Fire in the Hole: The New Yorker's In-House Radicals

By Jeet HeerAugust 2, 2012

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant To See by Françoise Mouly

EDITING THE NEW YORKER is a little like being a controlled demolitions expert. In both jobs, you are entrusted with valuable, long-standing structures and explosive material, and given the responsibility of ensuring that targets are properly selected, and that explosions leave no collateral damage. This characterization may raise the eyebrows of anyone who automatically dismisses the weekly magazine as a bastion of upper-middle class triviality, the home of tepid and watery poetry, cartoons bafflingly dependant on Manhattan coterie knowledge, short stories that obsessively focus on the minutiae of domestic life, and mildly left-of-center political and cultural commentary. The tradition of mocking The New Yorker for being safe and bourgeois has a long intellectual pedigree. In a 1937 essay in the Partisan Review, Dwight Macdonald lamented that the typical New Yorker writer “has given up the struggle to make sense out of a world which daily grows more complicated. His stock of data is strictly limited to the inconsequential.” A decade later, another Partisan Review stalwart, Robert Warshow, pushed Macdonald’s argument a step further by arguing that

The New Yorker at its best provides the intelligent and cultured undergraduate with the most comfortable and least compromising attitude he can assume toward capitalist society without being forced into actual conflict. It rejects the vulgarity and inhumanity of the public world of politics and business and provincial morality, and sets up in opposition to this a private and pseudo-aristocratic world of good humor, intelligence, and good taste.

Macdonald and Warshow were bracingly forthright critics, but they were only half-right in their assessment of The New Yorker’s banality. It is more accurate to say that The New Yorker, from its earliest days, has had a divided soul, being a prime example of the “bourgeois-bohemian sensibility that Wyndham Lewis first dissected in his 1917 novel Tarr (many decades before David Brooks resurrected and vulgarized the concept in his 2000 essay "Bobos in Paradise"). To pigeonhole The New Yorker as a comfy cultural consumer item for moneyed liberals — tempting as it is — ignores the magazine’s long history of publishing abrasive and subversive works of art and reportage amid more wishy-washy fare.

From the start, The New Yorker has livened up its natural blandness with bohemian spice. In finding a tone for his magazine, founding editor Harold Ross turned to a surprising source: radical publication The Masses, an anti-capitalist outlet known for printing innovative cartooning and satire. From the ranks of The Masses, Ross acquired the services of such erstwhile rabble-rousers as Max Eastman, Otto Soglow, and Howard Brubaker. As cultural historian Kenneth Lynn once noted,

Rebels had served as the research and development wing of American society, and in the 1920s a middle-class culture co-opted, at least in part, its counter culture. The New Yorker had no use for the revolutionary rhetoric of The Masses, but adopted the earlier magazine’s idea of natural-sounding, one-line captions for cartoons.

Later, Ross and his successor William Shawn would turn to Partisan Review, the brain trust of American Marxism and modernism, as a reliable supply-house of writers who could keep The New Yorker faithful to its bohemian roots. From the pages of Partisan Review, Ross and Shawn recruited cultural critics like James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Harold Rosenberg, Hannah Arendt, Pauline Kael, and even Dwight Macdonald. (Warshow, too, was asked to write for The New Yorker, but tragically died too young to make it into the pages of the magazine he once excoriated.) These essayists enlivened the magazine by bringing to its pages a prickly intelligence and a willingness to go far outside the comfort zone of upper east-side cocktail parties. When Baldwin articulated the rage of the Black Muslims, or Arendt interrogated the banality of Adolf Eichmann’s evil, they were bringing readers troubling and necessary news. By demolishing some of the ground that The New Yorker’s readers had been complacently standing on, these revolutionary destroyers helped to preserve an institution that might have otherwise lost all relevance.


The career of Françoise Mouly, who has served as art editor for The New Yorker since 1993, provides a latter-day example of the magazine’s habit of hiring in-house radicals. Mouly first came to prominence as the founder and co-editor, with her husband Art Spiegelman, of Raw, the key publication of the alternative comics revival of the 1980s. In 11 issues from 1980 to 1991, Mouly and Spiegelman brought to the insular and proudly philistine world of comics the stringent values of avant-garde art, including the idea that comics could be as fruitful a field for formalist experimentation as modern painting. Aside from serializing Spiegelman’s groundbreaking graphic memoir Maus, Raw also showcased the early work of an array of talents that have continued to dominate comics, illustration and graphic design, including Charles Burns, Drew Friedman, Kaz, Ben Katchor, and Chris Ware. Politically, the gritty, punk-inflected imagery that dominated Raw stood as a rebuke to the dominant Reagan-era aesthetic of complacent visual nostalgia.

Mouly and Spiegelman were hired at The New Yorker in 1993 by Tina Brown, then at the start of her brief, contentious reign at the magazine. Brown herself was, if not exactly a radical (she hailed from the high-glitz world of Vanity Fair, after all), at least a provocateur, and she arrived with a mandate to revitalize the literary institution after her immediate predecessor Robert Gottlieb had failed to shake off the interminable torpor produced by William Shawn’s editorial dotage of the 1970s and 1980s. There were worse places to start than the cover. Characteristic of his perverse late-life preference for producing a sleep-inducing publication, Shawn once said that he wanted New Yorker covers to provide a “restful change” from the more eye-grabbing images offered by other magazines. As John Updike once noted, the tumultuous year 1968 — a time of assassinations, street protests, and international turmoil — was marked by New Yorker covers that showed

A world at peace with itself, of blooming trees and sleeping dogs, of students studying in libraries and voters lining up in docile multitudes at the democracy’s gigantic voting booth […] It is almost as if, during these troubled and contentious Sixties and Seventies, The New Yorker protested, on its covers, by means of withdrawal.

The magazine’s covers, as Shawn himself explained, “tend to be more aesthetic and the subject matter for the most part is New York City or the country around New York City. The suburbs, the countryside. Sometimes it’s just a still life of flowers or plants. It’s not supposed to be spectacular.”

Tina Brown wanted “spectacular.” Prior to taking over The New Yorker, Brown made her mark on Vanity Fairby publishing a controversial cover featuring Annie Leibowitz’s photograph of the naked Demi Moore holding her ballooning pregnant belly. One of her first commissions from the Spiegelman/Mouly team was a cover about ethnic tensions in New York, resulting in a much-argued-over 1993 Spiegelman illustration of a Hasidic man kissing a black woman that managed to earn cries of consternation from both Jewish- and African-Americans. The Shawn era of decorative doldrums and “restful change” was over, with the trees, flowers, dogs, and voting booths going (mostly) into mothballs.

Mouly’s new collection Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See, documents the Brown era and beyond, and shows how she gave the public face of The New Yorker a make-over, turning out covers that are much livelier and more timely while also skirting at the edge of good taste, and occasionally getting reined in by the magazine’s governing code of propriety. What does a cultural agitator do when she’s put in charge of the covers of a venerable publication, one that, in recent decades, has had a tropism towards stuffiness? One predictable innovation was recruiting a cohort of artists from Raw, including Burns, Richard McGuire, Robert Crumb, and Jacques de Loustal. Eventually, Mouly also brought on a wider array of cartoonists from outside the Raw orbit, like Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, and Seth. These artists brought the inventiveness and élan of contemporary narrative cartooning to The New Yorker.

Thematically, Mouly made changes, too, commissioning covers that were much more topical. In 1998, during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a Spiegelman cover showed Clinton addressing a press conference where all the phallic microphones are pointed at his crotch. Immediately after September 11, another Spiegelman cover featured the black twin towers against an almost equally dark background, bringing together the shocked mourning produced by the event with an Ad Reinhardt-inspired modernist purity. In 2004, the Canadian artist Anita Kunz painted a cover showing oil wells spurting blood, giving new life to anti-war cry “no blood for oil.” In October 2004, on the eve of Bush’s re-election, Mouly herself painted a cover showing the shadow of a tortured hooded prisoner of Abu Ghraib cutting across the American flag. Perhaps most controversial of all was Barry Blitt’s brilliant July 21, 2008 cover, which illustrated “the politics of fear” by bringing together all the racial anxieties that surrounded Barack Obama’s campaign: a White House scene with Barack (dressed in Muslim garb) fist bumping Michelle (dressed as an urban guerrilla), with a photo of Osama Bin Laden hanging over the fireplace. (Blitt, incidentally, emerges in Blown Covers as one of the stars of the Mouly-era New Yorker, a cartoonist possessed of a mind fertile in ideas and a sporty, jaunty line.)

Aside from such notorious and much-disputed covers, Mouly’s book also shows us all the ideas that didn’t get past the drawing board, the clever notions that were aborted when they turned out to be too outlandish or questionable in taste. Thus we get scenes of the Pope showing his undergarments in the manner of Marilyn Monroe standing above a blowing grate (Blitt again), Bush and Cheney lying beside each other in post-coital satisfaction, and Uncle Sam shooting up oil in his arm like a junkie (both Spiegelman). These failed covers give us some idea of the subtle demarcations of taste that govern The New Yorker: Bush and Cheney in Brokeback Mountain poses are kosher, but actually naked in bed is too much. Gay couples who are well-scrubbed and upscale are fine, but Robert Crumb’s grotty and stubbly version of gender bending was spiked. To put it another way, the magazine is gay-friendly but wary of queer culture, regardless of its sexual orientation.

Successful satire requires a form of double consciousness, with the artist being able to view the world both as an insider and outsider, and one source of double consciousness can be the experience of immigration. It’s notable that many of the key figures in Blown Covers are not native to the United States. Mouly was born in France, Spiegelman in Sweden, Brown in England, Steinberg in Romania, Kunz and Blitt in Canada.

Perhaps because of her immigrant status, Mouly has done much to open up the pages of The New Yorker — or the front page, anyway — to difference. Her attention to race has been especially important for a magazine which, as Updike once observed, was so “super-sensitive and race blind” in the Sixties and Seventies that the diversity of American urban life often showed up only the coded form of Saul Steinberg’s covers featuring jivey Mickey Mouse knockoffs. Especially towards the end of his run as editor, Shawn seemed to think that the best way to deal with racism was to avoid any mention of cultural difference whatsoever. To their credit, Brown and Mouly have made The New Yorker much more willing to portray ethnic diversity and confront racism (a policy that continues under Brown’s successor David Remnick).  

But Mouly has not entirely abandoned the habit of addressing race through iconic appropriation. The late Steinberg, perhaps the greatest of all New Yorker artists, served as a mentor to Mouly when she was getting her sea legs as an editor. Steinberg once praised a Spiegelman cover dealing with the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo for being “a picture of a picture.” (The cop in this cover looked like one of the good-natured but dimwitted junior officers in Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, while his targets were citizens in a carnival shooting gallery.)

The phrase “a picture of a picture” could easily describe both Steinberg’s aesthetic and Mouly’s: these covers don’t just deploy standard cartoon languages, they frequently play with iconic forms, finding new layers of meaning in such familiar avatars as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Father Time. The trick behind a successful cover is not just to make fun of such tried-and-true icons but also to tap into their hidden symbolic meaning. To draw a crucified Easter Bunny, as Spiegelman once did, isn’t just sacrilege for the sake of sacrilege, but a reminder of how bland holiday imagery glides over the sometimes brutal roots of religious celebrations.

It’s easy enough to enjoy Blown Covers as a coffee-table entertainment. The covers, both the ones that made the grade and the almost-rans, are by turns witty, shocking, wry, and melancholy, as well as visually snappy and debonair. But the deeper value of Blown Covers is the insight it gives us into Mouly’s editing process. Editing is a very difficult art to write about, being by its very nature invisible, and based on thousands of tacit, unstated backstage decisions. Blown Covers shows that every idea that makes the page requires an editorial environment where new concepts are constantly being generated. Since the rejection rate is high, this can be frustrating for artists, but Mouly gets around this problem in part by allowing her artists to go all out during the brainstorming sessions, so that even if the idea doesn’t make the cover there is still the pleasure of daring to think of something new and fresh. The failed ideas are the necessary fertilizers of successful covers. Blown Covers is an essential book for anyone who wants to understand the art and politics of magazine editing.

One possible objection to the book is the narrow focus on controversial covers, which gives this volume a tidy thematic unity but obscures the full range of covers Mouly has edited. I’d like to see a companion volume that gives us the best covers of the Mouly era, whether they sparked anger or not. (The 2000 volume Covering the New Yorker offers a good sample, but deserves updating.) Tina Brown remains the master of the outrageous cover, as witness, the recent issue of Newsweek anointing Obama the first gay president. Mouly has a similar, but slightly different skill: she likes to provoke thought as well as outrage. Curiously and unexpectedly, the most recurring emotion in the covers of the Mouly era is jitteriness, which is true even of the pre-9/11 covers. Animating these covers is a kind of civic anxiousness, a concern about the fate of the American experiment in self-governance. Yet Mouly rightly distinguishes between New Yorker covers and traditional political cartoons. The aim of political cartooning is often turned outward at an external foe, who is tamed by being caricatured. The covers Mouly chooses, by contrast, are inward-looking attempts to give shape and form to hitherto unstated fears: to make them not smaller but larger in our psyches.

The New Yorker, Warshow argued in 1947, was built on “a delicate balance of insecurity and security” and could “exploit its nervous distaste for modern society only so long as the distaste does not grow into fear.” What makes Mouly a great editor is that she has an unerring instinct for confronting — and confronting us with — the sources of her unease. As a result of her confidence, the covers of The New Yorker are often the most honest pages in the magazine. The visual explosives she’s detonated have a real impact, wiping out the ground beneath our feet.


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LARB Contributor

Jeet Heer is a cultural critic and co-editor of Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (2004) and A Comics Studies Reader (2009). He is a contributing writer to the New Republic, and his essays have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Literary Review of Canada, the Boston Globe, Slate, and numerous other publications.


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