The Rumpus Interview with Françoise Mouly


Comics fans today live in the land Françoise Mouly conquered. Thirty-five years ago, Mouly emerged from underground comics to found, design, co-edit, and self-publish the seminal comics anthology Raw that printed early work by future stars Chris Ware and Charles Burns and the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus by Mouly’s husband, Art Spiegelman. Once the graphic novel genre was established, Mouly expanded her campaign for comics’ legitimacy to include a fight for comic literacy; she established Raw Junior, a press for kids, in 1998. Today, her TOON Books imprint reaches children as young as three. As Mouly conceives of, designs, and edits work for generations of readers, she holds on to her self-publishing roots—the TOON books are produced out of the same New York loft that Raw was decades before.

You don’t become a queen of comics by slacking off, and Mouly, whom I’ve known for years, works constantly. She has been the art editor of The New Yorker since 1993. Among the more than 1,000 covers she’s produced are images as iconic as her and Spiegelman’s black-on-black tower silhouettes after 9/11 and as controversial as Barry Blitt’s 2008 fist-bump caricature, condemned by the Obama campaign. Last year, she was the subject of a biography, In Love with Art; this year, she’s nominated for Comic-Con’s Hall of Fame.

All that fight, and grit, and work, and still Mouly is more. It’s tempting to keep such a figure in two dimensions—after all, Mouly has had a long life as a cartoon character. Many readers meet her first as a striped-shirt-wearing mouse in Maus, and she pops up in strips and sketches across contemporary art history. In person, though, Mouly is quick, loving, and complicated. She can’t be reined in by a speech balloon. Mouly talked to me in the kitchen of her loft about her career as publishing trailblazer.


The Rumpus: How did you first come to comics in America?

Françoise Mouly: When I came here, I couldn’t really speak English that well. A friend of mine, trying to be helpful, said, “Pick up the Sunday New York Times.” I did, and two and a half months later I was still trying to make my way through it! Reading the newspaper is incredibly difficult when you don’t know a language well. I thought—naively, it turns out—that comics would be a good way to get a handle on the colloquial use of the language in a way that a newspaper wouldn’t.

It’s not that it isn’t true—comics are a marvelous language tool—it’s just that there weren’t the comics that I thought there would be everywhere. It was perfectly fine to be a grown-up reading comics in France. Mainstream independent comics existed in Europe. But here it was a very tiny minority of people who were following comics, which was considered an infantile medium because it had been so successful with children and a ghetto genre medium for superhero comics. I got some of the publications that had Art’s work in it, and that’s where I discovered that underground comics were close to what I was looking for, in terms of colloquialisms and stories, but they also went so far beyond what I was asking.

Art and Bill Griffith had done this magazine, Arcade, that was a lifeboat for underground cartoonists. When I discovered Arcade and read Art’s strip “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” which was about his mother’s suicide, that was so beyond in terms of its communicative power. This was really somebody I wanted to meet. He was advocating for the medium of comics being able to tackle any subject, such as his mother’s own suicide. That was certainly not comics for children. Neither was it superhero or genre comics. With Art, I discovered a medium that went beyond anything I had read as a kid or an adult in France and implied so much potential.

Rumpus: What kind of potential?

Mouly: I found “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” really mind-opening for me on a personal level. I was shocked by how many ideas were in four pages of comics. I couldn’t stop wanting to talk to him. When I met Art, he was in the process of putting strips that were published in different serials together into an album, Breakdowns. Some of the strips in Breakdowns were kind of zen koans, like “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” They were far denser than anything I’d read in comics in Europe. They were more like poetry.

Rumpus: You moved so quickly from being a fan of underground comics to becoming a creator and editor of them. How did that happen?

New Yorker Sept 11 CoverMouly: What I really loved with comics was the achievement of a concrete goal. In architectural school in France I had been so frustrated. We were given assignments like “design a city.” I had liked the idea, but I couldn’t bridge the cap between being told to design this thing and then—nothing! That was ridiculous! You only got a lot of plans and a lot of dreams. There’s almost no chance you ever become an architect where it’s your ideas. And the constraints, the constraints of the city and the regulations and what the client wants. Ninety-eight percent of architects are at the service of a client. They don’t ever get to draft, to draw, or to have concepts.

Whereas when I saw Art, there was the connection with the object and with the making of something. Art was doing the mechanicals for Breakdowns, which meant Photostats and drawing and color separation. You had to do an acetate with Zip-A-Tone for each tone that you wanted. That was really easy for me to understand because I had some drafting craft from studying architecture. One day he had left on his table the color separation for the introduction to Breakdowns. He had already done the sketch and color-coded it. As he was going out the door, I said, “What does this mean?” He explained the principle to me, and then when he came back I had done the whole color separation. And he was so blown over! He was so happy! It was the perfect marriage because I loved paste-up mechanical—I loved doing things with my hands—while Art uses the mechanicals as a necessary evil but what he prefers is the conceptual part.

There were many things bringing us together, but one of the things was that Art was an ardent advocate for something that really answered a lot of my frustrations. I wanted to make things, but I didn’t want to make “works of art”—to do the rounds of galleries didn’t seem that interesting to me. Here when I met this cartoonist, he was able to actually make a book. This was so much more interesting than anything I had left behind in France.

After my experience in school, it was very easy to do graphic art. It was the same tools: tracing papers, rapidographs, T-squares. When we got Breakdowns printed, I went to the printer with him and saw the sheets assembled. I liked the craft part of it, and what felt to me like the immediacy. You’re coloring something on a Photostat, and then in a month or two you have the printed book in your hand! Compared to a building, that seems so instant. It’s like making little houses that people can inhabit and feel comfortable in.

Rumpus: Do many of the other artists that you know have the same desire to craft, do tactile things, work with their hands?

Mouly: Yes and no. Depends. Among the cartoonists, some do and some don’t. We recognize each other right away. It’s not a necessary component, but many of these cartoonists have both the need and the pleasure of controlling every aspect of what you make.

I knew early on that half the people I knew in the medium I was operating, even before I met Art, wrote grant applications for what they wanted to do. That’s the one thing I can’t do—I just loathe the thought, I can’t conceive of it. I’m not an abstract thinker. But a dummy or a model, that I can do. That’s how you understand the object. There are all the complex different possibilities and the choices that you make in constructing it, and then the end object is an extremely simple thing. I really like that, distilling a lot of thought into one simple object. Partly it’s because I don’t think I can express myself freely that well.

Rumpus: How did you move from working on those small details of creating books to founding your own magazine?

Mouly: I really wanted to actually print things. What Art was doing, other cartoonists that I met through him, all the stuff that was happening with the underground press—there wasn’t any one publisher who was publishing all this. There was a great need to put all this work into one place and to make a case intellectually for the potential of not just the story of Art’s parents but for comics as a serious medium for any artistic or literary endeavor. I saw things that I thought were really, truly good works of art, and there was no publisher for this kind of mission, no one trying to make a coherent discourse. Not in terms of going and lecturing people, but simply saying, “Hey, if the proof is in the pudding, here’s the pudding!” You know? “Here is the object. Look how wonderful it is.” Language was still difficult for me. I couldn’t speak English that well. I gravitated towards, “Okay, I’ll get a printing press. I can print things.”

Rumpus: That’s a big leap into actualizing your ambitions, especially for someone relatively new to both the U.S. and the underground comics scene.

Mouly: Well, part of it was a cultural shift. In Paris, the response to anything was, “Are you an expert on this? If not, shut up, I know better than you.” It was very competitive intellectually. In New York, for everything that I got interested in, people were so open-minded. It was amazing to me, really, such a blessing. It seemed possible to learn anything and to follow through on anything. There wasn’t ever going to be anybody saying, “By what right? What qualifies you to talk about comics or to publish comics?” It was irresistible to want to make things.

I had to just jump into it and then only afterwards say, “Oh, I’m in the water, and it’s freezing!” Because otherwise I’d just spend the rest of my life on the diving board going, “Oh, I don’t know, it’s so scary.” So jump.

I found a vocational school in Bed-Stuy that taught vending machine repair, air conditioning installation and repair, and printing. At the time I was an illegal alien, I didn’t have a green card, and they couldn’t enroll you unless you had an ID, so I had a friend named Claire who had a green card, and I enrolled as Claire. We looked alike enough; nobody really checked the ID. In 1965 to 1975, around that time, there was a heyday of instant printing and small printing presses, and you could buy a lot of printing equipment for very cheap. I went to auctions announced in the trade magazines. This was toward the tail end of those instant print places and they were going out of business. I wanted to buy everything! I wanted to buy old typesetting machines that were the size of an entire room with molten lead that fell—ten dollars! I want it! But then what I do with it?

I bought my light table that’s handmade and gigantic, also ten dollars. My paper cutter was $400. That was a big expense. I didn’t have any binding equipment; I did all my binding by hand. The printing press I bought was obviously secondhand, but it cost over a thousand dollars, which was a lot of money for me. My printing press was actually pretty close to the size of a barbecue—one of those massive outdoor barbecues, a little bigger, but it weighed more because it was all steel and rubber rollers. I bought paper by the ream, 500 sheets, which weighs a ton, and had to carry it up the stairs. It was so exciting.

Rumpus: So with your equipment and this loft space where you were living, you were ready to begin.

Mouly: I wanted to do a publishing house, but it was going to take a lot of titles to do something like that, so I thought that putting together one publication with all those different artists was going to be a more efficient way to develop a line. I wanted to print it large and on good paper, because I wanted people to have the kind of awe you have when you walk into a museum. A lot of the comics were printed on newsprint, disposable, which colors your perception of them. I thought if I made a very ornate frame for this work, people will take it with more consideration. So I convinced Art to do Raw.

Rumpus: Why did Art need convincing?

Mouly: He simply had too much experience as a magazine editor. It’s very difficult to both be an artist and an editor, because you say yes or no to your colleagues. He had sworn after Arcade that he would never do a magazine again—and here he goes and has a girlfriend who wants to do a magazine. I wanted to do the distribution myself, which I did. I would take care of all the business part of it and the production part of it. He now says that he thought we would do one issue and then never do it again. I never heard that! I wouldn’t have put this into place if it was just for one issue, no.

The first issue was in July 1980, and then by December 1980 I had another issue. We gathered stuff that we had seen in Europe and stuff that was happening in the US that wasn’t ever put on good paper.

Rumpus: As someone who grew up reading about Raw in comic history books, I really saw it as an institution—I was convinced by that ornate frame you made. The more we talk about this now, though, the more I understand that the creation of Raw was rebellious. It was punk rock.

Mouly: It was exactly that. We used stickers and rubber stamps. We were wheatpasting fliers on lampposts and mailboxes. It was completely illegal—we went out at night, after two o’clock in the morning, because we didn’t want to get caught by the cops. It was New York of the ’70s and ’80s, kind of ungoverned.

On the other hand, it’s true that the magazine itself was meant to not look like punk rock. To distinguish itself from the underground comics, which had come from the ’60s and drug counterculture and were sold in head shops, and distinguish itself from punk rock, which had its own magazines, it actually modeled itself on things like WET: The Magazine for Gourmet Bathing, which was a large, beautiful magazine, very designed.

The underground comics had a specific kind of audience associated with the counterculture. That field had a lot of violence, a lot of outré sex. It was very unopen to woman. It was the opposite of respectable. It was trying to break as many taboos as possible. I really did not want that in Raw. For the first few issues, I was in some kind of battle with Robert Crumb, because he was the leader of the underground comics; he really advocated that comics should be printed on newsprint, read on the toilet, and disposable. It’s not that I disliked that, it’s just that I wanted to make some other point. I wanted to find some printed matter that was middle ground between the throwaway newsprint and the artiste book.

Rumpus: When did it become clear to you that Raw had created the change you’d wanted to see?

ArtandIatPrintingPress.300Mouly: It was really exciting to print. We translated work that had been published in France and had never been seen here. Chris Ware very kindly has credited Raw as the first time he saw that European kind of color. It was very intentionally a palette that wasn’t being used in the US. I did a number of one-shots—offshoots of Raw—such as the books by Sue Coe, Paul Boyer, Gary Panter. Beautiful books.

But after ten years, the urgency was gone for me. When I was pregnant with Nadja, I was still doing Raw full-time. We were on the eighth issue. I’d done eight or nine one-shots. All the artists that hadn’t been published before, we had now published at least one thing. It’s not that there wasn’t more to publish, but there were more places that were willing to publish some of these artists. Charles Burns could get published elsewhere, Chris Ware, Richard McGuire, the Europeans. And I had things that were so much more interesting than comics, like having a baby! I had kind of disconnected from my own desire, and I wanted to explore other things.

Rumpus: Like what?

Mouly: I actually went back to school and studied biology for two or three years. I did pretty much the pre-med curriculum. My teacher was so fantastic because he drew his entire lectures, thank God, with an opaque projector. He drew every single concept. He was very supportive of what I was doing, but he was saying, “Don’t go into research. It’s either scientists who do the research but they don’t know how to communicate, or it’s writers who don’t really understand the statistics and the scientific part of it, but there are very few people who have access to both sides. There are so few people that actually love this stuff, can understand all this, and can do the communication part to make any kind of bridge between the two.” And that was really interesting to me. I was actually in a lab putting electrodes in steaks when I was pregnant with Dash in 1991.

So I went back more to the kind of stuff I had done early in Raw, in terms of making books on topics. The only book that I regret is a great book that I did with Sue Coe’s paintings called Porkopolis that had all this information about factory farming. Very powerful stuff. But I made a mistake—I hired somebody who called herself a writer but just never delivered anything, and then Sue’s book was held up. Sue pulled her work and gave it to another publisher. It became impossible to then republish the book. I was a little disheartened. As much as I could publish comics, I couldn’t publish serious books of research on those topics. I probably would have gone toward making a publishing house that put the two together, as my teacher recommended—that did more Porkopolis-type books, information with design and graphics.

Rumpus: But then The New Yorker happened.

Mouly: Tina Brown came to see Art in 1992. She was the editor of Vanity Fair, but she had been asked to be editor of The New Yorker. She said that she knew which artists she wanted to bring in, long before she knew which writers: she wanted to bring in Avedon, Ed Sorel, and Art Spiegelman. When Art received her at the Raw office, I was there and she was really interested in Raw. She was also looking for an art editor for the magazine, so she asked Art, and he recommended a number of other people. Then Tina asked Ren Weschler, who had done a profile of Art in The New Yorker, “Why didn’t Art recommend his wife when I asked him?” Ren called up and said, “Do you know Tina is considering you? Art, why didn’t you recommend Françoise?” and he was like, “What? It didn’t occur to me!”

My first thought was that I don’t want to go work for somebody else. That really wasn’t my trajectory, because of having had so much autonomy. So I said, “No, I’m not getting in touch. No, not me.” Then I rethought it in terms of, “Why would she be asking me?” I was nobody in the world of design. I wasn’t an established art director, and all the other people that Art had recommended had already been at various magazines. Anybody in New York in the world of art direction would kill to get this job. I realized it’s not that she knows what she wants and she’s looking for somebody to implement it, it’s that obviously she wants to go outside of this world.

I thought, well, is there something that I could bring? The New Yorker as it was at that moment was pretty dull and boring. I mean, I used it as a negative indicator: “It’s not for Raw, but why don’t you go see The New Yorker, maybe they want that.” But I looked at the old issues, and that’s when I discovered that the old New Yorker, the one of Harold Ross in the ’20s and ’30s, was great graphically. It was at least as much a humor magazine as it was a written magazine. It took artists seriously. It was actually alive by its drawing and its cartoons. So I made a proposal to Tina that this is what I would want. She offered me the job.

I remember going up for the interview. At the time, I had a dilemma, which was that my kids were very young. Nadja was four and Dash was a year and a half when I was offered the job. I really felt like saying, “Why don’t you call me in two years?” But I realized that’s not going to work! It’s now or never. I went for an interview with Tina, I had to dress up and whatever, and she was a very fancy lady, quite charming, really charismatic. She sat right next to me and said, “Do you have a good nanny?” [laughs] I later found out that’s actually not legal to ask, but it made a lot of sense practically! She had read my proposal, she knew she wanted me, but she knew it was only going to work if I combine the two. She knew, as a woman boss, that I had two kids. She knew, good nanny or not good nanny, if my kid is sick, that’s my priority and I would work around it. It was never an issue with her. She was always very appreciative, and she was immensely grateful to the artists. The visceral desire on her part to have the most powerful picture was really an incentive, for me and for the artist. When the editor really wants the best picture, it happens.

Rumpus: Many people would probably regard a staff position at The New Yorker as a career high point. At that point, you’d already wound up Raw. What led you back to publishing comics?

Mouly: Once I started at The New Yorker, I didn’t have a minute to look back. For the most part I was able to swing all of my priorities: the kids, the job, and then Art, who was also working for The New Yorker at the time. It’s not that it became routine—it can’t with a weekly magazine. Even twenty years later, it’s still not routine. But now I knew I could do it, and I needed a challenge.

Mouly reading with Dash and NadjaAt that moment in 1998, Dash was about six or seven. He had just come through having to learn to read. I hadn’t found any good readers for him. The stuff they gave him in school was dismal, really counterproductive, and would cut off anybody from the desire to read. What had worked was to read comics. That kept him for however long it took. With Nadja, it had been like that [snaps], but with Dash it just look longer. Once he did, he became an avid reader, but if, for those eight months, we hadn’t been every single day reading French comics, getting the practice of reading and the pleasure of reading comics, I know he would have been one of those reluctant readers.

I realized, Oh my God, this country doesn’t have any kids’ comics! I couldn’t have done that with English comics. Even though after Dash became fluent we gave him all the Donald Ducks and he spent his life reading Roo, they weren’t a good bridge to bring kids into reading. If they were, these comics would be great. Those kids’ comics are what saved my kid, who is now an English major. It seems so simple! And yet . . .

I found this new vocation of something that nobody else would say if I didn’t say it. It felt like right back to my roots. In publishing, there’s something magical. There was something urgent. At the time, other publishers were starting to publish some of the stuff that we were doing in Raw, so there wasn’t a need for Raw—but there was a need for Raw Junior, Raw for kids.

I wanted to do comics for kid, so I did Little Lit. Actually, I wanted to do the TOON Books, but it seemed too difficult to publish books rather than anthologies. It was the same thinking as I had had with Raw, which is that before I can get to the point where I have 25 books, I could do an anthology with 25 artists and show a range of work. Little Lit brought together artists I had met at The New Yorker. We had Gahan Wilson, for example, do something with Neil Gaiman, as well as Maurice Sendak, Ian Falconer, Jules Feiffer—as well as some of the Raw artists like Chris Ware.

Rumpus: Did you see Little Lit make an impact in the same way Raw did?

Mouly: It took four years to publish three volumes of Little Lit. By those four years, I was very happy with what we had done, but it hadn’t established a corner of the bookstore that would be comics for kids. The Little Lit material had not quite achieved permanence. I wanted to do what I had done with Raw. There had started being graphic novels sections post-Maus but those books didn’t belong there. If you were a parent looking for books for your kids, you didn’t want to be sent to the graphic novel section, because a lot of that stuff wasn’t and still isn’t for children. We very specifically advocated with retailers to develop a comics section in the children’s section, not a children’s section in the graphic novels section. But we were the poster boy and girl for graphic novels. I always felt at odds saying, “No, you know me for Raw magazine and this is Raw Junior, but don’t put it with the graphic novels.” We didn’t quite succeed with doing this.

Eventually I gave up. The sales were less and less. Our editor, who had been really supportive, had a hard time justifying to her publishing house that we should keep going, because there wasn’t a top bestseller. It got lots of prizes and whatever, but still . . . I just ran out of energy.

Rumpus: What gave you the energy to come back to your idea of the TOON Books?

Mouly: I knew that comics for kids, especially early readers, were a grand idea. There was a need for it. The TOON Books are points of entry into literacy. Our books are actually extremely useful with kids who are autistic because they depict emotional states—happy, sad, angry, frustrated facial expressions—so you connect facial expressions with words. The language is simplified, there are balloons, the words are visually explained.

In 2005, I signed a contract to do the TOON Books, but that editor—anytime I said, “No, this is how I am doing it,” she said, “Oh, but Françoise, you don’t know anything about children’s books, and in children’s books, we do this!” I knew that there were a lot of rules, but I wanted to challenge them. I realized I was up against an entire industry. Publication there was yet again going to be a marginal accomplishment. So I actually broke the contract, and then I went around to every publisher in town saying I have this line of books. I wanted to resell it, but now packaged by me, not done under some editor or a media department or a design department.

Rumpus: When we first met in 2007, you were going to these lunches to meet different publishers and coming back disappointed.

Mouly: They would all be greatly enthusiastic and then at the last minute it’s like, “We can’t do it, because it’s too much.” They’d say, “It’s a great idea, it’s beautifully presented, it’s definitely worth doing. I wish we could do it, but we can’t. We’re not at a position where we can create a new category.” They said it would take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to establish the fact that comics are OK, especially for kids who are learning to read—that they’re good tools.

This is the most difficult area of publishing, publishing for a young kid, because educators or parents must see it and think, Oh, that’s wonderful for Junior. You are totally dependent on gatekeeper adults. People are justifiably imbued with the responsibility of helping the kid navigate through that very difficult moment. They don’t want to make any mistake, so they don’t want to recommend a book that’s going to slow kids down. Little things—the all-caps lettering or sound effects—had made comics seem illiterate to generation after generation, and the gatekeepers were protecting children from the “illiteracy” of comics and of popular culture. But we live in a world that is literate in a different way.

Rumpus: The definition of literacy has been gradually broadened.

Mouly: To include images. To include comics, certainly. There’s nothing in the medium that prevents it from being sophisticated.

Rumpus: You ended up self-publishing the TOON Books, despite the warnings you heard from bigger publishers about establishing comics for young kids. I remember how high our hopes were that first year of TOON, and it seems like we’ve fulfilled those dreams in many ways. Looking back over the past six years, do you think you’ve succeeded in your expectations?

TOON BooksMouly: Yes and no. When we sat there and said, “OK, we’re going to do it,” there was a warning from Art, who said, “You know, publishing nowadays is not like what it was when you were doing Raw. You don’t know anything about it.” I’ve had to learn how to do a website, Facebook, social media. It’s not that I’m so delighted to know all this, but I just love that I have all the tools at my disposal. If I had been taken as a unit of another publishing house, I wouldn’t have as much flexibility. I feel that I am now on top of my game, at least as much as I was back in the ’80s.

As small publishers, we’re a remarkable success. The fact that we didn’t go out of business coming out in 2008 with something where there’s no category in the store, and then we’re still in business six years later and we’ve had all those awards, is enormous. It really is enormous. The fact that we have imitators, that now people take it for granted that the growth area in publishing is comics and the growth area in comics is kids’ comics, that we have established a trend and been at the avant-garde, is great.

It does leave me feeling like yet again I’m making the world safe for stuff I don’t necessarily care about. Our imitators are not necessarily the best comics for kids.

The fact that yet again I am “where it’s at” in terms of interesting things happening in the field is satisfying. One of the pressures on me back in 2006 or 2007 was to start doing anthologies of Raw and histories of what I had done when I was young. I really did not want to do that. I just didn’t want to be buried alive by it. I understand the interest, and I will eventually, but I was just more interested in doing something that was needed. With TOON, I’ve had moments that brought tears to my eyes, like a teacher saying, “I teach in this really difficult school district, where the kids have no support at home, but the kids love these books.”

What’s frustrating is that it’s still such a struggle to get to that section in the store, to get them used in schools. What I would really like is to finally to make one big jump, where some school district would choose one of the TOON Books. That would mean a lot of books in the hands of a lot of kids. That would be great. That would be grand. It will happen. It has to happen. They’re so effective that way. I don’t know how to get from here to there, but I just—right now, the people who support our books have kids who are privileged already. So it’s working, but it’s working for kids who would know how to read, the same way my kids would know how to read anyway. But how do we get to those disadvantaged schools? If those kids don’t get the TOON Books, I’m not sure they’ll learn how to read.

Rumpus: Now that you’re working with parents and teachers to legitimize comics as a teaching tool for kids, it must be disorienting to look back at the beginnings of Raw, when you were defending comics’ right to be taken seriously at all.

Mouly: When I started discovering this stuff, there was such an impenetrable wall of prejudice against this medium. It was universally held in contempt—so it was so exciting. Now what is unsettling to me is people thinking that graphic novels and comics are hip. That is so strange! Part of what got me into this field is the fact that it was so underexploited, in some way. Thirty years later, it seems there’s been another discovery by young people who don’t have any prejudice against the medium, and who think so many things can be done with it. It’s being taught in universities. In publishing, it’s actually one of the few areas that hasn’t totally collapsed.

Rumpus: Is it exciting or weird for you to see that?

Mouly: You know, it’s interesting, because it should be exciting. It should be a dream come true. That’s what I fought for. But it’s also really hard. It’s hard because it’s so much easier to rebel than it is to be “the legendary. . . .” Whatever I do, I only seem to attract attention after it’s done. It’s the legendary Raw magazine, and the legendary Little Lit, and soon it will be the legendary TOON Books. It’s like I’m both very visible and totally ignored. I have a hard time dealing with all those projections of what I represent, none of which have anything to do with actually me.

Even years ago, I feared being the one that was going to make comics respectable just so that some big publisher could put out a “graphic novelization” or whatever. In the ‘80s or ‘90s, I was on a panel, and they were saying, “Comics have to be taken seriously.” I intervened and said, “Yes, good comics have to be taken seriously. Not anything that is done in that format is by definition worth attention.” All of those fans in the room turned on me. “Who is that creep with the French accent that’s somehow trying to demarcate?” But between stuff worthy of literary consideration and stuff that has artistic merit, it’s such a slippery slope. You struggle and struggle and struggle, and it gives legitimacy to stuff that you wouldn’t endorse in any way.

And then it’s very—I was going to say it’s very hard, but actually it’s impossible to feel the passage of time, because it’s not 1980 anymore, but also it is. I’m not the same person but I’m also the same person. It’s confusing. When the world changes around you in a way that you’ve somehow influenced or had something to do with, it’s kind of disconcerting, like a Philip K. Dick novel. “Isn’t reality a stable thing I can push against? I can alter reality? Aah!” I’m not saying it’s unpleasant, I’m just saying it’s destabilizing, because the world is simpler when you are twenty and reality is massive stone walls that you can’t chip at. The truth is that you can’t actually change anything—you can try. Ripples of ripples and ripples have a slight impact, not as much as you would want but more than you think.

Certainly, looking back on it, it was simpler when there was a blanket statement that nobody, nobody, took comics as something interesting.

Also what’s strange is gender, the opening up. I felt so lonely in a world where all the fans were male. Many, many, many of them—not all, and not so much in Europe, but in America—had come to it as a kind of adolescent fantasy, so they were not just male but also very misogynistic. They were very fixated on certain ideas of what comics they liked, often superheroes, and very touchy on the topic. They distinguished themselves by being socially inept, real nerds. And you know, I kind of like nerds. I like weird people, but that was a very closed world. Now there are plenty of hip, young, beautiful women that are not prejudiced against comics but have grown up reading comics.

Rumpus: Some cartoonists, critics, and historians have seemed reluctant to recognize your contributions as a woman. Do you think you’ve been marginalized?

Mouly: No. Part of it is that if I had done everything that I did without being married to one of the most prominent cartoonists in the field, I would’ve gotten a lot more recognition. But a lot got shadowed by the impact that Art has had, and part of it is the fact that so many other people are also cartoonists. So when there’s the choice, they’ll ask a Jeff Smith or an Art Spiegelman, who is also an author. Few editors are stars. But that’s what you go for when you decide to be an editor—it’s not to be the person that’s put forward.

I do mind when they bend over backwards to write me out of history. When they’re trying to do something about kids’ comics, for example, and they don’t even mention the TOON Books. That, I do mind because that is wrong. That is totally wrong. Some of it is willful on their part. There’s something about me that they don’t like besides the French accent. It’s that my point of entry is not superhero comics and that I don’t hide my contempt for superhero comics.

Rumpus: Within your career, you’ve had a series of five- to ten-year mini careers: Raw, academia, The New Yorker, Little Lit, TOON. There are these rising strong passions that you pursue until they run their course. Do you anticipate that happening again? Do you see what the next passion will be?

Mouly: I haven’t asked myself, but that’s a good question. I don’t know, which is nice, not knowing. I had never thought of it that way.

Rumpus: Maybe that’s not a fair way to think of it.

Mouly: No, no, no, it’s actually interesting. When somebody interviewed me for the first time, sometime around the late ’90s, it occurred to me, “Oh my God, she’s seeing a narrative in my life,” which I didn’t. When you look in hindsight, you can see some kind of coherence, whereas to me it seemed like complete chaos. Like—what do you call a flipper? I don’t know what it’s called in English, the one where you hit the keys with the—

Rumpus: A pinball machine.

Mouly: A pinball machine, yes. To me, my life was like a pinball machine. It was like, “Bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing!” Sometimes you hit the jackpot and sometimes you don’t. The main thing is not to fall into the death hole.


Featured image by Sarah Shatz.

The New Yorker cover first published September 24, 2001, © 2001 Françoise Mouly & Art Spiegelman, The New Yorker.


Julia Phillips has written fiction and essays for Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, The Brooklyn Quarterly, The Morning News, The Cut, and Jezebel. She's working on a short-story collection about Kamchatka. Find her on Twitter @jkbphillips. More from this author →