For all its cultural sway, the one element of The New Yorker that has developed a somewhat sticky reputation over the years has been its instantly recognizable single-panel cartoons. Thanks in no small part to the endless Cartoon-A-Day calendars and delineation of its entire collection into the “Dog,” “Therapy” and “Relationship” categories, the cartoons were sighed at for being smarter than they were funny (though, you should absolutely read Paste’s own Seth Simons’ piece about Conde Nast’s textbook mishandling of the Cartoon Bank). They were never actually bad (I mean, come on, each era of the magazine was represented by everyone from Peter Arno to James Thurber to Bruce Eric Kaplan—legend has it that the improved quality of the cartoons in the 1940s was attributed to office boy Truman Capote throwing away the ones he didn’t like); they were just perceived as a little out of touch with what the rest of the comedy world was embracing. But these things go in waves, and recent years have seen The New Yorker embrace cartoons with a more bizarre sensibility, thanks to a new wave of cartoonists making a name for themselves at the magazine. Here are a few of our favorites.
Cartoons by Charlie Hankin (also of Good Cop Great Cop and Comedy Central’s New Timers) often straddle the line between blissfully silly and profoundly disturbing, turning the esoteric references and conventions of a New Yorker cartoon around against the magazine. Plenty of animals talk in New Yorker cartoons, but they rarely tell each other not to fill up on bread while eating the festering corpse of a man on a park bench with a loaf in hand. My favorite example of this would have to be Hankin’s take on the affluent, bored Manhattanites that populate New Yorker cartoons. “Oh great, there are the Cardwells,” a woman tells her husband at a party as two people in a giant transparent box float towards them. “Bet you they try to talk to us about their levitating cube.”
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It’s often been said that the winning caption of the New Yorker caption contest was probably also submitted by dozens of other people. If Paul Noth happened to submit, his winning captions would be the only one. Noth’s captions either distill his artwork down to its core comedic DNA (“mind if I put the game on?” one man on a couch asks another, both completely decked out in Packer’s gear), or adds a level of specificity we could never anticipate (“‘complementary’ or not,” a detective tells a man in an interrogation room, “you can’t take ninety million dollars’ worth of mints”).
Though he frequently breaks out of the panel’s constraints with his wonderful illustrations for the Shouts and Murmurs section, Jason Adam Katzenstein works just as well in a single quick burst. He’s better at a pithy, New Yorker-y caption than many who came before him, but they all seem to go several steps further than anyone else would take them (“who the hell is Steve?” a ‘Dave’ name tag asks his lover in bed—an homage to this cartoon by Karen Sneider). His best work is just plain weird and wonderful, as with this self-evident caption: “now that we’ve fallen in love, I have a confession. I’m not a giraffe—I’m fifty-eight weasels in a trenchcoat.”
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When Pleasantville-esque splashes of color pop up in the cartoon you’re looking at, it may well be a Tom Toro. Of all the cartoonists taking stabs at Trump, Toro may be the only one drawing him appropriately: as a horrifying Frankenstein of facial elements mashed together, even when he’s being confused for a trash fire by the audience at the inauguration. The punctuation of the reds and yellows in both the fire and Trump himself, far in the background, lend Toro’s cartoons a rare and dynamic sense of space. His other drawings feature the beady eyes and satirical bite that reminds one of Thurber specifically, though, unlike Thurber, Toro excels at drawing rich, populated, detailed worlds for his characters to live in.
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Next time The New Yorker releases a collection of cat cartoons, they should just go ahead and commission Amy Hwang to do the whole thing (“I can’t decide whether to nap now or in ten minutes,” one cat tells another). Additionally, Hwang has possibly succeeded Bruce Eric Kaplan as the magazine’s resident master of the throwaway comment—elevating a casual remark from one person to another in a room or diner or flower shop to a pristine picture of an absurd worldview captured at a perfectly casual moment (as two women walk down a hallway, one looks at the other and says “our boycotts are saving a ton of money”).
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Will McPhail has possibly the most recognizable style of any of these cartoonists. His drawings are full of expressive action and muscular movement. People in McPhail cartoons contort themselves like Steve Ditko creations and scrunch their faces in annoyance. He’s not satisfied with the Kuleshov effect provided when cartoonists use single dots as eyes. A guitar teacher looks up in terror at the mournful ghosts summoned by his student’s playing. “O.K.,” he says, “you’ve pretty much nailed D minor.” Alternatively, his characters have simply closed their eyes in self-satisfaction, as when a young, hip dad condescendingly tells his son, “when I was your age, things were hard for my dad when he was my age.”
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Within the warm, friendly personas that grace Maddie Dai’s cartoons like illustrations from a beloved children’s book are dark interiors that somehow never come across as smug or cynical the way many cartoons can. When two children look hopefully at a hopscotch court that simply says “work, work, work, work, work, work, death”—or when a burglar decides on what to take from a house with the mantra “do I need it? Does it spark joy?”—we are left first and foremost with a sense of empathy we don’t normally associate with the New Yorker’s sensibility. It’s incredibly refreshing, without sacrifice an ounce of wit or bite.
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With an understated style that would fit right in in a melancholic graphic novel, but with captions like “well, well, well—look who brought a taco to a burrito fight,” Emily Flake’s cartoons have a lived-in quality that sets her work apart. Characters hunch their shoulders and struggle to articulate what they mean. You wouldn’t think that would make a difference but even the slight hesitation of a prince telling a princess “I—I miss my frog wife” while gazing at a well goes a long way towards turning the inhabitants of a cartoon world into real people. And that’s probably a common, admirable trait shared by all of these artists. They are moving away from the familiar snark of the form and creating characters that ground their insane circumstances to some recognizable, desperate want, even as those same circumstances become more and more ridiculous.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.