By Tom Nugent
Photos: Deborah Feingold
He’s one of the most popular cartoonists in the world. He was also the longtime cartoon editor for The New Yorker — the 92-year-old highbrow magazine that continues to set the standard for the very best in political commentary, arts-and-culture reporting and short fiction. During his long run there as cartoon chief (1997 until last year, when he took on the same role at trendy Esquire), he was responsible each week for selecting more than a dozen of those witty, brain-teasing “drawings” (The New Yorker term for what the rest of us call “toons”) that have long served as the magazine’s instantly recognizable signature.
Pretty impressive, huh?
But if you spend some time in depth with 73-year-old Bob Mankoff, you’ll soon discover that his triumphant success was actually based on many years of abject failure.
Believe it or not, this supremely accomplished cartoon wizard received more than 500 straight rejections from The New Yorker before he finally managed to nail down a “yes” for one of his comical drawings.
Make no mistake: if The Guinness Book of World Records gave an award for “most consecutive failures to get your cartoons published at The New Yorker,” Mankoff would win it easily. Between 1973 and 1977, the never-say-die Fairleigh Dickinson University alumnus submitted at least half a dozen new cartoons to the magazine every single week.
And every one of them bit the dust!
Describing the relentless ego-pounding he endured during that brutal span, Mankoff took the unusual step (in his recent best-selling memoir, How About Never — Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons) of printing a copy of the actual “rejection slip” he received for his doomed submissions each week.
We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it. The Editors
But Mankoff eventually enjoyed the last laugh by also publishing in his memoir the “acceptance slip” he received on that glorious day when he sold his first-ever “toon” to the magazine:
Hey, you sold one! No s — t! You really sold a cartoon to the f — — -g New Yorker magazine!
(Okay, you probably guessed that the high-toned New York City-based periodical did not send Mankoff that letter — he made it up just for his memoir!
As a matter of fact, the magazine editors who choose the content for each issue didn’t send him anything at all. As always happens when a wannabe makes a cartoon sale, they simply notified him with a phone call and then waited patiently for him to stop screaming and jumping up and down.)
For the laughter-loving Mankoff — who would go on to nail down a highly coveted “regular contributor” contract with The New Yorker in 1981 and then to become the regular cartoon editor in 1997 — that first sale in 1977 was the beginning of a beautiful, 40-year relationship with what may very well be the world’s most admired general circulation magazine.
After that joyful afternoon four decades ago, Mankoff went on to sell more than 900 cartoons to The New Yorker, while also editing several best-selling collections of the magazine’s drawings. Along the way, he became the eminence grise of American cartooning — a revered mentor of younger cartoonists eager to join a “toon tradition” that reaches all the way back to such gag-giants as Saul Steinberg, Charles Addams and James Thurber.
No wonder the cartoon czar so often tells interviewers, when asked to describe his thoroughly remarkable career: “I may not have the best job in the world, but I’m in the running!”
Talent and Tenacity
Born in the Bronx and then raised in Queens as the only child of a hard-working carpet salesman and a stay-at-home mom, whom he’s often described as the paradigm of the loving-but-sometimes-smothering “Jewish mother,” Mankoff early on began to display the two key personality traits that would one day help carry him to the heights of cartoon-dom.
First, he could spontaneously draw pleasing images. So pleasing, in fact, that by junior high school he was routinely cranking out cartoon likenesses of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse that looked more like Walt Disney’s versions of the toon-favorites than the real ones did.
Second, the youthful Mankoff seemed to have been blessed with an astonishing amount of gumption-based tenacity. For example, as a standout shooting guard on the basketball team at his decidedly “non-jock” High School of Music and Art in New York City, he averaged 11 points per game and played defense like a wolverine on steroids. (“We played a lot of our games in Spanish Harlem,” he would later recall, “and you better believe those guys were tough.”) But Mankoff was often just as tough, and also maniacally determined to succeed on the court.
In order to make that happen, he shot countless thousands of “jumpers” and was usually the last player to leave the court after practice. (And some things never change: only recently, at the tender age of 72, the super-competitive cartoonist barked triumphantly: “I hit 12 three-pointers in a row, just last week!”)
The Foundation for Funny
A few years later, of course — after he’d graduated with a liberal arts degree from Syracuse University and then spent two years at FDU earning cum laude a master’s degree in psychology — that bulldog-like determination would stand Mankoff in good stead as he battled to become a regular cartoon contributor at The New Yorker.
During his two years at FDU (1968–70), Mankoff studied behavioral psychology in depth — an experience that taught him a great deal about the comical side of human nature and thus prepared him well for the life of a cartoonist. “I’m eternally grateful for my time at FDU,” he says today.
“Studying behavioral psych gave me the tools I needed to begin thinking about how funny people can be — often without even knowing it. And that’s pretty much what a cartoonist does all day.”
But Mankoff also says his penchant for cracking jokes almost “undid” him at one point during his years at FDU.
“I took a course on the physiological basis for psychology,” he says, “and it was really serious stuff — almost like a medical school course. And then I had to take a final oral exam. Well, I answered all the questions, but I was also being funny. I was making jokes as I went along, and the professor apparently didn’t appreciate that, because he wound up giving me a B-minus!”
Badly rattled, the straight-A student called the professor a day later and begged for another chance. “I asked him: ‘Please let me take the exam again, and this time I’ll do it without any jokes!’ He relented and I retook it, and I think I ended up with an A in the course. But that was a close call, and a good example of how trying for laughs can get you in trouble at times.”
After leaving FDU with his master’s degree, Mankoff completed the course work for a PhD in experimental psychology at City College of New York, but never wrote his dissertation. “My lab rat died,” he recalls mournfully, “and even before that, the poor animal seemed pretty depressed all the time. I took that as a sign that maybe I should be doing something else — and the only other thing I could do was cartooning.”
Determined to establish himself as a cartoonist, he began drawing funny images (and writing funny captions for them) night and day, soon developing the “stippling” illustration technique that remains his stylistic hallmark today. Like his French Post-impressionist idol Georges Seurat, Mankoff found a way to use “pointillism” (a drawing method that connects thousands of tiny dots) to create drawings in his own unique style.
Although he loves to joke about the frustration and disappointment he often endured before becoming a successful cartoonist, Mankoff is also careful to point out that all those rejection slips were essential steps on the road to success because they forced him to keep improving his technique.
They also taught him a great deal of self-reliance, he says, so that he wasn’t the least bit afraid to make a huge “career shift” at the age of 72, when he retired from The New Yorker and signed on as the cartoon editor at Esquire, starting last September.
Since then, he’s been winning high praise by developing a savvy, keenly satirical style of cartooning that often lampoons the foibles and prejudices of contemporary America, while also doing what great humorists always want to do — make us laugh.
“The world is too serious not to be taken humorously,” says Mankoff.