Of the newer breed of New Yorker cartoonists — those who first came of artistic age in the magazine's pages during the late 1970s and '80s — Roz Chast has to be one of the most off-the-wall types in a very unpredictable group. It was clear in the 1970s that the magazine was attempting to break its own mold, especially when it came to what had become known as the "typical" New Yorker cartoon or short story. By shifting gears in this way, the editors were obviously attempting to appeal to a newer, younger audience while letting the cartoon genre breathe a bit. Without question, there was nothing typical about Chast as a comic artist; she, in her own right, seemed bent on breaking every convention there could possibly be when it came to her chosen profession.
Chast's greatest innovation was that she stretched the idea of a cartoon by moving it out of the single panel so common to the genre. She, instead, would use numerous panels that the reader had to commandeer, pretty much without guidance. At times, a whole life story was told in miniature or a sociological point might be made about a certain subset of people trying to survive in the urban jungle of Manhattan at the tail end of the 20th century.
In addition, the humor was often purely conceptual and did not depend on a one-line punch line set beneath the drawing. In reality, there might be many captions, many jokes, as you made your way through the map-like structure of Chast's distinctive terrain. This was especially true in her larger, sometimes full-page pieces. The effect, though, was always carefully wrought. In fact, it sometimes seemed to be the cartoon answer to a Rube Goldberg contraption. The jokes were similarly intricate and devastatingly wacky, with a touch like no one else in the field.
Chast, who has influenced any number of younger cartoonists, has published her work in several volumes, including Mondo Boxo: Cartoon Stories and Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected and Health-Inspected Cartoons 1978-2006. Over the years, Chast has also worked with other writers, providing illustrations to match a particular concept.
In that vein comes Don't Mind Me and Other Jewish Lies, published by Hyperion, in which Chast illustrates the wicked words of Esther Cohen. Cohen is the author of the novel No Charge for Looking, whose title perhaps offers some sense of what to expect in the pages of her newest work.
As the jacket copy states, the Jewish people speak many languages — English, Hebrew, Yiddish, even Ladino. But a language they have truly perfected "is saying one thing and meaning another." That's the overall point behind this affectionate, breezy little book.
I'm usually opposed on principle to items like this, where an attribute of Judaism is applied in some manner it shouldn't be — and usually purely for profit — but Don't Mind Me is no Yiddish for Dogs, for example. This perfect collaboration has a sweet, jokey quality and lots of riotous illustrations. As the authors might say, in perfect unison, "Pick it up. It wouldn't kill you."