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Emma Allen is redefining what a New Yorker cartoon can be

New Yorker humor and cartoon editor Emma Allen, pictured in her home in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, has brought a number of fresh voices to the magazine. (Anna Watts for The Washington Post)

Emma Allen sits in her Brooklyn home, her large rescue tabby cat Dante warming her feet, and waits for the cresting wave of emails to come in. By noon every Tuesday, she is up to her discerning eyes in a thousand attempts to make her grin.

Allen, the humor and cartoon editor for the New Yorker, culls through sketches, separating laugh from chaff, and finds that the coronavirus era has brought odd professional challenges beyond simply working from home.

“Masks have not been good for gag cartoons,” Allen says wryly, noting that if a character dons a mouth covering, you can’t tell who’s speaking — be it a person or a pooch or a ficus. That can be a problem for the magazine’s typically caption-dependent cartoons. On the other hand: “It felt socially irresponsible to have people talking to each other without masks.”

The tiniest line and the big picture. That is her purview since becoming only the fourth cartoon editor in the magazine’s near-century-long history — and the first woman to ascend to that lofty title — after succeeding Bob Mankoff four years ago.

Allen, 33, is shaking up the popular notion of just what a New Yorker cartoon is, knowing that imitation is the sincerest form of apathy: “There was a vernacular shorthand of what a New Yorker cartoon looked like that people were copying — it was getting into a cycle of preexisting jokes,” which is “rarely the best way to go for a laugh.”

As part of this shift, she wants the submission process to feel more encouraging and less insular, even recently publishing an online primer, “So You Want to Be a New Yorker Cartoonist.” She respects such longtime “heroes” of hers as George Booth and Sam Gross. Yet she is also introducing a wealth of fresh talent, including more women, cartoonists of color and LGBTQ artists — an initiative that began well before one staff archivist criticized the magazine’s decades-long diversity record last month in a viral Twitter thread.

Allen knows what it’s like to laugh in the once-stock face of the status quo.

As a kid raised on the Upper West Side, she would cut out New Yorker cartoons, keeping them in little green folders with all “this anal-retentiveness” of an editor — as well as the social awareness of a middle-schooler whose mother was a partner in a corporate law firm. Many of the cartoons at that time depicted “all these boardrooms and operating rooms with [only] White men,” she says, “which was clearly not the case.”

Then as now, though, Allen could find different perspectives in the work of such cartoonists as Roz Chast (whose work hung in her family’s kitchen) and Liza Donnelly. On Saturday, Allen will moderate a virtual New Yorker Festival panel titled “Some Very Funny Ladies” featuring Donnelly, Chast, Liana Finck and Amy Hwang to “celebrate the history of women cartoonists” at the magazine. (The event’s title nods to Donnelly’s book, “Very Funny Ladies,” due out next month.) Sunday will be Allen’s twice-pandemic-postponed wedding to Alex Allenchey, an associate director at a Tribeca art gallery.

“Emma is smart, she is funny and she knows and appreciates humor,” Chast says. “She’s pretty tactful, also. For instance, she has never called me up and said: ‘This batch is dreck! Why don’t you get a job in the box factory?!?’ ”

Tongue removed from cheek, Chast adds: “This is going to sound corny, but I get the feeling she really cares about cartoons and about cartoonists, for which I am wholeheartedly grateful.”

Allen acknowledges that her “greatest passion in all of this, and concern, is to make sure we keep the art form alive” — which requires balancing what has worked with where the magazine needs to innovate.

After co-editing a humor-infused arts-and-living section at the Yale Daily News, Allen joined the New Yorker in 2012 as an assistant to articles editor Susan Morrison, who shepherds the magazine’s Talk of the Town and Shouts & Murmurs staples. Allen gradually became an associate editor on those features, grew the magazine’s humor portal online and continued to come up with new comedic ideas for multimedia.

Her bosses took notice, and she became cartoon editor at 29. Whatever skepticism she faced, she learned to deflect with confident humor. “When I started in the role, I was young and I was a woman and I was not a cartoonist,” Allen says before waiting an expert beat. “James Geraghty, who was art editor from 1939 to 1973, was previously a lead miner and a truck driver, so I had probably a little more relevant experience.”

A last laugh: Bob Mankoff will step down as the New Yorker’s cartoon editor

“Emma’s been a godsend to the New Yorker,” David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, says by email, adding: “She has done a lot, in a relatively short time, to bring new voices — diverse voices, brilliant voices — to the forefront while nurturing cartoonists who have been around for a while. That demands a sense of wonder and tact and adventure — and she’s all that.”

Such tactful nurturing is crucial during this kind of leadership transition.

“Cartoonists are frail creatures; their humor DNA can be fickle,” says cartoonist Michael Maslin, who through his blog Ink Spill serves as a historian of New Yorker cartooning. “Emma came into a nervous room and calmed things down with her openness and good humor.” And Donnelly lauds how Allen “embodies a wonderful combination of silly and serious.”

Her sensitivity toward contributors even comes down to punctuation. In New Yorker parlance, when the cartoon editor sends you an “ok” in the email subject line, that means you can chalk up your submission as a sale. The first time Allen replied to artists with an “o.k.” — using periods is house style, she says with a laugh — she heard back from eight inquisitive cartoonists about the change.

On the flip side, recruiting new contributors requires honing her own style that looks outward, across many types of comedy and graphic arts. “Often the first stage in working with these contributors is [assuring them]: Don’t try to make it what you think the New Yorker will find funny. What is the New Yorker? It’s me. Make it be what you find funny,” says Allen, whose team includes associate cartoon editor Colin Stokes.

“I came in from my role editing written Daily Shouts and trying to build out that platform [to] reflect the incredibly vast world of comedy I was seeing at clubs and on TikTok,” she adds.

Nearly 100 cartoonists have made their New Yorker debut during Allen’s tenure — about half of whom have been women, Maslin says, noting that as a significant increase.

Allen has bought debut work from such top cartoonists of color as Ngozi Ukazu (“Check, Please!”), Keith Knight (“Woke”), Lonnie Millsap (“Bacon”) and Liz Montague (“Cyber Black Girl”).

“The ‘comic industry,’ generally speaking, is very White, very male and caters to a certain age and income level,” Montague says of the traditional American market. “Prior to Emma becoming editor, New Yorker cartoons especially fell into that category. Emma has really made an effort to seek out different voices and perspectives and, in my case, take seriously a total random who happened to send her an email.”

Montague cites Allen’s willingness to be bold: “I submitted a draft of someone getting their hand bitten off by a Black person’s hair with the caption, ‘I told you not to touch it,’ and was genuinely positive there was no way they would publish something like that — and they did! It was the shock of my life getting the email from Emma that they wanted that cartoon! That was the moment I realized: ‘Oh wow, she’s actually serious about this diversity thing.’ ”

Allen published the magazine’s debut of Hartley Lin, the Chinese Canadian creator of “Pope Hats,” who sent in his first batch on a whim in 2018 and within weeks sold his first cartoon. She also brought in political cartoonist and graphic novelist Pia Guerra (“Y: The Last Man”), who identifies as ethnically mixed. Guerra likes how Allen “always picks our weirder submissions,” adding: “There are times we’re sure they’ll go with the more obvious gag, but then it’s the one we never thought they’d use.”

Allen has hired such LGBTQ voices as Bishakh Som and Mads Horwath. “When I discuss the struggles of [an] oft-muted voice in cartooning on the national scale, I always follow up that it feels like I have had Emma in my corner this entire time,” says Horwath, a Chicago-based queer cartoonist and humorist. Som notes that Allen facilitated the artist’s inclusion in a “Funny Ladies” Society of Illustrators exhibit that was “a win for transgender cartoonists everywhere.”

Mankoff, Allen’s predecessor, acknowledges in an email that during his editorship, 90 percent of the cartoons came from “40 or so” contract cartoonists, who ″were a diverse group when it came to height and weight, but that’s about it.” He says Remnick encouraged him to pursue more diversity and that he believes he made progress. “Emma has done a great job continuing this mission,” he says, and she has “breathed new life into a beloved tradition.”

Considering that Allen reads as many as 1,500 cartoon submissions weekly — cutting the candidates to about 60 before she and Remnick trim that by about one-third — she especially relishes what surprises her.

“There’s nothing better than a cartoon that I immediately scan the situation and think: ‘I know where this is going,’ and being caught off-guard.

“That is an instant ‘o.k.’ ”


This story initially stated that Liz Montague was the first Black woman to have a cartoon published in the New Yorker, according to editors. Emily Sanders Hopkins published cartoons before Montague. The story has been corrected.

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