then the nuts and bolts of the cartoon editor's job, from receiving the weekly batches from the regulars, deciding among them, running the possibles up the chain to David Remnick, editor of the magazine, nurturing new talent, and the Cartoon Caption Contest. It's a good introduction to what a cartoon editor does, and Mankoff ends the book with a selection of the work of the new cartoonists who have broken in during his tenure, which is a great pay-it-forward moment.

Mankoff is passionate about humor in general and cartooning in particular, which is exactly what you want in the author of a book like this and a man holding the jobs he does (still head of Cartoon Bank, besides New Yorker cartoon editor and now only sporadically working cartoonist). How About Never is a funny, engrossing look at a smart, sophisticated artform by one of its top editors and practitioners; any fan of New Yorker cartoons will love and cherish it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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