The news for cartoons

Four things: an interview with Bob Mankoff; two recent Zippy strips; and a piece on background color in comic strips. (Eventually there are also a couple of items of gay interest.)

Bob Mankoff. First, an interview with Mankoff, “Bob Mankoff Thinks Cats Are Funnier Than Dogs” (by Ana Marie Cox) in the November 29th NYT Magazine.


Mankoff is the cartoon editor of The New Yorker and the subject of a new HBO documentary, Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists.

Most of your job seems to be selecting cartoons for publication. Do you ever actually edit them? All the time. I try to punch up the joke or compress it — not change it, not write a completely different joke, but edit it. And then the fact checkers and grammarians get involved. I’ll often have to stop them because, though they’re experts, sometimes good grammar makes for a very bad cartoon.

The cartoons are fact-checked? Absolutely. We check them against all 80,000 cartoons that we’ve ever published. People produce the same ideas all the time. They’re also checked for logical inconsistencies. Then you have to say, Yeah, I know lemmings don’t actually commit suicide, but for the purposes of cartoons, they do.

There are all sorts of conventions for cartoons and comics, many of them having to do with the way things work in the comics world: for instance, in the comics world, many animals know lots of complex things about the real world, can think in words, read and understand writing, and speak meaningfully with one another (but not usually with humans); much the same is true for babies (in the case of speaking meangfully, with respect to adults). And all sorts of false beliefs that are current in the real world — such as the belief that lemmings commit suicide by racing together over sheer cliffs — are true in the comics world. Still, there can be inaccuracies in single-panel cartoons and failures of continuity in multi-panel strips.

In a little while, I’ll get to some visual conventions in the comics.

Have you ever had a submission you loved but couldn’t print because it was unsuitable for The New Yorker? Yeah, anything with [expletive] in it.

At first I was a bit surprised by this, since under Tina Brown’s editorship the magazine moved to a policy of freely allowing taboo vocabulary, incuding fuck and shit. But the policy applies only to quoted material, not to writers speaking in their own voices. So the magazine now prints titles with taboo vocabulary in them and quotes from sources (where there’s some point to the taboo material in those quotes), but it wouldn’t countenance something like a movie reviewer saying something like “The director really fucked up on this film” or “The star can’t act worth shit”.

Things are more complex with cartoons. In captions that aren’t reported speech, taboo stuff would be right out, since such captions have the cartoonists speaking in their own voices. But the speech of characters is another matter; taboo vocabulary could be revelatory of the background, character, or state of mind of a character.

Now from a review of the documentary about Mankoff and his cartoonists, from the NYT itself, by Glenn Kenny on November 20th:

It is not entirely fair to say that “Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists” is an appropriately arch title for a movie about its subject. It’s a truism, though, that New Yorker cartoons are meant to induce knowing chortles rather than guffaws. And this conventional wisdom is only slightly upended in this breezy and informative documentary, directed by Leah Wolchok, which opens in New York this week for an Oscar-nomination-qualifying run before airing on HBO on Dec. 7.


Bob Mankoff, left, cartoon editor of The New Yorker, with cartoonist Farley Katz in Very Semi-Serious

(Katz has appeared  once on this blog , on 5/30/15, with only a little bit of information about the man.)

There is a very short trailer for the documentary that you can watch on YouTube here.

Zippy 1: drawing. The strip, from December 6th:


Vampires, ghouls, zombies, dinosaurs, and men in Spandex. Sounds good to me. Plus city streets from bygone eras and worms. Then the space alien appears to demand a cover of Onion World –which turns out to be an actual publication, with the subtitle: “Your Source for Everything Onions!”  Website here.

Zippy 2: a visual convention.Today’s strip, about the big-eyed look of manga (and anime) characters:


Zippy suggests the influence of Margaret Keane’s regrettable paintings (posted about here), though I suspect it’s more likely that both Keane’s practices and manga/anime eyes stem from the association of big eyes with baby animals and hence with “cuteness”.

An example from the Naruto materials: the central character Naruto Uzumaki (yes, a cat/boy), in an anime (film) from Lionsgate:


From Wikipedia:

Naruto … is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Masashi Kishimoto. It tells the story of Naruto Uzumaki, an adolescent ninja who constantly searches for recognition and dreams to become the Hokage, the ninja in his village who is acknowledged as the leader and the strongest of all. The series is based on a one-shot manga by Kishimoto that was published in the August 1997 issue of Akamaru Jump.

And then gay manga eyes (#6)

Grown-up bishounen ‘pretty boys’: Iwaki and Kato from Embracing Love (from the Kiss of Fire artbook, 2004/2006, by the female yaoi (roughly, ‘gay boy’) manga artist Youka Nitta)

Another visual convention: background colors. Comic artists have considerable latitude in how the treat the background behind the action in the panels of their comics. Many treat the matter conservatively, maintaining the same background color through all the panels with the same physical setting, but varying the color whenever the place or time of the action shifts; the colors then serve as helpfu information about what’s going on in a strip.

But in #4, Bill Griffith uses a shift in background in the last panel (from plain to partially cross-hatched) to signal a shift in subject, from more traditional manga to more innovative manga.

And in #3, he changes the background color from panel to panel — something many cartoon artists do just to make their work more visually interesting. Experienced readers of the comics have gotten used to this practice, and tend not to even notice this variation. But I can remember being troubled by it when I was a novice reader of the comics as a child.

Another example of this sort of background shifting, from the cartoon Mary Worth (which I posted about on 8/16/13):


This is a conversation reported in 7 panels, with panels 3 through 7 constant in place, time, and subject matter, but panels 5 and 6 are different in background color (and foreground color as well): the wallpaper color changes in them, and the two characters, Wilbur and Dawn, go all yellow. Maybe that’s just for variety, or mabe these panels are being emphasized (but if I were inking the panels, I would have picked out panels 6 and 7 for emphasis).

Now a fortuitous find, with a really cute use of a change in background color:


This is from the comic M by Norwegian artist Mads Eriksen, and it’s a gay parody of the American adventure comic The Phantom. The background color is basically yellow until the last panel, when the action between the Phantom and the pirate gets definitively gay and the background  goes (of course) pink.

On the American strip, from Wikipedia:

The Phantom is a long-running American adventure comic strip, first published by Mandrake the Magician creator Lee Falk in February 1936. The main character, the Phantom, is a fictional costumed crime-fighter who operates from the fictional African country of Bangalla. The character has been adapted for television, film and video games.

The series began with a daily newspaper strip on February 17, 1936, followed by a color Sunday strip on May 28, 1939; both are still running as of 2015. At its peak, the strip was read by over 100 million people daily.

Falk worked on The Phantom until his death in 1999

The hero himself, all bulging muscles and gun:


On Eriksen, very briefly, from Wikipedia:

Mads Eriksen (born 15 July 1977) is a Norwegian cartoonist, best known for the comic strips M and Gnom.

Eriksen seems to be straight, and not above using gayness for broad humor.


One Response to “The news for cartoons”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    But the policy applies only to quoted material, not to writers speaking in their own voices.

    Well, apparently not all the time. I have (in my rotating quotes file) the following, from an article about the financial crisis:

    “[T]here must be an endorphin that’s triggered by the
    call-and-response recapitulation of a giant variegated clusterfuck.”
    –Nick Paumgarten, in _The New Yorker_, 5/18/09

    Within the article, this was not a quotation; it was Paumgarten “speaking in his own voice”.

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