OK, 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 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 Co.Create. “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, in a visual reference to Snapchat.
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, exposed artists to new followings, and inspired new generations of young illustrators.
“I think it’s a stupid move,” says 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,” adds 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. “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, got rid of the revenue stream of fractional ads, and the home for cartoons. So it was a big, hard decision to make.”
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 and 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.”
He 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.”
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. 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.
“I’ve even been looking through some old issues from the ’60s and ’70s, which had full-page cartoons of say, 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 Magazine), 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.
“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 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.
“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.
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, he’s 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 critiquing what I was trying to do. It 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 readying a book on 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.”