Playboy: 50 Years -- The Cartoons

Published by Chronicle Books

368 pages, 2004


Buy it online



Pretty, But Dumb

Reviewed by David Middleton


I started looking at Playboy when I was about 14. It wasn't until I was about 17 that I started to actually read it. That was when I discovered that craftily hidden in between the pictures of naked women and the liquor ads there was some actual literary content. One thing I always noticed, though, were the cartoons. And they were not just New Yorker-style wit nestled among columns of text, but full page color art. Everything from the Vargas Girl to panel comics such as Little Annie Fanny (which, by the way, is conspicuously absent from this book), filling a full page and suitable for framing -- not that I ever did desecrate the magazine so.

So when Playboy: 50 Years -- The Cartoons landed on my desk my first thought was that it was a long time coming. My second thought was: Could you actually take the culmination of 50 years of humor and cull it down into its quintessence in one large book? The answer would be a resounding No! But the book doesn't fail because of that. In fact, with over 600 issues -- by my estimate -- of Playboy to reference no one could possibly hope to include all the cartoons ever created for the publication. This is a well produced book and the reproductions are as good if not better than those of the original publication, yet the book feels empty despite the fact that every page is filled with a cartoon.

Apart from a brief and not so illuminating introduction by Hugh Hefner, Playboy: 50 Years -- The Cartoons is completely devoid of text. This relegates the book to cartoon filing cabinet and the images, brilliant as they are, to mere remembrances: visual nostalgia. I clearly remember a lot of the Rowland B. Wilson cartoons, continue to laugh at Gahan Wilson's twisted humor and still marvel at Doug Sneyd's technical expertise. Yet looking over 50 years of work gives me little in the way of information: about the artist or the time period in which the cartoons were made or published.

The book and the reader might have been better served had the editors broken it up into some sort of order. The work of certain cartoonists could have been highlighted; a section on political humor; or even separate sections for each decade. Any of these things would have given the book more structure. With different sections could also come comments, historical interest about an artist, if the magazine got into any kind of trouble or feedback about a certain piece of art; the thoughts of the artists or a comment on the style. Anything that would help the reader become more emotionally attached to the book.

Creating an emotional attachment to a book is one of the key elements to liking it. This is especially true of art books. Once you get past the pretty pictures there has to be something more substantial to hold the interest of the reader. In the case of Playboy: 50 Years -- The Cartoons emotional attachment is held to a minimum in favor of page after page of fabulously colorful, racy cartoons full of buxom babes and the louts who are attempting to win their favor. But after all the lovin', there has to be something to cuddle up to.

When Playboy the publication originally printed these cartoons it was with the intent on providing a humorous visual break for the reader or perhaps a not so demanding comment on the social and sexual climate of the time. With page after page of nothing but cartoons, I became overwhelmed and a bit bored. My mind began to wander and wonder when I had seen that particular cartoon. And though the themes -- mostly about sex, of course -- are timeless, it would be advantageous to put a date on the cartoon to compare either how much or how little has changed over the course of five decades.

As a coffee table book for the Playboy aficionado Playboy: 50 Years -- The Cartoons, does an admirable job, but as a historical reference it does the reader, the artists and Playboy magazine a disservice. | July 2004


David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and he actually started reading Playboy when he was 12, but don't tell his mom.