Shannon Wheeler has been for many years the much beloved alternative cartoonist, famous for his over-caffeinated comics, “Too Much Coffee Man.” And then he went where many cartoonists have attempted to go before but only a smidgen have been heard from since…The New Yorker!
For many a cartoonist, the rejection slips prove to be too much. Perhaps they give up drawing cartoons altogether. Some brave, or misguided, souls venture toward another light…graphic novels!
The bravest of all cartoonists revel in the rejection slips. Perhaps they just know that someday they too will make the grade. But, for the time being, revel they do. Revel onward, my dear friends, revel with such gusto and you may have the last laugh! That is probably, at least in part, what Shannon Wheeler was thinking when he collected his cartoons deemed rejects by The New Yorker and turned them into a book. He’s given this a lot of thought. This latest book is his second collection of rejects. And that comes with the territory since Wheeler has been a successful contributor to The New Yorker since 2009.
And, hold on there true believers, everything is relative! The term “reject” has a somewhat different meaning when you consider what The New Yorker is up against. And, yes, they are truly up against it: hundreds of submissions per week with only about 17 slots to fill per issue. You do the math. It is pretty unlikely that, in this context, “reject” means “stinker.” Well, there have to be stinkers but you have to break some eggs in order to get an omelette.
On the other hand, once a cartoon has been deemed a reject, how does it live down that stigma? Well, it’s possible there’s a little too much of this or not enough of that. It could be a totally subjective call. Maybe it’s too close to something that’s come before, or that joke is already in that same issue. Those are the sort of questions one could ask while looking through this book. You might wonder if that’s really the right attitude to take with this book. All I can say is that you know you want to do it, so do it. This doesn’t mean the cartoons aren’t funny. It just means, for any number of reasons, they did not make the cut.
After reading all these cartoons, I have gained a greater appreciation for what it takes to develop into a New Yorker cartoonist. It seems inevitable that you must go through certain stages: rebelling against tradition, attempting to fit into tradition, and finally emerging as your own cartoonist.
Many of the cartoons I see here appear to straddle between a cartoonist as rebel and as standard bearer. One very funny example, is a classic trope, a doctor in a hospital about to deliver some news. He says, “We couldn’t save your husband, but we did save you some pizza.” It’s a great play on the word “save,” of course. Perhaps it feels more like a parody of a New Yorker cartoon than the real thing. Sometimes all the speculating in the world will not result in any satisfactory answer.
And then there are cartoons with a more weird vibe too them, perhaps created under the spell of too much coffee. Here we have a guy sitting on his couch with his cat curled up nearby. He says, “What are these mice-chasing apps on my phone?” To my taste, that one nails it, it is true Shannon Wheeler, and it IS a New Yorker cartoon. Well, I wonder if you can resubmit cartoons.
There’s another category that a cartoonist can play with. I call it, “I’m going to wow them with something they’ll say they wish they’d thought of!” That’s not a bad place to be. Might it end up looking like you’re trying too hard? Hmm, hard to say. One good example is of a couple in a museum. They are studying a painting with the word “Art” boldly stamped upon it. The man says, “But is it art?” This collection has its fair share of these type of “seeking the wow factor” cartoons. Of course, cartoons seek a wow factor, but I think you know what I mean. It’s too much a part of Wheeler’s sense of humor for him to ever give it up, and he certainly shouldn’t.
Getting back to “reject” being a relative term, there is no stinker in this big batch of cartoons. In fact, there are plenty of winners, so many that they make this book a keeper, a great little present for someone special, and a fascinating window into the world of New Yorker cartoons. So fascinating, in fact, that I’d recommend it as companion piece to Bob Mankoff’s recent New Yorker memoir (review here).