Big Think Interview With Francoise Mouly

A conversation with the art editor of The New Yorker.
  • Transcript


Francoise Mouly: My name is Francoise Mouly and I am the art editor of The New Yorker as well as the editorial director of Toon Books. 

Question: How was the comics scene in the ‘70s different from the scene today?

Francoise Mouly: In 1980 when I started RAW Magazine it was the opposite of the way the world is today. Comics were seen as this lowbrow entertainment with no respectability whatsoever. They would pervert the mind of children or adults, and they certainly were not acknowledged as a medium for serious art or literature discussion, so I created a magazine with my husband Art Spiegelman, who was a cartoonist that was intending to change the perception for comics. Art came from **** in San Francisco of underground comics where Robert Crumb was leader of that field and a lot of the work was trying to break taboos about sex and drugs and different lifestyles. That’s not what RAW Magazine was trying to do. A lot of the underground comics were sold **** who are head shops together with hash pipes and all the other paraphernalia. With RAW Magazine we were doing something that I distributed in bookstores, legitimate bookstores for the most part and what we wanted… We chose a large size, well-printed magazine so that it would give a kind of frame of appreciation closer to that given to art and literature.

When I first got interested in comics at the time I was studying architecture and I discovered comics as a medium through listening to Art who was courting me by reading me Little Nemo and Krazy Kat by George Herriman. It was really very effective. It’s wonderful, but when we would go into a comic shop I really felt like it was a Times Square at the time. It was like a porno shop. It just reeked of like testosterone and adolescent male. A sensibility dominated by super hero comics with big busted woman being tied to like a ship’s mast, or whatever it was. I remember being in a comic shop with my son, with my ten year-old son and he put his hand over my eyes. He was embarrassed about me seeing the comics at Forbidden Planet. He didn’t know, poor kid, that I had been in many Forbidden Planets in my life.

Question: Do critics still misunderstand or misrepresent comics?

Francoise Mouly: Nowadays we are actually about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of RAW Magazine and it’s a world upside down. Comics are actually dubbed by euphemistic label of graphic novel, which became a big deal. When we published RAW we included chapters of Maus because there was no other way. Art was working on it at the time. It took 13 years for him to do the book and there was no way to publish this with a mainstream publisher, so we did it in our magazine. Eventually it came out as a book from Pantheon. There was no expectation of it ever reaching a mainstream audience and it exploded into an extraordinary like reception, Pulitzer Prize, museum shows, **** 1991. I mean all those things were unprecedented and they opened the field for a lot more serious comics. Many of the people that we had published in RAW, such as Chris Ware or Charles Burns or Sue Coe, became artists recognized on their own found publishers, and the reason it’s a world upside down now is that at the time we were saying comics are not just for kids anymore, and now in 2010 we’re seeing comics or graphic novels accepted in museums and in bookstores, but not widely available for children, so I now feel that I have a moral duty to course correct and say wait a minute, it’s not just for adults.

Question: What can comic books do for young children that traditional picture books can’t?

Francoise Mouly: The reason I started to do comics for kids, the real reason is because it worked for me. When my children were young there is a point where they were in first grade and they were told by April you have to know how to read and it worked for my daughter, but with my son, I mean same environment, very bright kid. We had always read to him. Loved being read to, but the light bulb that goes on that makes him a fluent reader it just took much longer and since my husband was reading American literature… I always spoke French to my kids, so I was reading in French. We needed something that would sustain his interest and lo and behold it turns out that the culture I come from, French comics, has marvelous offerings for young kids, not just Tintin and Asterix, but Boule et Bill, just hundreds of really great kid’s comics, so every night it was a pleasure and the reason why a kid who loves being read to will pay attention to the comics better than he would to an illustrated text is that there is something for him or her to follow on the page. There is a visual flow. There is a visual narrative that is implicitly understandable even when you don’t understand the words and in a good comic, and they are hard to find, but good comics have parallel intertwined narratives. It’s not just picture, repetition in the words. There is a lot of information that is communicated visually and it’s a perfect point of entry. What we’ve been saying is that comics are a gateway into literature.

Question: What graphic novels would you recommend to someone new to the form?

Francoise Mouly: It’s a great time to discover comics, graphic novels, because there’s so many really good books. Joe Sacco’s book just got published. It got published at the end of the year, so it hasn’t quite gotten the full recognition that it deserves. Last year "Asterios Polyp" by David Mazzucchelli, who we published in RAW many years ago, but also spent like 10 or 15 years working on that book and now has it out and that’s terrific. Bob Sikoryak or R. Sikoryak who used to be one of our assistant editors at RAW Magazine just published "Masterpiece Comics," also I think from Drawn & Quarterly. That’s a beautiful book. In a month or two Drawn & Quarterly will release a new book by Dan Clowes that’s fantastic. Art published a re-edition of "Breakdowns" with some new material that’s really interesting I think, totally objectively even though I’m married to the man, but it’s both the experimental strips that he did in the ‘70s and strips that he just did that actually looks back on both growing up and little anecdotes about his childhood and the kind of thinking that was breakthrough thinking then, was the… what unlocked the possibilities for Maus and now being recombined for narrative. Those moments are very exciting because Maus was a memoir and it was black and white, completely different from anything that had existed since then. It gave way to books such as Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian young woman who came to Vienna and then to France and did a memoir about growing up in Iran and that got turned into a movie. All of those books are books that have taken a long time to mature. I think Joe Sacco spent like five years only on his Gaza, "Footnotes in Gaza" book, so now they are coming out one at a time and they each deserve a lot of… They’re great. For somebody who is coming into comics now those volumes are so rich in visual ideas, in storytelling and they’re very mature works.

Question: What does your job as the New Yorker’s art editor entail?

Francoise Mouly: I’m the art editor, so I have taken over… I’m I think the fourth art editor in 85 years of the magazine’s history. The first art editor was Rea Irvin and we will soon celebrate the 85th anniversary of The New Yorker and when the magazine was created it was part of the reason why it was good and so exciting is that it was meant as a humor magazine where the artist we’re an integral part of the magazine, so that they were… the drawings were not just like those throw pillows to decorate the big gray sea of type, but a lot of the immediacy and cattiness and the Algonquin Round Table feeling of the magazine came from the artist and the cartoons. That’s my job is to actually work with the artists that are full-fledged contributors, so I’m also not caring of the photographers or the illustrators, the ones that are actually like illustrating somebody else’s text piece, but I work with Bruce McCall or with Dan Clowes or with Art Spiegelman or with Robert Crumb when we publish strips inside and another place where it’s totally just like it was in 1925 for the entire 85 year history is a cover of the magazine that retains that spirit, so it’s done by an artist. It’s not an illustration of something that is inside. It’s autonomous and the story is given by the artist and that’s different from any other monthly or weekly publication that is left in this media age. If you’re talking about the cover of Newsweek it will be often a photo, most often a photo, but an illustration of whatever is editorial group will have decided should be the cover story that week. At The New Yorker it’s not. It’s actually an artist who has sent in a sketch done very simply pen on paper and that’s his idea, so we have for this week’s cover a four-panel cartoon by Barry Blitt of a figure walking on water and then by this panel we see that it’s Barack Obama and by that panel our first year anniversary with him sinks through into the water. This isn’t the editorial comment. It’s not a cover story. It’s not necessarily linked to anything, but it’s the artist as lightening rod. He captures what is in the air. I think this talks our disappointment, our failed expectation. We thought that Barack Obama could walk on water, but it’s also signed by Barry Blitt, so even though it’s a New Yorker cover it has this privileged place of being an individual’s point of view and that gives it a lot of importance I think in the culture. This image by Barry Blitt of Barack Obama and Michelle in the White House with him dressed as a terrorist, her dressed as an Angela Davis character, a flag burning in the chimney, a portrait of Bin Laden on the wall is an image I’m extremely proud of. It’s been labeled by the New York Times as the most memorable image of the 2008 campaign and I think that’s true. I think that image actually crystallized what was going on in the summer. It came out in July of 2008, crystallized the forces that were at work. This is what Barack Obama was up against when he was running and this gives us a way to measure the depth of his victory when he got himself elected.

Question: Were you surprised by the furious public debate that followed the “terrorist Obamas” cover?

Francoise Mouly: Was I surprised? I was taken aback because everybody, and there were thousands and tens of thousands of people who took objection to this image, and what they all said to one person, they said, “I get it.” “I personally understand it, but I’m worried about my sister-in-law.” “I’m worried about my mother.” “I’m worried about people in Arkansas.” We wrote back and said, “We get it.” We were able to, like, follow through. They were all worried about somebody else not getting it, even though they all acknowledged like you know, “I’m sophisticated.” And this is a symptom I think like you know the school counselor will tell you that when you have a child coming in and saying like well I’d like to talk about you know my friend who is encountering this and that problem. It’s some way of trying to express their ambivalent feeling about… that they just do not know how to express, so I think of this image as I think being exactly the right thing at the right time. It became a catalyst. It lanced the boils. It was poison that was really making the body politic sick because there were innuendos about these Muslim, is not American. All of this stuff was there, but nobody dared to talk about it and that’s how the Fox News of this world and the Karl Roves of this world exploded the decency of people of not daring to talk about the ambivalence, and what it really meant to have a black man run for president, and by not talking it was a much worse sin that once this image happened onto the world it exploded all this. I felt of it as… I thought of it as some kind of again, lancing of a boil, a vaccination. You put a little bit of the poison, but in some controlled manner because it was a discussion and I contend that talking about something is always better than not talking about something.

Like a long time ago we published an image of a young woman getting married and she is getting all ready for her wedding day and lo and behold, she has a big belly and she is pregnant and then we got a letter from somebody, lady saying like, “Oh my God, I am so shocked by this image.” “I have a teenage daughter and I had to hide my copy of The New Yorker because I was afraid she would see it.” As if we were advocating that all pregnant women should be married. As if it was some kind of recruitment poster for having the baby first and getting married after, but I don’t respond and but if I could have, if I had the chance I would have gotten back this woman and I would have said, “Lady, if you are that concerned about your daughter getting pregnant and not being married then you should actually tape the cover of The New Yorker on the door of her bedroom and you should talk to her about it.” “Hiding the image is not going to accomplish… You should actually use it as a point of… as a departing point for discussion.”

Question: What changes are you making to the New Yorker?

Francoise Mouly: So it’s [the] 85th anniversary for a magazine started in 1925 by Rea Irvin. The first image was, Eustace Tilley was a mascot where this image had became a mascot of The New Yorker, and even when I came in, I’ve been there 16 years, there was a tradition of running that image every year for February for the anniversary issue and now we’ve started playing with that and this year it’s very exciting because I got four different artists. We have four different covers on the magazine. What is really exciting to me is that once again using the means of mass reproduction, this is just a regular piece of paper printed as the cover of the magazine. The depths of ideas and content and allusions to each other’s image, and we worked all together as a kind of like rolling ball consortium exchanging ideas where each image is individually understandable, but they also when you see all of them you can make the connection between them. That is one of the things that I find very exciting about print as opposed to moviemaking or animation or any of the other visual mediums is that the reader has the time to spend with any one image and find the layers and layers. You can actually… It doesn’t just flash at 24 frames a second. It just is held there however long you want to spend on it. So many of the images that I work on have different layers of reading, even the children’s books can have… can be seen at first glance. You read them once and then you get the story, the story juice out of it, but then most children actually when they really get into books reread them and they are phenomenally apt readers. They really know how to read a book over and over again and they get all of the embedded like things in the background because it’s a laborious art to draw by hand and to be a cartoonist. You spend so many hours at your drawing table. You can’t help putting a lot of yourself into the image and when it’s printed the reader can spend hours getting it out.

Recorded on January 26, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen