I did a bit of self-correction on my most recent published cartoon, I think for the better. This is a way-too-long explanation of it, but it’s not my typical gag.
Last month I was thinking about wizards, as cartoonists sometimes find themselves doing, and how their robes are portrayed with moons and stars and planets and such. There was something to that, I thought; like maybe they were better suited to being astronomers. Or weathermen, which is funnier.
I don’t know what those numbers are to the right of him, but I think that for a minute I was considering a stock market wizard, with a robe full of financial symbols. That probably could have worked, too. But around the same time I was poking around Genius (for several years it had been Rap Genius) so that I could make sense of this song, and when I came back to the wizard, the idea of lyrics seemed like it was a fresher juxtaposition.
“I’m only a wizard at discerning rap lyrics,” he’s saying. But which lyrics? For a minute I thought that for the joke to work I had to use lyrics from the real underground hip-hop, like from the mixtapes you can get from those dudes outside the subway with references and lingo that you need significantly more street cred to apprehend. But the joke was pretty much the same if I used even the most recognizable music – a song doesn’t have to be complicated for people to mishear it – and I figured it would be more fun for readers to see words that they knew. As I was drawing it, it made me wonder: how many New Yorker readers would really be able to identify these on sight? What does this Venn diagram look like in reality?
This was how the cartoon looked in the magazine:
It wasn’t exactly the cartoon I turned in.
This little section of the wizard robe originally had a lyric that included “mah nigga” in it: it is, as you know, a term of affection that feels like it is nearly ubiquitous in hip-hop, which is why it seemed perfectly natural to include it. However, it’s not a term that’s used by suburban white guys from western Massachusetts. It depends on context, and the mere action of zooming and cropping like I did here would have taken it out of it’s original context and turned it into something it looks like I wrote instead of quoting. Probably most reasonable people understand this, but I thought to myself: “yeah, that’s not what I want people talking about, just in case.” In the Free Speech Under Fire panel that I was on last week, I warned that the internet was a tremendous platform for the multiplication of offense, especially when words and images are so easily clipped from their original sources and repurposed for alternate agendas. More than half of the people I showed this to agreed with me. So I replaced it with this from Blackstreet, cropped so that you can’t read the whole refrain – because, you know.
A friend then looked at this drawing and commented to me: “it’s interesting that you’re focused on the n-word when arguably it’s the b-word that is more offensive,” referring to the 99 Problems line. I hadn’t considered that. The b-word is always a diss, as Lady Bey and Rihanna prove, and it’s a different thing altogether when dudes use it. Still, there’s plenty of precedent for this word in a New Yorker cartoon, and again I’m just quoting verbatim, so I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I was gonna tweak this for the same reason as above, but I left it in. I did choose not to include the second part of the Anaconda refrain because everyone knows what it is and it seemed a little gratuitous, even in a cartoon like this.
I also got sloppy with my Missy Elliott. The fact checkers corrected me that she was putting my thing down and not your thing, so I had to fix that also. I’m glad they caught that.
The right call on all this stuff? I dunno. I should say, though, that the editors agreed with me and didn’t want to print it until we were all okay with it. And I know this didn’t happen, but part of me imagines Mr. Remnick and the other senior editors over there having to listen to Gin and Juice and that was reason enough to do this.