As numerous of us gradually became aware, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine (“Entertainment for Men”) stopped publishing photographs of absolutely barenekkidwimmin with the March 2016 issue. The reason: interested parties can find all sorts of barenekkidness on the Web, so why bother with print? Besides, Playboy has been losing money steadily in recent years. The brand makes money; but the magazine does not. Advertisers won’t buy ads in Playboy because they don’t want to be associated with nudity. Ergo, cancel the nudity and, awash in pristine purity, advertising will come flooding in. Maybe so.
Besides, Playboy wanted to go after a younger generation of readers/buyers. And the younger generation, which spends all its time on the Internet, searching for pictures of naked ladies, didn’t need Playboy for nude women. So Playboy, going after this demographic, changed its content. Appealing to a generation with short attention spans, the magazine is now loaded with short articles; no fiction anymore.
Since the change, newsstand sales of the magazine have increased; by a corresponding percentage, subscriptions have decreased. The plan may be working but it doesn’t look like a net gain yet. Still, the absence of naked ladies isn’t what got my wattles in an uproar.
What pissed me off was that Playboy has also given up publishing cartoons. Playboy was one of the last bastions of magazine cartooning (the other is The New Yorker); and now half that bastion is blasted.
Playboy’s lame explanation for dropping cartoons is that the magazine wanted to eliminate “jump stories” — articles that started in the front of the magazine and are then continued in the back pages. The pages of jumped text created random spaces into which cartoons could be inserted. Eliminating jumped text had the effect of emphasizing the content of the feature articles in the front of the magazine, theoretically helping Playboy change its ambiance for the younger audience it hopes to attract.
That’s the short of it. However canny the maneuver may be, it left Playboy’s cartoonists high and dry. Susan Karlin at fastcocreate.com talked to several of them and to the magazine’s management for a full explanation, and the rest of this entry quotes her article verbatim (with snide comments from me in italics):
Okay, so no more nudity. But no more cartoons? Playboy, say it isn’t so!
When longtime Playboy cartoonist Dean Yeagle posted on Facebook about the magazine no longer accepting cartoon submissions, artists and fans responded with heartbreak, nostalgia, and confusion — especially considering the publication's longtime love affair with cartoons and illustrated pin-ups, and the rise in popularity of comics, animation, and [comic] conventions.
"It’s strange to all of us," says Yeagle. "Hugh Hefner was always such a supporter of cartoons. All we got was this letter."
The letter, from Playboy cartoon editor Amanda Warren, states: "As I’m sure you’re aware, we’ve been undergoing a major redesign of the magazine and the updated Playboy will launch with its March 2016 issue," Yeagle read to Karlin. "It pains me to say this, while I can’t speak to the specifics of this revision just yet, I do want to let you know that we are presently not accepting new cartoon submissions."
Playboy’s redesign — unveiled with the March issue, which most famously eschews overt nudity — has a simplified look that targets younger readers. The cover featuring bikinied Instagram star Sara McDaniel with the lone word "heyyy ;)" across her torso, is a visual reference to Snapchat. The subtitle, “Entertainment for Men,” has disappeared altogether.
Inside, the publication sports a new Artist in Residence section that will profile a different illustrator each month, and a new permanent illustrator for The Advisor section. But gone are sprinklings of single panel and strip cartoons from multiple contributors that echoed Playboy’s edgy editorial stance, exposed artists to new followings, and inspired new generations of young illustrators.
"I think it’s a stupid move," said Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who drew for Playboy in the late 1950s to early 1960s. "If it’s simply a matter of rebranding, why not just change the type of cartoons they run? There are more and better cartoonists today writing in alternative media and graphic novels. It’s a whole new golden age for cartoonists."
"It was a surprise," added Doug Sneyd, who has contributed nearly 500 cartoons to the magazine since 1964. "I knew they were doing something new with the magazine, but I was surprised to hear they were eliminating the cartoons, which Hef always said were such a major part of the magazine. I felt that they could continue with cartoons in keeping with their new editorial policy. The New Yorker continues to have a lot of success with its cartoons."
Turns out, it was pretty painful on Playboy’s end, too. [Oh, sure. —RCH]
"The decision to eliminate the cartoons was like cutting off a limb" says Playboy editorial director Jason Buhrmester. "But it was never a decision of 'Let’s not run cartoons anymore.' It was, in order to be more contemporary and do the things we want to do with the magazine, we need to get rid of jump copy, and it changed a lot of things: our word counts, the revenue stream of fractional ads, and the home for cartoons. So it was a big, hard decision to make."
[So Playboy is going for shorter articles and bigger ads. With no nudes and no cartoons? Dunno how that’ll work. Besides, full-page cartoons have no connection to the jump copy dilemma — despite what Buhrmester says down the scroll a bit. —RCH]
Playboy’s overhaul was an attempt to contemporize the magazine and lower its reader demographic from an average age of 40 to an 18 to 34 target. The biggest change was eliminating the jump copy (continuing an article on non-consecutive pages) and sidebars in order to de-clutter the layout and slow down the pacing of the magazine. But the rejiggering created a domino effect. Cartoons, longer articles, and smaller ads were among the collateral damage from the restructuring.
The amount of jump copy in back was squeezing the presentation of the front end feature articles. "That’s inverse the way a magazine should work," says Buhrmester. "It should be that the stories have some room to breathe. We were losing pages in the front of the book in order to generate enough jump copy to accommodate back ads and cartoons."
[Er, no. The jump copy wasn’t created to make spaces for ads and cartoons: it was created as a maneuver that enabled magazines to put all its headline stories as close to the front as possible. Grab a reader’s attention early on, then, once he’s engaged, continue the story later in the magazine. And the more stories you can start in the front of the magazine, the better. If you ran complete stories up front, that would take up all the space there, delaying some headline stories to run only later in the book. That cartoons filled in empty spots in the jumped copy in the back of the book was an incidental outcome, not the raison d’etre for the jumped copy. —RCH]
Buhrmester adds: "Getting rid of the jump copy eliminated the available spots for half and quarter page ads and cartoons."
Often, full-page cartoons in the feature section were used as spacers to accommodate ads in the back of the magazine or enable it to end on a left-hand page.
"So aside from being part of Playboy’s heritage, they were also used as strategic pacing devices." [And what about that heritage? —RCH]
To supplement the loss of cartoons, a new section, Artist in Residence, will feature a different cartoonist or animator each month. The March issue features animator Jay Howell, who created Fox’s Bob’s Burgers. [This maneuver will scarcely make up for the absence of cartoons. Howell is no cartoonist: he’s some sort of designer, a term that covers many otherwise incomprehensible vocations. —RCH]
Award-winning Brooklyn artist Mike Perry who created the opening animation sequence for Comedy Central’s Broad City, has been hired as the permanent illustrator for The Advisor.
Buhrmester plans to continue with occasional graphic novelets, which graced two issues last year — an original eight-page prequel for “The Hateful Eight” by Quentin Tarantino and artist Zach Meyer, in December and a six-page sequential by Stray Bullets comic creator David Lapham last summer. [These excursions into the realm of graphic novels were so badly done that they reveal Buhrmester’s complete inability to understand the medium. Again, such clumsy endeavors are hardly a substitute for single-panel gag cartoons, a genre all its own. —RCH]
"I’ve even been looking through some old issues from the '60s and '70s, which had full-page cartoons of, say, [someone’s] sketchbook and there would be a funny doodle about him going to the dentist or a Mohammed Ali fight," says Buhrmester. "We may try to accommodate stuff like that in the magazine. For now we’re open to doing that through the Artist in Residence feature."
When it launched in 1953, Playboy was the rebellious upstart, questioning the era’s social mores, and its cartoons were complicit in that subversion. The magazine gave underground comic talent a mainstream outlet, struggling illustrators a career boost, and established artists a new platform. Luminaries like Gahan Wilson, Jack Cole, Shel Silverstein, *Vaughn Shoemaker (the Pulitzer winner who coined "John Q. Public"), Harvey Kurtzman (who helped create Mad), *Will Elder, *Frank Frazetta, *Russ Heath, Alan "Yossarian" Shenkar, Erich Sokol, Arnold Roth, pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, not to mention black cartoonists Robert "Buck" Brown and Elmer Simms Campbell, and female illustrators like Olivia De Berardinis.
[* I doubt that editoonist Vaugh Shoemaker was ever in the magazine regularly; maybe once, but not much more than that. And the other asterisked names were all associated with Little Annie Fanny, the sexy version of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. None of the names are those of underground cartoonists, who, apart from Bobby London, were never regulars in the magazine. So much of the logic of the preceding paragraph falls to pieces. —RCH]
"Hef chose cutting-edge, *bohemian artists of all genres for his magazine, many who could not be printed anywhere else because they were so controversial," says Olivia De Berardinis, who contributed roughly 150 pin-up paintings to its pages, with Hefner writing the captions, since 1999. She’s also illustrated the Playboy Mansion party invitations since 1986.
[*Another handy myth, conjured up for no reason I can see. “Cutting-edge bohemian artists”? Name one. Whatever controversy might be said to exist in Playboy’s cartoons of the early years was wholly sexual: cartoons about sex had not been published in mainstream magazines until Playboy became mainstream. —RCH]
"He pushed boundaries and helped usher in the sexual revolution," says De Berardinis. "Hef’s always been amazing about change. I saw the new Playboy and they’re moving into what this generation is doing."
She surmises that comics, which rely on boundary pushing and political incorrectness, might need to wait until this generation better defines its style of humor. [Maybe Playboy should have kept cartoons, opting for some new kind of humor in order to define this generation’s style of humor. It would have continued the magazine’s pioneering effort. —RCH]
Feiffer credits his relationship-focused Playboy cartoons with codifying ideas that lead to the book and screenplay of “Carnal Knowledge,” the 1971 film starring Jack Nicholson. At 87, Feiffer has lately ventured into graphic novels.
"Hefner’s earliest dream was to be a cartoonist," says Feiffer. "When I was working for the magazine, he was my editor. I’d send him roughs, and he would go over each cartoon in detail. He was so thorough, but didn’t try to convert what I was doing into a Playboy story, but critiqued what I was trying to do. It [giving up cartoons] must be shattering to him, because he loved cartoons."
Despite pre-Playboy editorial illustration success, Sneyd’s long association with the magazine cemented his brand to where, at 84, he’s still in demand at comic conventions and with publishers, such as Dark Horse, which is publishing a book of his favorite unpublished cartoons and Playboy cartoon rough rejects.
Yeagle was crafting commercial animation (remember the Honey Nut Cheerios bee?) when he started freelancing for Playboy 15 years ago.
"Playboy was always great to work for," says Yeagle. "They paid quickly and there were no hassles with them. They gave me a whole new career in an area I had no business being in. I’d been in animation, but now I do books, originals, and gallery showings on the strength of having drawn for Playboy."
"The cartoonists were like recurring characters, which is another reason why the decision was so tough," says Buhrmester. "I’m trying to build a modern version of those guys. I want to give guys like Jay Howell an opportunity to be in Playboy, because they have a reverence for our history with illustrators and comic artists. I see this redesign as a way to open the door to people to reach out to Playboy. And I hope the next Shel Silverstein does walk through my door.
[Not a chance. No cartoonist is likely to walk through the magazine’s new door: every cartoonist can tell at a glance that Playboy is no home for cartooning. Gone are the luxuriously painted cartoons of Eldon Dedini, Doug Sneyd, Dean Yeagle, Erich Sokol, Buck Brown, Jack Cole, John Dempsey, Phil Interlandi, Edmund Kiraz, Ray Raymonde and the rest of the stable of regulars that Hefner so laboriously assembled over the years. —RCH]
Suffering from rationales like the foregoing, Playboy joins the ranks of the rest of America’s great magazines — Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, Look, and others — who gave up publishing cartoons because the layouts of the magazines’ pages couldn’t accommodate the irregular textures of black-and-white cartoons (even if they were in color). Layout editors wanted nice uniform columns of gray typography and generous white space, into which they could spot the occasional illustrative matter (that, by contrast, emphasized the generosity of the white space, a curious outcome for publications that appeal because of content not white space, the conspicious lack of content) — but not those weirdly concocted visual oddities, cartoons. Once again, layout editors and designers have condemned cartoons to oblivion.