April 5, 2009

A rant, part I

If you know me well, you know that I'm a bit of a complainer. Thankfully, though, I've kept most of the vitriol out of this blog. But tonight, let's taste a little, shall we? Allow me to rant about one of my pet peeves: the cartoons in The New Yorker.

I love The New Yorker; one of the few magazines I read, and the only one I maintain a subscription to (if you don't count my college alumni magazine, and you shouldn't). But I love it for the articles. The pictures, not so much. I have a standing dislike for The New Yorker's famed cartoons: For the most part, they're not funny, they're not particularly well drawn, and they're obnoxiously elitist.

This week is the prime moment to discuss this, because the current issue's cover features work by my least favorite of the regular cartoon contributors, Roz Chast:
Roz Chast makes a career of rehashing the clichéd foibles of modern New York life: everyone's neurotic, men are different than women, cats are lazy, old people can't deal with technology. If there's a hackneyed observation about modern life, she's on the case, with no fresh insight, minimal imagination, and a cartooning style that—while charming—evinces very little originality.

Ironically, this cover is among her best work; it actually made me smile—some clever ideas here, for a change—until I got to the end and saw it was a riff on the Bernie Madoff debacle. So she's at least a few weeks behind the relevance curve (her own magazine published what I consider the authoritative article on the subject two weeks earlier). This highlights Roz Chast's greatest sin, and the greatest sin of many of The New Yorker's cartoonists: She's lazy. She couldn't be bothered to strike when the iron is hot (which is vital, if your goal is topical humor), failing as the cultural commentator that she and many of the other cartoonists apparently are supposed to be.

Many disagree. A few months ago, Slate published an article by someone who'd won The New Yorker's cartoon caption contest, explaining his secrets for victory; basically, don't try to be funny, try to be "witty" in the specific New Yorker way. This is tantamount to saying the cartoons aren't supposed to be laugh-at-loud funny. This is garbage. There's no reason why something witty, timely, charming and intellectual can't be outright hilarious. If you don't believe me, turn on Comedy Central some weeknight between 11pm and midnight. (Thankfully, this writer's lame attitude is in the minority; I actually like most of the winning captions for this weekly contest. Ironically, they have a better success rate than the "professional" cartoonists.)

A few other rotten cartoons from recent issues:Elitist. Bartering is hardly some ridiculously exotic concept, it's very common and always has been. The distance between this scenario and reality is minimal, growing more so by the day, and the fact that this is considered "humorous" just proves that the cartoonist is out of touch (as are the editors for accepting this).
Hey, did you know that men don't like to ask for directions while driving? And that it's funny to imagine that aliens would be just like us? And have you been conscious at any point in the past 30 years? This might have made for an amusing Far Side cartoon 20 years ago, but Gary Larson would've drawn it with infinitely more economy and better design (why is it easier to see the trees than the aliens?).

This cartoonist is just terrible; he simply cannot draw, and 90 percent of his cartoons feature essentially the same image: A couple of poorly defined humanoids standing unnaturally against a nondescript background, talking. (And again, what's with the poor composition? Why are the relevant figures squeezed into a corner at the expense of irrelevant background detail? Go to art school!) Add in the moldy interpersonal observation, and you have a work of "art" that has no business taking up space in any magazine worth reading.

Why does this upset me so? And are there any New Yorker cartoons I do enjoy? Answers to those questions and more in a forthcoming post; this rant has gone on long enough.


Matt said...

Clearly, you need to become familiar with the Anti-Caption Contest.

Anonymous said...

The lack of timeliness in the topical cartoons that you decry is because The NYer doesn't always print the cartoons when the artist draws them and when they are bought. Often they go into a "bank" and then are used as space allows. This isn't the artist's fault. Just so you know.

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