Bob Mankoff claims that he has one of the best jobs in the world, and who are we to argue? As the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, a position he has held since 1997, Mankoff spends his days sorting through some of the wittiest and most intelligent cartoons on the planet and selecting the sixteen or so that will be published in the magazine each week. And for this he gets paid.
Mankoff covers much ground that any New Yorker cartoon fan will find of interest. In addition to recounting his own life and career as a cartoonist, Mankoff provides an excellent historical survey of magazine cartooning on both sides of the Atlantic and a fascinating look at how cartoons are solicited, reviewed, and edited at The New Yorker. He also ventures to give an intelligent analysis of how cartoons work, focusing on the varying tensions between drawing and caption: in some cases, the drawing simply serves as a passive vehicle for the delivery of a verbal gag, as in the famous cartoon by Mankoff himself from which the book’s title is drawn (a businessman checking his calendar while on the phone to another, and saying, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?”). In others, the drawing itself is the thing, as in many of the classics by Charles Addams and Saul Steinberg, whose fanciful charm would have been ruined by a caption. In still others, the drawing and the caption are of equal and inseparable importance, the latter purporting to explain a seemingly impossible situation depicted by the former (think of all those desert isle cartoons that depict two unlikely companions washed up on an islet the size of a postage stamp).
Mankoff’s writing is crisp and witty without being frivolous, and, as befits a cartoonist, he understands all too well that a picture is worth a thousand words. The book contains a generous selection of some of the best New Yorker cartoons throughout the years, from the under-drawn but perfectly captioned work of James Thurber to the understated morbidity of Addams and the surreal mental landscapes of Roz Chast. While purportedly included to illustrate points made in the text, they also serve a more prosaic, and perhaps more important, purpose — they simply delight the reader.