Spotlight on Francoise Mouly

When the history of comics is written, Francoise Mouly will likely have her own chapter. She was the co-founder, co-editor, publisher and designer of "RAW," one of the great comics anthologies as well as one of the most influential. It was in the pages of "RAW" that European artists like Joost Swarte and Jacques Tardi were published alongside Americans like Charles Burns, Ben Katchor and Gary Panter. It was in the pages of "RAW" that Art Spiegelman serialized "Maus." It was the anthology and book series where design and production value became a central aspect of comics creation.

In 1993, Mouly was invited by "The New Yorker" Editor Tina Brown to join the magazine as Art Editor, a position Mouly continues to hold. A number of cartoonists associated with "RAW" and many not associated with the magazine have since become regular contributors to "The New Yorker's" interior pages and covers, including Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti and Adrian Tomine. The magazine already had a great tradition of art and cartoons, but Mouly reinvigorated the publication, and if her tenure is not looked back upon as the magazine's highpoint, it will arguably be due to the fact that publishing no longer plays as central a role in daily life as it once did, not because of Mouly's lack of talent or ambition.

Since the late nineties, Mouly has been interested in publishing comics for children, first with the "Little Lit" books and Raw Junior, then later though Toon Books, which recently became an imprint of Candlewick Press. Mouly doesn't give many interviews, but she becomes excited when speaking about the artists she's worked with, books she's read and working with children, becoming almost disinterested when it comes to speaking about herself. When she spoke with CBR News, we had a wide-ranging conversation about her work and career. At times she uses the word "we," which in the context of this interview refers to her and her husband, "RAW" co-founder and Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

CBR News: I wanted to start by saying thank you. I know that you don't do many interviews.

Francoise Mouly: Thank you. It's one of the obligations to talk about what I do, as well as doing it. I much prefer doing it. [Laughs]

Photo © 2010 Sarah Shatz

I would imagine, now that Toon Books is an imprint of Candlewick, that should become a bit easier.

It's the best of all worlds. They are great partners to have. They are themselves very independent and autonomous. They are outside, in terms of not being in New York City, in terms of being a collective, not being such a corporation. We are dealing with individuals who make decisions and can actually answer questions as opposed to, oh, I'll take it to the board meeting to discuss. They have a very good track record in terms of doing innovative books that win prizes and go across categories.

[Toon Books] had done things that were not standard in the children book world, such as publishing hardcover books that won a lot of prizes and were reviewed and got some literary awards, but also stressing the fact that the books are for emerging readers and can have an educational function. In the children's book world, it tended to be either/or. Either it was published as a book that got literary awards, but nobody discussed the vocabulary or the reading level, or it was an educational book and nobody expected it to have any kind of literary value. We were shooting for both

In the old days, when a cartoonist would bring a book of comics to an editor an at a mainstream house, they would be told, as Geoffrey Hayes was -- he's a cartoonist who's thrived at Toon Books, winning the Geisel Award last year -- he was told, if you have information in the pictures, you must repeat it in the words. The opposite of what you want to do in a good comic book. They can't have information that's purely visual, because, of course, children don't understand images, as we all know. [Laughs]

We always wanted to be in the children's book section and force the acceptance of comics as children's books. There's no reason why they couldn't be. Many of the classic children's books, be they Maurice Sendak's "In the Night Kitchen" or a book by William Steig or "Harold and the Purple Crayon" by Crockett Johnson, are books by cartoonists. You couldn't imagine Eloise not as a visual book. Those are books with a visual flow that drives the books. With Candlewick, nobody's going to put their books in the graphic novel section. Even when they publish comics, they will be in children's books. The books that we're making are not for comics fans; they're for young children to read and be read to.

What's the challenge and the process of putting together a Toon Book? You're creating books for young children that are educational -- they do a great job of not talking down to children.

The challenges are numerous. [Laughs] One of the first steps in choosing a Toon Book is finding a story that has an original voice and a story that's worth telling. That's what will be at the core of the book. Then, once we have a good story, we work with the artist to find a good visual flow. We know that one of the strengths of our books is the visual storytelling, so we spend a lot of time with that, with getting the page turn.

It's not easier to edit comics for children than it is to edit comics for adults. In fact, it may be even harder because you can take a lot less for granted in the frame of reference and what is appropriate for a young child. Then we take the roughs to a school with kids at the age we're aiming at. We read it with them, or we let them read it and take discreet notes as to how they see things and how they stumble on something or misread or misconstrue or read something well. We'll rework the text with the help of educators. In some of the books, some of the authors actually have asked us for a vetted vocabulary list. That's how "The Cat in the Hat" was done, from a list of 200 words. Some of our authors have taken on the challenge to start from the vocabulary list. Art Spiegelman, who did "Jack in the Box," wanted to use a narrow vocabulary range.

We have teachers who are very wonderfully tuned into our needs who will go through the book and say, "This word you can replace with this one, which is easier to read. This one, there's no replacement, but you can explain it in the pictures." For example, in one of the first "Benny and Penny" stories by Geoffrey Hayes, Benny is a pirate. Obviously there's no other word for that which a child of that age would encounter, so we illustrate it with Benny in a pirate boat wearing a pirate hat with a pirate flag flying. There's three visual clues for when that word is introduced, and the word is bolded. Once we have introduced the word, another thing I have learned from teachers is once you introduce a word, you should actually use it again and again. At that point, you don't need to illustrate it three times.

It's arduous and it's a lot of mechanics. It feels like it's more editing than I did with the artists in "RAW," because there's all these other steps, watching somebody read the book and fine tuning. We starting publishing in the summer of 2007 and plenty of little kids are growing up reading our books and falling in love with the books. That's such an amazing reward. It makes it all worth it.

To go back, I know that you studied architecture in school. Were you a comics fan as a child?

I'm not the only would-be architect that gravitated towards comics. There are a lot of architects in comics, especially in Europe. The two disciplines have a lot in common in terms of organizing information in a visual way and the back and forth between form and function. That mental gymnastics that you have to do between how it looks and how it works. As a kid, I was a comics fan, and so was everybody else I knew. I grew up in France. Everybody read comics.

So you grew up reading "Pilote" and "Spirou" and magazines like that.

More "Pilote" than "Spirou." "Pilote" was my magazine. It's one of my fond memories. When "Pilote" was coming out, my dad would take me to the newsstand on the corner to buy me a copy. For birthdays and Christmas, I got the bound volumes. "Pilote," at the time, was great. It had Gotlib and a lot of other terrific artists, quite influenced, I realized much later, by the early "Mad."

Why did I switch from architecture to comics? Specifically, because when I was studying architecture, one of the things that endlessly frustrated me was the disconnect between the architect's vision and what he or she can actually accomplish. Architectural school is an eight year course of training. You are told to envision a school, a museum and apartment complex, a city even. Nobody answered my query, which was, this has nothing to do with what we'll be doing as a functioning architect. We're not just going to sit there and make cities. It really bothered me that the practical aspect of being an architect, ninety-eight percent would have consisted of sitting in somebody else's office and drafting. And not necessarily drafting anything that exciting.

I kept struggling with this, and when I discovered graphic arts and book making, a lightbulb went off. This is my field. With book making, I can actually conceive of something and design it and edit it and get it drawn and do all of the steps, and then I can print. I actually fell into this by buying a printing press and printing my own little books. That's how "RAW" was born, because of that urge of wanting to make something that I envisioned and being able to give it shape. I'm still high on that ability of, "This doesn't exist, but I can make it happen."

That story, of how you bought a printing press and had it in your apartment, is so fascinating, because one of the things which distinguished "RAW" was the design and production value.

It's hard to remember, because nowadays everybody has a printing press in their house, because they have a computer and a printer. In 1977, when I bought my press, nobody had access to printing. Certainly not in their house. It was a big deal to get something printed. You didn't even have photocopiers in your house or your small office. This is before Kinko's. I remember Russian friends of ours coming over to the loft and seeing my press and they nearly fell on the floor because they came from the Soviet Union and the idea of someone who actually had a press... [Laughs]

That was so exciting. Again, today I have a printer at home, I have six of them at the office, and I print all the time. I would think of something, make it, print it, staple it, bundle it, bring it to the store and put it on sale. I know it sounds idiotic in terms of how easy it would be to do something like that now.

When I was trying to do comics for kids in 1998, I was working with HarperCollins and did the Little Lit books with the best editor I could have ever dream of, Joanna Cutler, with a great publishing house. It wasn't the same thing as what I'm doing now with Toon Books, where I'm actually staying up in the middle of the night looking at proofs from my printer. With Little Lit, I didn't have full control of the entire aspect of publishing, but with Toon Books, I do. I really, really, really like having something where I can understand and control every aspect of it. That's why I'm so happy with Candlewick, because they are respectful of the part that I can do well, but they are providing the sales force and the distribution and not changing the format that we have.

"RAW" is seen as a key periodical and a key moment of American comics. Looking at "Arcade," an anthology from a few years earlier that Art Speigelman co-edited, the difference between the design and production that we see there and what we see in "RAW" is very pronounced. Today, we look at Drawn and Quarterly and Picturebox and Pantheon and L'Association and even at Marvel and DC, and production value and design are much more central than they were a generation ago. To what degree you think that's true, and how much do you think "RAW" and you played a role in that shift?

It's not something I do easily, toot my own horn, probably to my own detriment, but when I talk to somebody like Chris Oliveros, he very readily acknowledges that the source of his inspiration is "RAW." I think there's not just a chronological precedent, but "RAW" brought into the world an attitude that didn't exist in that world before. That's the only thing that is actually worth doing. A lot of times the reason that I really wanted to do "RAW" was because I could imagine that magazine, those books of comics, those objects, and if I didn't do them, nobody else would have done them. We were in touch with people in Europe like Joost Swarte, and they were producing some beautiful book objects at the time. He's a great designer and Joost was also very interested in design and printing.

When "RAW" first came out, we brought together not just the work but also the sensibilities and attention to design, a lot of trends and currents and artists, that we put together in "RAW" with American artists who hadn't been published. In a way, my printing press and my desire to make it happen worked as a catalyst to put all those together. I have some sense that Chris Oliveros picked up where we left off. I stopped "RAW" pretty much in the early nineties after not the first, but the second kid, when I started [at] "The New Yorker." Everything that has come out since is a great testimony to all the potential that was there. But "RAW" came on the trail of "Breakdowns," which was a collection of comics that Art [Spiegelman] did that came out in '78. That's how I learned color separations.

Technology has changed dramatically. There's far more access to design with desktop computing, so everybody and his brother has access to typefaces and fancy colors. Joost Swart's image on the cover of "RAW" #2 introduced a European palate which wasn't actually in use in the U.S. Now, you look at James Sturm's latest book, "Market Day," which is just gorgeous, a beautiful example of what has become a European/American palate. There's a number of things that have to do with design and production and the making of the book as an object that got put into place at the time when we were doing "RAW." We did function as a catalyst for a lot of divergent forces and aesthetics. We went to Japan in, I think, '83. "RAW" wasn't a defined aesthetic that then had to be applied by the artists that would join the school. Quite the opposite. From the beginning, it was trying to find the most congenial platform for radically different artists.

I tried to do the same thing at "The New Yorker," where when I entered, there was a very predictable approach to the "flower pot on windowsill" kind of "New Yorker" cover. I've been at this for seventeen years now and I pride myself on the fact that you can't predict, or I can't predict and nobody can predict what will be on the cover next week. It's not one kind of art. This week, we came out with a cover by David Hockney. Next week we have a cover by Chris Ware. It's very varied.

I was at Chris Ware's [gallery] opening last week. Besides Chris, there was Charles Burns and Adrian Tomine and Richard Maguire and David Sandlin and everybody who's anybody was there. [Laughs] The thing that's always true, with "RAW" or "The New Yorker," is the mutual respect. There's not much bullshit. It's a self-selecting group, in a way, but it also does include all people that are dedicated to doing the best they can in their work.

It's self-selecting because of the medium and the level they work at, not self-selecting because of the aesthetic of their work.

Right. It's hard to put into words. Some people are more influenced by Chris [Ware] and others by Charles Burns, and the influences keep circulating. It's not like everybody is following the same approach. Everybody is being true to his or her own muse.

European comics, at the time when I was a reader and certainly when I was doing "RAW," a lot of it had to do with a character, not with the artist. The [Jacques] Tardi that we met back in the seventies was "Adele Blanc-sec." What really drove the publishing was establishing a storyline and a character, and the artist would repeat that performance week after week. A good example of this is "Zippy the Pinhead." That's Bill Griffith. There's nothing wrong with that and I'm not saying that it's not a valid approach. It's a very valid approach when the author is given enough freedom, but there is a shift that does take place when we published "RAW" which had to do with bringing to the fore the sensibility.

Gary Panter's early work was "Jimbo," and that was based on the character. Then it slowly becomes Panter's work. You can see that transition. You can recognize Charles Burns' work in his new book as well as in "Black Hole." That's the sensibility of the author. That's one of the things "RAW" made easier to see, because we were very articulate about what we were doing so that we could give a support for that shift that would be as broad as possible. "RAW" is not an accident. "RAW" was designed in every sense of the word. Not just the look of it, but also the existence of it and the positioning of it. What's exciting to me is not just figuring out the object, but also figuring out how that object can find and meet readers and define a relationship between the reader and the author.

What is your day like at "The New Yorker?" As a longtime subscriber, I'm really curious. I'm sure it's constantly changing.

[Laughs] For a weekly magazine, it's remarkably unpredictable. One thing that makes my life livable is that I get to run my own little fiefdom. Compared to everybody else, I have very little interaction with my colleagues. Part of it is my adamant refusal to do it any other way, but fortunately for me, I don't need to get six people's opinion on whether they like this or don't like that. I am answerable to just one editor. That is great. It gives me a lot more flexibility, so it's mostly spent with two sets of people. One set is the artists themselves. There's a lot of back and forth because I don't so much tell them what to do as solicit ideas out of them in a fairly constant back and forth.

The other part is I spend an inordinate amount of time on the production. I do all the pre-press production and I have my own team of very skilled professionals. At this point, and it's been true as long as I've been there, I probably have the best professionals in the business in terms of pre-press. Not on photos, because that's not what we do, but on drawn images. It's getting rarer and rarer because fewer and fewer people know how to do this and fewer and fewer people have a chance to do it. That part of it, the hands on part of it, I always make time for because it's important to me and it pays off. There are things, like the black on black cover that I did with Art [Spiegelman] for September 11 -- I wouldn't have been able to do that if I didn't know how to do production. There were all those pressures to be on the press for that and I have a Chris Ware [cover] that is printing and many conferences about this because we're using colors and density that are not common. At first they said no, and then I go through the whole necessary discussion with the plant to make sure that can happen and happen properly. I spend remarkably little time with other "New Yorker" colleagues. Not because I don't like them -- I value them immensely and a lot of them are my friends. It's just that I don't have time to hang. But then, there's not too many people at "The New Yorker" who get to hang much anyway.

This independence that you have, was it there from beginning when Tina Brown hired you onto the magazine?

When Tina brought me on board, she wanted a new kind of cover and visuals inside, and she didn't exactly know what that would be. If I had more of what I want, there's not much about the covers that I would do any differently, but I would want more strips inside. I mean, it's fine to use cartoonists as illustrators, but not terribly interesting to me. I'm much more interested in, give me four pages of fiction and I'll give that to a cartoonist. At some point, I would like to do convergences of comic strips and articles. It is a little frustrating. My editor is a writer, and such a good writer, but he's prejudiced in favor of writers.

I think that one of the things that is notable about your tenure is that there is no such thing as a typical "New Yorker" cover.

I try.

Having said that, and this speaks to your skill as an editor and designer, you've taken older "New Yorker" artists like the late Saul Steinberg and Jean-Jacques Sempe, cartoonists from "RAW," other cartoonists, people from the fine arts world, and you've really allowed them to play to their strengths. Yet the covers never feel wrong or out of place. There's no such thing as a typical cover, but all of these people and styles fit.

Well, thank you. That's exactly what I try to do. Again, because I need to keep it interesting for myself. One of my greatest privileges, when I became the art editor, was to be Saul Steinberg's editor, as well as being Sempe's editor. Sempe was so happy his editor was a French person. [Laughs] He had been somewhat alienated from "The New Yorker" at the time of Gottlieb. [Robert Gottlieb was "The New Yorker" Editor between 1987-1992]. He just felt homeless and had no one he could communicate with. Certainly, he couldn't believe his luck when he landed a French person in that position.

With Steinberg, I wasn't that well versed in his work, but I learned so much from him. That's one of the things that keeps me taking on new challenges, even though I'm old and weathered now. Every time I enter a new field, I get to learn so much from the people that I work with. I was his editor for four or five years, but I really learned a lot from him, things that really stay with me. Like Occam's Razor -- if you can say it simple or say it complicated, say it simple. He was an artist that was unbelievably articulate and funny and witty, but also was very, very precise and kept boiling things down to their essence. That has been very useful, as an artist and as an editor.

Sempe is a delight because he is one of the greatest artists. I grew up with his work and his books. At this point, he's a dear friend and I'm moved to tears to have that luck that I can work with him. The other day, we launched our iPad app, and the big visual all over the Conde Nast building in our lobby and on our floor and in the cafeteria was a cover by Sempe. To see this drawing by my very dear Frenchman all over this New York beacon of media power, that image chosen to herald the new technology, it's nice.

Certainly, being able to bring in Chris Ware and Maguire and Mazzuchelli and all of those people, that was great. Then, to work with "The New Yorker" artists like Barry Blitt and Bruce McCall and Ian Falconer. When I first got offered the job many years ago my first reaction was, no way. Why would I work for somebody? Obviously, I reconsidered. After all, it's not like working for somebody where I have to do what they say. It's more like working for somebody where they trusted me to answer a rather open-ended question, such as, what should we put on the cover of this magazine? [Laughs]

Robert Crumb, in an interview with "The Paris Review" earlier this year, made a comment about how he wouldn't be working for "The New Yorker" anymore. He's one of the few people who's had many interior pages in the magazine to tell stories.

Well, what he's specifically chafing from is something that was not handled well. I'm the first to take the blame for this. Will I be able to get to the other side of that? We'll see. Never say never. Did he have a legitimate grievance? Yes, he did. Did he express it? Yes, he did. Am I surprised that he did? No, I'm not. It wasn't gracious and I've had comments made to me, asking how come all of the ungracious comments about "The New Yorker" come from people associated with you? Well, it's not my fault that I hang out with underground cartoonists. They're not known for their polite behavior. [Laughs] They're actually known for the opposite.

Did Robert have a legitimate grievance? Yes, he did. He did a piece, and I had it ready to run and it didn't run. It's entirely my mistake. In retrospect, I would do it differently. It didn't affect his relationship with me. We're still friends. Certainly, for a while, it affected his relationship with "The New Yorker," but within a week or two of him saying this, we published a drawing by him with his permission, so it's not like it's written in stone either. We'll see. Again, it's not like he's working on something right now, but I certainly would hope that the possibility remains open.

In closing, what is coming up from Toon Books soon that excites you?

We had to skip a beat with the shifting to Candlewick, so a book we had announced for the fall of this year, another "Silly Lilly" book by Agnes Rosenstiehl, is now on the spring list coming out from Toon Books, an imprint of Candlewick Press. There's a new book by Geoffrey Hayes. He's the author of the "Benny and Penny" books which have gotten so many awards.

We're not publishing anything this fall, but we have ten or eleven new books in the works. I can't wait to talk about them, but it's premature. The new setup will allow us to publish reliably 4-5 books a year, which is not many nor too few. It's a lot, considering we're still a fly by night operation. On the other hand, it's nothing compared to "real" publishing houses, but it's perfect for us in terms of the amount of attention we want to give to every book. So much of our energy in the past year, year and a half, was devoted to the promotion and the advocating of comics for kids. Having to go to library shows, which is really fascinating and interesting, did have a negative impact on my ability to produce new books. I couldn't do everything. Now I can let the Candlewick people do what they're doing so well, and just focus on the new books.

Candlewick has published a number of graphic novels for kids and had some success with that.

They're a dream come true, to find an outfit that has both that degree of talent and professionalism and still is at the human scale. Putting a book together has so many different components. The production, the design, the printing, the PR -- every part of it is essential, and at Candlewick, it's a collective. It's actually an employee-owned company. They're a bunch of socialists, which is fabulous. [Laughs] I mean, how much better could it be than working with people who are actually invested in what they do and believe in it and get compensated for doing a good job? It's great.

Tags: toon books, francoise mouly, art spiegelman, the new yorker

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