Jeet Heer’s delightful little book about Françoise Mouly’s journey from comic book-loving girlhood through to editor of The New Yorker is absolutely marvelous. It’s such a fun, easy read that I had to forcibly slow myself down so that I could savor it, and the only complaint I really have about the book is that I wish it were longer, because I would love to have read more anecdotes about all of the adventures Mouly had on her path to publishing.
Heer candidly prefaces his book by explaining that in writing about Raw in 2004 he begun by “Leaving aside Mouly for a moment…” and then went on to focus on co-editor Art Spiegelman’s role. At the time his partner confronted him about this choice; why leave Mouly aside? In endeavoring to redress that unbalanced piece Heer wrote this concise little book which charts the multi-talented woman’s massive contribution to artist expression in the commercial printed environment of comic books and illustration. Her eclectic talents and interests have taken her all over, as a junior surgical assistant, an architect, plumber, editor, printer, colorist, artist, mother, wife… the list is almost endless. Her transitions were wonderful to read about.
For anyone familiar with the avant garde comic book art anthology, Raw, Mouly is a familiar name. For readers unfamiliar with the late ’80’s magazine, the book does a great job of explaining what Raw was, how it began, what it meant to art, printing, comic books, and design. While I knew her as co-editor of Raw, I had no idea that her contribution to the magazine extended to artist, designer, colorist and even printer (she learned to print and she and Spiegelman bought a massive printer so that they could print the magazine themselves to their own exacting specifications). Art Spiegleman’s work on Raw is so often focused on that I had no clue as to the specifics of her contribution, let alone her inspiration or path to it. In this book Heer lays it all out beautifully, explaining in detail how her experiences as a child in France, reading European comic books like Tintin and Asterix, prepared her for a future creating a quality of comic book in America. He told of her love affair with New York, her unrelenting determination to print a quality publication in Raw, her role as a wife and mother, and her struggle as editor of The New Yorker to create a completely new tone for the established magazine.
Heer’s storytelling is impeccable, and the sparse quotes and anecdotes are delightful. Towards the back of the book are some key examples of Raw and New Yorker covers, along with detailed explanations of the thinking behind each example and the impact they had. His choices are strong, revealing and enlightening, but as with the anecdotes, I’d have been happy to read more about them. Perhaps someday this slim book this will inspire someone to publish an over-sized, glossy, color, full-on retrospective of Mouly’s work as an artist, printer, and an editor, along with more detailed information about the process used to arrive at those choices and the printing techniques used to create them.
Growing up I got used to finding that most compelling stories which interested me would focus on male characters. The male leads always seemed to have broader options and more assertive roles and I thought it didn’t matter to me what gender they were, that I could identify with a man as easily as a woman, (especially since stories about women didn’t often have the kind of focus and action which I wanted to see). However, reading about Mouly’s amazing career opened my eyes to how it could feel to read about a strong, creative, driven woman. It is an dizzying roller coaster of a read, alternating between the soaring feeling of inspiration and joy at her achievements, the occasionally dipping at the depressing awareness of my own limitations. We can’t all change the world, but Mouly has and continues to do so. Obviously Mouly is unique human being, a superhero of a woman who is living an incredible life by her own rules, and perhaps anyone (male or female) might feel awestruck upon reading this book… I hope so, it’s a wonderful thing to be so engaged by a career.