June 3, 2003
Robert Mankoff: The Naked Cartoonist
Like many balanced, sensible people, I keep a list of things I'm obsessed with. Almost every item comes from the worlds of art, music and words, and a random sampling would include the stand-up album of Woody Allen, the Steve Earle song "Ft. Worth Blues," and, of course, the cartoons of the New Yorker.
Robert Mankoff describes his job as "the best in the world," and he has sound reasons for this claim: he's the New Yorker's cartoon editor. He started working there as a cartoonist at some point in the Seventies, and is responsible for some of the best cartoons of the last two decades or so. (One of his cartoons depicts a businessman standing alone in his office, and saying into the phone: "No, Thursday's out. How about never? Is never good for you?")
Mankoff starts The Naked Cartoonist with a brief autobiographical introduction, which is interesting, and quickly moves on to a brief introduction to the world of the New Yorker cartoon, which is also interesting. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that the entire book is a brief introduction. There's very little depth here, and very little substance. The book claims to be "a new way of accessing your creativity," but this a hollow claim. Mankoff's concept of developing ideas is no more sophisticated than "sit and think and hopefully after a while you'll come up with something good. In fact, if you come up with something really good you might even be able to sell it to me. So get going! And good luck!"
Even so, there are some interesting observations scattered throughout these pages. At one point he says that "reality, brought to you directly by your senses, tends to be the endpoint for the conscious mind, but the starting point for the creative or unconscious one." And he provides a nice illustration of the way cartoonists can take a visual image and reinterpret it in their own fashion. The example he uses is the Grim Reaper, and he shows how different cartoonists have added variations to the basic stereotype. An early example shows a hooded figure with a scythe confronting a man pleading for mercy, but later examples show the same hooded figure in very different contexts: on a golf course, outside a travel shop, and so on. It's a great way of showing how one good idea can give rise to a dozen others, for the pleasure and fascination of all.
Mankoff also illustrates the "what if" concept particularly well, providing dazzling visual answers to questions such as "What do you get when you cross a holdup with a checkup?" and "What do you get when you cross haberdashery with TV news?" There's also an intriguing section which analyses the exact wordings of captions, which explains in useful detail how the wording of a punchline can weaken or improve a joke.
The biggest problem with The Naked Cartoonist is the style of writing. Mankoff knows exactly how to approach an audience in a cartoon, but not in a full length book. There are times when he writes like a desperately insecure teenager, blurting out his anxieties. Even worse, thirteen pages before the end, he makes the candid admission that he doesn't have enough material. I've seen comedians make this kind of thing work in front of a live audience, but it falls flat on the page. Mankoff finishes an intermittently interesting book with the impression that he's mainly interested in your money.
The Naked Cartoonist takes about half an hour to read, and it's definitely worth flicking through it if you see it on a library shelf. And if you've never investigated the world of the New Yorker cartoon, you should: a paradise awaits. Be warned, though: there are better starting points than this one.