Published on March 5th, 2014 | by Meg Lemke1
MUTHA interviews Françoise Mouly
Françoise Mouly is Art Editor of The New Yorker, co-founder of RAW magazine, and the editor of TOON books. She has been incredibly influential across her career—and remains dedicated and accessible to the community. She puts a New Yorker cover to bed only to wake up early the next morning and hand out balloons to the toddler swarm at a TOON event.
I’ve trumpeted TOON here before—my daughter, Lola, loves these stylish, quirky, often surreal picturebooks. Many by comics artists, like Renee French, whose work is typically not for children—her Barry’s Best Buddy reads like a fever dream where you want to live forever and eat blue popsicles. Also, just released and must-read is Lilli Carre’s strange trip, Tippy and the Night Parade.
TOON books are meticulously designed, with secret stories told in the margins and friends reappearing in endpapers. They have a slightly old-fashioned feeling binding, which matches across all the spines. Lola spies them on the shelf across the room at the library and comic shop. As wary as I might be about “brand recognition” in a two-year-old, I’m pleased her first such loyalty is to (endlessly) request I read TOON titles aloud. Now, Mouly is developing guides for teachers who want to break out of scripted literacy programs and bring love for literature back into the classroom.
Feminist voices remain marginalized in comics. Mouly created the kind of work she wanted to see in the world when the landscape was even more hostile to women. It was such a thrill to get her on the phone—to talk about comics and education, the future of books, and how she’s balanced being an impassioned publisher and a committed MUTHA.
MUTHA: Tell us about your family. You have two children, is that right?
Françoise Mouly: Yes. I feel lucky because we have a daughter and a son, one of each. I’m one of three sisters—I would’ve loved to have a brother. Having a boy and a girl is wonderful in terms of perspective.
MUTHA: How old are they now?
Françoise Mouly: Nadja, our daughter, was born in ’87. I have to calculate… she will be 27 later this year. And our son, Dash, was born in ’91, and just turned 22.
MUTHA: They were little ones when Tina Brown invited you to join The New Yorker. I read in Jeet Heer’s In Love with Art that she asked, “Do you have a good babysitter?” I’d love to hear what advice you have for mothers who are making that transition, particularly to the kind of creative, demanding work that you’ve undertaken.
Françoise Mouly: Well, it doesn’t hurt to be working for a woman, because she’ll understand the pressures, she’ll know the relevant questions to ask… If I could’ve said “Hey, my son is a year and a few months—can I get back to you in two years?” That would have been definitely the option that I would’ve chosen—but it wasn’t, of course.
I kept trying to preserve a sense of balance. For me: all work and no kids, that wouldn’t work, but all kids and no work wouldn’t either. Even before I worked for Tina, I was already, after a few months, back to my publishing business and other things that I wanted to do. I needed some hours to the day where I wasn’t thinking about my kid.
Throughout, my guiding line has been to separate the satisfaction that I get; what nourishes my soul is what I get at home. That’s with my husband, with my kids, with my friends. And when I’m at work, I get a lot of pleasure—I really love what I do—but I try not to get drawn in all of the dramas. I like working with women, I’m prejudiced towards women because I find the working relationships often more supportive, taking pride in each other’s accomplishments. When I’m dealing with male colleagues, many of the work relationships become a version of a pissing contest. I try to put my ego aside there, to be attentive to what the Japanese call “saving face,” to be supportive of my artists and my colleagues, just so I can go home. I don’t want to get overly involved at work, emotionally. Because my emotional life is much more interesting at home; these are people that I have chosen, and people who I love. It’s a matter of balance.
MUTHA: I want to delve into all of this in relationship to indie comics—because I’ve observed so many more women, up and coming, on the indie side. There has always been an amazing roster of impressive female voices, but you really see [more women with] babies now behind the tables at MoCCA and SPX. Arguably, you’ve had a maternal role in comics, supporting a new generation. Can you talk a little about what more needs to happen in the field, and how your role as a mother might’ve influenced the way you’ve approached editorial?
Françoise Mouly: I entered a field that was quite misogynistic; it was almost laughable. The world of comics was dominated by not just men, but mainly adolescent men. Even if they were 35, they were still adolescents with unresolved sexual longings that were projected onto superheroes—muscled superheroes in tights—stridently unwelcoming to women. The generation that I am from had women’s comix with leading figures like Aline Kominsky and Trina Robbins. They accomplished the first step, and focused their efforts on “women can do all that men can do!” Thanks to their efforts and their success, we have now entered a zone where barriers are down and we can be more constructive.
It’s taken for granted now that women can pilot airplanes and be firemen. But, what’s exciting, what we need to do, is to welcome men into our world. Fathers can take care of babies, and men can be emotional, and men can be supportive of each other. That’s how women can shift things. Not just by getting engaged on the same level as men, but by being open-minded about men. I learned a lot from my son, and I learned a lot from my husband. Also, I work with artists, who are a heightened version of sensitive people. That makes me tuned into the emotional quality of somebody’s investment in their work.
MUTHA: Can you tell me about your inspiration for TOON books?
Françoise Mouly: My interest started when the school’s first-grade teacher told our son he had to be reading within two, three months—and it didn’t work! It didn’t go according to the script and to the mandate. Four years earlier, for our daughter, it had. She had also been told, “by April you need to be reading,” and whatever it took, she started paying attention, a little light bulb went off; it’s pretty miraculous and it worked. But with our son—first of all, he was very young for his grade, and second, he was a boy, and third, no two people are ever on the same timetable—it didn’t click for him. I knew both kids were bright, and both had been read to, had grown up surrounded by books and comic books. I was at a loss for what to do. In school, books were turned into this bad-tasting medicine. I couldn’t let that happen. I didn’t want my kid to be turned away from loving to read. So we didn’t use any of the early readers the school gave us, but I continued to read with him what he wanted every night, and it was French comics. (I always spoke French with my kids, and only read in French.)
After months of this, his light bulb clicked on. He just graduated from Brown as an English major, so obviously he found something that was nourishing for him in reading. But his point of entry was comics, and it became clear how well they work for kids at that stage. I couldn’t find good English-language comics, except the old stuff, which my husband had collected. So that was the inspiration: “Well, if it doesn’t exist and it should, maybe I should publish it.”
That’s always been my motivation, what got me into publishing in the first place: to make available what no one else wants to publish, rather than to add to successful areas of publishing, where everyone tries to repeat last year’s best seller.
MUTHA: So, it was a response to schooling practices at the time. I know you’re now working now with Common Core, the leveling guidelines. What is your response to the labels—are they limiting, are they liberating? How are you breaking into the scripted reading programs that are currently dominating US schools?
Françoise Mouly: I try to weave my way through what’s there because that’s the best way to shift a large mass: with a little lever. You can’t just push at it, but if you find a clever way to insert a small lever, you might be able to shift a monolith. There are legitimate reasons why the world of education is slow moving and defensive. You don’t want them to adopt a new fad every six months; it’s not the world of fashion. They actually are constitutionally trying to stay to the tried and true. But, there are prejudices against visuals and against comics that are longstanding and totally out of place, especially since we live in an increasingly visual world. So, I use something that’s allowed in schools, and even encouraged, which is independent reading.
We don’t publish books that teach you the letter B or the letter M. We’re not focused on the phonetics, or the logistics of reading, only on the pleasure—the rest will follow. We publish comics with literary and artistic qualities—kids avidly respond to something that doesn’t condescend to them. Children love to play, and they love to exercise their minds…
When I go to schools, even in very impoverished school districts, and I say that I’m here to read a book—it’s fantastic to see how kindergarteners and first graders love story time. They love being read to. I go to schools to see the actual response from the kids, not what I think they will say. Reading is a canvas that they use to construct their understanding of the world. Comics are great that way, even better than illustrated stories, because, in comics, the story is told sequentially in pictures, and you, the reader, make connections between the panels. It’s a truly interactive medium, where the story itself stays on the page but you are the one making up what happens between the panels, making it move in space and in time.
When you talk to teachers, you will hear words such as making inferences and connecting and finding the context. It’s elaborate thought but it’s congenial to kids—they do it naturally. They’re always trying to make sense of the world around them. Nobody has ever had to teach a child how to find Waldo—they intuitively get it, and they find Waldo far quicker than most literate adults. Comics take advantage of the thing that children know how to do, of what their strength is, and puts them in the driver’s seat of reading.
MUTHA: Do you have a favorite TOON title right now? Do you have a book or two that you would recommend as a starter set for a parent?
Françoise Mouly: We went into a new, more designed trend in the past year or two, starting with Frank Viva’s Trip to the Bottom of the World. It’s a Level 1 TOON book, so it’s for very young kids, but it’s abstract and it talks about profound issues, such as the beauty of the world. Frank tells about his trip to the Antarctic. The traveler explains to the little mouse character that seeing a gorgeous landscape and seeing the stars in the sky gave him a sense of his place in the universe. I find it very moving, and kids respond to this. [MUTHA.: Let me confirm—my daughter loves this book!]
Often the bigger ideas, the more abstract ideas, are something that children want to see voiced, because they are philosophers. They are trying to find the meaning of life. They’re acutely aware of the big questions—that’s, of course, before they’re teenagers and worry about Justin Bieber. Books encourage children to think and ask questions because they give shape to the author’s thoughts. You can return to a book over and over again, and find all the ways in which the ideas are expressed.
We’re just about to launch a line of TOON graphics, books for slightly older kids, 9-12. These are fairytales, mythology and a fantasy strip that I read when I was about that age. I think it’s complementary, visual books that expand preteens’ mental universe and vocabulary. We’re running the gamut. I’m interested in all stages of a children’s development. They each present their own challenges, and they each lead to the next step. It’s exhilarating, very gratifying to try to find just the right thing for the right age, as kids move into being avid readers of literature and art.
MUTHA: Any other pieces of culture you’d suggest to parents?
Françoise Mouly: I would highly recommend a book my husband, Art Spiegelman, and myself put together, the TOON Treasury of Children’s Comics, full of wonderful old comics: Donald Duck, Sugar and Spike, a range of treasures. There’s an unsung heritage in American culture—it’s ironic that I would be championing that as the hot new thing in the 21st century… In the middle of the 20th century, America produced a treasure trove of great kids’ comics. Publishers are now putting out collection like Carl Barks’s Donald Duck and John Stanley’s Little Lulu.
Also children naturally love things like folk songs by Pete Seeger, and I’d recommend a lot of poetry. It doesn’t have to be funny but it helps if it is. Shel Silverstein—you can read and reread all of his books. And, as a family, we spent countless car rides playing word games. My husband is really good at them, and I’m a pathetic loser but the kids love that. They love that they can beat me flat. It’s wonderful for kids to ace their parents at a game. One of my pleasures in reading and writing comes from the sense that I could do my own. It encourages you to think along those lines.
Almost all of the games that we played with the kids were logic problems, not so much games of chance, but strategy games. My husband says he learned a lot from playing a board game called Career with his mother. You’re supposed to figure out how many love cards, work cards, and fame cards you want, and set yourself a goal. Art’s Mom would always use the same formula: a third, a third, and a third. She didn’t vary her strategy, even if it made her easy to beat. She thought it more important to aim at balance than to win. There’s a lot that you learn from playing games, including losing, which is a very important thing to learn.
MUTHA: My husband has a background in video-game design, and there is definitely something about the interactivity of comics that gets at a similar impulse.
Françoise Mouly: I had to get over my first impressions when my son, Dash, started getting addicted to video games. I thought that he was losing his mind to it. But he explained that the part that seems so frivolous to me—like fighting with a sword, or climbing a staircase, or exercising his thumbs—those were not the goal. The goal was to actually construct a mental representation of a world. He told me that what he loved—getting from one place to the other—is something that is learned collectively through questions and answers and forums and connecting with others. There is a model in your mind in video games—it’s not like watching a movie or following someone’s script.
MUTHA: There’s a sequential mapping that is more active, interactive… akin to reading a comic, and similarly, reading a text adventure story…
Françoise Mouly: What happens for the reader and for the gamer is the building of a complex world in your mind. You can do that with words, but that’s only one way, not the only way to do it. People who are out-of-touch with the visual part of their thinking often misconstrue literature as the only way to fire off the imagination, but they are missing out when they dismiss other forms of mental representation. Myself, I’m a visual person. I deal with images all day long, and I have a visual memory. I remember by recalling that it’s on the upper left of such a page of my notebook—I need the visual support. Some people are auditory learners, and they remember with music and sound, but it’s just different ways to construct the framework for your understanding of the world. When I say the word “table,” you’ll see a cartoon of a table in your mind. You won’t necessarily see the word t-a-b-l-e; most of our thoughts are condensed into cartoon images. They are the building block of our thinking process. And anything that gets us an “in-out” access to that thinking process, and lets us play with it, is going to make you more eager to create and to consume creative works and to read books.
When I watch a movie with my husband, one of the great pleasures is that we’ll spend an hour afterward reading reviews and discussing the movie. People go to book clubs. It’s a dialogue back and forth with the work that you like, and that works great for kids. What’s great with books is that they stay the same. Every time you return to it, it hasn’t changed, and yet you make up the story differently each time. And that’s not true for the web. A web page is like a bridge over a river; every time you go there, you see a flux of things. You can’t hold any of it in one place long enough to study it. But with books, you have this artifact that you can literally hold, touch, smell, and yet it’s a portal for you to build a rich mental world. So I love images and books, and believe in the future of books at least for cartoonists and for children. And that’s a good thing considering that’s what I do.