The New Yorker Cartoon and
Modern Graphic Humor

When Harold Ross issued his often quoted prospectus for his new magazine in 1925, he noted in the first sentence, "The New Yorker will be a reflection in the word and picture of metropolitan life."1 Thus the graphics were to share equal importance with the text. And if The New Yorker has, as one historian of modern magazines claims, "changed the character of American humor, introduced a new approach to magazine biography, set high standards of reporting, and thereby influenced the course of American journalism,"2 it has also profoundly influenced the development of the American gag cartoon and established the standards against which the works of all modern practicing cartoonists are measured.

When American readers picked up the premier issue of February 21, 1925, from their newsstands, the first thing they saw was a cartoon on the cover. This was a drawing in watercolor of a Regency figure of aristocratic bearing dressed in top hat and a riding habit with a monocle in his gloved hand. (A similar figure had appeared in 1894 on the cover of the first issue of the Chicago literary magazine The Chap-Book, whose high literary standards served to inspire many American magazines who sought a sophisticated audience.3 See figure 1.) There is some suggestion of a pastoral setting by way of an abstract butterfly and a cloud. The figure, as rendered by artist Rea Irvin, eventually was given a name by writer Corey Ford—Eustace Tilley—and it came to symbolize The New Yorker itself and its reputation for urbane wit and commentary. The cover is reprinted each anniversary issue. From the beginning, then, graphic and verbal humor went hand in hand.

It was under Ross’s eccentric but superb editorship from the begin-fling until his death in 1951 that The New Yorker cartoon was formulated and achieved its definitive and influential form. As was true with the entire premise for the magazine, what was wanted was vaguely somewhere in Ross’s mind, so discovering the right artists and styles was a hit or miss proposition and usually frustrating for those around him. At the beginning Ross was a possible model in the durable British humor magazine Punch, and he would leaf through recent issues with Rea Irvin, his first art editor, and point out examples of the kind of thing he thought suitable. While the Punch artists satirized contemporary fads, fashions, and social mores, they did so with all the stilted style of magazines illustrators more interested in gracing the page with an attractive drawing than in creating a comic image. While a few Punch cartoons inspired direct imitations in the early issue of The New Yorker, it was soon clear to everyone that a more original approach had to be found, some distinctive

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Figure 3
Drawing by Rose
Copyright ©The New Yorker

Figure 1

"It’s broccoli, dear."
"I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it."

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Figure 2

"You might ask your mistress if she is at home."
"It’s no use, sir. She saw you coming."

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Figure 4

Drawing by Arno, Copyright © The New Yorker

"Well, back to the old drawing board."

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Figure 6
Drawing by Thurber Copyright © James Thurber

 

 

 

 

Figure 5
Drawing by Thurber Copyright © James Thurber

"All right, have it your way—you heard a seal bark!"

 

Figure 7 Drawing by Charles Addams

 

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concept that would establish a modern comic art for the modern sophisticated reader.

In the first place, Ross asked of the cartoon the question literary critics were asking of a modem piece of fiction, which by then was distinguished by its consistent use of point of view. As the reader, he wanted to know "Where am I in this picture?" That is, he felt that the reader’s vantage point should be one that reasonably would allow him or her to eavesdrop, observe the action, or even be a part of the proceedings being humorously treated. This was a question seldom considered by most cartoonists of the time. His second question was more subtle than it sounded: "Who’s talking?" Ross believed that there should be no confusion in the reader’s mind about who is talking to whom, as was often the case in contemporary cartoons which required captions identifying the speakers, as in the style of a play script.4

These concerns over point of view and dialogue not only made contributing artists more conscious craftsmen, but they lead gradually to a major innovation in comic art and made The New Yorker the most influential force in the evolution of the single panel gag cartoon of this century. Cartoons in other humorous publications of the time, such as Punch or the American Life, where Rea had worked as an art editor before joining the staff of The New Yorker, had at least two lines of dialogue, usually introduced by the names of the speakers, more often than not simply identified by he and she. In a 1904 Life cartoon by Charles Dana Gibson, for example, a gentleman caller inquires, "You might ask your mistress if she is at home." The maid responds, "It’s no use, sir. She saw you coming." (Figure 2.)

Sometimes the captions are lengthy and insufferably tedious, as in the following for a drawing by a Life artist named Foster:

Mrs. Pileitton (To her coachman): "James, I trust that you are an attendant at religious exercises?"
"Oh, yes, mem. I goes as often as I has the chance, mem."
"And I trust that you feel it your duty to lead such a life here as will assure you a place among the good in the next world?"
"Oh, yes, mem, I tries to. Thank you kindly, mem."
"I am glad of it James. I have been so much pleased with your services that it is a real comfort to me to know that if we are permitted to have coachmen in Heaven, I may continue to employ you there."
5

Whatever humor resides in these two examples is hopelessly lost in a social decorum and a class structure that no longer exist, but what is useful for our purposes is to note that in neither case does the drawing add anything to the effect. Basically magazine cartoons before Ross were merely illustrated dialogues with punchlines that carried the full freight of the comedy. The single line caption was the exception rather than the rule. Ross was personally irritated by the classic two-line joke to the extent that he published one he particularly detested in each anniversary issue of The New Yorker but with its lines transposed:

 

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Pop: A man who thinks he can make it in par.
Johnny: What is an optimist, pop?6

In his drive for originality and distinction, Ross initiated a trend towards simplicity in dialogue, clarity in the identity of the speaker, and integrity in the relationship between pictures and text. This resulted in the development of the successful The New Yorker style one-line cartoon. All of the earlier humor magazines, European and American, had used the one-line cartoon from time to time, but not with a systematic eye toward developing its full comic potential. If the one-liner was to work best, there had to be no doubt about who was speaking because it was the picture that came first in the eye of the viewer and the speaker afterwards. Either a clear verbal gesture had to be evident in the drawing or the caption had to infer the speaker unmistakably, principles which in the application would immediately distinguish the poorly thought out and carelessly executed cartoons from the thoughtful ones. Finally, both picture and caption had to work together simultaneously to achieve a total effect which neither would have alone. This last transition rendered most of the contemporary humor magazines old-fashioned and quaintly irrelevant. In sum, Ross’s standards marked a singular new development in the history of graphic humor here and abroad. The practice of effective cartooning would never be the same.

The change Ross had accomplished was viewed by some as a natural kind of evolutionary process, at least according to one report of a luncheon conversation between New Yorker staff writer James Kevin McGuinness, British cartoonist and writer Oliver Herford, and famed artist and then publisher of Life Charles Dana Gibson:

Gibson remarked to Herford and McGinness that he did not think the New Yorker would last. Herford disagreed. Punch, he said, had succeeded with the long narrative joke below the cartoons. Life had succeeded by condensing the joke to the he-she formula. The New Yorker had condensed it further to the one-line joke and so, he thought, could not fail .7

Ross’s interest in simplicity and direct impact on the reader was so intense, in fact, that he would have been happy to abandon the caption altogether, had that been possible. A cartoon which told its own story without recourse to punchline seemed to him the ultimate form of graphic humor. But cartoonists who could achieve pure pantomime and yet maintain humor of a complex or sophisticated nature were very rare. The closest Ross could come was a cartoonist named Otto Soglow who specialized in very simple line drawings without benefit of shading or complicating detail. One of his creations for The New Yorker, a mute ruler of a fantasy kingdom simply called The Little King, made the transition to the pages of the color Sunday funny papers as a popular character, but most of his work, while it seemed to delight Ross, was oddly naive and unsophisticated for the pages of the magazine, particularly when compared with the highly talented work that was emerging under Ross’s tutelage.

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One by one Ross discovered and brought into his fold of regular contributors some of America’s finest cartooning talents. In the first year of publication Ross used a drawing submitted by a fashion illustrator named Helen Hokinson. It featured a plump woman hanging over a rail to wave bon voyage to a departing ship at the pier. She was the first of the soon to be famous Hokinson Girls, a collection of chubby, ample bosomed, society women who carried out their responsibilities as club-women in a befuddled, vague, but amiable way. Although her cartoons constituted one of The New Yorker’s most popular features until her death in an air accident in 1949, and she had no more avid a set of followers than the actual matrons she satirized, her humor today would be considered antifeminist and demeaning.

One day a carelessly dressed but handsome young man of aristocratic appearance dropped off at the office some drawings for consideration. The son of a prominent New York family, Curtis Arnoux Peters was then living the bohemian life of a musician in jazz age speakeasies until Ross signed him up under the name of Peter Arno. His early cartoons featured two tipsy slapstick women called the Whoops Sisters, but he abandoned them despite their popularity for a more worldly-wise series featuring chorus girls, kept women, and businessmen in pursuit of hedonistic pleasures. His lecherous gentlemen and young women established a genre which such publications as Esquire and Playboy would later imitate with endless variation.

Also among these early contributors were George Price, distinguished by a clean but expressive line used to portray the eccentricities of mean-tempered old men and working-class couples (the only member of that original group still drawing today in his eighties with over 3,000 cartoons published); Gluyas Williams, who specialized in neatly outlined and stylized depictions of the life and times of the American businessman and suburbanite (well-known also for his splendid illustrations for the books and essays of Robert Benchley); Alan Dunn, who mastered the use of charcoal and grease pencil in his broad satires of urban living and was one of the most prolific of the New Yorker cartoonists (over 1,900 cartoons and 9 covers published between 1926 and 1974); Gardner Rea, whose strong sense of design and balance resulted in pleasing patterns; and last but not least James Thurber, a very special case.

Through his friendship with E. B. White, with whom he would collaborate on a book, Is Sex Necessary?, in 1929, Thurber was hired as a member of the editorial staff (even though his writings had been rejected 20 times before a submission was accepted). White and Thurber established, through their "Talk of the Town" columns, the New Yorker style of humorous comment, but Thurber also wanted to do cartoons. His drawing style was so naive and undisciplined, his ideas were so absurd and whimsical, and the end products so eccentric and individual, however, that Ross resisted using them. When he yielded, it was these

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very idiosyncrasies that won over the readers, and Thurber’s irresistible sketches of the seal in the bedroom, the battle between the sexes (including the seventeen-part series "The War Between Men and Women"), implausible dogs and other creatures, and bewildered little men overcome by the complexities of existence—these became inextricably associated with the entire New Yorker school of humor. When critics complained to Ross that Thurber as a "fifth-rate" artist, Ross whimsically defended him by asserting that he was at least "third-rate."8 The truth is that Thurber as a cartoonist was delightfully sui generis and without equal in American humor.

In addition to Al Frueh, Mary Petty, and Carl Rose, who were on the list of regular contributors at the start, the 1930s witnessed the addition of a number of brilliant wielders of pen and ink, including Charles Addams, Perry Barlow, Whitney Darrow, Jr., Robert Day, Richard Decker, Syd Hoff, C. E. Martin, Garrett Price, Barbara Shermund, William Steig, and Richard Taylor. In the 1940s, these would be joined by another talented generation, including Sam Cobean, Joseph Farris, Dana Fradon, Frank Modell, Mischa Richter, Saul Steinberg, and Barney Tobey.

Perhaps one of the things that accounted for the success of The New Yorker in its golden years from 1925 to Ross’s death in 1951 was the fact that it had steady unbroken editorial leadership, and the same has largely been true in the cartoon department with Rea Irvin serving as art director from 1925 to 1939 and James Geraghty succeeding him until 1973. While Ross always made the final decision, he liked for the weeding out to be a group process, with selected members of the staff sitting in on the selection of finalists after an initial selection by the art director. Thus a group sensibility was brought to bear in achieving the New Yorker style of comic art.

Also, the cartoons themselves were often the products of a staff effort rather than the works of individual artists. Sometimes the artist was supplied with an idea for a cartoon, other times the caption would be changed after the cartoon was submitted, or even the cartoon alone might be purchased with the staff providing the punchline. One of the best known cartoons to appear in the magazine was the result of such collaborative effort in 1928. Carl Rose had submitted a cartoon featuring a young mother at the dinner table with her daughter, but none found his caption, now forgotten, suitable. E. B. White saw the drawing and suggested a caption which would become famous: "It’s broccoli, dear," says the mother, and the daughter replies, "I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it." (Figure 3). The shocking sophistication of the child is the incongruity at the heart of the comedy here, but so appropriate was the cartoon’s depiction of a response to a common situation that "spinach" entered the language as a term of disparagement and the girl’s retort came to signify "Don’t confuse me with the facts when I want to indulge my

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prejudices."9 Ironically, this sort of two-line caption was the very thing Ross was working away from in his insistence on the single-line caption.

Other New Yorker cartoons have made lasting contributions to the American language. In 1941 a cartoon by Peter Arno appeared which featured an aircraft designer with plans under his arm walking away from a plane crash to which the military, ground crew and ambulance are racing (the pilot, fortunately, we see at a distance has bailed out with a parachute). The caption, "Well, back to the old drawing board," has become a standard response to a situation which has failed to develop as planned. (Figure 4.) A 1950 cartoon by Alex Graham, in which a flying saucer has landed in a field and its two extraterrestrial occupants are talking to a horse, has the punchline "Take me to your president." Slightly transposed to "Take me to your leader," this phrase was repeated to humorous effect in thousands of other cartoons, films, and visual media.

Three of what are probably the best known cartoons in the world appeared in The New Yorker, two of them by James Thurber from the early 1930s. In one, a seal is leaning over the headboard of a bed while the wife complains to the husband: "All right, have it your way—you heard a seal bark!" (Figure 5.) In the second, a fencer has neatly decapitated his opponent with the exclamation "Touché!" (Figure 6.) The third by Charles Addams, a specialist in macabre humor, is from 1940 and has no caption. It features a mysterious skier who has somehow maneuvered a tree so that one ski tract appears on each side. (Figure 7.) In all three it is the inexplicable, the surprise, and the mystery of the event which intrigue the reader.

Just as there is really no such thing as a New Yorker short story, general belief to the contrary, there is no such thing as a New Yorker cartoon. As British cartoonist William Hewison facetiously put the argument, the New Yorker artists "produced four drawings: a sugar daddy and dewy blonde; two hoboes sitting on a park bench in Central Park; a drunk tête-à-tête with a barman; a man and wife getting into a car after a dinner party."10 Such a summary points up the problem of attempting to identify a typical cartoon from the magazine. Each of these scenes serves to remind us of individual cartoonists, and the truth is that The New Yorker has served primarily as a vehicle for major comic talents to develop their individual styles and distinctive visions.

If there is any single thread that connects the thousands of cartoons to appear in The New Yorker, it is the demands they place on the reader. One must be well-read, in touch with culture of the past and present, sensitive to the eccentricities of human nature, and familiar with the latest trends in society, politics, and the mass media, to understand and appreciate them. Along with other developments in film, television, and the graphic arts, the New Yorker cartoon has served to create a visually literate society, but one which must also be literate in traditional ways to

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respond to the sophisticated humor of the subject or situation.

Under the editorial direction of William Shawn, who succeeded Harold Ross in 1951, and art director James Geraghty, The New Yorker continued to seek out and use the work of each decade’s best cartoonists in the 1950s and 1960s. Eldon Dedini, Lee Lorenz, Henry Martin, Charles Saxon, and James Stevenson became contributors in the 1950s, and in the 1960s were added George Booth, Mort Gerberg, William Hamilton, Bernard Handelsman, Edward Koren, Warren Miller, Ronald Searle, and Robert Weber. Lee Lorenz succeeded Geraghty as art director in 1973 and has added to this stellar list such artists as Sam Gross, Arnie Levin, Robert Mankoff, Lou Myers, Bill Woodman, and Jack Ziegler. Clearly there has been no let down in effort to maintain the quality of the New Yorker tradition in comic art.

Some, however, feel that the first 25 years were the best and that now the magazine has settled into a comfortable routine that is all too predictable and only smugly humorous. William Hewison, one of the best commentators on the art of the cartoon, has put it this way:

Ross’s boys shook the old cartoon formula to pieces and kicked most of the bits away—where formerly it was estatic, congested and ponderously naturalistic they went after simplicity, directness and movement. They were after a humor that was essentially quick and visual. One would guess that every cartoon produced today—in Britain or Europe or anywhere else—is in direct descent from The New Yorker humor drawings of that period."

One would not argue with this conclusion, yet The New Yorker is the one publication to which readers still turn for America’s best graphic comedy. The editors receive today over 2,500 submissions a week from which approximately 20 are selected for publication, and most of these come from the 40 to 50 artists on whose work they have first option. The New Yorker remains for cartoonists the most prestigious place to publish and for readers the most consistently entertaining source of that form of humor it has itself revitalized and transformed for the twentieth century—the cartoon.

Randolph-Macon College

Notes

    1Cited in Theodore Peterson, Magazines in the Twentieth Century (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1964), p. 247.
America’s Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 380–81, where the first covers of The Chap-Book and The New Yorker are reprinted opposite each other without additional comment.
    4Dale Kramer, Ross and The New Yorker (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.,
1951), pp. 125–28.
    5This and the previously mentioned cartoon (figure 2) are found in The Comedy of
Life

 

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    8Maurice Horn, ed., The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons (New York: Chelsea House, 1981), p. 550.
1984, p. 28.
Hamilton, 1977), pp. 111–12.
    11Hewison, p. 122. A useful selection of cartoons from the first 25 years, arranged
in chronological units, is The New Yorker Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Album, 1925–1950 (New York: Harper & Brothers 1951). Less useful, since it lacks dates and chronological arrangement, is The New Yorker Album of Drawings, 1925–1975 (New York: Viking Press,1975).

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