“Cartoons either make the strange familiar or the familiar strange,” says New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, the main character in Leah Wolchok’s fantastic documentary about the weekly magazine’s enduring cartoon department, Very Semi-Serious, playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. “They’re not didactic, but they deal with our world.” Or, as cartoonist Emily Flake puts it, describing the exact sort of material that Mankoff and his editor-in-chief David Remnick tend to buy for the magazine: “Basically, stupid cracker shit.”
Wolchok charts the evolution of what has passed muster as sufficiently funny “stupid cracker shit” from the very first New Yorker cartoon, in the magazine’s inaugural 1925 issue, to today, while honing in on the personalities and processes of certain artists, and drawing a picture of an industry in flux. As old timers like Mort Gerberg and Lee Lorenz explain, there used to be dozens of magazines they could sell their work to, but now The New Yorker is the only game in town. In spite of this, Mankoff has turned the process into a very open one, allowing any artist to come to the weekly meetings at which he sorts through thousands of cartoons to pick the 15 or so that will be bought and published. That openness has brought more women and young artists into the fold and, to a lesser degree, some racial diversity to the magazine’s set of regular cartoon contributors.
In addition to Mankoff, whose personal struggles, professional duties, and memoir project form the film’s core narrative structure, Wolchok focuses on a half-dozen cartoonists. They include the section’s first regular woman contributor, Roz Chast; the young graphic novelist Liana Finck, who struggles mightily to bend her eccentric style to Mankoff’s tastes; and the prodigious cartoonist Edward Steed, whose hilariously dry and quirky drawings immediately make their way into the magazine that he only discovered two years prior while backpacking in Vietnam. “I thought, ‘I could do that,’” he recalls. “Not ‘I want to do that,’ but ‘I could do that.’” Each artist is introduced with a caption that includes the number of cartoons they’ve had published by the New Yorker, ranging from zero to 1,826 (Lorenz), but even some of the most prolific endured years of rejection before making their debut in the magazine. The film captures both the solitary business of creating cartoons and the social ritual of the Tuesday pitch sessions.
Appropriately, given its title, Very Semi-Serious also devotes a good amount of time to letting the cartoonists ruminate on the nature of humor. Some locate the root of their work in childhood, as a way to privately get back at bullies, others see it as something more akin to stand-up comedy, highlighting the odd and amusing in the everyday. Cartooning’s relationship to truth and pain becomes an especially powerful topic as Mankoff recalls the process of picking cartoons for the magazine in the weeks after 9/11. Wolchok copiously peppers the interviews with images of the subjects’ cartoons, revealed setup-punchline style, with the drawing appearing first, then the caption. Her film, consequently, has precisely that pitch-perfect balance of truth and comedy that makes for a great New Yorker cartoon. It also makes for a seriously excellent documentary.
Artist Minouk Lim wants to offer a very different perspective on how one might deal with a grim history whose effects continue to be felt in the present.
This week: Should Washington have a national memorial for gun violence? Have cats used us to take over the world? What is Cluttercore? And more.
Organizers, artists, and land practitioners are holding public events at Iglesias Garden in a hub space supported by the Climate Justice Initiative, a project of Mural Arts Philadelphia.
The artist’s style blends aesthetic and cultural elements from Ghana, London, and New York’s graffiti scenes.
Workers told Hyperallergic that they were tired of meager pay and a lack of job security.
Jo Sandman / TRACES opens with a reception for the artist on June 3 at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in Asheville, North Carolina.
Authorities say Jean-Luc Martinez helped facilitate the Louvre’s purchase of objects illegally pillaged during the Arab Spring.
The suspects attempted to take a Basquiat artwork valued at $45,000 from Taglialatella Galleries but instead made off with a half-empty bottle of whiskey.
Funding MFAs and all full-time graduate degrees, the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans supports immigrants and the children of immigrants in the US.
From music and architecture to comedy and horror, these films showcase Ukrainian culture and its long-held ethos of resistance.
The artists showcased in Archival Intimacies examine the colonial trauma’s impact on Asian Americans and search for ways to overcome it.
Eiffel inadvertently paints its protagonist not as a great man worthy of scrutiny or praise, but as the Elon Musk of his day.