(Photo by Sarah Shatz)
It isn’t every day you get to interview Robert Crumb–but back in October, I spoke with the legendary comic artist for VICE about his gay marriage New Yorker cover, which was pulled before print. Crumb said New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly and top editor David Remnick didn’t give him a clear reason as to why.
In response, Crumb created a manifesto-type bookmark that was inserted into the Danish Pavilion catalogue (the theme of the show was censorship), at the Venice Biennale, where I found it. When I asked him about this, he said he’d never work for the New Yorker again if they weren’t going to spell out the criteria for why they accept or reject art.
A few months after the article came out, Mouly announced that she would be publishing a book called Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See.
Right. Mouly’s book came out on Monday. While there have been some good New Yorker covers, to me, the book is basically a guide to where the be-all, end-all magazine pussied out on controversial, crazy, funny, and over-the top (their words: “ahead of their time”) artwork, now gathered together for purchase. Oh yeah, there’s a website too.
Mouly took some time out of her day at the New Yorker office to talk about R. Crumb, why his gay marriage cover was outdated, and why working with artists is like being a kindergarten teacher.
VICE: My name is Nadja, I write for VICE and I have the same name as your daughter.
Françoise Mouly: Yes! At one point she was going over my emails and said it’s so seldom she sees the name of other Nadjas. Do you have any reason why you were named Nadja?
I changed my name to Nadja (from Nadia) after reading the book Nadja by Andre Breton.
I have read the book. I didn’t love the book but I loved the name. I thought, “If I ever have a kid and I have a daughter… that’s a good name.”
Something about the cover of Nadja by Andre Breton–I judged the book by its cover, and to me, the cover sells the book. And now you’re doing a book called Blown Covers.
You are the cover editor and the art director of the New Yorker? Just to get it right…
You’ll never get it right because the New Yorker just doesn’t do things the way everybody else does. I’m the art editor meaning I am in charge of the artists who provide content. It’s the cover, and it can also be comic strips or single pictures inside. The New Yorker, at the core, especially when it was created in 1925, was a humor magazine, bringing together artists and writers. We don’t call our artists illustrators—they are artists and I am the art editor.
Is it true that inside the cover editor’s office, you notice that the walls are covered with rejected New Yorker covers?
[Laughs] Like everything, it has a core of truth. My walls are covered with the sketches that the artists send me. Some will never see the light of day, just make me laugh, and others will be the building block of the right cover at the right time as things shift and move. We have an infrastructure of evergreen covers, a few images that deal with spring, weddings, that deal with the calendar. We are ready at the drop of the hat for political or newsy and it’s an unpredictable pattern. Some are not so much rejected as, “We haven’t found the right thing yet.”
What is the decision-making process like for choosing covers that we may not see from the outside?
A lot of the time we are looking for a good idea. When you see the cover, you can be seduced by how beautifully expressed that idea is. From my vantage point, I try to be blind to the aesthetic visual quality. I work with artists—the top, the most interesting artists, cartoonists who story tell. I try to not be seduced by “that is a beautiful drawing.” The goal is to give a portrait of our times in visual snapshots.
How much power does David Remnick have over the pulled covers? Is it 50-50?
It’s his call. Something does not run if he does not want it to run. He has final say. I present things to him. I’m always trying to make him laugh within the parameter of what he’s interested in. He’s very much into politics. I’m always talking to artists about following the political process. He has 100 percent of the decision power.
Where did the idea of this book come from?
One person, Daniel Clowes, who is a cartoonist. He was in my office. I encourage the artists I work with to stop by and see other people’s ideas because artists are super competitive and get to be jealous when they see a good idea. It gets them motivated.
To me, that’s a funny way of making it work.
Sometimes I think I’m an art editor, sometimes I think I’m a kindergarten teacher, because artists have a lot in common with young children–self-centered but absolutely charming. Here, Dan was in town and stopped by my office. Dan is a man of few words and each one is carefully chosen. He saw my wall was full of sketches and in the corner he saw the unpublishable ones, and said, “See? You’ve got a book there.” I had to unfold that thought, but it’s true. Looking at what isn’t published is as interesting as looking at what is published because you learn a lot more in the images if they are not finished, not rendered. When you see the artist moving toward something you are much more enlightened by all of the thinking that artists go through. I’m in love with what I do, which I think is a blessing. I have the best job in the world because I’m looking at artists trying to make funny ideas on topics that are really relevant to where we are at. And making my boss David Remnick laugh… not many people’s job is to make their boss laugh. But only the tip of the iceberg is published. Only one cover a week, unfortunately. There are many images that are great but which are not logistically possible and that’s a lot of what I’m showing here.
You said Dan Clowes, right?
Yeah, did you see Art School Confidential?
Yes, and that is exactly what it was like going to art school.
And the strip the movie is based on.
Did you hear about the VICE article where I interviewed R. Crumb?
Oh, that must be about the cover we rejected, the one about the gay wedding. I had a lot of conversations with Robert about it—it is more interesting to have conversations about why we rejected it.
We had issues with the fact that it was about a gay wedding, which is an issue where it moves to a normalization and the gays in Robert’s cover were outdated, in my sense. It goes back to old stereotypes and I thought it actually contradicted its point. It was supposed to mock those who opposed gay marriage, in so doing it actually used clichés and stereotypes that used to be the norm but would now be seen as offensive. Cartoonists have to use clichés in the way a businessman has to use a suitcase, but the way he represented a transvestite or a man in high heels, especially when we talk about gay marriage, the normalization of anyone who is a homosexual, they are not anyone who is trying to represent himself or herself as a freak when they are lobbying for equal rights. That is a conversation I would have liked to have with Robert, but miscommunication was such that basically it wasn’t heard, our reservations were not heard, and to him, there are some issues. With us, he doesn’t want to submit sketches, but at that point he sent a fully-rendered image. It was a difficult issue.
We realized that we would not have taken a work that would be offensive to any other artist. And then we thought, “Should we do it just because it is Robert Crumb?” Because it would have been seen as a Robert Crumb image. In that context, it was possible to understand it because you know more about the artist, but we felt that it was not quite fair to change the standard for one artist compared to what we do with the others. We sent it back to him with those issues not explained well enough, because when I spoke with him recently, he didn’t remember me explaining this. The goal of Robert is to expose hypocrisy, and he’s done things like “When the Niggers Take Over America,” work that is intentionally provocative. I don’t know if that’s my taste, where his work functions best. I personally find Barry Blitt or Art Spiegelman more adept at creating images that spark a discussion.
Art Spiegelman is your husband!
I wrote an essay about Robert for the Hammer Museum and had to tackle his portrayal of women because a lot of his readers are male and indulge in their male fantasies. That’s good and fine, there’s room for that. But for the woman reader? It depends on your taste. Because we are a large-circulation magazine where we run over one million copies, we have to be attentive to not offend any reader. I think that is a broad generalization because we have run very provocative images, but we choose them in a way where we feel comfortable with them. And this one we didn’t feel comfortable with.
Are you and R. Crumb talking again?
We’re always talking. We are friends, we are always talking. That was never an issue. That was misrepresented. We have a longstanding relationship.
Did you think he would go publish his story on a bookmark distributed at the Venice Biennale? If you were friends, I’m not sure you would know he'd do such a thing.
I didn’t, but it’s only part of wanting to talk about the process. Robert is one of the greatest artists and cartoonists of the 20th and 21st centuries. It makes sense he be paid attention to. There was a slip-up on my part for not communicating clearly enough with him why we didn’t decide to use the image. It was probably due to my not wanting to be too specific because I didn’t want to offend him. With many artists, it’s better to say a little white lie of why the cover didn’t work for us. Some artists prefer not to have me go into a harsh critique. Artists often know when something works or something doesn’t. With Robert, it didn’t occur to him we would not run it. He thought that whatever he does would be fine. He said in retrospect he realizes we have considerations such as things being offensive, but he doesn’t want to worry if something is offensive or not. He is not afraid to put things out there I would not want to publish—sexual and racist stuff.
Is he in the book?
Yes! He has done various covers for us, but the image you wrote about is in the book with comments by Robert with his intentions. I let him speak in his own words.
"R. Crumb proposed this wedding cover in 2009, but we turned it down feeling that it was out of step with its times. “I don’t know if gay couples dress like that—in my mind I was more concerned about drawing them so that you couldn’t tell what gender they are…. But then, you can do stuff that you think is just funny and unintentionally offend people,” he explains. R. Crumb says that his intention is “to bring to the surface the underlying cancer that’s within all of us whether we know it or not—and for people to see that and maybe laugh at the absurdity of it.”
It seems like if something for the New Yorker is too controversial, it will be a blown cover.
Quite the opposite, actually. We are always looking for provocative images, except we pick our shots. If you look through the book, you’ll see controversial covers that were published—the police shooting at a target, a bunny crucified by Art Spiegelman that had the media up in arms, a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman, two men kissing in Times Square by Barry Blitt… there’s lots of really controversial images that do get published. With Robert’s gay wedding cover, I just thought his way of doing it was not effective. If he was attacking Republicans or people who oppose gay marriage, he was also creating or demeaning a negative caricature against the gays. Even though our covers are a comment of an artist, we have to stand behind it 100 percent.
Are artists difficult to work with?
I’m in love with artists. But I understand with everything that you love, you pay a price. You are dealing with somebody who is so confident in their own thoughts, they will show it to you and want to show it to the world, so they have to have a certain amount of confidence. But they are also just as extraordinarily insecure and self-deprecating, and that megalomania is coupled with an insane kind of self-loathing. They’re not stable people. You have to be crazy to believe your ideas are good enough to interrupt what everyone else is saying and doing. Maybe that’s just the artists I’m interested in—people who have ideas that break the mold. I’m not interested in artists who reinforce the status quo. I am interested in those who explore boundaries, and for that you need to be out of the stables. I believe we are entering a new Middle Ages where visual literacy is the main literacy because it’s faster, it's more immediate, and it's visceral; at the same time, there is a lack of vocabulary and lack of understanding of the power of images.
But you are still friends, right?
Of course! I think he is the greatest artist around. We met 30 years ago when I was publishing RAW magazine and we had many heated discussions. He thought it was pretentious and artsy fartsy (which he hates) and that it was the kiss of death to comics for it to be presented on good paper because comics should only be on newsprint or in ways that should be read on the toilet and then disposed of. I don’t regret doing RAW and I’m really glad about Weirdo magazine. He has his way of doing things and I have mine. It would be incorrect to say we don’t work together because the things we talk about are all interesting and healthy discussions.
Are the artists still getting paid for the covers that were pulled?
We don’t commission artists, we solicit sketches and ideas from them. Once the idea is approved and we do a finish, we do pay them. That did happen with Robert. But if Robert had sent a sketch of this idea, I would have talked to him about the realization of it. I did ask him to do it and in that instance we did pay him.
How much do you pay artists to do a cover for the New Yorker?
It’s the same fee for everyone, no matter who they are. The “powers that be” prefer I don’t say, but it’s the best-paid job as editorial in that field. It doesn’t pay as good as doing advertising, but advertising pays ten times more than editorial anyway.
If you’re in Chicago, go check out the Comics Fest on May 19 where Mouly will take the stage with Robert Crumb and other comic guys Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, and Art Spiegelman to talk about blown covers.
Previously - The Gayest Story Ever Told