A New Sheriff at the New Yorker: Cartoon Editor Emma Allen

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A New Sheriff at the <i>New Yorker</i>: Cartoon Editor Emma Allen

This piece was originally written in July 2017 for the Paste Quarterly.

Three months into the job, Emma Allen, the New Yorker’s new cartoon editor, has a considerable to-do list. In addition to selecting a fraction of the hundreds to thousands of cartoons that land on her desk each week, she still oversees the lattice of humor offerings that fell under her old jurisdiction as Daily Shouts editor: short humorous fiction, digital-only cartoons, web videos and radio content. It’s a big plate, but perhaps appropriately so. “I feel like having these things be separate corrals, especially in the world that we live in, and media consumption being what it is, doesn’t make so much sense,” she told Paste. “It’s been really fun and cool to be able to allow the different mediums of humor stuff that we’re doing—to allow the walls between them to be a little more permeable.”

A little more permeability, Allen hopes, will mean a lot more work for her growing stable of cartoonists and humor writers. With about 15 single-panel “gag” cartoons in each issue, the New Yorker has long presented a frustrating paradox to even the most talented artists. It’s the best gig in town but also pretty much the only gig in town, meaning stiff competition for established voices and lofty barriers to entry for emerging ones. Gag cartoons are a highly specialized form of art with a commensurately small marketplace; for cartoonists, who are often freelancers, rejection can deal a major blow to the pocketbook. “Most of my immediate goals have to do with trying to make the math problem—that you can’t inherently fix—a little better, by giving the cartoonists new places to show their work,” Allen said. “Doing more longer-form stuff online, making the Daily Cartoon something that’s more dynamic—it can get more new voices in it—trying to do more animated stuff, getting old guard cartoonists to work with newer people so the tradition of the gag can stay alive.”

Allen’s predecessor, Bob Mankoff, served as cartoon editor for 20 years until he left this past spring. He is now the cartoon and humor editor for Esquire, which he hopes to grow into another landmark institution for cartoons. At the New Yorker he instituted a now-famous open-door policy wherein any and all could come to a weekly pitch meeting at his office. He’s discarded that system at Esquire—he described it as “delusional” to the Washington Post—in favor of a more collaborative development process with writers and illustrators. “The selection process at the New Yorker is essentially a selection process with huge amounts of quantity from which you get quality,” he told Paste. “I think any intelligent, tasteful, smart, funny person, like Emma, has an easy job of it; I know I did. But it’s the cartoonists who do the work. The New Yorker is a machine for getting them out every week.”

Allen, however, says the open-door policy the best part of her job—even if it does give her the flop sweats. “I think having this be a meet-up point for people, in this strange world that’s so rife with rejection and has so few venues for publication, having it be an actual point of human contact and empathy is essential,” she said. Her old job involved barely any face-to-face editing, let alone rejection. Now she’s turning down veteran cartoonists every Tuesday over their favorite snacks. “Even if you are among the people who are really, really good at this, and are getting published, your chances of being in every week are still pretty low,” she lamented.

During his 20-year tenure, Mankoff gained a reputation as a brusque and brilliant editor, known as much for his efforts to open the door as his blunt rejections of those who walked through it. One cartoonist described the wiry-haired editor reviewing his first batch of cartoons in total silence. “About halfway through, he says to me, ‘You have no facility with ink wash,’” this cartoonist recalled. “And I felt a little sad, but I guess I thought about two things. One was, he was 100 percent right… he knows what he’s talking about and he could spot it in 10 seconds. The other is that it wasn’t his job to make me feel good. There were 35 other cartoonists on the other side of that door who were ready to snap up the spot in the magazine that wouldn’t be mine.”

For now, at least, Allen aims to bring a softer touch to the pitch sessions. “Part of the process of reviewing cartoons when Bob did it was very much, like, ‘Yes, no, yes, no,’” she said. “Which seems a little like, if I were on the other end of that, I would black out, essentially. I don’t know how constructive any criticism after that point would be.” She notes that where her predecessor was a cartoonist as well as an editor, she is not; it “would be a little insane” to approach the work dismissively. She also recognizes that being edited really just kind of sucks. “I’ve been an editor for a long time now, and also been edited for many years as a writer, and I know how horrifying it is to be edited—how every seemingly insignificant edit can just feel like barbs in your skin,” she said. “I try to be a little bit more protective and empathetic to the fact that what can seem like a one-off comment from me can be a devastating thing.”

Allen’s editorship is still young, and many of the cartoons in recent issues were selected before she took the helm. Paste reached out to a number of cartoonists for comment on the transition, many of whom (understandably) responded that there isn’t yet much to say. Still, there does seem to be excitement about this new era in the magazine’s history. Allen’s commitment to mitigating the sting of rejection, for one, has not gone unnoticed by Liana Finck, a cartoonist Mankoff brought into the fold in 2013. “She’s transparent about what happens with our cartoons after we send them to her, which is really calming and helpful,” Finck told Paste. “The first week, I hadn’t sold a cartoon and was afraid I wouldn’t sell for a long time. When you go through a dry spell, you never know why it happens and you assume it’s your fault. When I came into the office, Emma told me she’d loved one of my cartoons—of a lost stork carrying a bundle with an adult man in it—and [New Yorker editor] David Remnick had agreed to buy it, but then the fact checkers had found one too similar online, so they hadn’t bought anything. It was very comforting to know the reason, and that the cartoons I’d made were still appreciated and seen.” Mick Stevens, a contributor since 1979 who currently lives in Florida, agreed. “I was very suspicious at first—the new young person!—but I’m really impressed with her,” he said. “She’s been very forthcoming on emails, very warm and friendly, and they’ve bought a few since she took over. Things… seem to be moving along very well.”

Allen’s broader mission, just as in her old title, is to grow the diversity of voices contributing to the magazine, thereby growing the diversity of voices it represents. Representation has long been a challenge for New Yorker cartoons. When a 2015 analysis by the Proceedings of the Natural Institute of Science found that most characters were white and male, Mankoff sent a rare email to all his cartoonists suggesting that they rectify this. But the analysis also noted that representation in cartoons is largely a matter of who draws them; women drew about 20% more female characters than men. Artists, Allen observed, generally populate their cartoons with versions of themselves; so she must fight a tougher battle. “The bigger incentive for me is to find ways to have the voices that are in the magazine—to have there be a greater breadth and diversity of voices, in almost any way you can define that,” she said.

That’s a simpler task with Daily Shouts. If she likes what she sees at a stand-up show or a fiction reading, she can simply invite the comic or writer to submit a humor piece. “The gag cartoon… doesn’t really exist in that many other places,” she said. “People aren’t doing it on their own; they tend to be doing it specifically to submit to us.” Widening the umbrella means literally thinking outside the box of gag cartoons—developing different types of art from different types of artists, from graphic novelists and memoirists to webcomic writer-illustrators. “It’s a joy to be able to A) find new talented people—and there’s so many of them out there—and B) to tell them that I’m interested in publishing them,” Allen said. “Then they can come in and be rejected face-to-face.”

Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.