Open menu Open menu hover pink Close menu Close menu hover pink
O Magazine

Behind the cover. 

An interview with Françoise Mouly

Portrait by Sarah Shatz

By Xavi Serra

“I’ve got the best job in the world,” Françoise Mouly acknowledges. And it is difficult to contradict her: for more than twenty years she has been the art director of The New Yorker, a magazine that is not only a global reference in graphic illustration, but also an institution of good taste. But Mouly got to The New Yorker to blow it all up. Tina Brown, a new editor willing to break free from the conservative line of the publication after thirty-five years with the same editor (William Shawn), prepared the terrain for Mouly by publishing on the 1993 Valentine’s Day issue an Art Spiegelman cover showing an orthodox Jew and a black woman kissing. It was a big time scandal and many subscribers cancelled their subscriptions, but its impact opened the way for The New Yorker to use its cover as an event in itself and as an object with a political discourse probably much more powerful and relevant than an any editorial.

Mouly, who for ten years had been designing and co-editing with Spiegelman underground comic magazine RAW, became soon after The New Yorker‘s art director. In her times, she has seen two planes crashing against the World Trade Center, a black man entering the White House and the publishing business having to re-invent itself in the Internet age. And still, she has managed to maintain The New Yorker‘s status as the mecca of illustration in which any artist would want to be published and to open the magazine to new alternative comic sensitivities (Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Ivan Brunetti, Adrian Tomine, etc). With her, the covers of The New Yorker have gone from bait to big game: they are shared in social networks, compiled in anthologies and sold as posters to decorate walls. And even more: they generate opinion and debate.

After studying architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, Mouly fell in love with illustration and graphics thanks to her husband, Art Spiegelman himself. With RAW, both changed the course of the North-American comic world by discovering new artists, introducing new European trends and defending the graphic avant-garde. As The New Yorker‘s art director, Mouly is at the top of the pyramid of aesthetic sophistication: she’s to the world of illustration what Anna Wintour to the fashion world, but a lot nicer. She proposes an interview based on a bunch of covers to choose among those published by the magazine and its book of rejected ones, the very appealing Blown Covers. And once we are at it, she allows for the fifteen minutes allotted to go on a bit beyond what’s reasonable, interrupting the interview a couple of times to take a call from her husband and to answer a question from her assistant. What entails is a piece of the history of The New Yorker, told in the first person by one of the people in charge of it.

Behind the cover. An interview with Françoise Mouly – O Production Company

Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly,
24th September 2001

There have been many difficult covers in all these years, but this one definitely takes the cake. The truth is that the author isn’t Art, but myself, but I drew it using an idea of his. At the time I didn’t want to take any credit for it, but now, in retrospect, I think I should have. In any case, there was no time to make any decisions. When the first plane crashed into the tower, I run to the centre to pick up my daughter from school, which was very close to the World Trade Center. It took me a long time to get there, I didn’t have a clue about what was going on and I didn’t care, I only wanted to be with my daughter. When I finally got to her, the second tower collapsed in front of my eyes. I’ve lived in the centre of Manhattan for a long time and many of my friends work there, so at the moment I thought my world was crashing down.

As soon as we got home I saw that I had twenty-six calls. Obviously, one was from my assistant asking me to go straight to The New Yorker office to prepare the next issue cover. The idea of having to act as a professional right at that moment made me feel a visceral rejection: what I needed was to stay home with my kids. Going to the office seemed ridiculous under the circumstances, especially with the national guards controlling the traffic in the city. In any case, Art went to the studio to try and come up with some ideas. And talking about all this with a friend, she suggested I didn’t do anything, that it was better to have no cover at all. A black cover seemed a good idea at the time, particularly when I got to the newsroom and saw some of the sketches artists had sent to me: none seemed appropriate, not even Art’s. Somehow, they were unable to capture the immensity of what had just happened. But when I told Art we wouldn’t be using his ideas and that I preferred a black cover, he proposed to add the outline of the towers, black on black. And as soon as I started working on the idea and I sketched it, I felt that chill coming down my spine that I feel when I see a great cover. I told myself: “Oh, my God. This is it. The image cancelling any other images and capturing the horror.”

To me it was very important to find an honest solution, especially after having been on the verge of rejecting the job, overwhelmed by my feeling before what was happening. With this cover we went from feeling we were unable to represent what had happened to recovering the faith on the power of images. And I loved the fact that many people bought the magazine thinking that the cover was simply black but after a couple of days they discovered, almost by chance, the ghost of the towers. That’s the kind of thing we sometimes manage at The New Yorker, something as subtle that it’s almost invisible, that requires the attention of the reader to be appreciated. By the way, I had to work very hard on this cover to make sure that the image would look the way I wanted. In fact, I have to do this all the time: even though we work with great printers and our print run is more than one million copies, I follow the printing process very closely. But here the situation was particularly delicate: it isn’t easy for a printer to respect these black tonalities, so after explaining in detail how the image needed to be, my production man went to our printer’s premises in Kentucky to guarantee the correct colour separation. This is something that simply can’t be explained by e-mail.

Behind the cover. An interview with Françoise Mouly – O Production Company

Missed Connections, Adrian Tomine, 8th November 2004

This cover is a good example of how sometimes my work consists in establishing a dialogue with the artist. Adrien Tomine is a narrative cartoonist: he has spectacular drawing abilities, but his biggest talent is telling stories with a single image and he does that thanks to his incredible attention to detail. This was the first cover he did for The New Yorker, so before anything I asked him to send me ideas and sketches. We also talked about the concept of the illustration and decided that the subway would be OK as a meeting place. He suggested drawing two people inside a train noticing they both had something in common: they’re reading the same book. I thought it was a good idea, but I added that it would be even better if they were in different carriages. Some of the best covers are good because they suggest a before and an after. They’re like an instant frozen in time that contains what happened and what could happen. And the key is capturing just the point of inflection in which a story is about to collapse.

At the Village Voice, for years they had an ad section of the kind, “You were a redhead in a blue T-shirt and our eyes crossed at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 8th Street. What’s your name? You’re the love of my life.” Tomine’s image manages to introduce himself in one of those stories through little details like that the character’s faces are the only ones we see; those of the rest of the passengers are hidden or covered. The use Tomine makes of colour is also important. On the second issue of RAW that we published, the first in colour, I had to colour in an image by Joost Swarte, who introduced European colour in American comic books, and I had also worked colouring for Marvel, so I’m very conscious of colour’s narrative qualities. And Tomine has a European palette that makes him different from most North-American authors, something that we can appreciate here not only in his use of black, but also in the orange of the seats and in the browns. Another key element is that the protagonists are placed in a perpendicular position one from the other; if they were in front of each other they would transmit a very different feeling. It all turns the image into a kind of haiku that sums up the condensation of great cities in which millions of people live isolated and at the same time connected.

Behind the cover. An interview with Françoise Mouly – O Production Company

Harry Bliss, 2011, unpublished

Bin Laden was executed on a Sunday, and I remember on that same day I wanted to get a first-hand impression of what that death meant. So I went down to Ground Zero at nighttime with my daughter and a friend of hers who studied at the same college. There was a huge crowd, some too young to have lived the tragedy in the first person. They were drinking cans of beer and celebrating the news before the cameras as if they’d won a football match. “USA, USA!” they screamed. But far from the crowd, in some dark corners of the park, there were couples holding hands and candles, with an expression of pain and sadness, remembering their dead; because death is death. And at the moment I thought that the important thing was to be in touch with the people who died, without feeding the voracity of the media with cheering and celebration.

I received proposals from many artists for that cover. In fact, there are several of them included in Blown Covers, but I liked Harry’s in particular. As everybody knows, the Special Forces threw Bin Laden’s body to the sea so he couldn’t be buried and his tomb wouldn’t become a pilgrimage place. Harry’s illustration captured the ambivalence of wanting to catch a piece and at the same time trying to make it disappear. In the end we published another image on the cover that was also very good, a half-erased drawing of Bin Laden. It’s a portrait that I love because at the same time it shows him and hides him, something that many good covers have in common: they’re both implicit and explicit. The decision that David Remnick [current editor of The New Yorker] made was to use the clearest cover: a blurred Bin Laden face is less confusing than a little trace of blood on the sea. But this example sums up one of the “problems” of my job: sometimes I have more than one perfect image for a single cover. That’s why I compiled all those rejected covers in Blown Covers, to show that artists’ work isn’t limited to the images that appeared published. Each week we receive lots of valid and stimulating ideas, and if it weren’t for all that invisible work we wouldn’t reach such a high quality final result.

Behind the cover. An interview with Françoise Mouly – O Production Company

Robert Crumb, 2009, unpublished

Robert Crumb sent this image of a couple in front of a marriage license vending machine for a special article we were preparing. Obviously, everyone at the magazine was very happy with the idea of having a cover illustrated by him, me in particular, because he’s a good friend. So it was very difficult to make the decision of not publishing it. And not because he’s a worldly renowned comic legend: rejecting a Robert Crumb cover is hard, but not harder than rejecting an unknown artist’s cover. I’d say I’ve got the best job in the world, but its most bitter side, by far, is having to constantly say no to people with such great talent. And the only way of dealing with this is being as kind, considerate and polite as possible when having to reject an idea.

With Robert, the problem was that we commissioned something to do with marriage, a topic that would fit in a June cover, a month in which many people get married, but when the cover arrived, despite my impression of it being very witty and funny, my editor thought that the looks of the transsexual and the lesbian were very dated, more to do with the sixties and with a pre-Almodóvar world. It didn’t fit in with the way in which gays present themselves today, when their struggle has to do above all with creating a family, having kids, etc.

I have to say that I didn’t manage the situation very well and I made a mistake: instead of acknowledging that David was right, I kept on defending the cover and postponing the decision for months, while Robert became nervous and kept on calling to ask what was happening with his cover. In the end, I remember screaming at David: “But it’s Robert Crumb!,” and he answered that despite admiring Crumb’s work very much, at The New Yorker we shouldn’t use a signature to explain or justify an image, and I had to acknowledge he was right. Many readers wouldn’t be familiar with Robert Crumb and his style, which is deeply rooted in aesthetics from another time. Robert isn’t an observer of the eighties, the nineties or the present. He lives in the past. In fact, he lives in the thirties from last century. In any case, I shouldn’t have postponed the decision so much. Should the image had been signed by, I don’t know, Chester Brown, we probably wouldn’t have discussed it so much. If The New Yorker can reject a short story because it’s not up to standards, even if John Updike writes it, the same should be applied to a cover drawn by Crumb.

Robert, of course, thinks his work was rejected because it was too avant-garde and provocative for The New Yorker and thinks we’re old-fashioned and conservative. And he has a right to think that. But, honestly, if anyone made a mistake there it wasn’t David, but me. And the only thing Robert did wrong was sending me a finished drawing instead of a sketch, as the rest of artists usually do. Having said all this, I think rejection gave Robert much more satisfaction than if we had published his cover, because now he can see himself as a kind of James Dean of comic, too cool for The New Yorker.

Behind the cover. An interview with Françoise Mouly – O Production Company

Chris Ware, 3rd October 2005

I remember my husband saying that he loved this cover because it was a photograph of a photograph. It’s a kind of recurring topic in the covers that Chris Ware has created for The New Yorker. Cartoonists are particularly good at these kinds of reflections: we live in a world full of images and symbols that have an effect on us, and they have the necessary vocabulary to understand and explain how they affect us. This cover encapsulated the moment in which we started using our cell phones to photograph the places we’re at rather than actually being at those places. Because it isn’t the same to take photographs with a camera we carry sometimes than with a cell we always have with us. At the time it might have been seen as just an anecdotic and funny image, but it has ended up being deeply revealing of how we substitute real experiences for something we see on a screen.

Today, by the way, many magazines reach their readers through the screen only, but this isn’t the case of The New Yorker. Most of our 1.1 million readers are subscribers of the printed version of the magazine and get it sent by post to their homes, where they usually see the cover for the first time. For them, the cover isn’t a bait to buy the magazine in the newsstand, but it’s still a key to link it with the time it was published. The cover showing the Olympic games reminds the reader that the games took place two weeks ago and are now finished. Since its conception, The New Yorker tries to offer a point of view about the present, and covers aren’t alien to this.

Behind the cover. An interview with Françoise Mouly – O Production Company

Commencement, R. Kikuo Johnson, 30th May 2016

R. Kikuo Johnson started drawing covers for The New Yorker not too long ago. I am very proud of discovering new artists, and, at the same time, of working with others that have been with us for more than thirty years. This cover observes with great irony that iconic moment in graduations in which caps are thrown in the air. It’s a variation of a very familiar topic for the American reader that can appear in a May or June cover. We go back to what we were saying before about images that have past moments implicit, since the caps hanging from the trees place us after the graduation has finished. Kikuo sent me a sketch of this interesting idea, but it was a bit too carried away by a bittersweet and nostalgic longing for the “good old times.” So we talked about how to give it context and he had the brilliant idea of having the janitor wear the same T-shirt than the graduates, but from the year before. Like in Missed Connections, the characters’ gaze has been very carefully thought of and planned. The only face we see is looking at the janitor, precisely, with whom we can probably identify because we can’t see his face and thus could be anyone. As you can imagine, Kikuo belongs to the same narrative school of cartoonists than Adrian Tomine: you have to look at the image for a while and enter it to build a story. This has been one of our recent covers that have achieved the most success and comments, some from people who saw themselves reflected on the scene and accused us of mocking them, though. But I don’t think the cover is mocking anyone, quite on the contrary, it leaves the interpretation open to the reader. Our artists don’t usually draw didactic statements, but are limited to offering a mirror in which we can observe reality with fresh eyes.