Monday, December 07, 2009

THE BEST OF PUNCH CARTOONS in New York Times Book Review

Best of Punch Cartoons is reviewed by Charles McGrath in the Holiday issue of the New York Times Book Review: "The British humor magazine Punch, adornment of countless proper ­middle-class homes, not to mention club libraries, dentists’ offices and Oxbridge common rooms, ceased publication, after more than 160 years, in 2002. It had been on life support since the early ’90s and temporarily went under until the Egyptian businessman Mohamed al-Fayedbought the magazine and relaunched it in 1996, for much the same reason, it would appear, that he bought Harrods department store a few years earlier — because he cared more about venerable British institutions than the British themselves did. In the foreword to The Best of Punch Cartoons, a coffee-table-size anthology edited by Helen Walasek, he writes that Punch is still “a national treasure.

The problem with national treasures, though, is that they’re seldom very funny. What ultimately did Punch in was probably the success of the satiric magazine Private Eye (which also helped inspire Spy in this country). It was younger, snarkier, more topical and original and a whole lot more fun. But Punch had for years been running on fumes, except for the cartoons, which got better, oddly, as the rest of the magazine slipped into a kind of genteel, un-funny mediocrity. Circulation began to decline in the ’50s, after a postwar peak, and yet as you leaf through this big anthology, which is arranged more or less chronologically, you can’t help noticing that that’s also when the cartoons start to come alive and get looser, freer, funnier. The written humor — the light verse and comic essays that had so long been a Punch staple — beganto become ossified, and it’s as if the artists, seeing the editors and writers nodding off in their club chairs,decided they would carry the show by themselves.

Read straight through, from front to back, “The Best of Punch Cartoons” is more instructive than it is amusing. In some ways it’s a study in the evolution of the cartoon itself. The earliest examples in the book, dating back to the mid-19th century, mostly aspire to the condition of book illustration. They’re fussy, detailed woodcuts reminiscent of Cruikshank, say, or Tenniel. The best of these early artists was Charles Keene, whose cross-hatched drawings, subtly shaded, were admired both by Degas and by Whistler, who thought Keene the greatest English artist since Hogarth. Hogarth was funnier. Keene had no ear for a joke, but he was only slightly more tone deaf than many of his contemporaries. Cartoon captions in those days tended to be written in dialogue form (“Diner: ‘Thompson, do the members ask for this wine?’ Head waiter (sotto voce): ‘Not twice, sir!’ ”), and by today’s standard they were often astonishingly wordy. Thackeray, who drew (quite skillfully) as well as wrote for Punch, has one here that goes on for a couple of paragraphs.

The Best of Punch Cartoons is as much a document of social history as it is a cartoon album, and it’s hard to read this big book without a twinge of nostalgia for a bygone era — if you’re an American, for a time when the English were more English and not quite so much like us. Even those ponderous, labored Victorian cartoons have their charm, for probably no one will ever again take being funny quite this seriously."

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