The French Woman Behind the New Yorker’s Covers

Françoise Mouly has been the art editor at the New Yorker for almost thirty years, and every week selects a drawing to adorn the prestigious magazine’s front cover. Born in Paris, she grew up with the illustrated, satirical press. Following this tradition and drawing on her friendships with underground artists in the 1970s, she has made the New Yorker’s cover a mirror held up to America. Her choices encourage readers to look more closely at political scandals, the struggle of healthcare professionals during the coronavirus pandemic, and the origins of racism in the United States.
Françoise Mouly with David Remnick, the editor in chief of the New Yorker. He has the last word on the drawing published on the cover. “If he says yes, we’re good to go!” © Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times

Françoise Mouly isn’t scared of ruffling feathers. “I had never paid much attention to the New Yorker. Their covers were predictable; they featured the same rustic scenes with a little country house and a flowerpot on the windowsill. Those still-life pieces had become the house style – quite drab compared to what we were doing at Raw!” In 1993, Mouly was 37, had been living in New York for almost 20 years, and co-directed an avant-garde graphic novel magazine and publishing house with her husband, American artist Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus. Together they published American cartoonists Robert Crumb and Charles Burns, and French illustrators Jacques de Loustal, Francis Masse, and Jacques Tardi.

However, she was the one offered a job as art editor at the venerable New Yorker. In the early 1990s, the magazine was looking to revamp its bland, consensual image. William Shawn had been the editor in chief from 1952 through 1987, and had always preferred neutral covers. While the articles reported on major societal events such as riots, wars, and revolutions, the cover was invariably bucolic. “It’s not supposed to be spectacular,” Shawn would say. “When it appears on a newsstand, it’s not supposed to stand out. It’s a restful change from all the other covers.”

Françoise Mouly in her office at the New Yorker, 2015. © Sarah Shatz
Art Spiegelman, Valentine’s Day, February 15, 1993. © Art Spiegelman/The New Yorker

To highlight the change of direction, the New Yorker asked Spiegelman to create the cover for the February 15, 1993 issue. In a nod to Valentine’s Day, he drew a Hassidic Jew and a Black woman locked in a passionate embrace. The Crown Heights riot – a clash between Jewish and African-American communities in Brooklyn two years earlier – was on everyone’s minds in the run-up to the local elections. The image caused a scandal. “The American press was shocked that the New Yorker had made a cover out of such a subject,” says Mouly. The stage was set for her to join the magazine.

The Wall of Refusals

Some 1,300 covers later, and the French woman is still at the helm. Forced to work from home during the pandemic, she will return to her office and its walls strewn with sketches on the 23rd floor of One World Trade Center in Manhattan in September. The old covers inspire her, and the drawings that didn’t make the cut give a glimpse of her work. She released them in a book, Blown Covers (available in French under the title Les dessous du New Yorker), in 2012, and French publisher La Martinière recently approached her to produce a second volume. Rejecting a drawing is the hardest part of her job, according to Mouly, but each piece that finishes on the wall of “refusals” encourages healthy competition between the artists.

The art editor is the guardian of the treasured front cover. Illustrators see it as the Mount Everest of their careers, a rare honor reserved for the best among them. Mouly is constantly solicited, and compares her work to that of an air traffic controller. “I don’t want all my planes to land at once. I keep some of them in the sky a little longer than others, sometimes for years, before giving them permission to land. The artists have to be patient.” When choosing a cover for the Fourth of July, Mothers’ Day, or Thanksgiving, she sometimes publishes a drawing received months or even years before. A good cover in Mouly’s eyes should be independent (they rarely have anything to do with an article in the magazine), timeless (they should be easily understood ten days or ten years after being published), and abstract enough to allow for several different interpretations.

“The New Yorker’s covers are puzzles. It’s up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.” Take one of Jacques de Loustal’s drawings, for example. The cover, published in June 1994, featured a couple of men in tuxedos in front of a wedding cake – a nod to Gay Pride month years before the debate on same-sex marriage, which was finally legalized in New York State in 2011. The magazine follows the American tradition of objective journalism and does not takes sides. But it does prompt dialogue to encourage different perspectives.

Jacques de Loustal, June Grooms, June 13, 1994. © Jacques de Loustal/The New Yorker
Kadir Nelson, Say Their Names, June 22, 2020. © Kadir Nelson/The New Yorker

A Whole Story on One Page

The art editor tells stories, tender, explosive, and always unexpected, by working with “storytellers,” comic book artists and authors of children’s books. (In 2008, Mouly founded Toon Books, a publishing house specialized in comics for young readers.) Her favorite artists include Americans Barry Blitt, Adrian Tomine, and Kadir Nelson, who created a remarkable cover in response to George Floyd’s death, and French illustrators Sempé, Malika Favre, and Pascal Campion, who highlighted the solitude of New York delivery workers in a city gripped by the pandemic.

When recruiting new artists – who include a growing number of women and people of color – Mouly advises them to immerse themselves in the New Yorker’s archives, covers from the 1930s and 1940s, and illustrations from L’Assiette au Beurre, a weekly anarchist magazine popular in France in the early 20th century. These are the types of drawings – intelligent, daring, hard-hitting – that she is looking to emulate. “I come from a tradition of politically active artists who speak up and make people think,” says Mouly, who defended the freedom to caricature after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in 2015. She is using her “mandate” at the New Yorker to shine a light on the darker side of American society, with its racism, sexual and religious taboos, veterans struggling to return to civilian life, and the free movement of firearms. Her position as a foreigner enables her to judge the relevance of cultural references and gives her a certain freedom of tone. As she says herself, “I’m not scared of putting my foot in it!”

Barry Blitt, The Politics of Fear, July 21, 2008. © Barry Blitt /The New Yorker
Malika Favre, Behind the Lens, February 10, 2020. © Malika Fabre/The New Yorker

One example she gives is the July 21, 2008 issue. The cover displayed Obama campaigning for the Democratic primaries wearing a djellaba, fist-bumping Michelle, who was dressed like Marxist activist Angela Davis, while the American flag burned in the fireplace of the Oval Office. Published three months before the presidential elections, Barry Blitt’s drawing whipped up international outrage. “We were just showing what everyone was whispering about in the rest of the media,” says Mouly. “The cover drew a lot of criticism, but it also inspired dialogue. I’m proud of it. It was one of the most important images of the year.”

Article published in the August 2020 issue of 
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