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Two reviews: Cartoonists Galore!

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From yesterday's Newsday, my brief look at two books about New Yorker cartoons and their history: Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons, by Liza Donnelly, and The Comic Worlds of Peter Arno, William Steig, Charles Addams and Saul Steinberg, by Iain Topliss.

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Chalk of the Town

By Emily Gordon

New Yorker cartoons are everywhere. In the dentist's office, on the refrigerator, in the classroom, on the Web, etched into countless tickled readers' memories. Oh yes, and in the magazine—which since 1925 has given cartoons and cartoonists a bright spotlight in the storied weekly. Two new books about the women and men behind the witty panels are perfect counterparts to each other and essential reading for everyone interested in the people and process behind the magazine.

"Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons" has a nice twist: It's by an actual cartoonist at The New Yorker, Liza Donnelly. She undertook a worthy task: to find all the women who'd contributed drawings to the magazine over the past 80 years and tell their stories. This wasn't always easy; women artists had a major, tone-establishing presence at The New Yorker in the '20s and '30s and are pretty well-represented now—but there were long gaps in which they almost disappeared. What's more, even once well-known female cartoonists aren't etched in the marble tablet of New Yorker greats as deeply as they should be. Helen Hokinson, Mary Petty, Alice Harvey, Barbara Shermund were uproarious and expert artists all but are unlikely to be household names now.

They should be, and readers will quickly and happily see why. Despite some awkward passages, "Funny Ladies" is a treat to read. Alongside the still hilarious drawings are detailed accounts of each cartoonist's journey—from irrepressible young sketcher to thwarted submitter to, at last, member of a hardworking core of elites. Donnelly does an excellent job of marking changing attitudes at both the magazine and among The New Yorker's readers about "appropriate" topics for women to both joke about and laugh at. By the end of the book, which glitters with the Roz Chast and Victoria Roberts and Barbara Smaller (and Donnelly) drawings that are such a frequent and welcome presence in the magazine today, Donnelly's point is unassailably made: The New Yorker would not be what it is without these witty women. They're absolutely worth knowing.

As are the cartoonists whose magical lines we already know by heart and whose influence on both The New Yorker and on the ideas of art, humor and cartoons generally is measureless. "The Comic Worlds of Peter Arno, William Steig, Charles Addams and Saul Steinberg," by Iain Topliss, is soundly argued, meticulously researched, gorgeously illustrated and utterly fun reading. Topliss, as culturally savvy as he is passionate about the magazine, writes with satisfying authority and pleasurably crisp prose. "Academic" this book may be, but don't let that stop you from letting Topliss guide you through every conceivable aspect of all these brilliantly twisted artists and their larger contexts—politics, social and personal life, the finer points of drawing style, commerce and class, semiotics, sex, psychology and, of course, humor.

Topliss handles each of his fascinating subjects with empathy and a level gaze, putting each into the larger and already well-documented history of the magazine's advertisements, layout, design decisions, covers and so on, adding his own considerable insight to every solid fact. He remembers his reaction when, as an Australian traveler to America, he first read The New Yorker: "It was adult, intelligent, imaginative, informative, respectful, critical, humorous, and entertaining, all at the same time." The same can be said of his vigilant, confident and lyrical documentation, and the bookshelves of both New Yorker lore and art history will be the better for it.

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Here’s another take on the Topliss book.

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