Thursday, June 2, 2011

Captions Contested at The New Yorker

by Drew Martin

I just thumbed through 18 issues of The New Yorker (from the beginning of January through the end of May, 2011) in order to do a little informal survey. People always suggest that I submit my drawings (i.e. pictured left) to them but the truth is, my work is not something they would typically publish. My drawings are entirely visual while the overwhelming majority of The New Yorker cartoons are dependent on text.

My survey of the The New Yorker cartoons was to categorize what they publish and tally up the differences. I was not looking at the article illustrations or the little space fillers, just those stand-alone cartoons, which The New Yorker is best known for. In the 18 issues there were 233 cartoons that depended on captions, 42 that depended on text within the drawing itself and only 13 that were entirely visual. Roughly only two thirds of the issues contain one purely visual cartoon.

Let us have a look at each type. Here is one by Peter Vey that appears to be a cop interrogating a suspect. There is not much to it without the begs for a caption.

Roz Chast is a New Yorker cartoonist who requires the most patience. Her cartoons typically have both; labels and balloons. Here are two examples.

And here is one by Danny Shanahan, who typically uses captions, but in this instance delivers a purely visual cartoon. It is great: bringing life to the seemingly innocent yellow rubber ducky who has made a nest and laid eggs in the bather's hair. It takes a little longer to absorb because it requires you to make the connections in the absence of text.

The typical New Yorker cartoon, delivers information with the image but whispers the punchline in your ear with the caption. There are variations to these. This one by Jack Ziegler of a dancing king could go a number of directions but requires the internal text box "The Royal Ballet" to focus the joke.

This one by David Sipress sets up the text within the cartoon, which is essential to the joke, and then contains the "voice" in the caption.

This one by Tom Cheney would have been fine with the billboards alone, but the caption does give the joke a bit more of a punch to it.

Likewise, this one by Kanin, would have worked well as a pure visual. I think in this case it would have been funnier without the caption because it would make you think up different scenarios.

Although the disproportion of captioned cartoons makes sense, The New Yorker is, after all, a publication with well-written articles for a literary audience, the three classic New Yorker artists who first come to mind are Charles Addams, Edward Gorey and Saul Steinberg, who had some brilliant entirely visual contributions. They did make use of text/captions but their work was so much more visual than what we see today...each in their unique way. While Addams and Gorey had very illustrative images, Steinberg (pictured below) was by far the master of the pure visual image.