October 29, 2009


The New Yorker: On the Money—The Economy in Cartoons, 1925-2009. Edited by Robert Mankoff. Andrews McMeel. $24.99.

Old Farts Are Forever. By Lee Lorenz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     There are some very special things about The New Yorker, not the least of which is how determined it is to have people regard it as special. To that end, the magazine has developed a unique sense of humor in its cartoons – some of which are haughty but not particularly funny, others of which are in-jokes of one sort or another, and still others of which are hilarious in a sophisticatedly offbeat way. One topic that the magazine does not cover particularly well is finance, so it may come as a surprise that so many of its cartoons have dealt with matters monetary over the years. Still, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his introduction to The New Yorker: On the Money, these are not really the cartoons of people who understand financial matters or Wall Street (even though that famous center of capitalism is, after all, in New York). These cartoons are mostly those of bemused characters who just can’t quite figure out what all that financial fuss is about and how the “money business” works. And yet many of these offerings are extremely funny. There is the well-dressed man walking into the IRS holdings his hands up in surrender. There is the husband ruefully telling his wife that they are now living beyond their second income. There are the Wall Street traders looking up at the display board to see the start of the Biblical phrase of doom, “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin.” There is the IRS bureaucrat telling the irritated (and presumably under-audit) businessman, “Maybe we do bungle the spending of your tax dollar, but you’ll have to admit we do a bang-up job of collecting it.” There is the down-at-the-heels miner who pans a large gold nugget from a stream and says, “Damn it! Now I’ve got to revise my estimated income.” There’s a megastore in which men and women with shopping carts roam aisles adorned with signs such as “Mutual Funds,” “REITs,” “Tax Exempt Municipals” and “U.S. Treasury Notes.” And there is one down-at-the-heels man saying to another, “There, there it is again – the invisible hand of the marketplace giving us the finger.” The cartoons are arranged by decade – a very few from the 1920s and a good selection thereafter – but the best ideas transcend their times, poking fun at (and a few holes in) the whole notion of prosperity for its own sake and the people who pursue it. The New Yorker is often a touch too snooty for its own good (although many of its readers think that is their own good), and the frequent disdain for the monied class in these cartoons melds uneasily with the fact that the magazines’ subscribers are scarcely downscale. But even if this creates some dissonance and ambivalence within the cartoons, it also helps give them a kind of wry effectiveness – and an impact quite different from that of the cartoons in, say, The Wall Street Journal.

     But it must be said that The New Yorker seems more at ease with cartoons about relationships than with ones about dollars and cents. Lee Lorenz, longtime cartoon editor of the magazine (before Robert Mankoff, editor of On the Money, took over) and a contributor of more than 1,700 drawings to it, offers some samples of his work in the small but delightful Old Farts Are Forever. The title comes from a panel that could have gone into On the Money. It shows three older businessmen sitting together, apparently at a club, with one saying, “Wunderkinden come and go, but old farts are forever.” Most of the Lorenz drawings here, though, are about interpersonal relationships. Young woman to older man, at a party: “It's certainly refreshing to meet someone sixty years old who looks sixty years old.” Long-suffering wife to her husband: “Of course I still love you – it’s called the Stockholm syndrome.” Woman lying in a bed with two men, one on each side of her, both of them reading books, as she turns to the one on her left: “Howard, I’m seeing someone else.” Wife to husband when Death shows up at the door: “It’s the closure fairy.” Thoroughly bored dog’s thought as his owner pets his head: “Mr. Dennison is survived by his long-time companion, Rusty.” Futuristic scene with sweet and busty young woman talking to grizzled man: “Gee whiz, Mr. Collins – two hundred and six isn’t old!” Old Farts Are Forever offers more chuckles than guffaws, but there are plenty of them to be had, and Lorenz – who says he has become an “old fart” himself – is a fine companion in and chronicler of this age group’s amusingly skewed world.

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