PW: Where did the idea for The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker come from?
Robert Mankoff: In 1991 I started the Cartoon Bank as way to make a little extra money for cartoonists. I started with rejected New Yorker cartoons. Before it became profitable, the New Yorker didn't really want to have anything to do with it. But in 1997 the New Yorker bought it from me and made me president. Then we began scanning in all the old New Yorker cartoons. My dream was to get all the cartoons in the archive. But once we had them all, we realized a book with 68,000 cartoons would be about 30,000 pages. That's when we decided to do a CD set. You can look at the book as a guide to the CD.
Are you sure you got every single cartoon?
We worked on the book for two years. But this is the New Yorker, so we had to check to make sure we got every cartoon. We pulled down back issues; we proofed all the captions. In the book I offered $10 to anyone who can find a cartoon that we missed.
What's it like to immerse yourself in the entire cartoon history of the New Yorker?
Looking at the cartoons you can time travel, see past humor conventions as well as the social prejudices—especially against women, they're usually shown as dumb or that they can't drive—as well as racism and everything else. You can see how George Price's fluid style looked in the 1930s and how it looked like it was carved out of granite in the 1980s. Over the years, the cartoons have changed. In the 1960s, the cartoons were about the counterculture; in the 1990s it was business, cell phones, computers and corporate corruption. These days, it's wardrobe malfunction.
How many cartoons are submitted to the New Yorker?
I look at 1,000 cartoons a week. We publish about 17. The competition is intense.
Who makes the final decision on which ones will be published?
There's an editorial meeting every week that includes me and David Remnick and some others. We divide all the cartoons into three piles: yes, no and maybe. David makes the final decision, but sometimes I grab something if he's throwing it out and I like it. This is the New Yorker, so once something is picked it goes to the fact checkers and it's checked against all the previously published cartoons, to see if it's been done before. The fact checkers make sure the captions are grammatical. Seven different people have to check off each cartoon. The New Yorker is unique. No one treats cartoons like this.
How hard is it for a new cartoonist to break in these days?
New cartoonists come in every year. People ask, "Is the New Yorker open to new cartoonists?" Are the New York Yankees open to new hitters? Sure, they've just got to be able to hit it into the stands.
How important is it for a serious magazine like the New Yorker to be funny?
Humor is a valid way of thinking about the world. It keeps people in perspective. It's like saying, "Yeah, the big shots, they've all got suits on but they don't know what they're talking about." Cartoonists level the playing field. You can talk about Bush, Kerry or 9/11 and not be snowed.
Of course, the New Yorker issue immediately after 9/11 had no cartoons.
Cartoons for the most part are not for tragedy. But 9/11 was not the end of irony. It radically changed the world, but we're still living in it. The week after 9/11 we didn't publish any cartoons, but we did the very next week. If you're alive, you've got to laugh.