NEW YORK — Bob Mankoff, the shaggy-haired maestro at the center of the New Yorker’s cartoon universe, was at his desk Wednesday looking through Liana Finck’s latest stack of drawings.
“I don’t think anybody could possibly understand that,” Mankoff said of a cartoon of a circle saying to another circle, “Hey, wanna Venn?”
Mankoff’s phone jangled.
“Go away — we have enough cartoonists!” he shouted in the direction of the ring.
“This is nice,” he said of another Finck drawing — a pair of tombstones facing a television made of stone.
Outside his door, more than 50 cartoonists awaited their final sit-down with Mankoff, 72, who is leaving the New Yorker after 20 years as cartoon editor and 20 more as a regular contributor known for his pointillist style and absurdist captions. His best-known gags include “Hamlet’s Duplex,” a drawing of two doors, one marked “2B” and the other, “Not 2B.”
For two decades, Mankoff has held weekly office hours at which cartoonists — New Yorker regulars and those still trying — sit across from him as he occasionally accepts but mostly rejects their offerings, his judgment expressed not so much in a “No” but in a turning of the page or a pointed question.
“Are those plates or large potatoes?” he asked one cartoonist, referring to her depiction of a dining table.
The 59 artists who showed up — a record — included Sam Gross, 83, who sold his first New Yorker cartoon in 1969, and Benjamin Schwartz, 35, who, after graduating from medical school, gave his parents a serious case of the shakes when he decided to pursue cartooning.
Some of the cartoonists brought farewell gifts, including flowers, original renderings and, in the case of Schwartz, now on contract with the magazine, a handwritten note from his mother, who confided that she was “plotzing” when her son announced that he was “trading in his stethoscope to become a professional doodler.”
“Then you came along,” she wrote. “Thank you for giving my son a job and a career.”
The crowd included a cartoonist who has submitted 600 drawings without a sale, an NYU student who showed up for the first time and a certain Washington Post reporter whose cartooning began with second-grade doodles of Richard Nixon.
“It’s so democratic,” Finck, 31, said of Mankoff’s open door. “He’s giving anyone a chance.”
Mankoff’s successor, Emma Allen, 29, an editor at the magazine, is planning to continue the tradition. David Remnick, the magazine’s editor, considers the in-person sit-downs key for attracting new talent and nurturing existing cartoonists. “It’s very important not only for the culture of the New Yorker but for the sake of the form itself,” Remnick said.
The transition is causing a measure of trepidation among the artists, who are accustomed to Mankoff’s deep knowledge of cartooning, his precise critiques, his damn-the-odds encouragement and his Wurlitzer of one-liners.
“This is almost like work,” he faux-whined in a nasal New York-ese as the cartoonists paraded through, their submissions among the 500 he reviews in a week. “I’ve dedicated my life to avoiding work. This is like the Motor Vehicles Bureau.”
Here came Mort Gerberg, 86, who has cartooned for the New Yorker and Playboy, and has churned out more than 40 books.
“Whaddya got?” Mankoff asked, shuffling Gerberg’s offerings, one of which was a press secretary saying, “I have been authorized to speak — but only on the condition of duplicity.” Mankoff dropped the cartoon on the pile he would bring to Remnick, the final arbiter of what fills the 15 to 20 cartoon slots per issue, each of them paying in the range of $700 to $1,400.
“Godspeed,” Mankoff said as Gerberg departed. Then Ellis Rosen, 31, sat down with his cartoon of 10 bowling pins, one of which says: “Hey, I’m the new guy. So what do we do around here?”
“You can clear out the verbiage,” Mankoff said of the caption.
In the hallway moments later, Rosen told another cartoonist, Shannon Wheeler, that he had sold three out of the 170 cartoons he had submitted over previous months — a success rate of 1 percent.
“Great numbers,” Wheeler replied.
By 1997, when Mankoff began editing, the magazine business had shriveled and the New Yorker was among the last publishing cartoons. Editors had always opened their doors to cartoonists, but only the most accomplished. Mankoff’s innovation was to meet with anyone.
“There wasn’t a minor leagues anymore,” he said. “I had to mentor people. I had to be the minor leagues.”
Yet Mankoff’s open door is open only to the most diligent. Office hours are known to those in the know.
“It’s either the world’s most closed open-door policy or the most open closed-door policy,” said Charlie Hankin, among Mankoff’s recruits. “It’s no accident that you have to do some digging to find out what time and what floor.”
Sweat is part of what makes the cartoonist, Mankoff believes. In his meetings, he’s looking not just for a single brilliant gag but offerings that pile up over months despite serial rejections.
“You can’t be a dilettante at this,” he said. “I ask, ‘Can this person put up with rejection?’ ”
But thick skin is no guarantee of success, as Paul Kleba knows after 600-odd rejections.
“I’m sorry it has never happened,” Mankoff said as Kleba sat down.
“Let’s make it happen,” Kleba replied as Mankoff looked at his drawing of a dog on a sofa.
“That dog is just wrongity, wrong, wrong,” Mankoff said.
Among the last of the artists to walk in was Alice Cheng, 23, who recently sold her first New Yorker cartoon. Mankoff’s face brightened when she told him she had dropped out of graduate school for accounting to cartoon full time. “If your parents give you any trouble, have them call me,” he said.
There was one last cartoonist with whom he met, an unpublished doodler of absolutely no renown.
“This is not a bad cartoon,” he said, eyeing my first offering — people queued up at a “Reincarnation Help Desk.” The last in line is a man telling another, “With my luck, I’ll come back as myself.”
But Mankoff said, “There is no one who helps you reincarnate.”
A cartoon of a father leaning over his screaming toddler, saying, “Now, now, let’s try using our NPR voice.”
The gag would be funnier, Mankoff said, if the man told a sexy woman, “I love when you talk dirty with your NPR voice.”
It would also help if I could draw, he said.
“You can draw a little, and therefore you should draw very little,” he said.
“You’re doing jokes. They’re funny — for a writer.”
He giggled some more.
Okay, then. So wilts the dream.
It was several years and more than 1,000 submissions before Mankoff sold the first of his 950 New Yorker cartoons in 1977. He may submit more in the future, but he won’t be waiting in line outside his successor’s office.
“I’ll be on line at Starbucks,” Mankoff said. “There I know I will be accepted.”