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Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

Features / Illustration

The New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly on what makes an unforgettable cover

Words by

Rob Alderson

Photography by

Sarah Shatz

In 1968, as student protests swept through Paris and the world seemed full of hope and on the brink of real, lasting change, Françoise Mouly had a front row seat. Aged 13, she had stayed in the city with her father while her mother and sisters joined the evacuation. “It was a great, great time,” she remembers. “Usually I don’t like crowds but there’s something really nice about that shared belief that you can actually change the world.

“The walls were plastered with slogans and there were songs and poetry and drawings and flyers everywhere. It was a very drawn and written [about] moment.”

That year fired in the young Françoise an ambition for what art could achieve, and it also sparked a taste for breaking the rules. “Just yesterday I was taking someone out of the building to the park and made him follow me through two doors that said ‘Do not enter, no access.’ I forget sometimes that ‘Do not enter, no access’ does not mean ‘Go through this’ for everybody, but it does for me, and that probably has something to do with 1968.”

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Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

It was six years after that high water mark of popular protest that Françoise arrived in New York, having become disenchanted with her architecture studies. Settling in Soho, she made ends meet with an array of odd jobs, including selling cigarettes in Grand Central Station and working for a time as a plumber.

She also pursued her love of comics, encouraged by the cartoonist Art Spiegelman whom she got to know through mutual friends. Their relationship was built on their mutual love of an artform that was still much derided by the “serious” cultural scene in America, but through Art’s own work, his comics collection that he would read to her, and publications like Arcade, Françoise became increasingly passionate about the genre and what it could represent. The pair married in 1977, and two years later the first issue of Raw magazine, which they co-edited, hit the newsstands. Its aim was to champion graphic artists who were little known to American readers, both Europeans like Sue Ko or Joost Swarte and homegrown talents like Charles Burns and Chris Ware, whose visual styles didn’t have a place in the prevailing illustration culture of the time.

Across its 11 issues Raw changed the perception of what comics could be and what cartoonists could do. It was also famous for its personalised touches like torn covers and bubblegum card inserts that Françoise would do by hand, roping in Art and other friends to help when necessary. She even delivered the magazine to stores around the city.

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Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

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Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

When it closed in 1991 it had indelibly altered the visual landscape, and two years later Françoise joined The New Yorker as art editor. On the surface it was a strange move. Firstly, while Raw never used the same logo twice, The New Yorker has a heritage stretching back to 1925. Secondly Françoise seemed most at home getting her hands dirty, very literally, in the printing process (she even had her own press in her Soho loft for a time in the 1970s and 80s).

Didn’t she miss the very visceral involvement with producing printed material? “I never left it,” she says. “My closet working relationship has always been with the people who do the pre-press.

“I did colouring and I did composition and I did some typography and layout and I did comics and I did single pictures. I have approached it from just about every angle.

“I work back and forth with the artists on the covers but it’s a very demanding medium because it has to read in a split second what can be a complex message, and everything has to move together so that it doesn’t distract you.”

Françoise Mouly

“I wouldn’t know how to do it abstractly, to send it off and say, ‘Make it look good and show me the result when it’s done.’ I will work on the colour and the composition in pretty subtle ways so I can focus the viewer’s attention on one part of the image. I work back and forth with the artists on the covers but it’s a very demanding medium because it has to read in a split second what can be a complex message, and everything has to move together so that it doesn’t distract you.”

Even now, in an era when so much of her work is done on computer, Françoise doesn’t feel divorced from the very practical considerations that go into image-making. “I have had to learn the digital equivalent of what I used to do hands-on, but I still speak the hands-on language and I can still read colour and get a sense of what percentage CMYK it is,” she says.

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Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

Similarly in her stylistic choices there is some continuation between her time publishing Raw and her ongoing role at The New Yorker.

“One of the things we had at Raw which I have tried to keep is not having a house style, it doesn’t all look alike. Raw really was the sum of its parts but you can’t say that Raw magazine was Joost Swarte or Charles Burns or Sue Coe.

“At The New Yorker when I came in there was a house style, a nice cat-on-the-windowsill type watercolour and you could look at the covers and see the common denominator. I have tried to never let it settle into, ‘Oh that’s a New Yorker cover’ except in the approach.”

“I have tried to never let it settle into, ‘Oh that’s a New Yorker cover’ except in the approach.”

Françoise Mouly

Today, 22 years after she joined the magazine, she combines the drive of the self-publisher with in-depth knowledge of, and respect for, its heritage. Now based on the 38th floor of the huge new World Trade Center tower that sits next to the 9/11 Memorial Ground, Françoise’s office is filled with sketches, while one window has an extraordinary view across Manhattan. Is it strange for someone who fought comics’ corner for so long to now find herself in such a lofty (in all senses) position in the publishing world?

“We are now inhabiting a world my husband and I wished into being many many years ago. It’s such a good medium for a couple of reasons and they remain important. One is that it’s an analytical tool, it’s not a photographic view of reality. This is a magnificent view of the skyline of New York City, but if I bring a cartoonist here they’re not going to give me an exact photographic view, they’re going to give me a composition where everything to which you can attribute meaning is put together in a relationship with each other.

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Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

“The other reason it’s so essential is because it can be done with a sketchbook and a pen. You can just sit there and do it and you don’t need to have a Kickstarter or a production meeting or get ten million dollars lined up and 200 people on the same page. The simplicity of means combined with the effectiveness of the communication – it still sends a chill down my spine.”

She reels off an impressive potted history of The New Yorker, focusing on founder Harold Ross’ visits to Paris after the First World War and how smitten he was with publications like Le Rire, in which the images were more important than the text. There was a time at The New Yorker when the same balance held sway but over time the writing came to dominate as the magazine’s mission started to change. Françoise wants redress the relationship again.

“You can just sit there and do it and you don’t need to have a Kickstarter or a production meeting or get ten million dollars lined up and 200 people on the same page. The simplicity of means combined with the effectiveness of the communication – it still sends a chill down my spine.”

Françoise Mouly

“The cartoons were an essential part of it, the artists were an essential part of it and right now I hope we can go back to this kind of fusion,” she says. Of course The New Yorker carries many cartoons in each issue, but it’s the cover that gets the most attention, both from Françoise and the readers. “It’s the one image that needs the most nursing,” she admits.

We meet just a week after the Charleston shootings, where a young white supremacist killed nine black worshippers at a Methodist Church in South Carolina. It’s the kind of event after which people will look to see how The New Yorker cover confronts it, such is the magazine’s place in the American cultural landscape. The final image is a sombre, sad and very quiet drawing by frequent cover artist Barry Blitt – it shows the silhouettes of nine birds soaring off into the sky above a church steeple.

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Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

“We knew there would be written pieces and editorials [about the shootings] but what artists do well is respond viscerally,” Françoise explains. “In a way writers have to construct more of a logical argument but when you’re looking at an image it can hit you. Part of your brain is up here (she points at her head) but part of your brain is down there as well (pointing to her stomach).

“No matter what your political opinion is you need something that is in tune with that sense of a physical response. When I first heard about it the mind goes blank – no, no, no, not again.”

While some covers are personal reactions to major events, some magnify personal preoccupations into wider narratives. The week before the Charleston cover, Chris Ware’s illustration focused on his daughter’s obsession with Minecraft. It shows two young girls huddled over their computer screens, leaving the sunny garden through the window forlornly empty. For Françoise, it encapsulates “the concision of the dilemma of being a parent” – on the one hand the concerns over digital technology monopolising children’s time and attention, on the other the way Minecraft is getting young people, particularly girls, interested in coding.

“A lot of people have these ambivalent feelings and pictures are a really good way to have a starting point for a discussion,” she explains. “Images are very efficient nuggets of thought.”

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Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

Françoise understands why some covers lodge themselves in our collective memory, either for their significance – like the black towers on black background she and Art produced after 9/11 – or for their subject matter, like Barry Blitt’s controversial 2008 cover which showed Barack Obama in traditional Islamic costume fist-bumping an AK47-wielding Michelle in the Oval Office, with an American flag burning in the fireplace in the background.

But there are others that get lost in the passage of time, whose significance diminishes as the social, cultural and political landscape shifts. We forget for example quite how huge a moment the election of Obama back in 2008 was, and Françoise believes the cover that followed with the “o” of the masthead becoming the moon shining over the Lincoln Memorial still holds its own. Conversely some covers that went largely unnoticed take on new significance over time. Recently she came across a 1994 cover that shows Hilary Clinton seemingly eyeing up The White House as she stands with her family. “If Hilary Clinton is elected that cover will seem prophetic,” she laughs.

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Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

Now Françoise balances her time between her role at The New Yorker and running TOON Books, which publishes educational comics and works with schools and libraries to use comics as part of the curriculum. It’s quite a turnaround for the country whose Congress once identified comics as damaging and dangerous to young minds.

Françoise is clearly delighted by the acceptance her beloved artform has attained and energised and inspired by “running into lots of parents whose kids are growing up with the books and hearing about the effects that they’re having.” She still remembers the prejudices against comics when she arrived in America and clearly marvels that she has helped play a part in this remarkable turnaround. Clearly every door is worth pushing, no matter how daunting the warning signs.