‘How About Never’ an entertaining look at cartoon and cartoonist

By A Contributor

Bob Mankoff is Cartoon Editor at The New Yorker. This book is Mankoff’s memoir of how he got into cartooning and how he ended up in what is arguably the top cartoonist job in America.

But the book is also much more than just autobiographical reflection.

Mankoff offers insights into the history of cartooning, especially its evolution at The New Yorker over the past several decades. He discusses the selection processes by which hundreds of prospective cartoons are winnowed down to the seventeen that are published in the magazine each week.

Mankoff also explores the questions of what makes a cartoon funny and how they may be developed.

Throughout the book the narrative is illustrated with drawings by Mankoff and other prominent cartoonists.

The title of the book is taken from the caption of Mankoff’s most famous cartoon.

Or at least it is the only one of his captions, he points out, that can be found in the Yale Book of Quotations.

In the cartoon, a businessman stands behind his desk, one hand holding a phone and the other checking his date book.

He tells the person on the other end of the line, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never— is never good for you?”

Mankoff fairly early set his sights on getting his work into The New Yorker.

In his estimation, that magazine was to cartooning what the New York Yankees were to baseball—“The Best Team.” 

After he finally succeeded in getting some of his cartoons published, he was offered a contract which made him part of the team, but did not guarantee that any of his work would be published.

His appointment some years later as cartoon editor came about in part because of his having created a “cartoon bank” for the marketing of the thousands of cartoons that are submitted but not accepted for publication in The New Yorker.

One of the attractive features of this book is the way in which Mankoff draws on the contributions of others to illustrate the challenges of the profession, the origins of cartoon ideas, and the nature of humor.

Roz Chast, Saul Steinberg, James Thurber, and David Spiers are just a few of the cartoonists whose ideas and drawings enrich Mankoff’s narrative.

One of the chapters in the book gives advice on how to “win” the weekly New Yorker cartoon caption contest.

For the last several years, every issue has contained a picture for which readers are encouraged to submit a possible caption.

Later the picture is republished, with the three “best” submitted captions, and readers again have the opportunity to vote among the three.

Anyone who has submitted entries knows how challenging the contest can be.

Mankoff relates that Roger Ebert, the late film critic, actually won the contest once — on his 107th try!

In discussing what makes a cartoon funny, Mankoff notes that some have long and some have short or no captions at all.

Some are absurd while others are fairly realistic.

The common characteristic, he argues, is that all the good ones make us think.

This book is both entertaining and informative. I was surprised to learn how many cartoons are created that never reach publication, how many get revised in order to make them better, and even that sometimes one person will have an idea and someone else will create the drawing to make it an effective cartoon.

This book is available at the Manhattan Public Library.

There was a waiting list when we requested it. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait for “never”.

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