On the opening day of Heartland Film Festival, “Very Semi-Serious” began the week with a trademark documentary experience.
At the New Yorker, cartooning is a serious business. Started in 1925 as a comic weekly, the historic magazine published hardly any photographs until the 1990s -- that’s over six decades of publishing pencil and paper drawings.
But what happens now? In a world gone digital, will cartoonists be able to find a place in the media?
“Very Semi-Serious” takes an honest look at this question, among many others, by putting human faces to the cartoons that the New Yorker readers have enjoyed for nearly a century. Filmmaker Leah Wolchok takes the audience through an inside look at the cartooning process in way that is both educational and touching, while still maintaining a humor that is dry, witty, and at all times, punchy.
The documentary is told through the lens of the New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff as he goes through the history, evolution, and daily workings of the cartoon department. Wolchok opens the film with Mankoff sitting at his desk, bending over a blank sheet of paper with an ink pen in hand. Meticulously, he begins dotting his way around the page, forming cartoon people and shapes while explaining his process.
“The little pencil that you mark has the spot anxiety that life has...cartoons either make the strange familiar or the familiar strange,” says Mankoff.
And just like that, the hint that “Very Semi-Serious” is a film that goes far beyond the actual cartooning process becomes apparent.
Along the way, Wolchok introduces veteran and rookie artists in the cartooning world. People like George Booth and Mort Gerberg, who have been contributing to the New Yorker for decades, while new artists such as Liana Fink are about to take off. Audience members get a glimpse of each cartoonist’s triumphs and struggles along the way, giving their static drawings a new and very human feel to them.
For many cartoonists, the weekly pitching process is a struggle in itself. Every Tuesday, the New Yorker accepts over a thousand cartoons from freelance artists during their open submission sessions. From these thousand, about 15 will be published in each issue.
Perseverance seemed to be a recurring theme to success during many artists interviews. One cartoonist had been submitting cartoons weekly to the New Yorker for 25 years before being published for the first time.
But like most artists, these freelancers typically aren’t in it for the money. There is a deep sense of identity and ownership to these cartoons regardless of how absurd or crude they might be.
Through the personal narratives of each artist, Wolchok creates an intertwined web of unity. Though they all have different styles and backgrounds, the film explores how cartooning has become more than a hobby, or even an art form, for these people. It’s a way to deal with the tragedies in life, as well as the joys.
For a film on comedic cartoons, “Very Semi-Serious” incorporates some heavy themes. Viewers will feel the ebb and flow of emotions as the documentary churns through sections of humor, tragedy, introspection, inspiration, and back to humor again. Although the emphasis is always on punchy humor, the New Yorker has approached some heavy topics in its history, most notably its response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But at it’s core, this is true to what many of the best cartoons incorporate: brutal honesty.
“Being funny is being awake,” says Mankoff.
From the veterans to the rookies, the cartoonists at the New Yorker are fully “awake” and on their fourth cup of coffee. As a documentary film, “Very Semi-Serious” delivers all the components of a great story with a blanket of wit that covers every topic it touches. And while the age of traditional media is certainly evolving, Wolchok suggests that the influence of the New Yorker cartoons are destined to remain just as relevant as they were in the beginning.