Visual Arts

To New Yorker with Love (Françoise Mouly and the politics of cover art)

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We had cartoon royalty in Melbourne last month. No, not like this:

That’s by the great Charles Barsotti, regularly seen in the New Yorker. (Caption: “You’re the reason I have the moat, Mother.”)
The cartoon royalty was out of New York: Art Spiegelman of the legendary Maus, (blogged previously), and Françoise Mouly, art editor of the New Yorker (as we learned, not coincidentally married to Spiegelman). Her proper title is Queen of Concepts, Goddess of Cartoonists and Chef de Couverture.
The second bit “Goddess of Cartoonists” is such a big story, I can’t begin to do it justice here — it’d would require a whole other post. But see this brilliant comic strip report by Bob Thompson and Jonathan Bennett that hints at how much Mouly helped to transform the cartoon landscape into a new wave of graphic novels. (Three other links there trace the medium’s evolution.) Her new enterprise is Toon Books, bringing cartoons back to kids, with an educational aspect. And Blown Covers, her book of New Yorker covers that got away (see the blog) — the quality of the discards tell you everything about the standards being set. As the saying goes: I don’t know how she does it.

You can see a picture of Ms Mouly in her New Yorker office here.

New Idea v New Yorker: 1 million+ copies a week

The last bit, Chef de Couverture, Mistress of Covers, refers to her role at the New Yorker: Mouly is in charge of the cover of a magazine with over a million weekly sales; it has more or less doubled since she became art director in 1993. It was partly on this topic that she gave a satisfyingly information-packed presentation at the Wheeler Centre.  I don’t believe we can really understand the relentless pressure of the job.
A good friend of mine used to work on New Idea back in the nineties when it peaked at astonishing weekly sales way over a million copies — this in a country of 20 million people. It was a frenetically demanding job that tipped into nights and weekends — the maximum mishmash of gossip and celebrity ack that could fill the cover — subject to late breaking “news” — a job that required nerves and a certain bloody-mindedness.

The New Yorker, of course, famously embodies stylish, witty art — brains and beauty. But to maintain that standard in a cover 47 times a year must be mind-bending. Mouly explained how it works — it’s tricky; here is my version: she keeps in constant touch with a network of, oh, let’s say a hundred+ cartoonists and illustrators, and she keeps in mind what might be coming up and what kind of political or national news atmosphere there might be. Her zeitgeist antennae needs to be comprehensively sensitive.
She might ask nicely of a dozen artists to provide an idea for an upcoming or future cover. So, it’s hard to say exactly how she pulls it off — but perhaps it’s like part conducting an orchestra, part running a baseball team, part curating a gallery. You can guess how much Darwinian effort from all over goes into the printed cover each week.

Brains, then Beauty

One thing she made clear was that ideas are paramount — So many can draw beautifully but not everyone has a point of view — a Mother’s Day cover in 2013 becomes something else when it’s the great Chris Ware doing it — an illustration of a two mother family. Or last year’sMother’s Day cover which showed a mother pushing a pram entering a playground full of fathers looking after the kids, also by Ware (his latest opus, Building Stories). What both do is to show us the changing times inflecting a perenial event. Beauty is good, but Idea is great.
One of the things Mouly told us was that even as she was in Melbourne she had been frantically working — starting up dialogues — with a host of artists to produce the next cover: on the momentuous (and moment by moment) breaking news of the US government shutdown and the impending October 17 default — a sort of Y2K financial crash of the US and world economies. She was up late dealing with opposite time zones, and looking for a cover that wouldn’t be dated by the time it printed; in fact, she was working just before, and right after her presentation that night.

Political Art

And as I learnt later when I quizzed her more closely, this cover is an example of one fraught with political shades. The shades that appear on the final cover, below, take the form of  a “Haunted House,” as the cover is titled. But the shades I mean include the nuance that the cover could not, should not, show equivalence between the parties — as much mainstream political reporting tends to do — a kind of misguided balancing which has, for eg, so rotted the coverage of environmental affairs, giving undeserved space to climate denialists. In this case it is clearly the Republican party who is at fault of causing a default, led on by spineless leaders and shoved over the cliff by crazies (their Sweeney Ted — see the New Yorker post, “Ted Cruz and the Politics of Hara-kiri“).
(To track this wild ride of American extremism, check Andrew Sullivan’s Dish — their coverage here.)
So, here is the New Yorker cover for Oct. 21, “Haunted House” — see remarks by the artist Mark Ulriksen(followed by my attempt). The exact point is that Congress’ popularity rating is at rock bottom, with no uptick in sight.

And here is my version, taken from a scribble. (Mouly said she didn’t like to see too much finish in concept roughs as she wanted to be able to finesse the final result with the artist. I append a snap of my sketch.) The idea is a spin on the venerable theme of animals — GOP elephant sits on national bald eagle; an image that only becomes truer as the shutdown goes on and default looms. (The right has surrended now, but the GOP flattened bird will retain its economic squashedness for an unhappy while.) Mouly says she doesn’t want artists to title their ideas at this stage as the image has to work on its own. But if it had a title it might be “Until Debt Us Do Part.”

Proof of lo-tech:

Thanks Françoise.  It was a treat and a master class to watch the generous presentation. And may your covers keep blowing us away.

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