Review: ‘Sex and Sensibility’ edited by Liza Donelly
What do women want? Sigmund Freud thought he knew, but we all know about him. After a few decades of feminism, it’s become clearer that the best way to find out what women want is… to ask them.
Sex and Sensibility
Edited By Liza Donelly
Hachette/Twelve, April 2008, $22.99
Donelly is a noted single-panel cartoonist and the author of Funny Ladies, a history of female cartoonists for The New Yorker. (She also teaches at my alma mater, Vassar College, which instantly inclines me to consider her a world-class expert on whatever she wants to be – we Vassarites have to stick together.)
Donelly collected nine of her colleagues – mostly single-panel magazine cartoonists, with a couple of editorial cartoonists for spice – and asked them to contribute cartoons on women, men, sex, relationships – that whole area. Two hundred cartoons later, [[[Sex and Sensibility]]] emerged. It’s divided into several thematic sections — Sex, Sensibility, Women, Lunacy, and Modern Love — and each cartoonist provided an essay about herself and her work, which are sprinkled throughout.
Donnelly’s introductions to each section tend towards the puffy — they fill up space, and say uncontroversial things, but really don’t do much more than say “and in this section, the cartoons are about X.” Since nobody buys or reads a book of cartoons for the introductions, that’s just fine.
Donnelly has organized the cartoons well, putting pieces that play off each other on facing pages and letting each cartoonist’s work clump where it fits best — for example, Roz Chast only has a couple of cartoons in the first section (on sex), as you would expect, but has a lot in the later sections of the book. The cartoonists have different strengths and characteristic tones, which helps give Sex and Sensibility more of a range than it might seem at first — it is a book of cartoons about relationships by women, but that still leaves plenty of scope.
Roz Chast is probably the most famous cartoonist in the book — she’s been a New Yorker mainstay for about thirty years — and the one who’s least likely to draw a cartoon of people actually having sex. (Or of people that you’d be willing to imagine ever having sex.) She’s got a highly individual cartoony style, with lots of nearly parallel lines to define outlines and grey washes everywhere. One of her few cartoons in the front of this book has a anxious-looking, no-longer-young woman sitting on her couch and reading a book called [[[Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid Someone Would Tell You]]], and that pretty much sums up her cartoons’ approach to sex: to stay as far away as they possibly can.
Victoria Roberts is an interesting contrast to Chast, since she also draws mostly dumpy-looking people in their middle-years — her usual male character is balding on top of that — but they’re gleefully throwing themselves into sex, dating, or whatever. (The first cartoon in the book is from Roberts, with her usual couple in the standard New Yorker living room as the woman says “I need a hug, but straight sex will do.” It’s the word “straight” that really makes that one work.)
I think Carolita Johnson has the most cartoons of couples in bed or otherwise having sex — and her precise black outlines work well for naked people — but they’re more conflicted about what they’re doing. (“I do have a fantasy about horse-whipping you,” one woman in her slip says to a man, “but it’s not a sex fantasy.”)
Marisa Acocella Marchetto has a very downtown sensibility; many of her cartoons are of two women talking about their men problems. (She’s also the one who most naturally turns to jokes about shoes.) She’s also got a great cartoon in here of a woman sprawled out on the couch, pants open and eyes closed, while two men clean up and say “Now, who wanted to marry a woman he could watch sports with?”
Liza Donnelly also has lots of the standard New Yorker living room and party conversation cartoons, and relatively few in more intimate settings. Her art style looks very quick and sketchy, with objects often only defined on one side and a few lines serving to define a space. Her women are also very much of the old New Yorker school, intellectualized to within an inch of their lives — there’s one who looks at her man across a kitchen table and says “I’ll objectify you if you’ll objectify me.”
Barbara Smaller has the most distinctive style in the book — a scrawly mass of tiny lines that almost looks like it was done by a ballpoint on scraps of paper, with an amazing amount of life and energy to it. She’s on the demure side of the book, usually, with lots of dating scenes — when her people are in bed, they’re generally buried under immense mounds of covers until you can barely tell there are people there at all. Her cartoons are also often a step removed from the actual moment — more talking about things before or afterward than actually doing. (“I want you to make me look single,” says one woman in a cosmetic surgeon’s office.)
Julia Suits is the other cartoonist most likely to drawn naked people (along with Johnson) in Sex and Sensibility, which can be weird, since she draws her characters with tiny little heads mostly hidden under a shock of hair and behind a huge protruding nose. (They also wear glasses a lot of the time.) So just being naked doesn’t mean that they’re attractive. Her cartoons are about sex more blatantly than most of the other cartoonists, as when a man with a huge bulge in his underwear and a woman with equally large breasts say to each other “Okay. I guess we can die now.”
Ann Telnaes is one of the two editorial cartoonists in the book, so her cartoons tend to have people dressed and talking about political/social issues — she only has a couple of people with labels on them, though. Her work tends to fall onto the “sex is problematic” side of the book, with more cartoons about pregnancy and gender politics than the others. (She also seems to have the fewest cartoons in the book, but I haven’t actually counted.) She uses incredibly crisp lines and a great eye for caricature — she poses her people so well that I wish she had done more, and had gotten deeper into the interpersonal side of the book.
Signe Wilkinson is the other editorial cartoonist in Sex and Sensibility, and the one with the name most likely to be mistaken for male. Her work also tends to the political rather than the personal; both she and Telnaes contribute pieces that look like daily editorial cartoons, even if they were original to the book.
And the last cartoonist in the book is Kim Warp, who has a very spiky art style — even her eyes seem to be pointed, ready to jab into people — and a sarcastic tone that I quite like. (In one cartoon, a male singer tells his audience “And this song goes out there to any girl who might consider sleeping with me.”)
Sex and Sensibility
isn’t particularly titillating — it wasn’t mean to be — but it is very funny. I don’t know how many people out there like magazine cartoons as much as I do, but, if you’re one of them, you’ll want this book.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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