For artists and illustrators, the cover of The New Yorker is the most treasured piece of real estate in American magazine publishing. New Yorker covers have inspired laughter, sorrow (as with the famous "black on black" cover following 9/11), and once in a while, furious public debate (as with the "terrorist Obamas" cover shown at left). This week Big Think talks to Françoise Mouly, the magazine's art editor and the woman responsible for choosing these iconic images.

How does each cover get picked? And what happens when a cover explodes into the national news? Defending her editorial decisions with humor and flair, Mouly asserts that a provocative cover can have a cathartic effect, "lancing the boils" of unspoken truth that plague the body politic.

A revered artist, designer, and publisher in her own right, Mouly also recounts the genesis of RAW Magazine, the alternative comics magazine she founded with her husband, graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, in 1980. Thirty years later, the pair haven't stopped pushing the boundaries of publishing and art: though they're as responsible as anyone for turning comics into a "serious" adult medium, they also believe the medium must get back in touch with its roots—and have launched a children's comic book imprint, TOON Books, to prove it.

(Image by Barry Blitt. Copyright © Condé Nast Publications.)