The Other Side of the Monocle: An Interview with Françoise Mouly




Sarah Boxer interviews Françoise Mouly

The Other Side of the Monocle: An Interview with Françoise Mouly

November 17th, 2013 reset - +

FRANÇOISE MOULY is the art editor of The New Yorker, the editorial director of Toon Books (which publishes kids’ books by comic-strip artists), and the co-founder with her husband Art Spiegelman of RAW magazine. I interviewed Mouly on the occasion of the publication of In Love With Art: Françoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (Coach House Books) by Jeet Heer, who notes in his preface that he wrote this book to repair a sexist mistake he made in 2004. In an article he wrote about Spiegelman for the National Post, Heer decided to mention Mouly only in passing: “Leaving Mouly aside for a second,” he wrote, “it is easy to see that Spiegelman’s editing is an outgrowth of his intense historical consciousness, his awareness of how comics have evolved and where they need to go.” Heer’s partner challenged him: “Why should Mouly be left aside?” To redress his omission, Heer wrote a whole book about her.

My interview with Mouly took place over the phone on the afternoon of September 5, 2013.

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SARAH BOXER: How is it to be in the foreground for once, to have a whole book devoted to you?

FRANÇOISE MOULY: It makes me want to crawl back into my hole in the wall. Yeah, it’s much scarier than anything else that has happened to me. I like making objects and not having to talk, not having to explain. I’m a very concrete person. I like to smell it, hold it, touch it. I know how to make books. But I don’t have a spelled out narrative the way some designers do or publishers might.

I’ve found it’s much easier to figure out what I’m doing by making it and then to look back and say, “Oh, that’s what I was doing! Nice!” With a camera I’m always thinking, don’t put the camera on me; focus on what’s in my hand. I remember giving an interview once. I gave a short chronological narrative: I was in Europe, then I was a plumber, then an electrician, then sold cigarettes, then I bought a printing press, then I did RAW magazine, and then I was at The New Yorker. If you look back on it, you see me going from point A to point B with some sort of logical trend. But the way I lived through it, it’s not like I knew where I was going. I think I would be scared shitless if I had to think it out in advance. The only reason I’ve been able to do what I do is I close my eyes then jump. And then I learn how to swim.

SB: Have you read the book?

FM: I’m afraid to, because somehow I have been well served by following my gut instinct. I can trust my practical mind. But the intellectual part, I don’t want to over-think. I have the potential to think myself into a corner. The things that work for me are the things that I literally fall in love with. Right now, I don’t even really want to look back. I think I have to preserve my sense of not knowing too clearly.

SB: Jeet has cast your life as moving from the margins to the centers of power. Maybe that’s not the most comfortable scenario for you.

FM: This is true of both me and Art. I’m trying to prove something right now, like I’m making comics for children. While Jeet is doing this whole narrative of me, I have to push for him to include this. I’m working this month with launching a comics classroom unit, where teachers use comics in the classroom. We’re doing 30 lesson plans. It’s unbelievable! And it’s so hard. In this day and age, everybody takes for granted what I was advocating 30 years ago, that comics could be taken seriously. Comics and graphic novels are now very hip. But in some ways, I’m just as embattled as before.

SB: My kid’s favorite book, for three years now, has been Otto’s Orange Day, which is one of the first children’s comics that Toon Books ever published.

FM: That’s really meaningful — much more than a review, or a prize, or, frankly, a biography like this. I feel like I’m doing something useful. It’s difficult in this day and age, especially if you’re a culture worker, to not be aware of how frivolous you are, where you wake up to your insane amount of First World problems. But the fact that I can actually make books that are being read by kids, that nobody else would do if I weren’t doing them — that’s something.

SB: Could you talk a little about feminism and comics?

FM: Okay, feminism and comics: Jeet claims I am an important person, as important an editor as Gordon Lish or whatever. It’s like, ahhh! Don’t go there! Yeah, I’m important, but also not; it’s a matter of opinion.

But when I talked to Jeet about specific issues of women in the field of comics, what it felt like — the kind of willful ignorance about women, putting them aside, like, you know, “Don’t bother us, we don’t want you in this club of ours” — that was different. He added his preface at the end where he talks about writing an article about Art and then discounting me for a moment and then being called on it by his girlfriend or his wife and then having to examine his own unspoken assumptions.

Then, I realized, that’s really useful! That actually for me justified his investigation because that goes way beyond what I did or didn’t do, but something that is really happening and that is really interesting.

I’m very proud. I will claim as my legacy the broadening of the field to include more women. I publish young women cartoonists like Eleanor Davis. It’s so important for the future. Gary Panter teaches at the School of Visual Arts and more than half his students are women. At Small Press Expo last year, the room was at least equally young women and young men.

[Mouly takes a break to fix a leak, then gets back on the phone.]

SB: You’re back.

FM: My past as a plumber comes in handy! There was a leak, and I fixed it.

SB: Was plumbing part of what you learned at the school of Printing and Air Conditioning in Brooklyn?

FM: No, the plumbing was before. I was a plumber and an electrician, then I went to Air Conditioning School. 

It’s kind of a little detail, you know, but I am also Art’s wife. I am proud of Art and of being his wife. It’s something! He is probably one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. And the greatest artists in the world are part of my world: David Hockney, Frank Viva, Barry Blitt. I’m so lucky to have known Neil Gaiman, David Sedaris, and Saul Steinberg. I have the impression that my life is a Hollywood movie scripted by Howard Hawks.

SB: Do you still have a printing press in your apartment?

FM: No press. I kind of miss it. I replaced it with kids. I guess I made the right choice. I couldn’t because of the ink and the chemicals. A big industrial lump. When I was pregnant with my first kid, I realized they are not compatible. At some point she is going to be running around on the floor. No baby guards for the printing press. Anyway, I quickly got to the point with RAW magazine where my press wasn’t big enough for anything except for the add-ons. It wasn’t practical. But I miss it!

SB: Step back and tell me about the influence of RAW magazine on graphic culture.

FM: Chris Ware says he learned a lot from the coloring I did on the cover of RAW #2. It’s quite a compliment because he’s probably one of the best colorists around. But nothing in RAW is exactly invented from scratch. We were just putting together things that weren’t in one place before: some things from the art world, some things from European comics. Gary Panter, who was very Los Angeles, very West Coast, certainly had not been juxtaposed with Jacques Tardi, who had a very Parisian approach, or to Japanese comics.

I’m very proud of what I did. But it’s not fair to say that we invented this. I was trying to capture a European aesthetic of color. In some way I was giving myself a little exercise — how else can you color? — and then it got used in things like David Mazzucchelli’s work. Now the European esthetic encompasses some of the American esthetic, which includes some of the European. It’s back and forth. If we did anything, we were catalysts; we accelerated things that were in couture and in culture too. We threw in some things that really made sparks.

A lot of what Art did, and what inspired me, was to resist categorization and to refuse labels. It’s pretty hard to go off on a podium and talk about it. But doing it was exciting, because there are so many different facets, so many things to fight against. The first thing you do when you make a magazine, you choose the name of it, then you design a logo, and a certain a specific aesthetic. The New Yorker logo hasn’t changed since 1925. Eighty-five years! With RAW we never used the same logo twice.

SB: You got to work with Saul Steinberg at The New Yorker in the years right before he died. What was that like?

FM: We were birds of a feather. He studied architecture, and I studied architecture. There were so many layers when I would go and see him. He had a love of printing. He wanted to see the proofs with all the markings. We would go over everything. We spoke French together. We went through drawers and drawers of drawings. We were looking for a drawing with a new idea, something he hadn’t done before in the magazine. He came to see me at my home on Green Street between Canal and Grand. He was working on his Whitney retrospective. He knew all those buildings and made me look at them. The Bank. The Post Office at Church and Canal Street. He would say, “These are temples of money.”

He spoke beautifully. He was an extraordinary conversationalist. It was an act of giving. He had an aphoristic grasp of language. He was very funny. He gave you that. Now nothing is left of that verbal ability. He would focus on reducing all that into a line drawing. He wanted his pictures to be as spare as possible. Not gilding the lily. He was into the crayons that children use and reducing ideas to their essence, finding the underlying structure of an idea.

And he had a kind of radar for ironies. During the O.J. Simpson trial — it was an endless trial that went on for months — and in the retelling he kept juxtaposing the contradictions and highlighting the telling moments, the phrases. … Steinberg loved the part about the glove ... “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Everything about that trial was interesting, because it challenged assumptions. It was American drama.  

I hadn’t seen the chase on TV. It all started with that, the chase with the helicopter. It was like an action movie, but in slow motion. Listening to Steinberg describing it was wonderful: I had my own private narrator of this central drama of American culture. And it was very relevant to where I was, at The New Yorker.

SB: Tell me about first coming to The New Yorker.

FM: My own private narrative is that, when Tina Brown called me in, there was a core constituency of New Yorker readers that were resisting change with all their might. They were in love not just with Steinberg, but with the way the art was divorced from the news. They were horrified by something like Art’s Hasidic kiss cover. How dare The New Yorker take on contemporary events when it’s supposed to provide a respite from the hullabaloo of the world!

I remember shivers on my spine when Tina said, “Okay, can we do a cover about O.J.?” I said, “Wooo ...uh...” How can you jump from the totally divorced attitude of the New Yorker to the headline “Is He Guilty”?

The first O.J. cover was in the summer of 1994, by Barry Blitt. A lifeguard at the beach is so absorbed in his television that he doesn’t see what’s happening in the ocean. It shows how mesmerized people were by the trial. What I loved about it was that it was about O.J., but barely shows him. He is literally tiny. There’s a quarter of an inch by a quarter of an inch line drawing of O.J. on the TV on the lap of the lifeguard. You could imagine it without the lifeguard; it would be a perfectly legitimate New Yorker cover: just a lifeguard not paying attention. 

SB: One of The New Yorker’s most memorable covers ever, September 24, 2001, which you yourself made but credited to Spiegelman, was the all-black cover with an almost invisible trace of the twin towers. I remember once hearing Art talk about the difficulty of coming up with any New Yorker cover about September 11; how, in order to get the proper New Yorker distance, you had to show the event inside a thought balloon, or as a dream.

FM: I know what you’re referring to: a cover that Art proposed in 2002 for July 4. It showed a family looking at fireworks and seeing them as a nuclear mushroom cloud. It was about how people were still perceiving everything as connected with 9/11. He didn’t get a response to his sketch. Then he reworked it. He showed a guy waking up in bed, dreaming of the fireworks as a mushroom cloud. Then he got an okay on the sketch. He was one remove from it. He showed what someone was thinking, rather than what was happening. It was like the distance of The New Yorker dandy looking at things through his monocle with a sort of supercilious look.

SB: How would you define the proper New Yorker distance?

FM: When I first came to The New Yorker, I took it at its word. They wanted a heightened distance from the events. But my inspiration really came from the early covers of the magazine. Look at it in 1925, when Rea Irvin first draws a dandy, he’s actually drawing a fuddy-duddy grandfather. It is based on an illustration by Condorcet from 1840, almost 100 years before 1925. The New Yorker defined itself then as the magazine of jazz age, and the flappers, the very young people, made a mockery of the dandy on its first cover. It’s saying, “We’re not that!”

Then, as this image gets repeated year after year, in the ’40s and ’50s, the covers shift. The young people become the parents, and then you have more images about middle age and upper-middle class people and grandparents as well. And eventually it moves so that the dandy that was being mocked, that granddaddy, great granddaddy, takes over the magazine and takes himself very seriously. People think the essence of the magazine is not mocking the elite but being the elite.

SB: Has the role of artists at The New Yorker changed much over the years?

FM: The Harold Ross New Yorker was a gathering place of contributors, the most prominent of which were the artists. The writers had no bylines. This was a humor magazine, and they wrote short quips. They didn’t have names ... yet. Even the Dorothy Parkers, a lot of those, didn’t have a byline. But Peter Arno has a name. Mary Petty has a name. Helen Hokinson has a name.

The artists had a signature and a narrative. And this is unparalleled in any other medium: the artists were allowed to have their own narrative cover to cover. Mary Petty made images of this Victorian lady and her maid, and you see the interaction between them. They have a telephone, and then they have electricity, and then they have the family coming to visit them in the Victorian castle in the country, and then she’s isolated in her Victorian house in the middle of the city that’s dominated by the flappers and the jazz age and the hunting and all of this.

SB: Do you think the art in The New Yorker was more critical in the 1920s and 1930s?

FM: It was more personal and, as a result, far more universal. Mary Petty has her characters stand in for something. It is the end of one era: there were an ungodly number of covers that had to do with “It’s hard to get good help these days” and with all the difficulties with nannies, butlers, doormen, and domestics, which is not that much of an issue anymore. This was the moment that it stopped being the culture of the high bourgeoisie. After the ’30s and ’40s, you enter into the prominence of the middle class.

The New Yorker is such a sociological portrait of not just New York but of American society. Through this very focused lens of Eustace Tilly’s monocle, you really get an intellectually rich portrait, not just of what people wore, but of what their prejudices were, what made them laugh. And that’s what I’m showing the artists I work with now: I tell them you have a unique opportunity to do something that has resonance with you, that is part of your life, to immortalize this moment, so that you can look back at it in 50 years and will be able to see what it was like to be alive in 2013.

SB: What’s the relationship between the cover art for The New Yorker and the gag cartoons inside?

FM: It started from a unified thing where the artists are contributors; they would bring their own story, their own narrative; sometimes it was on the cover, and sometimes it was on the pages inside. It was fairly fluid. Now some of the contributors inside go back and forth — like George Booth — they do covers and they come up with captions too.

But many of the cartoonists are actually very narrowly focused on doing only an image with caption; they’re not coming up with single images without the words underneath. They just don’t know how to do it. It’s a very difficult medium to express yourself in, because it has to be a story but you also have to be able to tell it without the words. Some of the cartoonists can do both, but some think only in terms of a punchlines.

SB: It’s amazing that you ever got R. Crumb in The New Yorker. How did that go down?

FM: When I started back in 1992, I asked him for an image for the cover. And it was of some interest to him, because as a kid growing up with his brother, what they’re looking at is Mad magazine, but also The New Yorker covers, because it was narrative storytelling. There’s a picture of his brother Charles in their room, and on the walls are New Yorker covers from the ’30s and ’40s.

That medium of the New Yorker cover is a challenge. It’s like writing a kind of sonnet, with only so many meters, or like a haiku, because you can’t use too many words.

SB: You didn’t always love Crumb’s work. In the Masters of American Comics catalog, you wrote: “I came to R. Crumb’s work with the full force of all my prejudices. I found his work unabashed in its vulgarity and was put off by the glorification of his own nerdiness, his occasionally repulsive depictions of women, blacks, and Jews, and his endless graphic representations of kinky smelly, sweaty sex.”

FM: I had to get over my prejudices against the offensive part to find the incredibly sensitive, humanistic side of the man. When you read the complete R. Crumb stories, you realize he’s such a good observer of the people around him. It makes sense that he became an emblem of the ’60s, not so much for Mr. Natural, but because he is such a sensitive and communicative observer.

He’s not a hippie in any way. He may have been smoking dope and taking acid, but Crumb was always somewhat mocking of the “peace-man” hippie, the long-haired, bearded hippie. He himself was straitlaced, more of a beatnik, you know, wearing a hat, his beard trimmed. Of course, he’s misogynistic and misanthropic, but he’s also a real humanist. I don’t believe they are incompatible.

SB: What are the main differences between you and Art?

FM: At RAW, I felt I was the advocate for white space. There’s a certain kind of comic esthetic that is chock full, you know, very Mad magazine, with a million different details. Art is more tolerant of this. I can be brought to tears by a few simple lines. There are so many things where we complement each other very well. 

To me design and printing are important. For Art these are a means to an end. When I met him, and he was doing production for [his first book] Breakdowns, he was thinking about printing because the cover was about the printing process. For him, this was something he had to master to sell his ideas. I’m a much more limited thinker. I’m not an abstract person. I can only find things when I’m touching them and making them. I’m eager to do paste-up, mechanical, production. I love to learn new programs, techniques to art, I like things that stand in the way.

SB: Really?

FM: I love making things. Art makes things because that’s something he has to do in order to express his ideas. I don’t have ideas outside of making things. I can’t do what he does, expounding on the theory of this and that. I’m like, “Can I just show you, and not have to tell?” Maybe it’s because I’m operating in a second language.

A little bit of a digression: at some point to earn a living, I was doing coloring for Marvel Comics. And at the time, I wanted to do it as quickly as I could because I was getting paid by the page. I was moving through it. But I was living in a world not so much of stories, because in some cases the lettering hadn’t been done yet, but the world of colors. I thought in colors. Not like my dreams were in colors. But the narrative content, the emotional content, had to do with color. Blue! And orange! Complementary colors, but they would be fighting, clashing, talking to each other. It’s very hard to put into words.  With Art, he already knows what he’s trying to say. But I don’t know until I do it.

SB: What have you learned from Art?

FM: One thing I learned from Art that’s the opposite of what I learned in France: to trust myself, trust my instincts. I had years of training in not trusting myself. With Art, there’s no bounds to how much of his intelligence and his work he’d invest to do what he believed in, even if it’s not sellable or the world didn’t agree. That is such a revelation. That’s unique. We hang out with other artists. A fair amount of the time, they talk about what they are doing, why they are doing it, how they compare.

Dealing with artists day in day out, I know that they are very precariously poised between some kind of insane confidence — “of course, every utterance I make is of interest and the world should stop in its tracks and pay attention” — and on the other side, “I’m an abject piece of shit and everyone is making fun of me.” Artists are not stable people.

SB: What was your relationship with Art’s father like?

FM: I was grateful that Vladek liked me, appreciated me. We did a Jewish wedding, and I converted to Judaism because I knew that the first question people would ask him would be, “But is she Jewish?” I didn’t want him to be embarrassed. Art wasn’t that interested in trying to spare his dad. He was very provocative. And Art’s dad drove him crazy.

SB: Like how?

FM: Vladek threw away one of Art’s old coats. Someone once said that not everyone has parents who were Holocaust survivors, but everyone has parents who throw away their old coats.

SB: Well, the coat wasn’t all that he threw out. He also threw out Art’s mother’s diary after she killed herself, right? The diary she kept for Art?

FM: Yes, Vladek throwing out Art’s old coat was a preview of Vladek throwing out Anja’s diary.

SB: What about your parents? They must be incredibly proud of you.

FM: My father [who was a famous plastic surgeon in Paris] is dead. My mother [who was a stewardess for TWA] is still alive. It’s a different country, a different time. So much time is passing, So much of my time has been in America. My youth stayed in France. My sisters, my mother. Others in my family stayed in France.

I got a letter once from the ambassador saying that I had won the Legion of Honor medal, and I have to do a ceremony. But anyway, I mentioned this to my mother and she said, “Maybe you can get the Minister of Culture to give you your medal.” I thought: Why not the Prime Minister or the President? I had to tell her to scale down her expectations. But she understands that Art is an international celebrity, and I think she’s very proud of that.

SB: And your dad?

FM: Well, it’s strange. For the first couple of decades my dad didn’t want to hear about his son in law the cartoonist until Volume 2 of Maus was published and got a Pulitzer. And it got to a whole different level of notoriety. Then he would say his daughter is married to Art Spiegelman. But that was 20 years after the fact.

SB: So you didn’t have the kind of understanding with your dad that you had with Art’s father?

FM: I had left France and my family. When my dad heard that I married a man who was a cartoonist, a Jewish cartoonist in New York, that was like definite proof that I wasn’t coming back. He had no way to relate to this. He said, “I don’t read comics.” If he had, he would have understood where I was at.

But there’s a way in which I’m lucky. I have the ability to invent myself, or to reinvent myself. That is something I share with Art. Art couldn’t connect with the world of his parents, which had been destroyed. No grandparents. No cousins. His parents only got together with other survivors. They had no clue about American culture. None whatsoever. No one was there to walk them through. And they had no social life beyond their immigrant circle. Art had to invent a place for himself in the world, through what he was reading. For him, the comics are a point of departure. And they were for me as well. Holding a book in your hand: that’s where you begin having your own thoughts, becoming who you are. In part I’m sure it happens to everybody. But not everyone goes through something so insanely traumatic and dramatic.

The 2Gs are the second generation, the children of survivors. Before Maus was published, I remember listening to a friend of ours, who was also a 2G. And she felt that there was only one script for 2Gs, which was: don’t bring any more aggravation to your parents. They’re gone through so much as it is. Whatever you do, just be good!

SB: Ha. Exactly what Art did, right?

FM: This is so not what Art did. But it doesn’t mean he didn’t receive it, hear it, perceive it. Maybe it helps to have brothers or sisters. But for Art, he carried it all. If you think back on it, even including his mother writing a diary and saying one day you’ll do something with this: that is heavy!

The relationship between Art and his father was so memorable. A friend called Maus a love affair between Art and his dad. And I think this is very perceptive. Art calls his dad a murderer and his mother a murderer. But what more would a devoted son do beyond Maus?

SB: Did you ever understand why his father might have destroyed the diary?

FM: No I don’t think any of the stuff will ever make any sense. Not everything has to have a resolution. The best you can hope for is, you know, what Art did. I’m really grateful he had the courage to not skirt any of those issues and not look for resolutions. If you think about “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” [the story about Spiegelman’s mother’s suicide that is tucked into Maus], it is a howl of pain and despair. It leaves the pain intact. It’s there. It’s in one place, in a comic strip. But there’s no happy ending. The best you can hope for is what he did. He puts it all out in the open where you can see it — that scream, it’s so damn painful! One thing Art says, “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

SB: One of my favorite lines. Beckett. We’ll leave it on that happy note.

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Sarah Boxer is the author of In the Floyd Archives: A Psycho-Bestiary and the editor of Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web.

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