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Features / Publication

Exclusive interview with New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief on its comic strip New York issue

Words:

Lucy Bourton

The annual New York issue of The New York Times Magazine is a playful and poignant portrait of the city. The 2017 edition sees the publication’s editors and art directors attempt a move bolder than ever before, turning the entire issue into a series of comic strips. Every section of content is created and interpreted by hand, commissioning illustrators such as Bill Bragg, Tom Gauld and Andrew Rae to illustrate stories over the past 15 years in their own styles and imaginations.

Syncing up with the newspaper’s Metro Desk, the issue depicts articles from years ago, some that never got the attention they deserved and others once loved but now forgotten, and each creative interpretation is courageously brilliant. Below we speak to editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein about the issue’s development and final outcome.

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Tell us about this interpretation of the New York issue?

The New York issue is an annual issue we do, a special issue, and we’ve kind of developed an approach of doing something brave and bold, and hopefully original, each year to try and stretch the bounds of what we do, or stretch the bounds of what the magazine can look like each time. This issue is a complete comic strip, interpreting stories from the Metro desk, at least back 15 years or so. We plucked stories from talking to the Metro desk themselves and asking what the readers’ favourites have been. They sent us a batch and we picked the ones we thought would be the most fun to illustrate. The illustrators we sent them to kind of had to interpret them a little bit, because in some cases the interesting parts of the process was understanding the factual material that a visual artist requires to draw something is often much, much greater than what would of been recorded in the reporting of a newspaper journalist. You may have a few details of how somebody looks, but you might not have written down what colour their pants were, or what colour the sky was or the buildings around them, whether the street was busy that day, at the moment it happened. All these visual details had to be interpreted by the artist, we’re saying these are comic strips are based on these stories, rather than perfect recreations of them.

These are quirky features, stories about the life of the city, they aren’t really stories about politics or business, these are features about people’s lives. I think it will be really fun for the readers to experience those stories in a purely visual format. New York is so visual, there’s so much to see, so much action on the street, so many different kinds of people, created in the city at any moment. To have these stories in a visual manner feels very natural.

We also decided that there wouldn’t be a single type set number or letter in the issue, everything would be done by hand. Obviously in a lot of cases the illustrator’s handwriting has been turned into a font which we can keystroke in, but everything originates from the hand. Even the basic furniture of the magazine, the crossword puzzle, the page numbers, the folios, the answers to last week’s crossword, the staff, the masthead, every single detail. My editor’s letter is by Tom Gauld, an editor’s letter in the form of a comic strip.

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What is the aim of the annual New York issue?

It’s different every time. Last year we did an issue about this crazy explosion of high-rise condominiums. In New York right now there is a very large number of super tall buildings that are going higher because of various engineering advancements. So, we thought, let’s do a whole issue on the world at 800ft, that’s a whole new universe up there that most people in New York will never experience. The people that live at 800ft, or work at 800ft, are members of a small or exclusive neighbourhood, that none of us will get to see. We wanted to do a whole story about that world and to accommodate the photography we shot we turned the magazine on its side, so it had to be read like a calendar. The year before that we did this crazy project with the photographer JR, a big pasting by the Flat Iron building and photographed it from a helicopter for the cover. We try to just follow whatever the theme is for the issue, but be adventurous in our visual approach.

What’s the tone of the stories interpreted?

I would actually say there aren’t that many that are comical. I mean, there is one beautiful piece that Bill Bragg did based on a story about how in the summer time in New York people will often sit at their windows and watch the life of the city go by. There was a particular story about two elderly folks in the Bronx, who are both on the same floor of buildings opposite sides of the street and they start to wave at one another. They watch the activity on the street, they see a murder on the street happen, and eventually time goes on and they continue to have this waving-at-each-other relationship. Eventually, the man walks across the street and shows up on the doorstep of the woman with a plant for her, and they end up moving in together.

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Bill Bragg: The Window Gazers

What was the brief you gave to the illustrators?

One of our editors, Caitlin Roper was in charge of this, she’s on maternity leave at the moment otherwise I’d have her talking with you, she deserves a tonne of credit to why this is such an exciting issue. Kaitlin worked alongside another editor of ours, Nitsuh Abebe. We worked together picking the right stories and she would take them to the illustrators with our art director Matt Willey. We had more stories than we could use, which allowed the illustrators to choose this one over that one, some stories resonated more with artists, some didn’t. They basically understood that they would have to be able to use a little bit of artistic licence to create successful strips out of the content, but they also knew they were going to try to stay as closely as they could to the original, using quotations where possible to let it feel like a genuine reflection of the story.

Was that a daunting or exciting experience as an editor?

I love the experience of not knowing exactly what I’m going to get, and it’s not too different from any regular issue where you send somebody off to do a story and you’re not sure what you’re going to get. This was exciting in a different way because you knew the story, you were just waiting to see how it would be interpreted by these wonderful artists. That’s the fun part of it too, each story has a completely different visual style, some of them are very realistic and some are a little kookier. It’s great fun just to page through the issue and see these stories told in all these different visual styles, it somehow feels quite fitting for the topic as well, considering how diverse a place New York is. It feels right to flick through the issue and see the city represented by such a riot of different visual styles, since what else do you experience when you walk through to streets of New York City but a riot of visual information.

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Robert G. Fresson: An Amiable Child

How long have you been working on the issue?

We started about a year ago, I mean we started talking about it a year ago, putting down some ideas. We didn’t know the from the very beginning that we would use stories from the Metro desk, we just knew we wanted to do an entire issue using illustrators and graphic novelists, and to have no written stories. That was the original idea, at that point we were thinking to have illustrators write their own stories, or maybe just the one illustrator for the issue. But, pairing with the Metro desk became a really fun aspect of the whole deal because it ends up being this collection of stories about the city, but in some funny way about the New York Times itself.

Was having an abstract issue intentional to take your readers minds off the political and social climate in America at this time?

I have no idea what you’re talking about! Yes, we certainly are doing a lot of coverage on the White House and what is happening with Trump’s administration, both in this country and around the world. We do a lot in the magazine and obviously the newspaper is covering it every single day. And absolutely to your point, we think it’s important to give people a break from that, to remind them that there is a lot of other facets of life, and encourage people to tune into those.

We’ll be back covering the politics of the moment probably next week, but part of what I take a lot of pride in is that we’re a general interest magazine, this past weekend we had a cover story on Syria, which I think is one of the best stories on the Syrian war yet, a fabulous piece. And one week later, we have an issue of comic strips. I love that the magazine can swing between topics like that.

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Tillie Walden: Twin Flames

How are you feeling about the issue being released?

I am very excited, I can’t wait for people to see it! That’s the fun thing about these special issues that are attempting to do something new, we’re always extremely excited about the moment it’s going to get in people’s hands or go online. It’s a chance to see how readers react to something that they’ve never be seen before.

I would just say that we are really excited, and grateful, to the artists and illustrators who have contributed. In a lot of cases we were asking them to get out of their comfort zone, working with material that is not their own and to stick to the facts in the news story. It was a weird request and they had to work with us to make this happen and I’m just really grateful for that, and completely in awe of the work for the issue.

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Andrew Rae: The Birdmen of Queens

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Andrew Rae: The Birdmen of Queens

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Sammy Harkham: Terror and Mystery

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Bianca Bagnarelli: Missing

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Bianca Bagnarelli: Missing