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Never Mind Rock Stars, We’d Rather Be Cartoonists

Gary Sales
October 13, 2014
by Gary Sales Reviewed in this essay: How About Never — Is Never Good for You? My Life in Cartoons, by Bob Mankoff. Henry Holt, 2014, 304 pages. How-about-never-cartoonBOB MANKOFF’S AFFABLE MEMOIR (Chapter One: “I’m Not Arguing, I’m Jewish”) provides a peek beyond this New Yorker cartoon editor’s office door into his obsessive, madcap mind. The book is a delightful read, and shot through with Mankoff’s and other artists’ cartoons. For your busy lifestyle, How About Never? is well-suited to incremental readings on your porcelain throne, but it’s advised to play your radio loudly so no one hears you laughing and thinks you’re losing it. Mankoff is a working-class guy who got his early comedic training trading barbs with his acerbic, stay-at-home mom and hearing an occasional plum line from his workaholic, carpet-selling, dry-witted, Dad. His DNA is pure New York Jewish, from “da Bronx and Queens,” and he was educated via the public schools, colleges, streets and stinks of New York City. He’s a real, dried-ink-on-the page New Yorker. His laid-back memoir is accompanied by a reverential look at the history of the venerable magazine he serves, the style and work habits of New Yorker cartoonists past and present, and the playfully scientific methods that he, his trusted staff, and editor David Remnick use to sort through 500 cartoons a week from the regular contributors — and another 500 from those who would like to be — to deliver the fifteen or so frames that get into the weekly ish. These figures do not include the famously inscrutable New Yorker Caption Contest, to which, as Bob tells it, no celeb has had success (and many have tried) other than late film critic, Roger Ebert — and he just once, after countless attempts. Pssst... if you’re a die-hard caption contest type, Mankoff a chapter on the secrets to winning, complete with his Paypal address. Sometimes he gets serious, even philosophical. “Jews are overthinkers,” he writes. “It’s no surprise that we invented psychoanalysis. Humor is the antidote to overthinking. Humor contains contradictions; it does not resolve them but revels in them.” Things don’t stay overthought for very long, however, for Mankoff knows where his strengths lie; within a few paragraphs, we’re attending his bar mitsve. Cartoonist is not a job typically advertised in newspaper classifieds. Nope, not even on Craigslist! With a great deal of respect for the New Yorker’s particular style and for the art and craft of cartooning, Mankoff traces his own twisted, nerve-wracking road to becoming a bona fide, “paidifide” cartoonist under the supervision of his predecessor, cartoon editor Lee Lorenz, then leads us through his twenty-year, multi-marriage, joyous struggle as a New Yorker cartoonist who is eventually promoted to the coveted position as capo de tutti capo of cartoonists. Mankoff also presents the winding, sometimes frustrating paths — or, rarely, rocket-like ascents — of his cartoonist colleagues. As one would expect, there’s lots of classic New Yorker cartoons from Bob and his colleagues, analysis of many of them by the master, and numerous anecdotes to enjoy. Gary Sales is a filmmaker and musician living in New York City. He is producer on the new film, The Girl on the Train, starring Stephen Lang and David Margulies, available for downloading.