Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Best of the Rejection Collection Event

The publication of The Best of the Rejection Collection in October of 2011 was followed by a publicity event at Strand Bookstore in New York City featuring a goodly number of The New Yorker's cartoonists showing off a tiny fraction of their rejected work. After attending this very worthwhile event on January 12, I did what any other lazy blogger would do: I waited for someone else to write a blog post about it. After all, I had been extremely tired, I barely made it there on time from work, and I myself had taken no notes during the event. Well, that last item should be no problem. A video was taken of the entire happening, so obviously I wouldn't need any notes. Now, nearly seven months later though, I don't see the video posted online anywhere despite the fact that Strand has about 520 stellar literary events posted on its YouTube channel. I don't really notice too many other bloggers with much to say about the event, either. I figure it's about time for me to chime in and say whatever I've got to say while the book is still in print. Here goes....

Although I have been a lifelong fan of that singular entity known as the New Yorker cartoon, I have pretty much done a dismal job of attending any New Yorker-themed events. I did once attend a talk by then-cartoon editor Lee Lorenz at the Yale Club sponsored by the MacAllan. I'm not much of a single-malt scotch drinker, so I'm happy to say I recall that distant event with crystalline clarity.

Some years earlier and quite by accident I ran into cartoonist Charles Saxon at the Nicholls Gallery on Madison Avenue. He had taken his grandchildren to see the current exhibition. This must have been the late 1970's. As I recall, he lost interest in me when I mentioned my fascination with cartoonist Ronald Searle, a reaction I've experienced at other times over the decades.

Anyway, that pretty much sums up my face-to-face contact with New Yorker cartoonists up to January of this year. So this event, with multiple talented cartoonists, was somewhat novel and overwhelming to me. But I'm a blogger now, I told myself, and I should attend. I mean, who better?

The cartoon books marketed as The Rejection Collection are the brainchild of editor Matthew Diffee, a formidable cartoonist himself. Let's take a look at some of the basic statistics regarding the publication of cartoons in The New Yorker. It's not a happy story. Let's say just for argument's sake there are fifty cartoonists who regularly see their work published in The New Yorker. Each submits a batch of about ten cartoons each week in the hope that one will be selected for publication in the magazine. So, for starters, about 500 cartoons are submitted each week by some of the best cartoonists anywhere, but perhaps only 15 to 20 are selected for publication. The rest, about 480 cartoons, many of which are very funny, are rejected. Squashed. Most of these will never be published anywhere, ever. The general market for single-panel gag cartoons has all but evaporated. It's a sad state of affairs, but I don't see things changing for the better anytime soon, at least not in the print media. The Rejection Collection is one of the few remaining outlets for these cartoons.

In addition to these tried-and-true superstar cartoonists, others are also submitting gag cartoons to The New Yorker each week. The likelihood of these seeing the light of day is even more remote. Yet there is always hope. Somewhere in the vast pile of rejections is no doubt the work of some cartoonist who will one day become a regular published contributor.

I myself once submitted a half-batch of tepid cartoons to the esteemed magazine, and I must say to the publication's credit they were returned to me with exemplary speed. But that's a story for another day....

The Best of the Rejection Collection collects much of the two volumes of The Rejection Collection published in 2006 and 2007. In some sense, this is the publishing world's equivalent of a rock band putting out a Greatest Hits collection for its third album. I suspect that, in this case, it isn't hubris but just an attempt to collect most of the two previous volumes in a single paperback edition.

Anyway, it should be clear that there is seemingly enough funny material rejected from first-rate cartoonists to put together a reasonable new volume of The Rejection Collection every two or three months, but bringing overlooked gems to light is not really what The Rejection Collection is about. Rather, The Rejection Collection is banking on The New Yorker's somewhat undeserved reputation as a stodgy, even puritanical, publication unwilling to publish tasteless or offensive material.

If you want my opinion, and even if you don't, The New Yorker was never really a prudish publication, certainly not under founding editor Harold Ross, and not even under his successor William Shawn. The magazine was generally done in good taste, to be sure, and was fairly classy as publications go. But if you look at other magazines of the era that were more permissive in what they would publish, such as Playboy, Punch, or Esquire, I don't think you'll find funnier cartoons, for the most part.

The Rejection Collection, then, is not really about publishing rejected funny material per se, but rather about The New Yorker cartoonists pushing the limits beyond what is acceptable to publish under the magazine's aegis even today. The result is sometimes outrageously funny. And sometimes it is not.

Two examples will help to illustrate what I mean. The first one, Mort Gerberg's peek inside the Clauses' bedroom, is unconventional but, in my opinion, hilarious. It shows us Santa and Mrs. Claus as a married couple with some domestic behavior we ourselves may recognize.

Mort Gerberg, "Take a shower first. You smell like a chimney"

The second cartoon which is a captionless one by Glen LeLievre is, at least in my opinion, not funny at all. The muted reactions of the participants is an attempt to save the gag from the unfunny spectacle of horrified children, but I still don't see the humor. On the other hand, I should point out that the editor likes this one enough to include it on the back cover of the book, under the "too dark" category.
Glen LeLievre
So, there you have it. This blogger finds sex funnier than violence.

A Cartoon Caption Contest of sorts was held. Drew Dernavich started off the evening by sketching a man with a prominent unicorn's horn speaking to a Strand employee at the information desk. Attendees were asked to submit a caption, with a cartoon coffee mug offered as the prize. Judging the contest were a second group of New Yorker cartoonists who were in attendance but not presenting their rejections. Even on a good day with plenty of coffee, I can never come up with a reasonable solution to the magazine's Cartoon Caption Contest, and  this day was no exception. Later, the winning entry was announced: "I'm looking for me." Not bad, right?

Matt Diffee,
the editor of The Best of the Rejection Collection, continued the event at Strand by presenting ten common reasons that New Yorker cartoon submissions are rejected and he showed humorous examples for each. Here my failure to take notes turned out to be extremely brilliant, as these examples are all in the introduction to the book. Score one for me.

Here is his example of a cartoon that is "too dumb:"

Matthew Diffee
Horse-Drawn Carriage

It actually is quite good, of course. I don't really think it's "too dumb," but it was rejected. Sometimes there may not truly be a good reason for rejection, other than the fact that there are simply too many good submissions.

Then the cartoonists presented examples of their personal rejections, two at a time. Michael Crawford's rejected cartoons were presented by David Sipress.
Cartoonist David Sipress presenting Michael Crawford's rejected cartoons in the Rare Book Room at Strand. You can see a video is being taken of the event, but it does not appear to be posted online. (Photo courtesy of Michael Crawford.)

Marissa Acocella Marchetto was in attendance, but she neglected to bring along examples of her own rejections, so she drew a "rejection" for us. It was called "Rotisserie Babe," or something like that, something you can probably imagine being rejected without seeing it.

Speaking of which, I didn't see much, and I was there. Modern technology has brought splendid visual images to my laptop and to my smart phone, but the overhead projector at Strand used by the cartoonists was probably not much better than what was around when I met Charles Saxon. In any event, I was way off to the side and bleary-eyed, not a good combination for attentive cartoon-gazing or for retroactive blogging.

Sam Gross, during his presentation, revealed that he has an extensive filing system for his original cartoons, each of which is numbered in sequence. At last count, he had over 27,000 cartoons on file. He admits that often when he goes back to one, sometimes as little as six months later, he'll have no idea what he originally thought was so funny.

At the conclusion of the presentation, there were some questions and then the book signing. My expectations for the book signing were, it turns out, way off, based on an unusual signed copy of Volume 2 of The Rejection Collection I purchased some time ago on eBay. This one-of-a-kind copy contained original drawings dedicated to a student named David and was reportedly obtained at a signing by his uncle. Cartoon editor Bob Mankoff drew his standard self-portrait, possibly in advance, but each of the other cartoonists who signed drew, as personally requested by David's uncle, a porcupine. Later David decided to sell the book ostensibly to help underwrite his schooling costs (seriously, David?) and right onto eBay this unique book went. So, if any of you readers are working on your dissertation and need to know how five New Yorker cartoonists handled the somewhat prickly subject of porcupines circa 2007, before you run off to do your research at some fancy Ivy League library, come and see me. I'm your source.

Bob Mankoff's self-portrait drawn in The Rejecton Collection, Volume 2. Yes, this is what he looks like. If you run into him, say hi from me and see if you can get him to draw a porcupine.

Various porcupines by Gahan Wilson, Jack Ziegler, Matthew Diffee, and Zachary Kanin.

 Mort Gerberg explains that he doesn't draw porcupines.

Anyway, all these clever variations on the porcupine gave me a very false sense of what the Strand book-signing would be about. It was nothing like the earlier event with five cartoonists each contributing an original drawing. Here there were seventeen cartoonists who signed. Matthew Diffee had signed the books in advance. Then there was a line of cartoonists seated behind tables. At or near the beginning of this line was Sam Gross, who started to draw beautiful, colorful frogs, creating a logjam of attendees with books for signing right at the start. Matt Diffee rushed up with the injunction, "No drawing, Sam!" explaining that if he wasn't reined in, Sam Gross might draw all night. Well, isn't that what cartoonists are supposed to do--and enjoy doing? So there would be no frogs for most of us, and certainly no exotic porcupines. Sam Gross, 50-year veteran of cartooning, author of I am Blind and My Dog is Dead, and the creator of the world's most memorable frogs' legs gag cartoon, listened to his editor and put away his art supplies.

Despite this, about a third of the cartoonists added drawings beside their signatures including, ironically, Matthew Diffee. Pat Byrnes actually made a drawing with the dictum "No Drawing!"

My copy of The Best of the Rejection Collection featuring the signatures of Chris Weyant, John O'Brien, Arnie Levin including an off-balance bird, Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Matthew Diffee with a quacking duck, Sid Harris, Pat Byrnes commenting on Matt Diffee's "No Drawing" rules, Eric Lewis with a lovestruck cat, Mick Stevens with expansive appreciation I don't deserve, Sam Gross, Barbara Smaller with a word balloon, Mort Gerberg who still doesn't draw porcupines, and Drew Dernavich with enthusiasm. 

More signatures in my copy of the book from David Sipress with a caricature signing his name, Paul Noth with a walking sleepy-head (me?), Robert Leighton with a word balloon (see Barbara Smaller, above), and Julia Suits with a...squiggle. Thanks, Julia!

At the end, Matt Diffee said he was very impressed with the turnout. I didn't make a headcount, but I'd guess sixty to eighty people attended, plus the cartoonists. Still, I don't understand why more people didn't come. In New York City, there must be thousands of fans of these cartoonists. The Rare Book Room should have been overflowing with happy people. Of course, having said that, I couldn't talk my wife into coming along!

Mr. Diffee also pointed out how unique it is to get a book signed by so many New Yorker cartoonists. No argument there. Baumann Rare Books currently has a copy of Lee Lorenz's The Art of The New Yorker, 1925-1995 that probably belonged to cartoonist Christopher Weyant. Baumann describes it as "inscribed by cartoonists Arnie Levin, Arnold Roth, Frank Modell, Danny Shanahan, Victoria Roberts, Roz Chast, Bob Mankoff, Ed Fisher and Edward Sorel, each (but Sorel) with a wonderful original drawing." It is offered at $1,500. They don't provide a photograph. Sheesh! I always shake my head when I see prices like this. Then I go back to the site a couple of months later and I see the book is gone. (November 11, 2012 update: It's gone!) For the record, I think signed books like The Best of the Rejection Collection are wonderful keepsakes and I wouldn't part with them. If they go up in value, great, but if they don't, they're still fabulous items.

The Best of the Rejection Collection:

Therapy Sessions

March 16, 2013 Update:  Christopher Wheeler has posted his owned signed copies of The Rejection Collection and The Best of the Rejection Collection here. They are inscribed to his son Rahil and they are definitely worth checking out.

Note:  A Robert Leighton cartoon appeared in my expertly-timed post "Bank's Closed Today, Folks" here.

Bob Mankoff appears in my post on The World Trade Center in Pre-9/11 New Yorker Covers here.

John O'Brien
is one of three cartoonists who walk into a bar in my post here. He's also in the above World Trade Center blog post.


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