Françoise Mouly has had at least three careers. Each one alone would be enough to guarantee her a distinguished position in the history of American publishing. In her new book, Blown Covers, she sheds some light on the process behind her choice of more than 950 images for the cover of The New Yorker over the past 19 years, and unearths many of the sketches that were slightly off-mark.
But the story starts long before Mouly even came to The New Yorker. In the late ‘70s, 21-year-old Mouly got an offset press and somehow hoisted it into the walk-up SoHo loft she shared with her husband, Art Spiegelman, then a little-known underground cartoonist. Together, Mouly and Spiegelman launched RAW magazine in 1980, an unprecedented venture that pushed comics, graphics, and cartoons to such a level of sophistication that, together with the 1996 publication of Spiegelman’s Maus, it brought a wider acceptance of the comics medium and a new era of appreciated “graphic novels.”
Once settled at The New Yorker, Mouly started yet another career. After she and Spiegelman became parents—their two children, Nadja and Dashiell, are now both young adults—Mouly returned to her self-publishing roots to print comics for kids, founding a RAW Junior division in 1998. Three issues of Little Lit, which were basically the RAW/New Yorker art gang working for the elementary-school set, came out from 2000 to 2003. And in 2008, Mouly launched TOON Books, a new imprint that introduced the concept of comics to early readers, raising the bar on publications for this age group.
I first worked with Mouly in 1994, when a watercolor drawing of mine was considered for a cover, and then ran inside. (Another blown cover!) I finally made it to the cover in 2009, when she heard about my finger paintings of New York City done on an iPhone.
Jorge Colombo: What brought you the USA?
Françoise Mouly: I actually inadvertently landed in New York with the intention of doing just three months here, and then earn enough money to go to Chicago. Then three months later I would be in San Francisco, and I had no idea what to expect. I had no prior love of America but it was far away from France. I was 18.
I loved the architectural studies, but I disliked what happened when you graduated. In school, you’re told, “Here is a theme, design a school, design a new city.” But when you graduate, all of a sudden they lift the curtain and you realize reality’s not like that. Most graduated architects spent their time hanging out in my school and not letting go. It felt very limited and it didn’t want to make you move forward.
When I arrived here—that’s New York of the 70’s, that’s 1974—I was really drunk on the energy and on the possibilities. I just needed enough money to pay my rent, and I did a million different things.
JC: You say being Art Spiegelman's wife is like yet another career. You have been very influential to each other.
FM: Yes, I found my focus when I met Art. When I first arrived, in 1974, my English was so poor that I struggled to communicate even the simplest things. I was looking for things to read and a friend suggested the Sunday paper, but three and a half months later, I was still trying to make my way through all the sections. Reading the newspaper is hard for a foreigner, it has nothing to do with the spoken language. It’s very formulaic and, at the time, it offered no way in for me and my poor English. So I turned to comics for that.
I asked around and a friend gave me some underground comics. Comics were my handbook, my point of entry into American culture. I could take my time with it and they offered a lot of contextual clues to understand the language. In those comics, I discovered Art's work and I was just blown over by it. I fell in love with his work before I even met him.
Then in 1976, Art moved back to New York from San Francisco and we met. I had read Prisoner on Hell Planet, a short strip in which he discusses his mother’s suicide. I usually don’t like the phone, but after having met him I called him up and I stayed on the phone for something like six hours or eight hours. I just couldn’t stop questioning him. And then I realized, “Well, maybe I need to know this guy better.”
So I started going over to his apartment. He didn’t like coming to my loft, though he ended up moving in with me later, when there was a fire in his building. I was 21, and he was approaching 30, which for him was the kiss of death. For that whole generation, who couldn’t trust anybody over 30, they thought they were never going to reach that age—but now he was 29. He courted me in an old-fashioned way, by reading me Little Nemo.
FM: You know the line, “Come to my studio and I’ll show you my Japanese prints”? That’s exactly what happened but with comics. I would go over and he would read me Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo because he knew that George Herriman’s Krazy Kat would be a bit hard. I totally fell for him: he is such a great reader and he patiently explained everything I asked. Also, he had such clear ideas about comics being an art form, at a time when nobody else paid any attention to this stuff. He would go on with his extremely well articulated thoughts on comics—he has always been very generous that way.
JC: In what context does RAW appear?
FM: It was a revelation, the answer to everything that I didn’t even know I was searching for, a field that was so rich and totally ignored by all others. I had tried to go back to architecture school—I’d spent a few years going back and forth, but it wasn’t nearly as interesting as publishing, publishing comics. I bought a printing press and started printing little booklets. All of a sudden I had exactly what I wanted, which was, “Oh, here I can think of something and put together the elements, print it and then have it in my hands.” We had a friend who had a bookstore on Spring Street, and he suggested making a map of SoHo. People were getting lost all the time because the streets had names, not numbers. So for 13 years I published a map of the neighborhood, and then I sold it. It gave me the financial security to print things on the press in my loft and then, in 1980, to publish RAW magazine when I decided to do that.
JC: This was very much ahead of its time, having such a global publication.
FM: Well, we were trying to change the present, the way comics were dismissed then. At the time, you couldn’t get any magazine or newspapers to run anything to do with comics because comics were held in such disregard. I shared Art’s vision of comics being a medium with enormous possibilities, and I thought, “Let’s not talk about it, let’s just show everyone how good it can be.”
With RAW, we believed that if the format was luxurious, a museum-like setting, it would force people to take the measure of how good the medium could be. But there was a fair amount of disagreement, mostly coming from the other Underground cartoonists of Art’s generation, like R. Crumb. Crumb was adamant: he thought that we were “artsy fartsy.” He wanted his comics to remain rooted in popular culture. He thought they should only be printed on newsprint, that they should remain disposable. It was a healthy debate and we continue to argue about things—though nowadays, we argue about the virtues of publishing in The New Yorker.
JC: Where did the money for RAW come from?
FM: From me, from whatever I published, the SoHo map or the small publications I run off on my press. And the proceeds from one issue financed the next. I paid the artists something like $25 a page—we called it the RAW deal.
JC: Once you were settled in The New Yorker, you didn't really proceed with RAW, but kept its spirit on with the RAW Junior projects, like the TOON Books. It's just that the audience is now much younger.
FM: There is a reason why the usual trajectory is: at first you work at a corporation and then you go off and do things on your own. That sequence makes senses logically and emotionally. But I had always done my own thing and now I was asked to work for someone. When I started, in 1993, I had two young children and the top job at a weekly magazine, so it took me three or four years to even get the hang of it...but as soon as I got my bearings, I needed to have something I could be as passionate about as I had been when I was doing RAW against all odds, something that was mine alone.
I found it with my young kids, when I experienced the pleasure of reading to your kids—I read French comics to them, and also seeing them learn to read by reading comics. And then realizing there weren’t any good comics for kids in the U.S. at the time, so I set out to change that, and now I feel I have to a large extend succeeded in changing that landscape too. Twelve years later, comics for kids are now one of the few thriving areas of publishing.
But it makes sense, especially in the digital age. We live in an age where there’s a torrent of information. The more images they’re bombarded with, the more children need to be visually literate, and the best, almost the only way for them to become literate is to hold a printed book. You don’t learn to read by watching TV or by playing video games. A 32-page kids-comic is a story told in words and pictures that has a very perceptible structure.
The 6-year-old boy wants nothing more than taxonomy. They’re all young Structuralists, all little Linnaeus. They want names for things so they can think about it, which is really interesting when you realize it. They learn the names of all the cars, or the dinosaurs, or all the powers of every Pokemon. They process unbelievable amounts of information, especially if it’s presented visually. They don’t turn to stories, even fantasy stories, for escape but to find the structure—and picture stories, comics, give them the key.
Visual structures are easy for them to see because, like an appreciation for poetry, reading pictures is a very intuitive process. Meanwhile, in America specifically, there’s a puritanical distrust of images.
So here I’m again, doing something that I believe in passionately, the same way I did with RAW and comics in the early days, and all along at The New Yorker, saying that comics, picture stories, and visual literacy do matter, that if we pay attention and take them seriously we can find out a lot about ourselves, and that, maybe, just maybe, it will make the world a slightly better place. So I want everyone to look at the story-telling pictures made by artists and cartoonists.
But if all they do is laugh, well, good! I’ll feel I’ve done my job anyway.