Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Just In Case You Missed Last Night's Update

... here's the new remix.

What Harold Ross Saw, Part Two

The recent decision by the editors and publisher of Mad magazine to accept paid advertising represented not only an indelible break with (at the time) almost fifty years of tradition, but a critical blow to what many perceived as the magazine's essential identity. Mad had always been an equal-opportunity offender. Since the earliest days of Kurtzman's spectacular genesis through the long decades of relatively mediocre but engagingly consistent material produced under Al Feldstein and subsequent editors, the one abiding principle of Mad was that it held nothing sacred, from the President on down to the "Usual Gang of Idiots" themselves.

You'd be hard pressed to argue that the magazine ever improved on the template of its first twenty-four issues, and even the most die-hard partisan would probably admit that the jokes have usually been as stale as Dave Berg's cultural references. But that was part of the charm. Mad was a staple of American childhood for fifty years not because it was the most innovative or interesting magazine on the racks, but because it served as one of the very few gateways available for children to the contrarian philosophy that has been vital to the intellectual and societal advancement of this country. Perhaps you could argue that the scattershot, egalitarian anarchy represented by Mad has contributed to the gradual coarsening of pop culture. But in order to make such an argument you'd have to effectively prove that Mad was also responsible for the commensurate trends of arrested development among wide swaths of our adult population.

(Mad was never a paean to arrested development: if it has always reveled in the kind of broad scatology that 8-12 year olds find consistently amusing, that is because the magazine knows that its audience consists primarily of 8-12 year olds. It may not be the most sophisticated satire, but again, just the fact that authority figures and the socio-economic factors that they represent can be mocked and derided serves in itself as a perpetual epiphany for pre-teens everywhere. The assumption, which I believe to be more than adequately supported by the anecdotal evidence of fifty years of underground cartoonists, television sketch comedians and punk rockers, is that this kind of healthy skepticism and inherent distrust for authority, once inculcated, can eventually grow into a more sophisticated expression than fart jokes.)

But the appearance of advertising in Mad, while probably an inevitable result of rising publication costs and increasing competition among print media for the youth audience, represented something more important for the magazine than merely a new coat of paint. Although it might seem a specious comparison, Mad has traditionally been held by its readership with a similar brand of regard as Consumer Reports: both magazines were expected to be absolutely unbiased in their respective fields of product testing and satire. Although most of their audience probably couldn't rationalize it as such, there was a relationship of trust whose foundation was an unspoken agreement that Mad held no cows as too sacred for tipping.

And, of course, this was an adequate philosophy for so long as the magazine remained a privately held corporation in a relatively stable magazine market. The writing was on the wall the moment that Mad became a fully-owned subsidiary of the Time/Warner megalith: Alfred E. Neuman had a new master above and beyond mere japery for the sake of japery. The fact that Warner Brothers movies are cover-featured on Mad months in advance of their actual release is just a sign of the times. Perhaps Gaines should have taken the magazine with him into death, because it would almost have been better for Mad to stop publishing than to become so wholly compromised. What message is this sending the next generations of satirists, that pure satire can only exist on the condition that it "plays nice" with corporate interests that it would otherwise take every opportunity to eviscerate?

But Mad's ideological compromise is ultimately merely a small indicator of the changing times in publishing. Things are tough on the magazine racks, as more and more specialized publications vie for pieces of an increasingly diverse, fractured and inattentive readership. The New Yorker is an amazing example of an aged and perhaps cumbersome institution that was able to use the previous decade's unprecedented crisis of fractured media as impetus to change and grow dynamically. Whether or not these changes -- as with Mad -- have resulted in a compromised presentation is still a matter to be decided.

Its common knowledge that the audience for general interest magazines has been on a long and steady decline, but it is also a well-known fact that The New Yorker has bucked this trend by entering the 21st century well in the black. The reason for this commercial renaissance is usually seen to be closely associated with the recent and successful commodification of their most distinctive feature: cartoons. The Cartoon Bank website, with its digital library reaching back eighty years, has been by all accounts one of the most improbably successful merchandising programs in magazine history (probably nowhere near as successful, in real terms, as all the different Sports Illustrated videos and calenders, but it's an issue of scale we're dealing with here). The question is whether or not the magazine's renewed attention to the cartoon comes at the expense of the actual artform itself.

(Of course, I'm not comparing the actual publication with any theoretical magazine you or I could imagine: that would be a mug's game. It's not hard to imagine that any imaginative editor with those resources who wasn't saddled to The New Yorker's longstanding editorial traditions could easily put together a cartooning staff that would put any lineup, past or present, to shame - but that's just daydreaming, and I want to make it perfectly clear that my complaints are far from hypothetical.)

If Mad erred by disregarding the most important aspects of its cartooning heritage in order to survive in a changing marketplace, The New Yorker seems to have profited by choosing an almost diametrically opposite tack. They have exploited one of the magazine's most well-known and established features, and are reaping the deserved rewards of eighty years of attention paid to a medium which their peers -- many of whom no longer exist -- gradually chose to de-emphasize and eventually ignored altogether. But now that the cartoons have become fully recognized as one of the magazine's signature commercial strengths, the danger looms that the cartoons themselves have ceased to become relevant as anything other than a perpetual commoditized resource.

To put it bluntly: the one panel "gag" cartoon, insomuch as it is observed in the pages of The New Yorker is something of an anachronism. There is something almost aggressively reactionary in such a thickly proscribed format, and the unexceptional output of the majority of the magazine's contributors is perhaps merely a symptom of this moribund format.

It's easy for history to obscure aesthetic judgment: in most cases, the only examples of historical art that survive and thrive in the popular imagination are the exceptional, the interesting, or the strange. Most of us will never know just how much crap has been subsumed by the silt and mud of history (and in some cases, the unexceptional quality of what has survived raises the fearful specter of just how bad the stuff that didn't make it through the ages actually was). So it would be a grave mistake to look back on the "Golden Age" of The New Yorker as a wonderland solely composed of talents on par with Steig, Addams and Thurber - just as it would be a grave error to assume, based solely on the examples of Mac Raboy, Jack Kirby and Alex Toth, that the "Golden Age" of mainstream comics was an era of unrivalled draftsmanship, peerless design and rugged dynamism. Most of it was crap, and the same goes for The New Yorker's gag cartoons.

But regardless of the fact that not everyone gets to be born a natural illustrative genius, the fact is that the magazine seems to be happy with the modest crop of gag cartoonists it currently cultivates. Whenever anyone great pops up in the magazine, they're invariably a hired gun: Crumb or Ware or Tomine or Burns or a few others. It should go without saying that these gentlemen are on an entirely different scale of reference than most cartoonists on the magazine's regular payroll - and the fact that this disparity between the relatively uninspired work of the average New Yorker cartoonist and that of the hired guns who periodically show up has never really been addressed is slightly baffling to me.

I dread the magazine's yearly cartoon issue. First, it goes without saying that the cartoon issue devotes significantly less space to its specialty than the corresponding issues devoted to style, food, movies or fiction. I can understand that much, given the fact that cartooning is perceived by most as a much smaller cul-de-sac than it actually is, and an entire issue devoted to the subject would alienate many more readers than it would attract. But while they may print a few selections from established and acclaimed cartoonists, the focal point of the issue is inevitably an extended portfolio selection by the magazine's established cartooning staff. It goes without saying that they hardly deserve the extra focus.

Again, there's a dichotomy here. On the one hand, the magazine is tentatively acknowledging the interesting and unique talents of some of our best cartoonists. But on the other there's a stubborn adherence to the "gag" panel and the kind of torpid formalism that such a restrictive format invariably demands.

The New Yorker has defined itself in rigid obeisance to the talented men and women who created and shepherded it through its formative years. It has the reputation now as the "magazine with the cartoons", for better or for worse - enough so that Seinfeld could easily devote part of an episode of a nationally broadcast television program to poking fun at them. But while the decision to capitalize on this reputation has yielded unexpected dividends for the magazine, it has effectively marginalized them as a player in the field it once helped to define.

Visionary talents like the aforementioned Steig, Addams and Thurber built their careers and reputations alongside that of the magazine itself, helping to define a unique visual and editorial identity. These pioneers used the magazine as a platform to push American cartooning forward in the twentieth century in much the same way as Punch did for British cartooning during the nineteenth. But while these giants are rightly hailed for their contributions, the magazine's forward momentum in the medium stopped when the editors stopped cultivating talents who could grow into the kind of skill and insight that Thurber or Steig mastered over their long careers. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that cartoons are such an important element in the magazine's current commercial fortunes: it doesn't pay to cultivate artistes for what are -- essentially -- menial positions in the cartooning world.

Steig commands an authority in The New Yorker's self-mythology similar to that which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby possess in the lore of modern Marvel. And just as generations of (mostly) mediocre craftsmen have been utilized in an attempt to keep the forward momentum of Lee, Kirby and Ditko's characters and concepts moving forward without essentially damaging the copyrights, The New Yorker purposefully cultivates inferior cartoonists in order to perpetuate the magazine's brand.

If there's any doubt about the efficacy of this argument, examine the careers of the great cartoonists who do occasionally pop up in the magazine's pages. The greatest argument for the fact that The New Yorker has essentially abdicated its position as a leading light in the cartoon firmament is the fact that the good cartoonists who do appear have all built long and storied reputations long before selling their first pieces to the magazine. It used to be that the best cartoonists in The New Yorker were homegrown, talents who had been drafted and defined by the magazine, and who had in turn imparted their skill and prestige to the magazine which had allowed and encouraged them to flourish artistically. Now, all the best cartoonists come to The New Yorker already defined and established. Its a similar situation to that of short fiction, which the magazine also still publishes: The New Yorker still publishes some good stories on occasion, but no one could mistake them for a leader of the field. They may also publish some good cartoons now and again, but their historical contributions to the continuing definition of the medium have essentially come to an end.

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