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How's The Squid?
posted March 11, 2008
 

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Creator: Jack Ziegler
Publishing Information: Harry N Abrams, hardcover, 128 pages, 2004, $19.95
Ordering Numbers: 0810956020 (ISBN10)

Twin bastions of great 20th Century cartooning, The New Yorker and MAD have a specific cultural process in common that rarely gets much play. Because their greatest contributors are idiosyncratic creators who made singular work at the relative edges of each publication's respective overall output, it has over the years become something of a struggle to appreciate the solid craftsmen and effective artists working the middle ground. Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder overshadow Al Feldstein and Don Martin, William Steig and Saul Steinberg receive attention that cartoonists like Sam Gross and Jack Ziegler don't. What's amusing is that in both cases it's the latter pair that often make the more commercially successful works, the kind of cartoons that drive the greatest periods of the magazine's success and come closest to defining a house style in the minds of devoted fans.

imageComing from the New Yorker portion of that equation, Jack Ziegler's How's the Squid? collects a bunch of the veteran cartoonist's food-related jokes, the kind of arrangement that only makes sense if you get into the head of a harried gift-buyer. It's a handsomely mounted book, and Ziegler's contributions are consistently amusing. Ziegler has the core elements of classic New Yorker cartooning down. This means there is a clash of elements used to positive and sometimes briefly startling effect. Clever wordplay throughout is its own pleasure but also provides a humorous contrast against fairly goofy conceptual work. In Sempe-like fashion, a few of Ziegler's drawings depict a scene view in sort of a wide perspective where one small detail turns the meaning. The verbal-visual blend introduced to the magazine and some would say cartooning in general by Peter Arno is pushed at almost all times, the pictures dancing off of the words and vice versa in a way that causes the reader to puzzle out a third meaning, almost like one of those elements is the straight man offering up a line and the other is a the comedian taking things in an entirely different direction.

How's the Squid? proves to be generally solid work, hampered by a few factors. As hinted at earlier, the gathering of cartoons according to the topic of food works on a gift-giving level, but reading it the lack of cohesion or even a consistent viewpoint regarding the subject matter makes the book feel scattered, arbitrarily assembled and slightly mercenary. Ziegler's drawing lacks the beauty of some of his contemporaries. He's much better working out of his own designs and proclivities for stylized figure drawing; the worst cartoons in the book tend to be those that find Ziegler having to approximate someone else's characters or their style in order to make a point. Also, and this may be a function of having to include everything in Ziegler's output that's food-related, a few of the jokes feel overly obtuse, as if they might have made more sense viewed in the time during which they were originally published and informed by whatever was going on in the world at that specific moment. If you can pick up How's the Squid? as I did at a library sale or in a used book store, it's a sturdy volume that should settle in your library with a modest amount of pride, if nothing else a kind of summary statement on the New Yorker cartoon from the William Shawn era of the magazine.

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