Culture Club: Single-Panel Soliloquies, from New York to Toronto
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Culture Club: Single-Panel Soliloquies, from New York to Toronto

Culture Club is Torontoist’s Canadian pop culture column. We’ll be waxing philosophical about the trivial, the titillating, and the mundane on a bi-weekly basis.

Robert Mankoff and Margaret Wente talk ‘toons.

“Have you ever heard of the Internet meme, ‘Christ, what an asshole‘?” asked Torontoist illustrator Brian McLachlan, standing in the aisle of the ROM’s Signy and Cléophée Eaton Theatre. McLachlan’s voice, amplified by a microphone, soared over the audience to the front of the stage where Robert Mankoff, New Yorker cartoon editor, was now seated. Mankoff, whose talk on the “Ethos and Ethics of the New Yorker Cartoons” had just wrapped up, was now taking questions not only from Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente (the moderator), but also from us regular folk who had listened to his lecture. McLachlan, of course, was referring to Charles Lavoie’s now-viral contention that all New Yorker cartoons could be captioned with the same punch-line: “Christ, what an asshole.” After gruffly explaining that this all-encompassing “caption” couldn’t hold a candle to the one-liners that really accompanied each New Yorker cartoon, Mankoff was then asked—again, by McLachlan—if the New Yorker was experiencing a surge in the in-house submission of cartoons bearing this descriptor. Mankoff’s response? “Only the ones you sent in.” Ba-dum-ching.

What struck us most about Mankoff’s lecture was how “New York” the New Yorker‘s cartoons seemed. Forgive us if we sound redundant, but the cartoons Mankoff spoke of, and the captions that were attached to these single-panel statements, said as much about New York City as they did cartooning in general. While Mankoff’s theories were mired in universal cartooning truths (“the hallmark of humour is bringing things together that you don’t usually see together…”), the individual images he presented to us, the audience, still seemed inextricably tied to his magazine’s namesake. The cartoons Mankoff showed us were gritty, they were self-deprecating-albeit-unapologetic, they were topical, and they were always, at least marginally, absurd (and delightfully so).
What about us, we wondered. What about Toronto’s cartoon culture? Local cartoon guru Jay Stephens, known for his work on underground Toronto cartoons (The Land of Nod) and mainstream comics alike (chickaDEE‘s Chick and Dee comic feature, Nickelodeon’s KaBLaM! show, and the Emmy Award–winning Tutenstein animated series for Discovery Kids/NBC), was able to do what we weren’t: he articulated the trends and motifs that set Toronto’s cartoons apart from all others:
“Toronto is a fast-growing, multicultural city,” wrote Stephens, responding to our queries via email. “And I think our home-grown comics reflect that diversity and youthful energy. Like Toronto, I find some of the local comics to be fiercely progressive and challenging, others deeply personal and self-reflective. We don’t have the history or deep-rooted cartooning traditions of a city like New York, which makes a big difference.”
“And I hate to contribute to stereotypes, but I do think we are generally a more relaxed, friendly people than our Manhattan counterparts. Plus our buildings aren’t as tall or as close together (yet). Being able to see the sky is an undervalued and very calming luxury.”
Stephens, who began his cartooning career in Toronto in the early ’90s, was also able to provide some insight into the visions, and voices, of Canada’s—and Toronto’s—cartooning talent:
“Toronto is a young city,” Stephens continued. “And Canada is a young country, so our ideas are still fresh and forming. The only real connection I see between the work of, say, Lynne Johnston, Dave Sim, Chester Brown, Paul Gilligan, Julie Doucet, Seth, Darwyn Cooke, Bryan Lee O’Malley, or Mariko Tamaki is individuality. Strong personal voices instead of any real connection to one particular tradition, or any sense of what being a ‘Canadian Cartoonist’ is. So maybe individuality is our voice.”
“Being neighbours with a cultural superpower like the United States means our cartoonists are constantly influenced by American views, opinions, and art. But that also inspires a strong need to distinguish ourselves, and to dig deeper for something special and distinctive. The wide stretches of countryside just a short drive from downtown, and the long dark Canadian winters, offer plenty of time and space for coming up with unique and wonderful comics.”
While a city’s cultural and political mores can be (re)presented in a single, captioned panel, Stephens reminds us that cartoons are more often read and discarded than read and remembered:
“Only time will tell if any or all of the Canadian cartoonists working today will impact or inspire future cartoonists. It’s only very recently that efforts have been made to inform new readers about nearly forgotten Canadian comic legends like Doug Wright, so one hopes those efforts will continue.”
And only time will tell if “Christ, what an asshole,” will have the kind of memetic staying-power that Mankoff clearly (and perhaps justifiably) doesn’t think it deserves.
Illustrations by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.