Theirs is a funny business

Creations: On Tuesdays, artists show up at the New Yorker to put their cartoons -- and their souls -- on the line.

January 03, 2000|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK -- Oddly, the scene reminds one of a dockside "shape up" in the movie "On the Waterfront." The pleasant, civilized men and women gathered in this outer office area could almost be so many desperate, work-hungry longshoremen turning up at the pier for too few jobs.

The ambience, however, is anything but gritty. These supplicants are standing in the posh, gleaming, thickly carpeted premises of the New Yorker magazine, high up in the dazzling new Conde Nast corporate tower overlooking Times Square.

Milling about the waiting area, they are dressed in khakis, country casual, blazers and three-piece suits. As a group, they seem as cultured, erudite, creative and civilized as the singular work they produce.

But still there is this anxious atmosphere of mixed hope and dread, the twinned prospects of acceptance and rejection, triumph and despair.

As one of them pipes up, jokingly, but with highly audible emphasis: "Welcome to our weekly humiliation."

Welcome to the New Yorker's Tuesday morning cartoonist submission session.

If New Yorker cartoons are the best in the world (and few would argue with that), these men and women, some of whom have been coming here for more than 30 years, are the world's best cartoonists.

James Thurber, Charles Addams and Peter Arno are gone, but their uniquely high levels of wit, whimsy, sophistication and cleverly crafted art continue to be upheld -- with few exceptions -- by the magazine's current elite of the drawing board.

The trouble is, the magazine publishes only 15 or 20 cartoons an issue, and competition for the space is fierce.

George Booth, Ed Koren, William Steig and William Hamilton are not apparent in this morning's turnout (it's not, after all, required), but one does find the master Warren Miller, a soft-spoken, distinguished-looking fellow in glasses and a well-trimmed mustache who has had more than 1,400 cartoons published by the New Yorker.

The nice, suburban mom sort of lady in black near him is Liza Donnelly, known to the fans of her mostly family-oriented cartoons simply by her "Donnelly" signature.

Veterans Bernard Schoenbaum and Mort Gerberg are here, along with relative newcomer Nick Downes. Bob Mankoff, a New Yorker cartoonist for 22 years, is here as well, only he's the source of all the anxiety.

At his door

Though Mankoff continues to contribute cartoons to the magazine, he has been its cartoon editor for two years now. It is to him his longtime pals and colleagues now peddle their wares, and they are waiting outside his office.

"I'll probably look at 1,000 cartoons or ideas today," says Mankoff, who wears a black sports coat and jeans, no tie and a tangle of shoulder-length hair. "I'll end up with about 30 that I'll take to [New Yorker editor David] Remnick and he'll choose maybe 15."

The New Yorker pays an undisclosed, four-figure sum for cartoons, a rate Mankoff says is twice as much as its nearest cartoon competitor, Playboy. The magazine's veterans are paid at a somewhat higher rate.

The people at the submission session are not all veterans, but all are under contract. The New Yorker has "first look" rights for anything they do. Not only are they "the best of the best," says Mankoff, but they can be depended upon to keep the unique genre that is the New Yorker cartoon alive for another generation.

"The fact is, everybody has good ideas," says Mankoff. "The thing many fail to realize is that each one of these artists will come in with 10 or 20 ideas every week -- week after week, year after year. An idea in and of itself isn't something we need. We don't lack for ideas. We publish between 800 and 1,000 cartoons every year. What is difficult is getting someone who can consistently perform at a high level."

Attendance at these Tuesday morning sessions is by invitation only. Others Mankoff deals with by phone and mail. Newcomers are welcome to call and send in their stuff, he says; it's an open process.

"You don't have to know anybody to get a cartoon published in the New Yorker," says Mankoff. "People say, `Is it really open?' I say, `Yeah, it's open. The New York Yankees are open too. Go in there and hit 500 home runs and bat .330 and you'll find out how open the Yankees are.' "

On this as every Tuesday morning, "the best of the best" are circumspect about their creations. Some carry briefcases; others have their art in file folders, manila envelopes and even plastic trash bags. They'll reveal them to you, but very carefully, as they don't want to "inspire" another cartoonist before the work is published, let alone invite outright theft.

Schoenbaum, who has been drawing for the New Yorker since 1974, keeps the captions off the actual drawings until they've been bought and are ready to be printed.

"I don't show it to any other cartoonist," he says. "I might be giving it away."

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