April 6, 2009

A rant, part II

Two days ago, I complained about The New Yorker's "famous" cartoons, about how most of them drive me insane with disgust. A rant, if you will. Today, part II: Why am I so pissed off?

(1) They're lazy. One of the primary philosophies of my life is that hard work is itself a good thing: Even if the result is disappointing, I like to give an A for effort. This is one of the reasons I loved The 39 Steps; not only was it a good time, those guys worked their asses off. It's also part of the reason I admire Jimmy Carter; the dude was a flat-out lousy President, but dammit, he really tried, and for that I respect him. (That's not to say I hate anything that doesn't involve hard work; let's trade Jerky Boys quotes sometime.)

But too many New Yorker cartoons foist clichéd, tossed-off concepts accompanied by poorly drawn pictures onto readers and call it art. Not a lot of effort here.And what's most galling is that most of the journalism in The New Yorker is excellent, full of outstanding reporters and writers putting in a herculean degree of effort. I mean, really: Does a napkin scribble and a banal observation about waiting in line really deserve to sit side-by-side with a rigorously reported, 3,000-word essay about the modernization of rural China? The answer is no, and I wish The New Yorker's editors realized that.

(2) They're elitist. As you may be aware, for most of my life, I was big comic-book fan. Mainly mainstream, superheroey stuff—I was a DC fanatic, I wrote my thesis about Batman, although I have an appreciation of the tentpoles of the underground and alternative scenes. And the underdog in me always bristled at how, until recently, comics were basically dismissed by the mainstream. (With age, I've learned just how much of the comics canon is utter shit, but isn't that true of all art forms?)

The New Yorker's cartoons never had that problem. They're routinely hailed as paragons of humor and cartoon artistry. I think it's because for decades, the very medium of comics was debased; so standards were lower, and anything with a shred of an adult viewpoint was regarded as an exceptional example of the form (deserving work has benefited from this as well, of course). And the imprimatur of being in The New Yorker granted these cartoons that dignified shred. But the truth is, most of these cartoons are lousy, and a lot of "juvenile" comics are much better. You want to talk about humor? Try Ambush Bug, or even this:

This ties in with the laziness: New Yorker cartoonists seem to think, "Hey, it's just a cartoon! No one's expecting genius, so a poorly thought-out trifle should get the job done." Wrong: Open your eyes, Mr. Cultural Commentator. There is good comics work, even if it's outnumbered by the crap. Besides, comics is a medium, not a specific genre, marketing strategy or philosophy. Scott McCloud has made this point well: A medium can't in itself be good or bad (though the advent of Twitter has me reconsidering that).

Next post: I lay off the vitriol and show you some examples of New Yorker cartoons that I actually like.


Alice said...

One of my biggest complaints about New Yorker cartoons is that they never ever ever have people of color in them. That was 100% true until Obama became a big deal, then they had that "controversial" fist-bump cover with him and Michelle, which I would have found a damn sight less offensive if it had not been the first depiction I have ever seen in The New Yorker art of an African-American.

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