Comics, like computers, began in America as the weird playthings of those on the nerdy end of the social spectrum. Today, they are a bastion for print publishing, holding fast against the ever-rising digital tide. Perhaps no one is more responsible for the ascendency of comics than Françoise Mouly, Art Editor of The New Yorker. Along with her husband, comic book luminary Art Spiegelman, author of best-selling “Maus,” Mouly brought comics from the fringe underground of basement bookstores to the haute-couture of The New Yorker covers and museum retrospectives.

Françoise Mouly: In Love with Art …and Comics

Penny W. Stamps Speaker Series

November 20, 2014
5:10 p.m.

The Michigan Theater

Thursday, Mouly will give a Penny Stamps lecture in which her love of print publishing and the comics medium will serve as focal points to encourage future generations to push boundaries and recognize opportunities to keep print publishing thriving.

Like many French kids, Mouly grew up with children’s comics, so when she moved to New York at age 19, she thought there would be no better way to learn English than through captioned illustrations. Yet there were no comics in the mainstream bookstores or on the newsstands. A friend introduced her to the underground cartoonist Art Speigelman, and she fell in love with the artist’s advocacy for his medium — and later with the artist himself. Through the 1980s, the two co-edited RAW magazine, an annual anthology of the year’s best and most progressive work in the comics genre.

“I wanted to make an object that showed all of the possibilities of how comics could function to tell stories, to illustrate articles, to show very different styles,” Mouly said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “That this wasn’t just science fiction or superheroes, but it could be literature; it could be art.

The desire there was again to demonstrate a museum quality gathering of comics and a bit in reaction to the underground comics that Art came from which thought of comics like this is lowbrow culture to be read on the toilet. But I’d seen work, including that of my husband, that I thought was worthy of not being trash and being kept and being read again and again and had a lot of qualities that made it on par with art and literature. So that was the impulse at the time … to present things the way I saw that.”

RAW was quite a DIY operation: Mouly was its publisher, designer, production manager and printer, using her own printing press located in their Soho loft. Mouly and Spiegelman chose the comic strips together, resulting in editorial diversity.

“We had a common vision and we wanted to bring very different artists,” Mouly said. “I was probably more the advocate for the conceptual work — I did most of the illustrated text pieces. I wrote a couple and I did layouts for those; I wanted graphics that weren’t pure comics in the magazine. We both were of a common accord that we wanted a range of artists … we put our tastes together and that’s a good way to do it.”

“Half the people or more were our friends,” Mouly added. “You know we had met them, we had spent time with them, we shared many evenings talking about how great comics could be, so it was a gathering of a lot of different ideas and different people that were in different countries, and it was very exciting because everybody we published we loved.”

The same is true of Mouly’s work as the Art Editor of the New Yorker.

“All of the artists that I publish, I pretty much brought to (The New Yorker) — such as Robert (Crumb) and Chris Ware and Charles Burns and Adrian Tomine and Peter de Sève. There’s pretty much no artist that’s being published that isn’t somebody I brought either from my old connections or (from) discovering their work as I went along, because I’ve been doing this for a while now.”

Mouly sees The New Yorker as a publication that values not only the aesthetic merit of comics and cartoons, but also the medium’s power to make a statement, political or otherwise.

“The New Yorker has of course a long tradition of cartoons and of artists being integrated as part of the contributors,” Mouly said. “One thing that is terrific with The New Yorker, besides all of the other wonderful things that we do, is that we publish the work of artists as full-fledged contributors, not just to illustrate somebody else’s work, but the cover is a signed work by a cartoonist. And that seldom happens in this day and age: that cartoonists have their voice and their ideas.”

Mouly’s process of choosing a New Yorker cover takes the form of an ongoing conversation with the artist to come up with the right image at the right time. As a weekly general interest magazine, The New Yorker has a quick response time to current events, but isn’t expected to cover everything that happens. Mouly’s New Yorker cover can either stand on it’s own as a stylized illustration of seasonal/cultural themes or can serve as a timely commentary on a breaking issue of the day.

“I’m in a dialogue with the artists so what I try to do is to encourage them to use this cover of a magazine as a forum to address the concerns that they might have … I actually believe that those cartoonists and those graphic storytellers should be telling the story of our times,” Mouly said.

She famously edited the controversial cover in 2008 depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as closet militant revolutionaries in Arab garb fist-bumping their election to the White House — a caricature of those who really believe it. The controversy was that the targets of the caricature — and there was no shortage of them in our nation — didn’t get it, seeing instead a magazine cover that perfectly captured their views.

“The thing that’s great with New Yorker readers is that they’re all very sophisticated,” Mouly said. “We can publish images that are ironic, that are funny, that are provocative, and they don’t have captions and they don’t tell you what to think, but they presume that the reader is able to formulate his or her own opinion, and that’s a great privilege.”

In 2012, Mouly published a collection of the covers that didn’t make the magazine entitled “Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See.” The selectivity is the product of a high volume of sketch submissions, yet sometimes the message is not quite right for the magazine. The collection stands as a testament to Mouly by showcasing the breadth and depth of the art that her editorship generates, revealing Mouly’s taste for the provocative and her discerning eye among it.

Mouly is also the publisher and editorial director of TOON Books, a series of comics for kids. As a mother, Mouly recognized that hard copy comics can occupy a special place for children the way they did for her. Mouly views comics as a transformative keyhole for kids to see through to power of art and literature in their lives.

“It’s great medium for kids and it is how you map out a future for kids to love books and to love reading and to get into holding a story. It has some magical component because when you read a book by a cartoonist whether it be Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak or William Steig, you see the hand of the artist who actually made those marks and told that story,” Mouly said.

Mouly doesn’t ignore digital technology at The New Yorker. She edited a cover drawn on an iPad, by David Hockney, for the first iPad edition of the magazine and has edited animated covers for the online edition.

“(The first animated New Yorker Cover was a) poetic image by Christopher Neiman of rain falling, just rain drops seen through the window of a cab. So that was our first moving cover, it was moving everywhere except of course on the print issue … It was such a perfect New Yorker cover because it was very abstract, it was like a dozen raindrops basically. Nobody else could get away with being so conceptual and minimalist and so tongue-and cheek, but when you’re The New Yorker you can do that. Everybody else would have to be doing some kind of production number with some kind of like big deal moving parts, and we can do the simple thing.”

Comics, more so than typeset books, convey the physical act of creation. Maybe that’s the reason their fans tend to demand them in print rather than digital form. Mouly includes the genre among her pantheon of saviors of the print publishing industry.

“I want to share my own enthusiasm for where we’re at in publishing. Because I am in the midst of New York City publishing where a lot of people are in despair because book publishers are experiencing a lot of hardship. And (with) magazines it’s difficult — this is true of various magazines (and) newspapers — we are in the midst of a tectonic plate shift in terms of publishing and things that I like such as books, but because I am at The New Yorker per se, and involved with publishing children’s books, and involved with publishing comics, I feel that we are at a very optimistic point, that the future is bright.”

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