First Look: The New Yorker Encyclopedia Of Cartoons

A review copy of the slip-cased two volume New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons has landed here at the Spill. After sitting with it a day I’ve some initial thoughts:

The very first impression, before the shrink wrap was removed, was how heavy the set is ( 14.9 pounds).  An earlier tome, 2004’s Complete New Yorker Cartoons of The New Yorker  weighed in at 7 pounds. Of course, there are two volumes, so we’re back to about 7 pounds per volume. I found the books themselves attractive: the design, the binding, the paper quality, typography.  Once a volume is set down on a flat surface, it opens well, affording a pleasant thumbing through experience. 

The placement of cartoons is two per page (but not exclusively — there are times a drawing is full page, or takes up more than 50% of a page).  Chapter headings are each letter of the alphabet. On those introductory chapter pages, printed on a red base, a full page drawing appears. A nice touch: each drawing’s original publication date is noted.  Occasionally there is what is called a “commentary” (an example: “Banana Peels”). These are unsigned, but a blanket credit, for assisting in the writing is given in the introduction to cartoonists Emily Flake, Pat Byrnes, Tom Toro, Paul Karasik, and the New Yorker’s Assistant Cartoon Editor, Colin Stokes [full disclosure: I was asked to audition for the opportunity to write a number of these commentaries. I declined after learning my efforts, if used, would appear uncredited]. I’ve yet to read these commentaries, so I won’t comment on them, other than to say I wish each was signed, or co-signed.

On to the content of the book itself. The New Yorker has a long history of issuing themed pamphlets (for advertising purposes) and themed anthologies. The New Yorker War Album (published in 1942) was the first themed anthology. The next was The New Yorker Album of Art and Artists (published in 1970). The New Yorker Book of Cat Cartoons, published in 1991, was the first of many themed anthologies issued in a square format. The theme of this new anthology are cartoon themes themselves, from Accounting to Zorro.

As a cartoonist, I’ve always found themed collections amusing additions to the classic anthologies that began with The New Yorker Album, published in 1928, and continued through to the aforementioned 2004 Complete Cartoons. The classic anthologies are the next best thing to seeing the cartoons in their natural habitat: the New Yorker magazine itself. Mr. Remnick has this to say in his foreword:

A caution to the reader: The usual way to come across New Yorker cartoons is in the magazine or, more recently, on newyorker.com and on social media. There’s something distinctive, maybe even perverse, about the experience of glancing away from a long piece about, say, a particularly dusty province in the Middle East to drink quietly from the oasis of a good cartoon. 

 Leafing through an issue of The New Yorker affords the reader the joy of complete surprise when coming upon a new cartoon. The reader has, at first glance,  no clue as to what the drawing will deliver.  I often mention Peter Arno’s definition of a good cartoon — that is, one that delivers a one-two punch.  The reader looks at the drawing and then, the second punch: reading the caption. If the drawing is successful, the second punch really delivers. In themed anthologies the reader is already  somewhat informed. For instance, in the New Yorker Book of Dogs, you already know that the next cartoon, and the next, and the next, and so on, will concern dogs. The element of complete surprise is gone. But of course, if you are looking through the New Yorker Book Of Dogs, that’s what you want: cartoons about dogs. In the classic anthologies the reader is still afforded complete surprise: you have zero idea what the next page will bring. You may, of course, immediately recognize a favorite drawing first published in an issue of the magazine, but that’s akin to rounding a corner and running into an old friend. What I’m getting at here is that if you’re a person who enjoys some advance notice of what you’re in for, then this encyclopedia, with some 3000 categorized cartoons (in 300 categories) spread out over two volumes, is for you. 

 The contributing cartoonists are listed on Indexes found in each volume. Jack Ziegler’s work is most represented (103 drawings), followed by the encyclopedia’s editor (88).  Some of the cartoon gods of the magazine’s golden age are well represented (James Stevenson, for example, with 55 cartoons), while others less so (Mary Petty is represented by one cartoon, Helen Hokinson, the magazine’s marquee cartoonist, along with Peter Arno, for nearly forty years, is represented by five). To be clear, this encyclopedia is not advertised as some sort of all-encompassing anthology celebrating the magazine’s 93 year history.  Let’s hope the New Yorker has just that kind of collection in mind for its 100th anniversary in 2025.

The cartoons in this heavyweight encyclopedia, some gold, some silver, speak for themselves. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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