Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Documentary That Every Aspiring Cartoonist Should Watch

This is a review of the documentary Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists. Directed by Leah Wolchok, "the film goes behind-the-scenes of The New Yorker and introduces the cartooning legends and hopefuls who create the iconic cartoons that have inspired, baffled—and occasionally pissed off—all of us for decades." The documentary featured several of the magazine's most prolific cartoonists - George Booth, Roz Chast, Drew Dernavich, Mort Gerberg, Sam Gross, Ed Steed, Bob Mankoff, and many more. The film won an Emmy in 2016.

Released and aired by HBO in 2015, Very Semi-Serious is a documentary that offers the viewer a picture of The New Yorker’s cartoon culture. Considered as the last bastion of the cartooning industry (of the humor and gags category), The New Yorker doesn’t just publish and print funny cartoons. It publishes and prints funny cartoons that adhere to the magazine’s unique sensibilities and aspirations. Just because you can draw funny cartoons doesn’t necessarily mean you are a good fit for the magazine.

A lot of the footage in the documentary were shot inside the magazine’s offices, as it should be. Cartoonists aspiring to crack the pages of the magazine should take full notes of these scenes as these provide insider tips on how to make it as a cartoonist in the magazine. Several people including the cartoon editor, the art director, and assistants talk in-depth about the kinds of cartoons that get published in the magazine. In one scene, you see them going through a pile of cartoon submissions and dividing them in two paper racks. One rack is marked “Yes” and the other one is marked “No”. Those in the “Yes” rack is one step closer to being published. Those in the “No” rack will be mailed with a rejection letter to the submitter.

Selecting which cartoons get published is a simple yet complicated process. The cartoon editor meets with regular contributors every week. These regular contributors usually submit 8 to 10 ideas each during these weekly meetings. On top of these regular contributors are the thousand or so unsolicited cartoons sent in by mail or hand-delivered. So on average, the magazine’s cartoon department goes through 1000 to 1500 cartoons every week. Only 15 to 20 of these are chosen and bought by the magazine for publication.

Several of the magazine’s regular contributors are in the documentary talking about how they made it as cartoonists. If there’s one glue that keeps their experiences together, that glue is named “patience”. One cartoonist says he submitted more than 2000 cartoons before his first sale. Another doggedly submitted cartoons for 25 years before his first piece got accepted and published.

Needless to say, the documentary isn’t too encouraging for cartoonists aspiring to crack the pages of The New Yorker. Imagine submitting thousands of cartoons before selling one. Imagine sending in your cartoons for more than two decades before making a sale. And these are just those who made it. How about the hundreds of cartoonists who submitted their work but were never published?

The documentary isn’t all gloom and doom for aspiring cartoonists. A source of inspiration in the film is the story of Liana Finck. We see her entering The New Yorker offices and showing her drawings to the cartoon editor. We see her face get disappointed as the cartoon editor critics her work. We see her get inside the office a few more times. She receives encouraging words from the editor but she is yet to make a sale. Near the end of the documentary, the camera follows Finck as she shows a physical copy of the magazine featuring her first published cartoon. It’s an image of slinkies climbing up the stairs.

Liana Finck is now one of the magazine’s regular contributors. She has a growing number of following online. She has nearly half a million followers on Instagram. She even has a few books under her belt. If you want to get into her work, a good start would be Passing for Human: a Graphic Memoir. It's really good.