How Hard Is It To Get a Cartoon Into The New Yorker?
I wondered whether this was cheating, somehow, but dismissed the notion. Though today's New Yorker cartoonists write their own gags, throughout the magazine's first four decades, most cartoonists didn't (Steinberg and Steig being the most notable exceptions). Even many of the magazine's most iconic cartoons, Charles Addams' skier (the tracks on either side of the tree), Thurber's decapitated fencer ("touché"), and almost everything Peter Arno drew were written by someone else.
Still, what had been taking me an hour a day now seemed like it was taking over my life. I always had a pen ready and whether I was hanging out with my kids, going to the doctor (after a suspicious looking bull's-eye rash appeared on my chest), or bickering with my wife—I was filtering it for a potential cartoon. I had to extract from any given situation some larger cultural observation. Or some statement about the human condition. Or something that resembled cleverness. My life has always felt as if it was grist for my creative mill, but now the mill had a daily quota that I was straining to meet.
When my life didn't offer usable material I started reaching for the low hanging fruit: desert-island gags and gorillas.
According to Matthew Diffee's book of unpublished New Yorker cartoons, The Rejection Collection, there are about 50 regular New Yorker cartoonists who submit 10 cartoons each week. That's 500 cartoons vying for about 12 to 20 slots. That's not counting submissions from cartoonists whose work appears in the magazine irregularly or the thousand or so weekly unsolicited submissions (which stand almost no chance of getting in).
When I finished my sketchbook I estimated about 50 of my 90 comics wouldn't look out of place in the current issue of The New Yorker (a generous assessment). Fortitude is one of the qualities Mankoff is looking for in a cartoonist. With about 50 cartoons, I could submit a batch of 10 for five weeks. Since Mankoff often wants to see people submit for months (if not years) before buying a cartoon, this didn't afford me a huge window of opportunity, but years ago, against all odds, I sold a cover to the magazine on my first try and I was hoping lightning could strike twice.
From reading cartoonist's blogs and books about The New Yorker's history I knew that the cartoon editor looked at work on Tuesdays. My friend Harry Bliss (New Yorker cartoonist and fellow Vermonter) was kind enough to put me in touch with Mankoff's assistant, who told me to show up on July 12 so Mankoff could look at my work.
On the Tuesday I showed up there were three cartoonists besides me who were hoping to make a first sale. Two had been showing up for more than six months, the other one for several years. Clearly, no one is in this for the money. If you make a sale, depending on your tenure with the magazine, you can make anywhere from around $675 to $1,400 a gag. Seems like a lot for a little drawing, but the dues you pay are steep.
The ones who have sold hundreds of cartoons over decades can bring in an additional $300-$1,000/month from reprints via the Cartoon Bank. But even with this additional income, you probably need to have a lot more gigs or a day job.
Mankoff greeted me cordially, and I handed him my 10 cartoons. He read each of them in front of me. He told me I can draw and he'd like to see more people in the magazine who can draw. Promising.
He thought that a superhero gag would be funnier if I used specific superheroes (huh) and that the mention of Ira Glass in a caption would be too obscure (really?). Mankoff thought that the complaint in my GPS gag was already dated (not for my GPS!) and that my gorilla cartoon with the snake charmer might be deemed offensive or just passé (point taken).