How about Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons
Henry Holt & Company, 2014
As a geeky, funny, animal-loving, endlessly doodling little kid, I basically had two career choices in mind: Veterinarian or Cartoonist. Soon enough I realized that veterinary studies involved a lot more school than interested me, so I abandoned that one. Which left me with Cartoonist, surely a practical pursuit: all I needed was a table and chair and a halfway decent light source, and some pens and pencils and erasers. It sounded like a solid plan.
I made it all the way to my twenties before realizing that maybe it wasn’t. Not because I didn’t have the raw talent—though I suppose that’s debatable too—but because, even after earning a BFA from a very good art school and a few more years freelancing, I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I knuckled down when I had a job, or when I needed to find one, but I didn’t really understand the sheer amount of work I’d need to do, on my own, to eventually be any good. And, OK, I was lazy.
That’s OK; I don’t think the cartoon world is in any way diminished by my absence. But cartoonists are an odd and interesting breed, even if I’m not throwing my lot in with them, and I do like reading about the people who actually make it happen. Cartoonist bios are a lot like musician bios, actually—it’s always entertaining to trace other people’s paths between whimsy and industry, and to see how they arrived at the right formula.
Bob Mankoff’s memoir, How about Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons looks at that process from two angles. He’s a cartoonist, and has been all his life, but he’s also the New Yorker’s cartoon editor, which means he’s heavily invested in figuring out what’s funny to other people on a large scale. And apparently he’s good at it, having hung onto the job since 1998.
Anyone who’s ever watched Behind the Music knows that a good artist’s memoir needs its narrative arc imbued with at least a little tension—in the music world, this mainly involves a trip to rehab and a better-than-ever comeback, or at least a loving second family and a good old time on the county fair circuit. Mankoff’s life as a cartoonist turns out to be somewhat devoid of the necessary drama: he draws a lot in high school, he draws a lot in college. He starts selling cartoons to various magazines but dreams of breaking into the New Yorker and, after three years and some 500 submissions, finally does. True, he does spend a lot of time at the New York Public Library poring over the entire run of the magazine, reading every single cartoon in an effort to crack the formula. But, as you might have guessed, there is no formula. And this, in the end, is what makes Mankoff’s analysis of his job as cartoon editor interesting. There is no formula, but there’s some kind of method, and he’s more than happy to get into the nuts and bolts of what, exactly, makes a cartoon funny.
Which is to say, no one really knows—not even the man who does makes such pronouncements for a living. Mankoff admits as much, and he has a fine time looking at all the variations of funny he sees, and what makes them work or not. He studied experimental psychology in graduate school, and plays around a bit with humor theory. But within reason; he keeps it light, and makes sure there is plenty to laugh at while he’s explaining himself. And he’s not afraid to wax a bit lyrical; he explains that Saul Steinberg’s drawings “didn’t cause an outward laugh or even an inward one, but they made my mind smile,” which is just about right.
Mankoff dissects a lot of cartoons through the book. Without getting didactic, he looks at style, subjects, windups and punch lines, trends, and gag jokes versus the puzzling I-know-it’s-funny-but-I’m-not-sure-why setups. There’s some lightweight—never malicious—gossip about various cartoonists, an explanation of the submission and approval process, and he gives a good bit of the history of the New Yorker and some of its classic cartoons, as well as his rise to editorship—also debunking the rumor (which, come to think of it, he started in the first place) that he relies on a laugh meter in his office:
… evaluating humor is different from enjoying it. When you’re comparing one ostensibly funny thing to another supposedly funny thing in an effort to suss out the funniest, the cognitive effort of deciding interferes with the emotional reaction that causes laughter.
That’s about as serious as Mankoff gets, though; mostly he’s funny and disarming, making his points with the one-two rhythm of a standup comedian. It can get a little schticky, but hey, he’s a 70-year-old funny Jew from the Bronx—what’s not to like? The fact that “you can’t spell memoir without the moi” is never in dispute. And if Mankoff’s delivery is decidedly Comedy Cellar, the book itself is charmingly low-fi. Whether it was an aesthetic decision or a budget constraint, where another oversized hardcover might have glossy plates or at the least color illustrations here and there, How About Never is black and white throughout, with small photographs scattered among the text—the vibe is pasted-up and zine-like. Coffee table book aficionados might be disappointed in the presentation, but this fan of cartoon art, shaggy dog memoirs, and magazine chitchat found it as amiable as Mankoff’s patter. If I ever do decide to take up cartooning as a long-lost
second third career, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have rejecting my drawings—over and over, I imagine—than Bob Mankoff.