Mouly Mouthpiece

17347695In Love With Art
Jeet Heer
(Coach House Books)

I met Françoise Mouly once, at the San Diego Comic-Con during its C Street days, when RAW was in full swing. She told me that I was the only reviewer who included her as the co-editor of the magazine. This puffed me up no little, but the main reason was probably less personal enlightenment then that I was coming off a humiliating series of factual errors in print and was being careful about these things. Other than the assumption that her name was on the cover for a reason, I wouldn't at the time have been 100% clear on what Mouly's contribution was. The problem is presented on the very title of the attractive little tome under discussion, which intends to redress the balance and yet bows to the utter commercial necessity of tying the product into the more popularly known Art Spiegelman. In his foreword author Jeet Heer castigates himself for the original sin of speaking of RAW as strictly a Spiegelman project – the sort of thing a decent, responsible journalist would never do – and lays it to the sin of sexism. While I wouldn't say this general tendency had nothing to do with sexism, I think it had more to do with the tendency of a better known partner to make a more obscure partner disappear from the public eye. I'm reminded of the scene in Rocky where the washed-up old boxer played by Burgess Meredith is trying to sell Rocky Balboa on the value of hiring him as a manager:

Mickey: You shoulda seen me when I knocked Guinea Russell outta the ring. Outta the goddamn ring, I tell ya. And it was the same night that Firpo knocks Dempsey outta the ring. The same night. Who gets the publicity?

Rocky: Dempsey.

Mickey: That's right, but why?

Rocky: 'Cause he was the champ.

Nowadays we think of Art Garfunkel as the epitome of the superfluous partner, but the reason Paul Simon dumped him back in 1969 was that the angel-headed, angel-voiced lead-singer-and-nothing-else was getting all the attention. It's the front man who tends to be in front. Moreover, the person who can't personally make art who wants to make a life in the making of art will be challenged in becoming known even when successful. The artist, even in the role of editor, is always the charismatic megafauna in this situation. How many people know who Walter Hopps was? A damn sight fewer than who know who Andy Warhol was, is how many. It just occurs to me as I write this that though the publisher of Drawn & Quarterly is one of the half-dozen most important people in art comics, standing flat-footed I would have a hard time remembering his name. (Chris Oliveros. I actually had a half-decent guess of Chris Ontiveros, but that turned out to be the name of a teacher accused of being a sex offender.) If you want to be known under these circumstances you have to put yourself forward. There are those who aren't interested in this process, and there are those who think it shouldn't be necessary.

The impulse to make Spiegelman out to be the prime mover of RAW has something of the character of the will to believe that Stan Lee was the sole creator of Marvel comics. The Marvel monomyth is like a real life superhero story, in which what seems an unprepossessing hack slaps on a wig, grows a mustache and reveals himself as a creator of worlds. The idea that multiple hands were involved is not quite so thrilling. In Spiegelman's case it's a simpler matter of wanting to see someone as a hero or a villain, depending on your outlook. To insert another person not well known to you is to muddy the waters.

The most enlightening parts of In Love With Art concern Mouly's family history. One gets a sense of how a privileged background can build the nerve for creative risk taking. If Mouly were here with us right now we could ask her whether there is a positive equivalent of folie a deux, then we might have just the mot juste for the founding of RAW. If research were easier than surmise I would research, but things being what they are I will surmise.* Here we have two personalities perfectly suited to encourage each other in an enterprise whose chances for success were far from guaranteed. If like Spiegelman you were trying to recover from defeat in Arcade, an enterprise that incorporated not only the best you had but the best of your entire cohort of contemporaries, what could be better than a partner with youthful energy and enthusiasm, a yearning to make her own name (even if everyone was going to ignore it), and a willingness to master the procedures of publishing on a hands-on level? Along with that she brought a native's access and fluency with the cartoonists of Europe. Perhaps as importantly she did not bring a commitment to the paradigm of underground comics, depending as it did on a productive but narrow pool of veteran talents. What part romance played is a subject for the screenwriter of The Art Spiegelman Story. (I see Steve Buscemi in the title role.) It is possible V.S. Pritchett's observation that passion makes one want to take on responsibilities might be apropos. There is considerable reason to think that Mouly's contribution to the editing of RAW was greater rather than less. That considerable reason is the number of pages Spiegelman was producing for Maus, a productivity level in narrative comics that he didn't approach before or since. This on top of a teaching schedule (though teaching was a key factor in building the RAW talent pool) and whatever duties he had at Topps.

RAW came along at a turning point for art comics. As the idiom regrouped and prepared to move forward it was an open question whether draftsmanship would be dismissed as an empty vanity of the commercial comics world, and anathema to personal expression. While Robert Crumb is a standard of excellence in himself, it was central to his outlook as an editor and proselytizer that art is something to be participated in and not merely consumed. This outlook dictated a liberal view of what a cartoonist could get away with. Mouly was raised in a milieu where comics were for people who drew well in the same way music was for those who could sing and play instruments well. Spiegelman was inclined this way as well.† While RAW and Crumb's Weirdo became somewhat antagonistic camps, the two magazines were ultimately complementary. The weakness of the Spiegelman/Mouly approach is that you can never be sure when a cartoonist is a finished product. I recall finding a note from Spiegelman in the Fantagraphics archive where he congratulated the company on its output but chided it for publishing lesser work like Lloyd Llewellyn, which was admittedly public juvenilia. The thing about Daniel Clowes was that even when we thought he'd arrived he was still mastering his instrument, which he didn't do fully until Ghost World. Still, RAW ensured that graphic excellence would remain a criterion in art comics, at a time when that wasn't guaranteed.

At this point is there any more important editor in periodical illustration than Françoise Mouly? With so many erstwhile venues for illustration being driven online, where any illustration is rendered into spot illustration, The New Yorker could be the big time all by itself. Unless Spiegelman comes into the office with her we have to assume this is an adventure without him. The New Yorker cover of the William Shawn era was essentially wallpaper, the perfect decoration for the better kind of dentist's office. (Not least because it didn't matter how old the magazine was.) The New Yorker cover of the Mouly era is not only more topical than it used to be, but is also frequently a one-image narrative. The ultimate Mouly-era narrative cover is Adrian Tomine's November 8, 2004 cover: A young man and woman spot each other reading the same book in subway trains going in opposite directions, and not only have not encountered but will lose each other in a second's time. (Though it would have been a hell of an advertisement for Chance Encounters classifieds if they had them.) The effect is to put the cartoonist at the center of the world of illustration.

The lesson of Toon Books is that it's more effective to market comics for children as children's books than as comic books. It does seem to me that the realm of the children's book and the comic strip are separate. Even a children's picture book with a sole line of text per page is traditionally the start of a process of weaning children from illustrated books to books that have no pictures at all.

In Love With Art will likely be consumed mostly digitally and has been formatted to be iPad-friendly. The printed thing is however a pleasant little object to hold in your hand. The publisher might have missed a trick in not putting it out in Dewey Decimal label-friendly hardcover, as one thing you'd think you could sell to libraries is the only book on a given subject. If Heer is going to go into the book-writing business there are some journalistic habits that might be broken. For instance, use of that prince of weasel words "arguably." You should make a decision and if necessary propound an argument. More often than it ought to In Love With Art reads like an extended article. What will serve him well is continuing to know an important, unexplored subject when he sees it.

* Surmise! I will surmise!
As long as I'm a lazy fuck that's how I will get by
I've got a little space to fill, and a lot of time to kill
So I'll surmise, I will surmise!

So go ahead, tell me I'm wrong!
If it's a matter of opinion you may feel free to suck my dong
So long as it is something that cannot be verified
I will talk right through my hat as if I had no shame or pride . . .

I realize foregoing does nothing but distract from the subject at hand. It's just, send my mind back to those days and I will be seized by Disco Fever.

† Heer touches on Spiegelman's misgivings about the take-the-lid-off-the-id ethos of the original underground movement, and I wonder if Spiegelman didn't feel a little bit burned by it. His earliest published strips indulged in cloacal humor that a grown man might find embarrassing. I believe parties unsympathetic to Spiegelman circulated a bootleg minicomic of this material for this very purpose.