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Other Kinds of Relationships

March 18, 2010 By:
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The New Yorker cartoon has possibly spawned more discussion than even the magazine itself, among both passionate devotees and critics of the form. For the first 50 of the publication's 85 years to date, its cartoons held mostly to a one-panel shape with a single caption or punch line running beneath the visual. The dominant tone over those five decades could be characterized as urban WASPish, as summed up by the work of the great Peter Arno, for example.

But by the 1970s, it became clear to devotees of the weekly publication that it was bent on changing direction on several fronts, wishing to break the mold when it came to what had become known -- and none too charitably -- as the "typical" New Yorker short story or cartoon. I think the editors and the publisher came to realize that the magazine needed to engage a new, younger audience if it wished to prosper, and one certifiable avenue seemed to be to let the cartoon -- perhaps the publication's most popular and recognizable feature -- breathe a bit.

One of the magazine's new breed of cartoonists who gave the form a kick in the pants was Roz Chast, who proved to be a truly off-the-wall artist in a group that often appeared bent on pushing the limits of sanity itself. Her greatest innovation in the field was to stretch the idea of what a cartoon could contain. With her, it would no longer be just a single panel. She instead fills a space with numerous panels that the reader must navigate, pretty much without any internal guidance. In certain instances, an entire life story can be told in miniature or a sociological trend affecting a certain subset of urbanites might be spoofed via a crazed combination of pictures and print.

Chast seems to have come out of the James Thurber tradition by way of George Booth -- two New Yorker stalwarts, the former from the early years, the latter a product of the loosy-goosy '60s -- with the right smattering of Jewish neuroticism thrown in for good measure.

When I wrote about her work just about year ago in this space, I noted that she has influenced any number of other artists. One of them is distinctly Bruce Eric Kaplan who has just published I Love You, I Hate You, I'm Hungry, a sampling of his manic cartoons that now joins his five previous collections. (Although his work always seems like the product of someone young and precocious, Kaplan's been drawing for 20 years now.)

Chast's influence can hardly be seen in the way Kaplan draws; no two styles could be more disparate. And Kaplan rarely uses more than a single panel and a single caption.

The influence is most apparent in the wacky coupling Kaplan devises between his images and words. He, too, traffics in spoofing modern neuroses, but his humor is at times even farther off-the-wall than Chast's -- and a lot darker in tone.

Take the cartoon that's featured on the back of the book. It shows two Kaplan couples -- all his people are drawn the same way, with squat, thick bodies, iris-less eyes and emotionless expressions -- at a cocktail party. They stand beside one another, holding drinks. The woman in the couple on the left says: "We thought it was a rough patch, but it turned out to be our life."

Or take the couple sitting on the couch in their living room. The man asks: "What happened to that tiny little ounce of passion we used to have?"

In another, we see two women talking out in the hall while an angry-looking man sits a short distance from them in the living room. One of the women says to the other: "He's fine as long as I take my medication."

As Kaplan explains in his introduction, relationships are his speciality -- and most of them are "romantic or sexual or unromantic and unsexual but would be romantic and sexual if people were in a better mood. Or if they were not tired because of work. Or because of life.

"But also there are cartoons about other kinds of relationships, such as those one has with parents, or friends, or neighbors, or enemies, or food, or whatever."

Kaplan does stray at times from dissecting the human condition as it affects the sexes and can be just plain wacky. Take the drawing that shows a hallway by an elevator. A man holds a briefcase; across from him stands a camel. The bubble above the man's head says, "Happy Hump Day!" The one above the camel's head reads, "Why did he just say that?"

Anxiety in the workplace? It's a sure-fire subject for a classic New Yorker cartoon.

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