Françoise Mouly, The New Yorker’s art editor since 1993, doesn’t have normal relationships with the artists who draw the magazine’s covers. “Think of me as your priest,” she told one of them. Mouly, who cofounded the avant-garde comics anthology RAW with her husband, Art Spiegelman, asks the artists she works with—Barry Blitt, Christoph Niemann, Ana Juan, R. Crumb—not to hold back anything in their cover sketches. If that means the occasional pedophilia gag or Holocaust joke finds its way to her desk, she’s fine with that. Tasteless humor and failed setups are an essential part of the process. “Sometimes something is too provocative or too sexist or too racist,” Mouly says, “but it will inspire a line of thinking that will help develop an image that is publishable.”
Until recently, you would have had to visit Mouly’s office on the 20th floor of the Condé Nast building to see the rejected covers she keeps pinned to a wall. Now, some of those uninhibited outtakes have been collected in a new book, Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See ($24.95, 128 pages), out today from Abrams. I talked to Mouly about the most incendiary sketches, the difficulty of publishing serious covers over Christmas, and why she heartily recommends listening to Rush Limbaugh.
What’s the process of deciding on a cover every week?
I’ve been the art editor for about 19 years, so I’ve been responsible for about 950 different published covers, and the process has been different for each one. But the general outline is that I set up a lineup every season of evergreen covers. So right now I’m talking to artists, soliciting ideas for Mother’s Day or spring or wedding or graduation.
And then there are timely political images or things that seems like the right idea at the right time—it can be a tsunami in Japan, but it can also simply be something that defines a time. Right now, one of the things I’m talking to artists about is the Republicans’ war on women. There’s not a specific moment for this, but it’s a subtext that’s in the air. Recently we did an image around the Republican primaries that involved a dog on top of a car, and that certainly was timely.
When we have something like that, then we are poised to upset the apple cart, and that can be turned around in as little as 24 hours. I’m in a constant conversation since I’m not commissioning or assigning any specific ideas. I’m not calling up artists and saying, “We need you to illustrate the war on women,” or whatever. We seldom have illustrations of cover stories on our covers. So we are dependent. What I’m really looking for are ideas that come from the artists on topics that will give us a sign of the era that we live in and, as a collection of images, will collect a picture of our time.
When I started, I didn’t know much about The New Yorker. I went to the library, and I looked at the storytelling images of the early days of The New Yorker—Peter Arno, Rea Irvin—and it did paint a portrait of the times, of what urban sophisticates chuckled at and attitudes, prejudices. That’s really not just the subtext but the text. That’s what we’re trying to capture—mannerisms as well as the way people dress and so on. I think you can get a very nuanced portrait of the society in images, because they talk about emotions beyond rationalization. So that’s what I try to orchestrate, but the artists have to come up with their own individual idea, like a little visual story, without being able to use words. And that’s a very specific task. There are not too many other venues for that. So I have to say, “Stop what you’re doing, and sit down at your drawing table, and come up with ideas.”
How many sketches do you receive from your regular contributors?
It depends. I don’t have any set way of doing it. Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor, says that he wants to get a batch of 15 ideas. So he’s more systematic.
He also sets a specific day of the week for the cartoonists to come in person.
And he has minimum requirements. I search around, and I’m in a dialogue. Sometimes people send me one image. And what I say to the artists is, “Don’t edit for what you think will work.” If a sketch is on my wall, it’s not necessarily either accepted or rejected. It’s not like a line, and on the left is all the stuff that got rejected. It’s actually all the building blocks of having the right image at the right time. And many of the images that are published started out in sketches months and sometimes years before they were used—even the timely ones, because we are a weekly magazine, and we can only publish one cover a week. Sometimes something is too provocative or too sexist or too racist, but it will inspire a line of thinking that will help develop an image that is publishable.
What’s the most common reason why a piece may be great on its own but not work as the cover of the magazine?
Logistics. There have been some terrific images, and then we were out with a double issue that week and we couldn’t publish them. Or because the idea came in on a Friday and we had already published our cover. We are a weekly magazine, so the printing process finalizes something that is a constant flux. So I’d say logistics is usually the number one thing that narrows it down. And good taste would be the next one. Because everything needs to be approved by the editor of the magazine, David Remnick, who has final say on everything that gets published. But when I have the artists send stuff to me, I’m not necessarily going to show everything to David. I said to Anita Kunz, “Think of me as your priest. You can tell me all.”
What’s one thing that will never make it past David Remnick?
I don’t think that way. I encourage the artist to be uninhibited, because that is the sine qua non condition to try to make me laugh. And I mentioned in the book, Barry Blitt is really good at being uninhibited. He’s kind of a genius that way. My god, this guy thinks in doodling. There’s no editor in between the idea that he has and the idea that he commits to paper. But that’s a hard job to do—to not fear. It really is difficult to keep that spontaneity of thinking. But that’s because there’s no penalty. He’s not going to embarrass himself. He’s going to make me laugh, and it stays between us. This is similar to comedy writers who lock themselves up in a room. They’ll make a number of really bad-taste jokes, and the sexist and racist stuff is the least of it. They’ll really go off the deep end. And then that will actually unearth something that can be used.
An image like the terrorist fist bump, by Barry Blitt, which we published to such outcry, was talking about the unmentionables, the innuendos. There were a lot of allegations about candidate Obama being a Muslim, and a that stuff was insidious because they were not saying it aloud, but they had no compunction. And all that the artist did here is visualized what people were insinuating, and sneaking in through the crack. Think of it as an innoculation, a way to actually use a drop of the poison in a controlled way. It’s very brave on the part of the artist to spend hours listening to Rush Limbaugh, for example—as Barry Blitt has done—because it’s a fascinating portrayal of America. It’s not useful to just say, “He’s a bad fat asshole,” and shield yourself from this, because you’ll only preach to the converted if you’re not listening to what’s being said.
Is the fist-bump cover the one that has caused the greatest uproar?
We got a lot of flack in 1996 when we published a cover, also by Barry Blitt, of two sailors kissing in Times Square. And that was a parody of the Eisenstaedt photograph. This is pre-internet, and people wrote letters to the editors. And in 1994 we broke a long tradition of Eustace Tilly by Rea Irvin being republished in February of every year, and we published an image by Robert Crumb. We got hundreds if not thousands of letters, but they were in the mail. What Barry said was, in 1996, if there had been the internet, probably there would have been just as much of a reaction. The internet amplifies the visceral reaction. And one of the ways we know that is, we are The New Yorker, but New York magazine got thousands of e-mails of people protesting the cover. Because New York, New Yorker—who knows? They just knew there was some cover they didn’t like. Some of them might not even have seen it. The web allows for two things: for images to spread virally, and also for negative comments.
Anita Kunz’s drawing of Monica Lewinsky with a lollipop—why was that rejected?
We had already run an image on the topic, and we did not anticipate at the time how salacious the discourse was to become. It took us by surprise; we didn’t expect that The New York Times would have the word blowjob on the front page day after day after day after day. Often the artists know—because they actually are paying attention to stuff that’s in the air, they are so often ahead of their time.
Your husband, Art Spiegelman, drew a picture of Santa Claus urinating in the shape of a Christmas tree. Why didn’t that pass editorial muster?
The editor at the time was Tina Brown, and she loved Art’s images. That’s really what started it all—the Hasidic man kissing a black woman, referencing Crown Heights. That’s the kind of image that she really liked. But Christmas is a difficult period for a magazine editor to do something provocative because somewhere in the back of people’s minds is “It’s a time to be jolly!” I know because around that time, I was actually preparing a cover story, one where we tied in the cover image to the article inside. This was a Mark Danner piece on the massacre in El Mozote, in El Salvador. And to do a cover image on the massacre—it’s like, “But not at Christmas time!” It still did run in December.
But to actually say to the whole wide world that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, that was getting a lot of editors unhappy—that we were willing to demystify Christmas. At the time, there were a lot of longtime New Yorker editors who were not necessarily that thrilled with the attention that the covers were getting. So in general there was a lot of opposition. And for that image, they were saying that it was provocation for the sake of provocation. Now, I actually don’t think so, and Art was very articulate about this and was explaining, “No, this is making a point. It’s not just a pee-pee joke for the sake of, like, ‘Ooh, ooh, isn’t pee-pee funny!’” It had to do with the obscenity of the merchandising around Christmas time. We’re talking about the early nineties, when there are people homeless in the street—the inequality is contradicted by the over-merchandising Christmas. And then a suggestion was made to him: “Maybe it’s OK if it doesn’t mention the homeless.” And to him, that was really provocation for the sake of it. Later on we ended up publishing a crucified bunny rabbit, but that was Easter, not Christmas.
As you’ve been putting together the book over the last year or two, have you come across anything that you regretted rejecting?
There’s one of Sarah Palin brushing up on her books, preparing for her candidacy. I held that one for the last minute, because I was hoping and hoping and hoping that she would run. I really believed that we could publish it as a cover of The New Yorker. And when I realized that she prefers tweeting, I thought, well, I really would like to see that image in print. It’s wonderful, and it’s in the book.
Before the publication of the book, there was some back and forth with David Remnick about opening the door to that closed room and even discussing these things, because it’s not a very New Yorker-y thing to do. And there are issues with doing it. One could have to do with demystifying, making the process more predictable. But I actually think that it’s so rich and so interesting that it’s actually even more interesting if you have a sense of how the images are thought about, rather than less. It doesn’t explain anything because it still is genius when somebody gets the right idea.
And the other had to do with the fine line between what does get published and what doesn’t, because we publish so many provocative images. It seems to open itself up to second-guessing. But on that front, this will encourage more artists to take more chances, even the artists I’m already working with. I’m seeing it already. They are less afraid about wasting their effort on something that won’t get published. It’s encouraging more people to think more often about The New Yorker cover as a really vital form of communication to a great number of people, available to anybody who can handle a pen on a piece of paper. And that couldn’t make me happier.