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IN LOVE WITH ART
FRANÇOISE MOULY'S ADVENTURES IN COMICS WITH ART SPIEGELMAN
By JEET HEER
COACH HOUSE BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Jeet Heer
All rights reserved.
The Invisible Woman
One afternoon in March 1993 in Manhattan, two powerhouses of the magazine world, Tina Brown and Françoise Mouly, met to discuss remaking the New Yorker, probably the most venerable periodical in America. They came from strikingly different backgrounds and had, arguably, entirely different ambitions, but they had in common an ability to generate controversy and bring visionary change to their medium. Born and raised in the U.K., the contentious and flamboyant Brown, then thirty-nine, had previously reinvigorated both Tatler and Vanity Fair, and she had been hired in July 1992 to similarly inject some life into the New Yorker, which had become somewhat stagnant and self-satisfied under her predecessors. The then-thirty-seven-year-old Mouly, for her part, was running her own publishing company, RAW Books and Graphics, and for the decade previous to this meeting, had been the co-editor, along with her husband, cartoonist Art Spiegelman, of RAW, a magazine that had revolutionized the world of comics by bringing to the form a new level of graphic intensity and artistic seriousness without losing popular appeal. Not least among its achievements, RAW serialized Spiegelman's Maus, a long-form comic-book story that played a pivotal role in creating the new genre popularly known as 'the graphic novel.'
Brown had already introduced several controversial new features to the New Yorker: photography, more celebrity- and news-driven pieces, and topical covers that were a far cry from the tasteful, quiet illustrations the magazine had been favouring. Even more than book jackets, magazine covers serve as both the public face of a publication and its most effective marketing tool; captivating, even scandalous, covers were a clear signal of Brown's intentions. Art Spiegelman created the most provocative of those early covers for the 1993 Valentine's Day issue: an illustration of a Hasidic man kissing a black woman, a sly comment on ethnic tensions that had been erupting in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighbourhood. The cover, predictably, sparked outrage, but it also made people talk about the New Yorker in a way they hadn't been doing for years. For Brown, the key to successful publishing was generating buzz: she wanted the New Yorker to be the talk of the town, and the Spiegelman cover certainly achieved that goal.
Brown asked Spiegelman to recommend art directors who could help her come up with covers that would keep up the buzz. He provided a list. Brown was also bouncing around ideas with Lawrence Weschler, who had profiled Spiegelman for Rolling Stone in 1986 and served as Brown's informal advisor. She asked Weschler why he thought Spiegelman hadn't included his own wife; Mouly and Brown had met once before at the office of RAW Books and Graphics, when Spiegelman was working on the interracial kiss cover, and Brown had been very impressed by the issues of RAW she saw there. It hadn't occurred to either Spiegelman or Mouly that they'd be interested in someone with Mouly's unconventional background. Weschler told Mouly Brown was considering hiring her.
A staff position at the New Yorker is a dream for many writers, artists and editors, but Mouly didn't initially leap at the opportunity; she had mixed feelings about both Brown and the magazine. As Mouly says, 'I heard Tina was brought in to the New Yorker at a dinner party in the summer of 1992, and I couldn't understand why everyone was so excited and opinionated about it. The New Yorker meant nothing to me except for being the place I sent artists I thought were too staid for RAW.'
Nor was Mouly impressed by the fact that Brown, as editor of Vanity Fair, had published a photo on the June 1985 cover showing an elegant Ronald and Nancy Reagan dancing during the presidential inaugural ball, accompanied by a gushing essay celebrating the couple penned by William F. Buckley, Jr. In RAW, Mouly and Spiegelman had frequently published comics that abrasively challenged the right-wing turn of American culture under Reagan. 'I hated Brown's Vanity Fair cover that had the Reagans dancing,' Mouly recalls. 'That was the enemy speaking, glamorizing a rearguard reactionary who was starting a grand squeeze of the middle class for the benefit of the super rich.'
But despite her political reservations, Mouly liked Brown personally. 'I was impressed by her when she came down to the office,' Mouly remembers. 'She's very charismatic, quick-witted, full of energy.' And like Brown herself, Mouly was thrilled by the firestorm of controversy Spiegelman's cover ignited. Both women had a strong visual sense and appreciated the power of images to stir debate. Nor was a love of inflammatory imagery the only thing the women had in common: both were dynamos, famous for pushing both themselves and the artists they worked with. Spiegelman describes Mouly as a 'whirling dervish,' someone always feverishly working on many projects at once. It was a good match.
Yet a New Yorker job would mean becoming an employee. Accustomed to being her own boss, and more at home with subversive art than subservient work, Mouly didn't want to be just an employee at a mass-market magazine trying to please subscribers: 'It really was visceral,' she explains. 'Why would I want to be somebody's secretary?' As she thought it over and discussed the possible job with friends, her feelings changed. Brown wasn't seeking just assistance, she realized, but rather Mouly's singular expertise. 'If Tina Brown knew what she wanted, she wouldn't be asking me,' Mouly said.
Mouly set about studying the magazine's visual history (aided by the fact that Weschler gave her access to the magazine's library). No admirer of its recent covers, which tended to the pastoral and decorative, she was delighted to discover that during its first few decades the front of the magazine had been dominated by flashy, poster-like images of New York life obviously inspired by one of the great French cartoon magazines of the early twentieth century, L'Assiette au Beurre. (Harold Ross, the New Yorker's founder, had been a soldier in France in World War I, where he likely encountered the country's rich graphic culture, just as he had been influenced by American humour magazines such as Judge and Life.) To reshape the front of the New Yorker as a contemporary, American version of L'Assiette au Beurre, with each cover an exuberant cartoon commentary on the world? That was an ambition that Mouly could put her heart into. 'Harold Ross and Tina Brown were both visual editors,' Mouly concluded.
Spontaneously, she drew up a proposal that argued the New Yorker should return to having artists as featured contributors, with not just more daring covers but also an increased use of photos and illustrations inside the magazine to be integrated with the prose and poetry. Soon after sending in the proposal, Mouly got a call to meet Brown for lunch.
That auspicious meal took place at the Royalton, a boutique hotel and Brown haunt close to the headquarters of Condé Nast, which owned the New Yorker. 'I knew what I wanted to do and was in a take-it-or-leave-it mode,' Mouly says. 'If it didn't work for Tina, that was fine with me. If she took it, I knew it would be a challenge, but it was an exciting one.' Mouly's main concern was how she would reconcile a high-powered job with raising her two kids, a daughter almost five and a son who had just turned one. Mouly thought about asking if the job could be delayed for a year, but knew the request would be rejected.
Mouly's proposal was barely discussed during the lunch; Brown had clearly made up her mind. Like Mouly, she was a mother of two and, at one point in their conversation, she looked at Mouly and asked, 'Do you have a good babysitter?' Mouly took the job.
The move from RAW to the New Yorker followed a pattern that had governed her life and career: a semi-steady course from the margins of culture to its centres of power. When Mouly first started publishing comics, they were a fringe and sometimes derided medium. Her tenure at RAW changed that, bringing attention and credibility to the form. Working at the New Yorker allowed her to further pursue her aesthetic agenda on one of the most prestigious stages in the world.
Even before taking on that challenge, Mouly was, by any estimation, an exceedingly illustrious and talented editor. She's had as massive and transformative an impact on comics as Ezra Pound had on modernist literature, Max Perkins on early-twentieth-century American novels or Gordon Lish on contemporary fiction. At RAW, she brought to comics the stringent and demanding conceptualism of modern art while remaining true to the form's democratic appeal as a mass art. She infused a staid New Yorker with an eye-catching, often eye-popping, cartoon aesthetic and added a whole new stratum of narrative meaning. More recently, and concurrent with her New Yorker work, Mouly founded TOON Books, a publishing outfit that is likewise revitalizing the formerly moribund field of children's comics.
If Mouly is so impressive a figure in the world of of comics and magazine editing, why have her achievements so rarely received the attention they deserve? Sexism is undeniably a factor. All too many journalistic and critical accounts speak of 'Art Spiegelman's RAW magazine' as if he did the editorial heavy lifting all by himself. This sexism exists in the culture at large but is particularly intense in the comics world, a subculture notorious, at least until recent years, for its nerdy 'no girls allowed' attitude. As Mouly notes, during her first few decades in comics she would routinely go to conventions that were more than 90 percent male and where she was often brushed off as an unwelcome interloper.
Another factor is simply the nature of her work. Mouly is an editor. A cartoonist or writer makes visible marks for all to see. Part of an editor's job is to disappear, to let the artist speak for himself or herself; editing has, in fact, been called 'the invisible art.' This book will try to make the invisible visible to show how Mouly's editorial fingerprints can be seen on every project she works on. She brings rigour and imagination to the craft of editing, and in doing so proves that editing can be more than a craft – it is, at its best, an art.
A Surgeon's Daughter
Françoise Mouly was born to disappoint her parents. She was particularly a bitter pill for her formidable father, Dr. Roger Mouly. A pioneer in popularizing plastic surgery in France, Dr. Mouly had made a name for himself not just as a much sought-after practitioner but also as a theorist and advocate of surgically modifying and improving the human body. With a colleague, he developed the Dufourmentel-Mouly method of breast reduction, which uses a lateral incision that leaves a smaller scar than earlier procedures. An expert whose wisdom was sought by both highly specialized medical journals and newspapers like Le Monde, a charismatic and flashy Parisian who managed to charm both conservative politicians such as Jacques Chirac and the student radicals who took to the streets in rzwy, a venerated professional who served as the vice-president of the Société internationale de chirurgie esthétique and was inducted as a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, Dr. Mouly thought he lacked only one thing to make his life complete and meaningful: a son who could inherit his practice and continue to make the Mouly name synonymous with French plastic surgery.
Françoise Mouly, the second of three daughters, made her unwelcome entrance into the world in rzvv. 'Both my parents had a very explicit complaint which they kept bringing up over and over again: that the worst thing that ever happened to them was to have three daughters,' Mouly recalls somewhat sarcastically. 'They only wanted to have a son. They put up with my older sister, but by the time I was born my father was so disappointed he nearly did not declare me at the town hall. A few years later my little sister was born, and shame again. My parents were crushed.' (Mouly is one year younger than her sister Laurence and six years older than Marie-Pierre, whose name is a memorial to the desire for a son who would have been named Pierre).
That heavy burden of parental discontent aside, Mouly's parents provided her with particular kinds of inspiration. Prior to her marriage to Dr. Mouly, Josée Giron had been a stewardess at TWA. It was a chic and sexy profession at the time (but one reserved for single women), and Mouly says now that her appreciation of beauty is very much tied to her sense of her mother as a 'truly beautiful, graceful, elegant and glamorous person.' Even as a child, Mouly wanted to create art beautiful enough to suit Giron: 'A lot of my early memories as a kid have to do with making objects and paintings for her.'
If her mother's elegance and grace kindled Mouly's aesthetic awareness, her early education gave shape to these interests through a holistic curriculum that combined writing, drawing and reciting. At the beginning of each class, as their homeroom teacher recited a poem, students using crow quill pens copied it out in calligraphic writing on the right side of their notebooks. On the left side, they illustrated the poem. Finally, at the bottom of the page, they were instructed to draw a geometric frieze. The lesson concluded with the students memorizing the poem – not just by rote, but with the passion and emotion of elocutionists.
'It was really great,' she says now. 'It combined the beauty of the words and the calligraphy with images, including the frieze, which had to be in keeping with the mood of the poetry. It brought together literature, memorization and acting out. That's all good training for a very full experience of the power of art and literature.' While this artistic education had broader purposes, it's hard to think of better training for a future editor of comics and illustration.
Aside from newspapers and magazines, neither Roger Mouly nor Josée Giron read much. The only books young Françoise ever received from her family were hand-me-down Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas volumes from her mother's childhood library. But as a child Mouly loved to read – it was 'the one activity that protected me from my family and from anything in school,' she says – and she craved books, particularly the lavishly illustrated fairy-tale treasuries offered as prizes for top students. 'French schooling is very consistent in never giving you anything but negative reinforcement,' Mouly explains. 'You get threatened all the time. Everyone is always ceaselessly ranked. You have exams every single day.' Ferociously competitive, Mouly's goal every year was to earn the large hardcover that was first prize. 'It was something I treasured,' she says. 'I read the stories and reread the stories and looked at the illustrations for hours.'
Illustrated fairy tales were a precursor to the comics she discovered a few years later. As a preteen, she loved to accompany her father to the newsstand, where he would buy Mouly the latest issue of Pilote, a weekly anthology best known for featuring the squat, quick-witted Gaul Astérix, whose rollicking adventures in the ancient world were then at the height of their popularity. René Goscinny, co-creator of Astérix and editor-in-chief of Pilote, was much influenced by Harvey Kurtzman – the mastermind behind the early Mad comics and Mad magazine – and Mouly loved the satirical, Mad-inspired sections of Pilote, which also included the Kurtzman-inflected work of Marcel Gotlib, whose strip La Rubrique-à-Brac she especially cherished. (She read dutifully, but with little pleasure, the melodramatic adventure series found on adjoining pages, notably Jean Giraud's solidly drawn but clichéd Wild West strip Blueberry.)
Excerpted from IN LOVE WITH ART by JEET HEER. Copyright © 2013 Jeet Heer. Excerpted by permission of COACH HOUSE BOOKS.
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