Sunday, January 01, 2012

Comedy Tonight: A "final installment" for Bob Mankoff's "perfect cartoon" quest


One of the sample Michael Maslin cartoons Bob Mankoff offers:

"Once again I find myself in the rather awkward
position of having to ask one of you for a biscuit."

by Ken

We've been following New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff's quest for "the perfect cartoon," first when he announced it, the when he followed up with a defense of his 1946 Chon Day pick -- the cartoon that depicted a clearly long-suffering shoe salesman dealing with an even more clearly difficult customer -- against what I considered an ass-ignorant accusation of sexism. So I've been waiting for an opportunity to bring readers who haven't seen Bob's latest newsletter-blogpost up to date on the subject, "Michael Maslin's Perfect Cartoon" (December 28).

Bob thought that "the perfect end-of-year post would be a final installment about the perfect cartoon," and for that he turned to fellow New Yorker cartoonist (more than 700 cartoons published since the late '70s!) Michael Maslin, who "chronicles everything involving New Yorker cartoons and cartoonists at Ink Spill," where Bob says he often goes himself "to find out what I'm doing."

"When I asked Michael to pick his perfect cartoon," Bob writes, "I was pretty sure who the cartoonist would be." There's never been any doubt about "the influence of his idol, James Thurber." He offers several samples, including the one I've put at the top of this post. I really like this one too:

"Things were done very differently on the farm
when I was your age, Kenny."

Sure enough, Michael is torn between two Thurber cartoons, one perhaps the most famous of them all, the "seal in the attic" drawing, which we've talked about a number of times. (We've had both Thurber's explanation of the mistake by which the drawing came into being and also E. B. White famous account of how he took it upon himself to ink in this particular drawing, from among the pile-up that littered the floor of the tiny New Yorker office they shared at the time, and send it to the magazine's art meeting.)

"All right, have it your way -- you heard a seal bark."

Michael's other choice is this familiar but much less known Thurber cartoon:

"What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?"

The reason I bring this all up is because I really love Michael's explanation-commentary on the two cartoons. I don't know that it's necessary to be able analyze a drawing this way in order to produce high-quality cartoons, but I'm fascinated by the way he looks at these cartoons, and the insight he's able to offer:
"What Have You Done with Dr. Millmoss?" changed my life. It was the first Thurber drawing I ever saw and the first New Yorker cartoon that ever meant anything to me. It would be easy to say the seal drawing -- Thurber's most popular -- is perfection itself, and in so many ways it is, but I'd go with Millmoss.

The woman is classic Thurber, but look closely at the hippopotamus: at its eye and its eyebrow, at the curve of the mouth. What is that expression? There's no answer. And so you look again, and again. I've been looking for thirty-five years.

The caption is short and uncomplicated, and Thurber didn't try for a "funny" name for the doctor. And other than his name, all that's left of Dr. Millmoss is the pipe, the shoe, and the hat. Try covering them up with your finger. The drawing works O.K. without them, but with them it's a masterpiece.

To me, that's really something!



Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home