Francoise Mouly: Underappreciated and Essential


Charles Burns’ cover for Raw #4.


Is there anyone in the cartooning world who is more underrated than Francoise Mouly? She has strong claims to be the most important comics editor of the last 30 years, but I suspect that if you asked your average comics fan or even cartoonists to name influential editors, Mouly wouldn’t come trippingly off their tongues. Part of the problem is that she’s done some of her most important work alongside her husband Art Spiegelman. Mouly is very much her own woman and not one to hide in the shadow of her famous mate; nor is her husband the type to keep his wife away from the limelight; still, it is all too easy for journalists, a habitually lazy lot, to do quick profiles of Spiegelman’s life, touch on his editorship of Raw, and ignore Mouly’s contribution. (God knows, I myself have been guilty of doing that).


There are other factors at work obscuring Mouly’s accomplishments. Editing is inherently an invisible trade, the best editors are the ones who stand behind the curtain while writers and artists shine on stage. The two magazines Mouly has had a hand in shaping, Raw and The New Yorker, are both a bit peripheral to the comics world: Raw because it was so avant-garde and The New Yorker (despite its fame among general readers) because it specializes in a genre (gag cartoons) that most comics fans regard as hopelessly retrograde. And there has been some garden variety sexism involved as well in the way Mouly has been overlooked. (For Mouly’s own feelings on how she’s been slighted, it’s worth looking up a letter she wrote to the Comics Journal published in issue #103 [November 1985]).


So, how would I define Mouly’s achievements? There are a few points worth making:


1. Production values. Prior to Mouly, North American cartoonists didn’t really think about the production values. Comic strips appeared in newspapers and got reprinted in slipshod paperbacks; traditional comic books were notoriously cheap (flimsy pamphlets printed on pulp paper in gaudy four-colour made by plastic plates and having staples for the spine); underground comic books were even more low grade than their mainstream counterparts.


To understand what Mouly brought to comics, compare Arcade (a magazine Spiegelman edited with Bill Griffith from 1975 to 1976) and Raw (edited by Spiegelman and Mouly from1980-1991). Arcade is slightly better designed than a typical underground, but not by much. It’s magazine size and had white paper. The main editorial task of Arcade was to round up the best cartoonists and get them to focus on coherent stories (rather than engage in their penchant for dope-inspired free associations). 


Raw was an entirely different animal from Arcade: Oversize and with lots of extras thrown in (torn covers, fake bubblegum cards, inserts of the early chapters of Maus). In effect, Raw brought the issue of production values to the fore. This is also the case with the books she’s edited. Mouly brought to comics some of the aesthetics of the arts and crafts wing of small press publishing (a movement that flourished in the 1970s when Mouly was forming her aesthetics). These days, it’s normal for cartoonists to expend an enormous among of energy making sure that their book design matches their content (see any recent book by Chris Ware, Seth or Ivan Brunetti). This simply wasn’t true before Mouly came into the picture.


Robert Crumb’s cover for Arcade #3.


2. A Sense of Design. Here is another area where I think she really influenced Spiegelman. The covers for Arcade (mostly done by Robert Crumb) are lovely but their also a bit homey and quiet, they invite you in slowly and you appreciate them over time (I’m thinking here of Crumb’s great cover for Arcade #3 with a pudgy beatnik, complete with a hole in his sweater, sighs over a falling leaf and lingers over the dying autumn light while thinking “This, to me, is sheer poetry!”) The covers for Raw, by contrast, were bold, stark, eye-catching, poster-ish. I think these covers had a huge impact on Spiegelman’s own sense of design and made him more appreciative of the poster aesthetic (as in the cover for Maus I discussed previously).


Gary Panter’s cover for Raw #3.


3. Foregrounding art. The artists Mouly has cultivated (Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Richard McGuire) are a bit different than the first generation of underground cartoonists: they’re more intensely visual, more experimental, possessing a sensibility closer to painting than traditional illustration or cartooning (I think this is true even of Burns, as rooted as his work is of classic comic book realism).


Chris Ware’s narrative covers for The New Yorker.


4. Shaking up The New Yorker. It would take a much longer essay than a mere blog post to discuss Mouly’s tenure as art editor at The New Yorker (from 1993 to the present). But briefly, I’d say her main achievement has been to bring the energy of Raw into the venerable magazine. Prior to her work at The New Yorker, the covers of that magazine tended to be all too sedate and calm, especially during late-Shawn era somnolence (many, many covers of leaves falling from trees as well as gardens. It’s noteworthy how daring many of Mouly-era covers have been, how impish and sly also. She’s also resurrected the genre of the narrative cover. Mouly noticed that classic New Yorker artist Mary Petty did covers that told a story over many issues. This inspired Chris Ware to do his multi-cover Thanksgiving story). The best covers of the Mouly era repay very close attention: they’re dense with stories and visual information.



A Richard McGuire’s New Yorker cover.


These notes only touch on the some outstanding facets of Mouly’s career. Someone should tackle the job of doing a full-scale profile. It would be an eye-opener, in more ways than one.


For a good history of Raw see here and here.


There is a good discussion of Richard McGuire’s New Yorker covers (commissioned by Mouly) in issue 8 of the Comic Art Magazine, here.


For a recent interview where Mouly talks about her most recent project (Toon Books), see here. Another recent interview (mentioned by Chris Mautner in the comments below) can be found here.  

18 thoughts on “Francoise Mouly: Underappreciated and Essential

  1. Thanks for writing this, Jeet. Mouly is brilliant–I got to interview her for World Art magazine many years ago, and she was a joy to talk to. More people should know about her.

  2. i love those new yorker covers! and now i know who’s responsible, she’s artie’s wife in maus.

    does anybody know of any surgery comics? i want to make some for our medical residents here but i don’t want to re-invent the wheel if good ones are already out there.


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