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'Blown Covers': Not Ready For The Newsstand

May 1, 2012 (All Things Considered)

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Francoise Mouly has been The New Yorker's art editor since 1993. From 1980 to 1991 she co-edited the influential comics anthology RAW with husband Art Spiegelman.

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This week's cover of the New Yorker magazine is a witty drawing by artist Chris Ware of a playground full of young children and their watchful parents. One woman wheels her son in a stroller, only to see that all the other parents are men. The image is called "Mother's Day."

But for all the memorable New Yorker covers out there, an equally large number of covers didn't make it to the newsstand. They were not quite on the money — or were sometimes a little too coarsely on the money.

Francoise Mouly, the magazine's art editor, is also the author of a new book, Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See. Mouly generally has a stack of rejected covers in her office, and she tells NPR's Robert Siegel that finding just the right image is the cornerstone of her work. "The one that will provoke discourse," she says.

One of the rejected covers comes from the era of the Diet Coke and Mentos Internet phenomenon, when viral videos showed the explosive results of combining the two products.

"The first [idea] by Barry Blitt, the artist who came up with this, was to show two little kids in an airplane, exchanging Diet Coke and Mentos," she says, "so they're about to make an explosion and the stewardess is walking past." Blitt reworked the image with two businessmen before he hit on the idea of having two Middle Eastern-appearing men passing the dangerous snacks back and forth.

"You're not mocking Arab people or casting them in a role; you're making fun of our own fears," Mouly says. But the image didn't make the final cut, in part because editors feared the Diet Coke and Mentos reference might be too obscure for New Yorker readers.

Another rejected cover poked fun at the Catholic Church's embarrassment over the child-abuse scandal. It showed the pope replicating a classic Marilyn Monroe pose over a subway grate, with his vestments flying up around him. While it became the cover image for the new book, it did not make the magazine.

"That image made immediate sense to me; I thought it denounced the hypocrisy of the church," she says. And she applauds the artists who don't censor themselves, who feel comfortable sending in whatever ideas cross their minds. But, she adds, this particular image didn't hold up to scrutiny by New Yorker editors. "What does the pope have to do with Marilyn Monroe? It falls apart."

The Marilyn pose is iconic, almost cliched at this point — in fact, it appears in several other rejected covers. But Mouly says cartoonists have to work with cliches. "A businessman carries a suitcase," she says. "And what you are hoping is that they will use those cliches to make new points, and to make you see something that you thought you understood in a new way. The challenge that they give themselves is a picture of our times."

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