For the past four years, I have been given a New Yorker desk diary, with a cartoon for every day of the week, and one combined for Saturday and Sunday. Every year, it seems, sadly, that the standard is slipping, from what used to be the very best of American humour, to somewhat obscure and unfunny gags. So what has happened? Has my own humour become more jaded and cynical, or is the current crop just not cutting the mustard? A massive 656-page tome was published by the New Yorker in 2004, containing two thousand individual cartoons, with a further 68,647 drawings available on two CDs (what, you may well ask, are they?) They came with a search engine, so one could flip through a number of subjects, from golf to death, and from sex to religion. There are a number of recurring themes, like a man and a woman on a desert island, two men in a bar, cavemen and women, the circus, hunting and fishing. Money has the most cartoons devoted to it, followed by Politics, Sex, Vacations, with Urban Life, and Religion, and Technology not far behind. Cats and Talking Dogs are prominent, as are Art, Artists and Models, Royalty, Education, Deserts and Courtrooms.
New Yorker has been published since 1925, and has been a beacon for urbane, witty, cogent and humorous cartoons for over nine decades. James Thurber was the quintessential cosmopolitan cartoonist, as was Peter Arno the paragon of sophistication, with his risqué, jazz-age drawings of chorus girls and old roués. He was also a jazz pianist, Broadway producer and journalist. A great deal of his output adorns the walls of Mark Birley’s Mayfair club, George. Charles Addams cornered the market of the macabre, before Gahan Wilson upped the ante, while William Steig was pure and simple William Steig, of whom Maurice Sendak said, ‘there is no school of Bill Steig. There is only Bill Steig’. He worked for the magazine for over 70 years, although he is better remembered for creating the character Shrek, which was turned into a series of successful animated movies by Dreamworks. Saul Steinberg was another idiosyncratic artist, whose landscapes and characters comprise typography and numerals, and prompted New Yorker art critic Harold Rosenberg to describe him as ‘a writer of pictures, an architect of speech and sounds, and a draftsman of philosophical reflections’. The characters in Bruce Eric Kaplan’s (BEK) drawings have a darkness to them that seems to inhabit a Beckett-like universe, whose ontological principles seem to be, as the New Yorker itself declares, ‘Life sucks’. Kaplan has been submitting drawings to New Yorker since 1991, but he has an evening job as well, as a writer for television, including episodes of Seinfeld, and as an executive producer of Six Foot Under. One cartoon features two cats leaving a theatre playing Cats. ‘It was so depressing. When I go to the theatre, I want to be entertained.’ A recent drawing in Private Eye featured a litter tray with a sign reading ‘Cats film Reviews’ above it. As regards dogs, one of my all-time favourite cartoons is a two-panel classic by Danny Shanahan in New Yorker from 1989, with the first depicting a man in Quicksand shouting, ‘Lassie! Get help!!’ and the second showing Lassie lying on a psychiatrist’s couch. In another New Yorker drawing by David Sipress from 2001, a man in an off license is asking, ‘Can you recommend a large-breasted Burgundy with a big behind?’ Still, one of the best off-the-wall cartoonists is a woman, Roz Chast, who simply tore up the rule-book four decades ago, and has never looked back. She produces such surreal drawings, one is thrown each time she comes up with yet another bizarre subject.
New Yorker had its own style and tone, and no other periodical comes near it in terms of continuity of quality, but things have changed microscopically, and it can no longer be held up as being the yardstick against which all the rest are judged. Playboy has always had a healthy stable of cartoonists, but some of the subject matters are a little racy, and may make New Yorker blush. Esquire also has a long tradition of publishing cartoons, but there is no one ‘style’ that would mark it out as typical of that genre. In the UK, we have always had cartoonists a-plenty, from Cruikshank, Gillray, Hogarth and Rowlandson, through to John Tenniel, du Maurier and Charles Keene, and then into the twentieth century, with Phil May, H M Bateman, Pont (Graham Laidler), and Ronald Searle. Private Eye provided an opportunity for cartoonists such as Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman and Willie Rushton to shine. In the space of a year in the Eye in the sixties, Rushton drew two memorable cartoons, one featuring Prince Rainier looking over the balcony of his palace in Monaco, remarking, ‘There are Ferraris at the bottom of my garden,’ with another, at the height of a fuss about soldiers having gay sex with punters in Hyde Park, featuring an outraged colonel saying, ‘There are fairies at the bottoms of my guardsmen.’ Michael ffolkes was an elegant, stylish and voluptuous cartoonist, whose drawings graced Punch, Playboy and The Daily Telegraph, illustrating the Peter Simple column, while Russell Brockbank’s output was mainly to do with motoring, contributing a weekly strip to Motor and appearing regularly in Punch, of which he was the cartoon editor in the 1950s.
When in 1953, Malcolm Muggeridge took over from Kenneth Bird (‘Fougasse’) as the editor of Punch, he was determined to give the magazine a fresh look. The first change Muggeridge made was to sack E H Shepard as lead cartoonist, putting Leslie Illingworth in his place. Punch slowly declined in popularity, destined for dentists’ waiting rooms, even though they had a string of successful cartoonists, including Quentin Blake, Ed McLachlan, Mike Williams, Honeysett, Ray Lowry, Ken Pyne and Bill Tidy, but it was the emergence of Private Eye in the sixties that was its death knell, and the fact that William Davis, a financial journalist, was made editor, and that the title had been bought by Mohamed Al-Fayed, one of the Eye’s more cherished targets. The Spectator, with Michael Heath as cartoon editor, has a pretty high standard of humorous drawings, as has The New Statesman, with Steadman until recently as a regular contributor, The Economist, who rely on Kal Lallaughter for their images, who, in turn, relies heavily on labels and captions, and The New Scientist. There was a disturbing turn of events when the New York Times, having supported Charlie Hebdo’s rights to freedom of speech after the killing of 17 of their editorial staff in 2015, ceased printing political cartoons following the publication of a controversial drawing of Benjamin Netanyahu, which, they thought, would trigger a terrorist attack and alienate their Jewish readers. All national dailies and Sunday newspapers carry cartoons, from Martin Rowson’s dystopian drawings in The Guardian, descending more and more into a Stygian darkness, to Peter Brookes’s flamboyantly witty and colourful cartoons in The Times. My parents used to justify taking The Daily Express because they liked Giles, and also for Osbert Lancaster’s succinct pocket cartoon on the front page, but I suspect it was because my mum liked to keep up with the Armstrong-Jones’s in the William Hickey gossip column. The king of the pocket cartoon these days is Matt, who, day after day, comes up with a cartoon which makes one want to say, ‘I wish I’d said that!’ Before that, Marc Boxer, in collaboration with George Melly, produced pocket cartoons for The Times, and then The Guardian, as well as, of course, Private Eye.
Nowadays, the fortnightly Private Eye probably has the greatest range of topical and political drawings in the country, and features the work of Robert Thompson, whose spare and badly-drawn cartoons invariably hit the nail on the head, as well as old troupers like Ed McLachlan, and the unspeakably original Moose, who sells original and signed re-drawings that have already appeared in print for forty pounds. ‘Are these knickers satin?’ ‘No, they’re brand new.’ That has to be worth forty quid.
Image © the Cartoon Museum