The rather long winded, official title of the documentary, VERY SEMI SERIOUS is actually Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists, which gives you a hint of what’s to come when you watch the deliberately droll, pretty fun outing.
It gives us behind the scenes access at the New Yorker, specifically its cartoon division. Newspaper and magazine editorial cartoons are graphic expressions of their creator’s ideas and opinions, sometimes reflecting the publication’s viewpoint too. They are based on current events and therefore produced under restricted time conditions in order to meet publication deadlines, and also generally have an educational purpose to boot. They are intended to make readers think about current political issues and have a delicate balance of all of the above to achieve each issue, which is no easy feat. It is believed that the team of artists at the New Yorker does this better than most, and VERY SEMI SERIOUS lets us meet some of that talented bunch of oddballs and outcasts.
Bob Mankoff, a seriously droll guy and purveyor of graphic wit himself, has been the cartoon editor for almost 20 years. His job each week involves looking at about 1,000 submissions for consideration and whittling them down to an essential 15. That is a hell of a lot of evaluation involving multiple thought processes, which when you stop and think about them makes the average grey matter feel like its about to burst at the seams.
It has been said that VERY SEMI SERIOUS confirms what many might have expected: while the magazine’s editorial staff (and fancier than most readership) may be well-heeled, the cartoonists are a marvelous band of kooks who one could even say look and dress as if they belong in a New Yorker cartoon. “Getting teased as a kid is a prerequisite,” says artist Emily Flake wryly, whilst veteran Roz Chast offers a long list of reasons why she doesn’t much like going outside. It is interesting to observe that the inspirational Mankoff is grooming a younger generation of geniuses who might not have become functional members of society were there not an outlet for their unique vision. Reviewers have picked up on rare talent in the team like the painfully shy, very young British artist Ed Steed, who claims he only recently heard of the iconic magazine while vacationing in Vietnam. Despite being raised on a remote sheep farm, he produces insightful, timeless work that one could easily assume came from an artist many years his senior.
It was interesting to find out that the New Yorker artists featured are all freelancers, and none of them are able to do their much-loved jobs full-time. Most supplement their income in other creative ways like the aforementioned Roz Chast, one of the first women to be regularly featured and also a renowned illustrator who makes pillowcases based on the designs of old soup cans.
Naturally the run up to the latest US presidential election has provided rich fodder for the cartoonists, which I wholeheartedly believe you need to have a gander at. The work of Benjamin Schwartz in particular echoes the mood of those saner members of the once-great nation, and Mankoff seems to be reveling in having Donald Trump as a regular point of focus for his team.
Academics, art critics, art historians and the like have too often tended to dismiss editorial cartoons as silly, yet many over the years have wreaked havoc throughout history. As Leah Wolchock's documentary VERY SEMI-SERIOUS shows, cartoons can have a powerful psychological, emotional, and political impact, and this is a look at some of the best.
VERY SEMI SERIOUS premieres Thursday 20th October at 8.30pm