Since 1925, The New Yorker's cartoons have been as much of a standard-bearer for the magazine's editorial stance as its reportage and short fiction. The absurdist sketches of deluded city folk have inaugurated readers into the world of urban sophisticates by teaching them how to mock with class. The best cartoonists of the 20th century have been published in The New Yorker, each with a distinctive look and feel: James Thurber's lumpy middle-class couples, Peter Arno's thick-curved lechers and dim beauty queens, George Price's jagged-lined and jagged-hearted apartment-dwellers, Charles Addams' cutely macabre eccentrics, Saul Steinberg's cubist schematics, Roz Chast's passive-aggressively homey types, Charles Barsotti's minimalist egomaniacs, and so forth. All these contributors have also influenced graphic artists, animators, and other cartoonists, though The New Yorker retains the patent on gags with a knowing tone and bleeding-edge cultural references. Add in a precise balance of caption and drawing, and the magazine's cartoons practically constitute their own genre.
In advance of The New Yorker's 80th anniversary next year, cartoon editor Robert Mankoff has overseen a 650-page coffee-table book titled The Complete Cartoons Of The New Yorker—a claim Mankoff comes by honestly, since the book comes bundled with two CDs that contain all 68,647 New Yorker cartoons, accessible by publication date, artist, and subject matter. The main volume is plenty impressive all on its own, with decade-by-decade essays by the likes of John Updike, Calvin Trillin, and Ian Frazier, the last of whom ties the special quality of the New Yorker cartoon to the notion that its top creators were hobbyists, forged in the fraternity of WWII military service. The book also contains short biographies of the defining cartoonists, and occasional two-page spreads of cartoons that reflect their times: a set about the Depression, for example, or television, or space travel.
It wouldn't be too hard to whip up a mini-essay on any page in The Complete Cartoons Of The New Yorker. Take a random cartoon—like one of the many skyscraper gags from the '30s, or the one where a guy holding a cell phone complains that he "just took another picture of my ear"—and any halfway-savvy cultural commentator could wax on about what the cartoons say about their moment in American history. But more than cultural relevance makes this volume invaluable. The Complete Cartoons Of The New Yorker is wry and handsome, and, like old collections of Doonesbury or Pogo or Peanuts, it's the kind of shelf-stuffer that older kids find in their parents' rooms and pore over, trying to decipher its mysteries. It's not too much of a stretch to say that this book can improve lives.