And In This Corner, At 656 Pages and Weighing 9 Pounds, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker

Wow. Seems like only a few years ago this heavyweight was published, not 14 years ago.  An undertaking so far unequaled (at least measured by heft) in the magazine’s history. The book weighs about 9 pounds and is 656 pages, with two cds containing every New Yorker cartoon in the magazine (up to that time).  A subsequent paperback edition, though 14 pages longer, isn’t as heavy, is smaller in size and contains just one cd.  There is, as Spillers know, an even lengthier New Yorker book coming at us this Fall, The New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons @ 1536 pages (Simple math tells us this new one is then more than twice as long.  Wow, wow.). 

So what to make of this 2004 giant album.  There was much to like about it, and some not to like. First, the good and bad (quibbles, I call them) about the enclosed cds. 

  The 2 cds, as advertised, gave us access to the huge number of cartoons published in the magazine. The cd database was not perfect.  There were some issues with cartoons assigned to the wrong cartoonist. There were omissions as well as questionable additions (my memory is finding what we would normally call illustrations included as cartoons).  But let’s be real: in a project this enormous, no one could expect perfection, and the final product should be applauded. Those issues with the database were overshadowed by the ability to see the work, anyone’s work, with a few clicks.

The arrival the following year of The Complete New Yorker with its 8 DVD-Roms made the Complete Cartoon discs, for me, obsolete.  Why? The Complete New Yorker‘s discs allowed one to see the cartoons presented as they were published in the pages of the magazine, and not isolated on the screen. The Complete Cartoons database presented the cartoons solo, sans surrounding text — to my eyes a cold environment.  For me, seeing the cartoons the way they appeared in the magazine (their natural habitat), and how they were presented along with text and other cartoons was (and always has been) the preferred way to experience New Yorker cartoons.

The book itself: 

Picking up a 9 pound book is a commitment — it’s best looked at while it rests on a coffee table or heavy-duty plank of wood. Once anchored, the page-turning experience is highly enjoyable. The large format (11″ X 13″) allows the cartoons a lot of breathing room on the page.  A very slight quibble: the format of 4 cartoons to a page or 3 could’ve used a little shaking up. Unless I missed it, there are no drawings allowed to carry over to the opposite page, no playful use of the all that space.  True, there are full page drawings sprinkled throughout, but variety otherwise (as in the much earlier albums) would’ve added to the layout. The paper quality is just good enough to avoid seeing through to the next page. 

  There are written pieces introducing the decades (some by such marquee names as John Updike, Calvin Trillin and Roger Angell) and short unsigned essays on cartoon themes (drinking, nudity, slipper dogs and cell phones, etc.). There are also  profiles of certain cartoonists — the flap copy calls them “key cartoonists” identified with each decade.  These include Arno, Thurber, Addams, Steig, Steinberg, Booth, Ziegler, etc.. One quibble with these key cartoonist profiles: out of 10 cartoonists profiled, only one is a woman. While doing research for my biography of Peter Arno in the New Yorker‘s archives (found at the New York Public Library) I came across an in-house New Yorker document rating the golden age artists;  two cartoonists were at the very top of the list in a class by themselves above all other artists: Peter Arno and Helen Hokinson.  Ms. Hokinson is not profiled in the book.  I would argue that Barbara Shermund and Mary Petty also deserved recognition.

It’s too late now, but if they had it to do all over again, I would’ve been happier if the editors had provided us with either more profiles of “key cartoonists” and less introductory text (it is, after all, a book of cartoons and cartoonists far more than a book about cartoons) or no profiles of key cartoonists at all.  Once you begin noticing who’s not profiled (Alan Dunn, for instance — whose work is in the top five of all-time published New Yorker cartoonists along with James Stevenson; Rea Irvin, Frank Modell, Robert Weber, Whitney Darrow, Edward Koren, Lee  Lorenz, Charles Barsotti, Danny Shanahan, the aforementioned Shermund and Hokinson — just to name a few) you realize you’re only getting part of the picture.  I’d argue that after the magazine found its footing in late 1926 or early 1927, it was a team effort that ultimately made the New Yorker cartoons great, not a team carried by less than a dozen.  

Final quibble: I’ve never been fond of the mini essays on drinking, cell phones and slipper dogs etc. —  why categorize unless you’re turning out a theme cartoon book ala The New Yorker Book of Cat Cartoons.  For me, categorizing takes away the organic punch an individual cartoon delivers.  Give us ten desert island cartoons in a group and they each lose a little something.  

All in all, with the above exceptions noted, the Complete Cartoons is a major effort and a loving tribute to the magazine’s artists and their art. Let’s hope we see it equaled, if not bettered, in 2025, when the magazine turns 100 years old.

The paperback edition of The Complete Cartoons, published in 2006, gives us a few more pages and a few more years of newer cartoons (and some newer cartoonists). As mentioned earlier, it’s a lot lighter than the hardcover so you can pick it up and sit back with it. No coffee table necessary. The single DVD-Rom adds approximately 1700 cartoons. 

 

 

 

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