Feature Culture

Learning to Take Comics Seriously

Whether art directing covers for The New Yorker or publishing graphic novels for kids, Françoise Mouly is always image conscious. by Jed Oelbaum

April 20, 2015

For someone whose work is the outward face of the inviolable, highbrow New Yorker, Françoise Mouly has never been one to shy away from getting her hands dirty. In her youth, she worked as a plumber, electrician, and Grand Central Station cigarette vendor. And in the ‘80s, when Mouly co-founded pioneering comic book magazine RAW, she hand-bound each copy, churning out pages on a small, secondhand printing press at home. But while Mouly began RAW as a do-it-yourself project, distinctly “underground” in its content and audience, as the art editor of the glossy New Yorker, she now reaches millions every week with her work, which includes some of the most groundbreaking, provocative covers in the magazine’s history. 

When Mouly first moved to New York from Paris as a young architecture student in 1974, she turned to comic books to help her learn English. Having grown up on cartoons chronicling the adventures of characters like Asterix and Philémon, she was dismayed to find not only a dearth of comics on American newsstands, but also a prevailing cultural attitude that comics were lowbrow filth, dangerous to children, and a fundamentally unserious medium. Now a veteran of the funny book game, when not working on The New Yorker, Mouly is taking on the historical and ongoing prejudices against comics, touting both their educational and artistic merit with her award-winning TOON Books imprint. TOON publishes high-quality comics for children, producing graphic books that target specific age ranges and tap into the way kids grow as readers. And last fall, the company launched their TOON Graphics line for older kids and adults, a bridge for the company’s young fans to a lifetime love of comics.

Cover of RAW Issue #1.

I met Mouly at the home she shares with her children and husband, Maus author Art Spiegelman. It’s the same SoHo loft they’ve had since the ‘70s, the former headquarters of RAW now doubling as TOON’s offices. The space is steeped in overloaded bookcases and haphazard piles of books—on the tables, on the couch, everywhere—that look like they accumulated there naturally, in situ, little literary stalagmite formations. The walls are covered with signed prints, vintage posters, and original artwork by comic book luminaries like R. Crumb and Charles Burns, mixed in among other artifacts of what Mouly calls the couple’s “life spent in common.”

When Mouly joins me, we sit down, clearing books and magazines from the table to make room, and she tells me about TOON, The New Yorker, the nature of her fight for comic book legitimacy, and the enduring value of getting one’s hands on a physical book.

Why is it such a revelation to have good comics for kids? Comics are for kids, right?

Well, yes, it was something that was a surprise to me when I came here, to discover the prejudice against comics. Art had to explain to me there was this psychologist, [Fredric] Wertham, on a campaign that said that [comics] perverted children’s minds, using the example of very extreme, gory horror comics of the ‘50s. It led even to book burnings and congressional hearings. France has censor boards and so on, but still, [American anti-comics sentiment] became a hysterical and excessive denunciation of the medium, which was so totally out of line.

And over time, it also became a leitmotif of my life that ‘hey, comics are not just for kids.’ They can be used as a medium for personal expression, as they were in Art’s work, and [in the work of] a lot of the underground cartoonists, like Robert Crumb, Justin Green. It took until I became a parent to realize that in legitimizing the medium for personal expression and taboo-breaking underground comics, there had been a kind of stepping over the reality of comics for children as legitimate. And that many of the authors who were devoting their energy to being cartoonists were doing anything but kid’s comics.

It became the dominant goal for many cartoonists to do a 300-page memoir about something that happened to them, and a lot of the serious work that was being done was moving in that direction. It took a lot of the focus and the energy away from some things that I thought were just as valid. Like good stories for children.

After fighting to make comics a legitimate art form, and now fighting to bring them back to quality material for children again, do you think of yourself and Art as activists?

Well, in a way … you know, it doesn’t work that way. I think if one has a grandiose goal and sets out to meet it, you’ll fall flat on your face because it’s too presumptuous. But what I like in so much of what I’ve done, what keeps me going, is that it’s literally one page at a time, one book at a time. It’s not so much standing up on a soapbox and starting to ventilate about this cause, or that cause. It’s simply making a very humble object, which is a simple book, with so many pages, and so many covers, and the quality of the book itself. … That’s what’s important.

But it’s a good message to have, to make people realize how much images matter. Images tend to be dismissed by many people, like, ‘it’s just a cartoon,’ or ‘it’s just a picture.’ As if that was something lesser than other kinds of information. My understanding and contention in everything that I’ve experienced is that when it’s done well, a cartoon can actually be not a reduction, but a summation and a distillation of complex ideas. And because they need to be read and interpreted in a specific way by readers, they can open up many doors.

How are TOON books, and comic books in general, helping kids become better readers?

As a mother, seeing my kids grow up and the impact that reading comics had on them, it became clear that far from being what was hailed as a medium that would turn them into juvenile delinquents, and would prevent them from being literate, it’s a gateway to literature, as Art says, a gateway drug to reading.

Comics are a great way to get into reading because there is the intuitive part of reading the pictures. In a way, they are contextual support for the words, and they put in little bursts—speech balloons, captions—which make it easy to spend time with one of these printed objects. And I think that’s necessary for developing literacy in 2015 … a visual literacy that gives you more of a basis for watching YouTube videos, or Snapchat, or whatever the latest thing is.

Spread of “We Dig Worms!” book by Kevin McCloskey courtesy of TOON Books.

I wanted to ask you about the idea of visual literacy. Can you describe what it is and why it’s an important skill for kids to have?

Well, I think it’s recently named. As somebody living in the 21st century, you’re bombarded—you probably see a thousand pictures a day between the phone, and computer, and TV, if you’re still someone that watches TV. But everyone is realizing that you read pictures in a way that, until recently, hadn’t been discussed. We don’t have much of a vocabulary for this. We talk about literacy as if it was only getting content out of words, but if you look at advertisements, at magazines, videos, they are visual. There are a lot of ways in which the information that we process has a visual component. Even the way we interface with computers and text itself has a visual component—we can no longer just think of it as letters on a page or black screen.

So it’s important to form this vocabulary. It’s a tool for understanding how profoundly visual elements affect us. We have to talk about how we can become aware of this and use it to understand sequential narratives. All of this, comics do so well—present information and words and pictures. James Sturm, who runs the comic school in Vermont, the Center for Cartoon Studies—I heard him say that we think of comics as words and pictures, but he thinks of them as graphic design and poetry. And that’s really well said because the visuals in comics are spare in way that’s more like design as a discipline. It’s more than just lines and illustration; it’s boiled down to an essence—‘idea-pictures.’ Similarly, the words are not this flow of words, but rather this small number of words, meant to have an evocative meaning. Put together, it can be an essential tool for understanding the way we are affected by the material we process. It’s as important to be visually literate, to understand pictures and how they affect us, as it is to be word-literate.

So is “visual literacy” a totally different area than word literacy? How does TOON approach the two as components of learning to read?

The two go together. That’s why these books work so well. In the best of all worlds, everyone would grow up being able to spend time in museums, looking at paintings, and so on. But it doesn’t always go that way. There is often more of a focus on words. And educators, parents, and librarians are often more comfortable with words because that’s how they’ve been trained. So, even if they’ve been told at some educational conference or online that comics are good for kids and reading, a number have said to me, ‘I don’t know how to read comics or graphic novels. I don’t know how to choose them.’

In fact, they often give things to children that are actually visually unhelpful, such as—there’ll be a block of text, and a picture that illustrates what the text says. Now, if you’re a kid, you go for what’s most efficient. If it’s already shown in the picture, you don’t need to read the text. You’re not getting anything extra by reading the words. A lot of what are actually proposed as books for children don’t have that dance between the words and the pictures.

That’s one of the biggest reasons I wanted to do the TOON books, because the primers that were given to me—by a really good school—for my son would show a picture of a cat in front of a door and would say ‘the cat is in front of the door.’ It says ‘the cat goes out the door,’ and the picture is of the cat going out the door. Now what’s the reason to read the words if you already know the story? There’s no humor or narrative drive, playfulness, none of the things that anyone in her right mind would be motivated by. So I think it’s really important to acknowledge that both as children and adults, we are driven by a very simple pleasure principle. It has to be pleasurable to read. It has to have literary value, it has to be a good story, it has to have something where if you spend time with the pictures, it can convey a lot of meaning.

So, in the big TOON anthology, in which you reprinted all those classic comics, was that material you read when you were young?

When I was a kid growing up in France, I read French comics. When we became parents, Art and I, we basically sacrificed our collection of old comics to a good cause, which is getting our kids into loving books, and printed matter, and reading. Our [children] loved Groo by Sergio Aragones and also whatever French comics I could get my hands on. But we also had Little Lulu’s, we had beautiful collections, printings, some the originals in black and white.

We just had a lot of old comics—they’re something that Art read to me when we were first an item. When I met him, I couldn’t speak English that well. But one of the things that was wonderful is that he would read comics to me, so he would read me Little Nemo, and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and the Carl Barks duck stories.

What do you mean when you say you sacrificed the books to the cause [of your kids]?

You know how kids read them, in the bathtub, at the dinner table. … Neither Art nor I ever kept things in double plastic bags, or in a way that was pristine, but certainly when they’re read by two kids, they fall apart!

One of the things that we realize is that print is alive—certainly for comics, and also for children’s books, you want to hold the object in your hands. Kids want that physical object, to hold the book—it’s different than a flux of information on a screen that’s hard to hold in your mind, and absorb, and reread. To become conversant, to become comfortable with literature, one of the most important things is to be able to come back to it and find new things on the second reading, on the third reading. And traditionally, that’s been one of the virtues of comics, that you didn’t just read them once. You read them the first time to get the story juices out of them, and then you go back. … Kids get very addicted to the same story—as every parent, or uncle, or aunt, or grandparent knows, kids want to hear the same thing over and over. Repetition is very important. And for that, a physical book is great.

As far as that sense of physicality, is working on these nice, hardcover books that are meant to last a good break from magazines, which might feel more … disposable?

I’ve been at The New Yorker for 22 years now, which is a long time, and it is quite a discipline to do a new cover every single week. It’s over 1,000 covers now. And it’s just as exciting as it ever was, but I always wanted to keep a foothold in my own publishing because it’s my background, it’s what I did starting with RAW magazine, and there’s still something miraculous for me, all these years later, in creating an object with some permanence. Fortunately for me, even though it’s weekly, people keep The New Yorker.

Spread of “Tippy and the Night Parade” by Lilli Carré courtesy of TOON Books.

Yes, you can often find The New Yorker in people’s bathrooms.

[Laughs] Yes, in the bathroom, at the foot of their bed, on the wall of the guest room. … It’s because The New Yorker cover is meant to capture the moment in time and not become obsolete the week after. It has a sense of stepping back a little bit from the daily grind.

But when you make a book, you really can pretty much build this out of paper, and an artist with a pen can really get his vision, or her vision, on paper. And if you work with paper and boards and binding, you can often get an object that’s pretty close to what you’ve visualized. Forty years later, I’m still thrilled and amazed when I get a new book out, and it looks very much like what I was hoping to get. The autonomy you can have as a self-publisher is addictive, this view of the media where you can get that close to your vision.

Do you feel like there’s a tension between the sophistication and urbanity you’re aiming for in a New Yorker cover and the young audience you aim for with TOON?

It’s actually very similar, in the sense that what’s great about The New Yorker as a forum, a place to publish, is that we have intelligent readers. There’s an assumption that you don’t have to spell everything out. That even if you don’t know, what you read is actually worth looking up. As opposed to being dumbed down because you’re fighting for a lowest common denominator reader. So we can do things, knowing that some readers will not get it right away and might have to make a bit of an effort to understand, to catch up with what we are saying. It’s a huge plus in this day and age to have this kind of platform that sells over a million copies [to] readers that will make the effort to keep up with the dialogue. And we want something like this, an effort to keep up with the dialogue, with … the TOON books. But with TOON, because we’re not mass market, because we are not doing hundreds of thousands of copies…

Not yet.

[laughs] Right, not yet.

But there is something that feels right to me in publishing something that nobody else would publish. That’s what I did with RAW—not because there was a market for it, but quite the opposite, because no one else was publishing comics. And same thing with good comics for kids. At the cultural level, there’s still a lot of prejudice against cartoons. And it will take a lot of work to overcome.

Maybe you are an activist.

Well, I wouldn’t totally deny it, but it’s more in my actions than rhetoric—I just like making things, and hopefully the proof is in the pudding.

Hero photo by Sarah Shatz

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Learning to Take Comics Seriously Whether art directing covers for The New Yorker or publishing graphic novels for kids, Françoise Mouly is always image conscious.