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Everyone’s A Critic: The Ultimate Cartoon Book

Everyone's a Critic: The Ultimate Cartoon Book is dedicated to disproving its title. The New Yorker cartoonists represented in this collection are mostly uninterested in criticizing life, art, or criticism. The anti-critical project of the book is the beating of sharpened scalpels into feather dusters and satire into vacuous "wit". Why criticize when you can lean back and laugh with a gentle, anesthetized, uncritical blandness?

Illustrator and writer Bob Eckstein sets the tone of comfortable indifference right from the beginning, with a lazy "what is the world coming to, oh dear, chuckle chuckle" intro designed to elicit knowing nods from people who find David Brooks' prose just a little too vigorous and challenging. "What's more fun than being judgmental?" he says, and then wryly bemoans dating apps, selfies, and Rotten Tomatoes. Consumer advisories are apparently the whole of criticism, and they were invented twenty years ago. "Can you imagine if our ancestors used TripAdvisor instead of just hopping on a ship over here?" he breezes. "Winters cold, with 90% chance of genocide. Since the indigenous people have been exterminated or removed, there's lots of room to spread out and torture the families you've enslaved."

Haha. No, Eckstein didn't write that last sentence. The people whose ancestors he sees sailing over here sans Trip Advisor of course include neither native people nor black people. His imagined audience is, like virtually everyone represented in the drawings in this book, white, affluent, and smug about it. We're all nice, sensitive, funny, sophisticated people, with a shared appreciation of feeble irony, wistful one-liners, and in-law jokes. What's to criticize?

Nothing, as far as most of the creators here are concerned. Rather than loving or hating or thinking about anything in particular, the cartoons here mostly use what might be called the setting of criticism to stage mildly amusing gags in the toothless New Yorker tradition. Michael Maslin shows a couple dressed in early 20th century finery emerging from a building. "The service is terribly slow," they tell a another couple arriving in modern dress, "but the food is excellent." Sometimes it can take a long time to get served at expensive restaurants. You know this because you sometimes go to fancy restaurants. In fact all of us reading this go to fancy restaurants, because we all have lots of money. That's the joke.

Not all the entries in the book are that irritating. Bruce Eric Kaplan's resolutely thick-limbed blocky figures with pupil-ess eyes are charmingly ugly, even if they never say anything especially interesting.  Mick Stevens' illustration of Noah by his ark staring up to heaven as God tells him to lose his sailor cap made me chuckle. Though it's unfortunate that Roz Chast uses the same joke earlier in the volume, when a voice from inside a coffin tells a horrified mourner to "Lose…the…hat."

 

 

 

The repetition is telling. More than thirty-six cartoonists contributed to Everyone's a Critic, but their styles and range of references are so limited that the book has the feeling of a Garfield volume. Instead of coffee and lasagna jokes, we get gags about online ratings and snide cocktail party chatter.  "Did you read my review on Amazon? Four out of five people find it helpful," says a guy holding a beer in a William Haefeli cartoon. "I love what you've done with him," says a woman holding a glass of wine in a Alex Gregory entry.  Gregory's simple, fluid line is a lot more pleasing on the eye than Haefeli's blocky angular clutter, but beyond that, you could switch the captions and it wouldn't make any difference. As a forlorn man thinks in a pointed Paul Noth cartoon, "This is boring."

 

Noth's character sits under a banner that reads "A Critique of Pure Reason". It's not clear whether he's commenting on the Kant volume, or on reason itself. But what makes the cartoon stand out from its peers is that it can be read as a direct, pointed critique—of Noth's cartoon itself, of the entire volume, of Eckstein, of the New Yorker. You laugh—or at least I laughed—because, as with the best criticism, or the best art, there's a shock of recognition. Yes, this is boring. I thought we'd agreed not to say that. But it's a relief that you did.

Criticism is roundly and generally despised; the rage at Martin Scorsese for saying Marvel films are formulaic genre crap is matched only by the rage of Martin Scorsese fans when you point out that his pompous overhyped oeuvre isn't much better. Critics are often portrayed as jealous parasites, who suck blood because they can't spin beauty.

But Everyone's a Critic nicely illustrates how much art needs criticism. Without judgment or critical engagement, there's no love, no hate, no passion, and little purpose. At a time of great public turmoil, suffering, conflict, and fear, these cartoonists associated with one of the major political magazines in the United States stolidly refuse to be critics, and end up with a book of blear paens to their own aesthetic enervation. Though the volume isn't an official New Yorker publication, it is a good, short validation of Matthias Wivel's observation that, "From the very beginning in 1925, the New Yorker cartoons as a rule have been unambitious, unimpressive, and unfunny… As a platform for cartooning, the magazine has (with a few exceptions…) been a deadening force at the heart of the art form, smothering the field in bourgeois mediocrity." There are no critics in Everyone's A Critic. Which is why, presumably, no one spoke up, and the book got published.

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7 Responses to Everyone’s A Critic: The Ultimate Cartoon Book

  1. Cameron Pfiffner says:

    My parents had an old volume of New Yorker cartoons that stopped maybe mid-fifties. I loved looking at it because the drawings were so diverse and skilled- everything from O. Soglow’s little king to sumptuous wash paintings by Chas Addams, with Peter Arno, George Price, Saul Steinberg, William Steig, Gluyas Williams, James Thurber etc. One of my father’s great friends was a New Yorker cartoonist, Warren Miller. A lot of the humor and richness of the cartoons of the early period came from the cartoonists’ ability to create the world in which the situations existed through their expert use of their materials. Sometimes ‘funny’ wasn’t the point. I think particularly of an astonishing work depicting a New York tenement at night, which certainly didn’t have a comedic, but rather a poetic intention. There was another depicting a garbage man transformed into a hideous demon, which used to keep me awake nights. Steig’s works often depicted the deadly serious world of children’s war games, or their heroic fantasies. Steinberg questioned the entire concept of perception using nothing but lines of India Ink. These works depended for their effectiveness on the artists’ mastery of visual language, not a gag idea that could be achieved with minimal depictive skill.
    Drawing styles have become more anemic and less robust, more homogenous and less diverse, and so the intellectual and philosophical content of the cartoons is impoverished. I haven’t seen the book you are reviewing, but I sympathize with your anger and impatience. It’s the reason I no longer look at the New Yorker for its cartoonists. If your cartoon isn’t funny, at least give us something to look at.

  2. Danny Ceballos says:

    Pity the poor single-panel comic, haha! Philip K. Dick once said his short stories were about expressing ideas and the books were about expressing style. A single-panel comic lives or dies on its idea. The NEW YORKER as a magazine is interested in expressing its style.

    I guess it comes as no surprise that NEW YORKER even sponsors an add your own caption contest as a feature, further muddying the waters of how much respect they have for the craft they regularly rely on for space filler. Although, it seems a little overkill and unfair to lump Thurber, Chast, Soglow, S. Gross, Chas Addams, and many talented others as “unambitious, unimpressive, and unfunny…”

    When a single-panel comic works, it is unbeatable, like Thurber’s “What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?” or Larson’s “So, Professor Jenkins! … My old nemesis! … We meet again, but this time the advantage is mine! Ha! Ha! Ha!” Beware when it comes to denigrating this exacting form of cartooning, the duck will always have the last laugh.

  3. Michael Shaw says:

    To quote yourself: ” I guess the first question is, why so negative?” But then again, everyone’s a critic!

  4. Mark Morey says:

    Once again a representative of the New People shots all over the old. You can have your lousy Century, kid. “OK, Boomer,” right?

  5. J.D. says:

    Surprise, surprise: Another hatchet-job piece from Noah Berlatsky. He hits all the usual talking points, familiar to anyone who’s ever encountered his writing. We get bad, inept writing (starting a sentence with “though”). We get generic epithets in place of actual descriptions of the work he’s reviewing (“feeble,” “toothless,” “pompous,” “overhyped”). We get some transparently cynical attempts to look like the wokest person in the room (the “imagined audience” of the book, we are told, is “white, affluent, and smug,” a conclusion he draws from Bob Eckstein’s introduction, though it’s impossible to tell how fair the assessment is since Berlatsky decided it would be clever to make up part of a quote and attribute it to Eckstein–a pretty sleazy and unfair thing to do, by the way). We get a few lazy analogies, demonstrating how few comics Berlatsky is actually familiar with (“the book has the feeling of a Garfield volume”). And, of course, we get almost no discussion of the single most important thing about comics: the art. Berlatsky has no interest in the way cartoons look or the differences between illustrators. One wonders why he bothers to write about comics at all.

  6. Steve McGinn says:

    This piece is approaching 99% shtick. It’s roughly Rosanne Roseannadanna meets Ed Anger from The National Enquirer. The book itself has no affiliation with the New Yorker apart from employing many of it’s cartoonists who themselves are all freelancers. By that measure this article’s author should also be criticizing MAD, National Lampoon, Spy Magazine, Playboy and anywhere else that hires (or used to hire) freelance cartoonists. Personally, it’s my humble opinion that the article writer’s bread & butter is ax grinding which isn’t the point of this book. The general gist rather is actually closer to the author’s own surmise of “…the setting of criticism to stage mildly amusing gags…” with his “mildly” part being an honest opinion that we all have the right to. I think he’s a little upset that the book doesn’t take on a heavier, more serious tone. More like he wished it did and then felt the need to blow up when it just wasn’t so. That or he’s pretending to be upset to give the article pizzazz.

  7. Nate A. says:

    The publisher describes the book as”a curated collection of the best and brightest New Yorker cartoonists,” so I think it’s fair to tie it to that periodical.

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