Sunday, June 19, 2011

Eighty Years of Humor

Anyone even casually looking at a copy of The New Yorker magazine will notice the cartoons, regular readers of the magazine often confessing to flipping through and reading the cartoons before anything else. Since its founding in 1925 cartoons have been an essential part of the magazine, and the list of contributors reads like a who’s who of cartoon greats: Charles Addams, Reginald Marsh, William Steig, Roz Chast, James Thurber, Liza Donnelly, Chon Day and a few hundred others. Looking back at the work of these cartoonists as it appeared in The New Yorker over the years, provides a comic chronicle of eight decades, a funny, concise and timely commentary on the American experience. The publishers call it ‘the longest-running popular comic genre in American life.’

In 2004 Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers released a massive tribute to The New Yorker and its contributing cartoonists over a period stretching from 1925 to 2004 in the big, very big, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker. This one requires a shopping cart to carry and a very large bookcase to accommodate its 13 x 11 x 1.5 inch measurements and over seven pounds of bulk. The problem with this book is that it requires a library table to read it comfortably. Not satisfied with all the material inside the book’s covers, the publishers added two CDs which include every single cartoon published in the magazine between 1925 and 2004. That’s over 68,000 cartoons all beautifully presented in digital format. The price? Unbeatable. I call it unbeatable based upon the price shown at the link above, but a big nod of thanks is due to my friend K who got tired of hefting her copy up and down and passed it on to me.

One of the highlights of the book is the essays prefacing each decade and introducing the reader to what was happening either in the wider world or on the American scene, along with other cultural pointers that help place the cartoons in a frame of sorts. There are also profiles of the leading cartoonists, those whose contributions were especially noteworthy—Peter Arno, William Steig, Roz Chast. There is a lot to read in this book, but close reading is not a requirement for uncovering hours of enjoyment with the cartoons alone.

I haven’t had time enough to go through the cartoons (or the essays) front to back, but I’ve seen and read enough to realize that Editor Robert Mankoff has done a tremendous job of putting this book together. His work has been complemented by essays from Calvin Trillin, John Updike, Mark Singer, Lillian Ross and others.

The included CDs allow what the backcover calls an ‘easy-to-browse’ system using Adobe Reader to help find cartoons by artist’s name, to look up the cartoons that ran the week you were born, and to pick out cartoons by subject.

Interspersed among the paragraphs above are a few of my personal favorites. The one above from 1935 reminds me of The Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson fifty years later.


  1. Always the cartoons take that slightly offbeat slant. And usually such pithy material. Wonderful. And if they ever do a complete survey of the great fiction they've published over the years, you would need a library for those volumes alone.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America