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We talked on the phone last week. An edited transcript follows.
You’ll be in town for the Comics: Philosophy & Practice Conference.
Yes, me and every important, interesting cartoonist in the world. It’s an amazing event.
There is an amazing roster of artists participating. [Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Dan Clowes, R. Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Ben Katchor, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Gary Panter, Joe Sacco, Seth, Art Spiegelman, Carol Tyler, Chris Ware] You’ll probably see a lot of old friends there.
Some of whom have done New Yorker covers?
So many of them! I’m very proud of that. It shows that the New Yorker and the New Yorker covers are at the center of everything interesting that’s happening. Over half of the people on the list, and most of them have some New Yorker presence. Many of them have done covers.
You’ll be on a panel with Robert Crumb and Chris Ware.
And Dan Clowes, yes. I’m giving a presentation about the process of doing New Yorker covers based on my book that’s coming out, Blown Covers, and showing pictures because of course that is what I’m comfortable with. And then discussing with three artists—Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and Robert Crumb—their own specific approaches, which are of course completely different from each other.
In your book you talked about how artists are not really happy people. They’re kind of gloomy, really, even though they do funny work.
[laughs] Well, obviously I love artists. I’m married to a cartoonist [Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus] and Art can be depressed. Yes, it is I think part of the lot of artists who have those inflated-enough egos that they think it’s worth catching other people’s attention and show the little doodles that they were doing in their notebook, and also self-loathing in great dose. I think you have to be unstable to be an artist and to be a cartoonist. And Art is also one of the funniest people I know. So humor sometimes is very much present in the same person as pathos and tragedy, and many of those artists—because here we are talking about, let’s see, the best cartoonists around—there’s no other word!—are smart and witty and funny and depressed.
On the 17th you’ll be at 57th Street Books with your daughter, Nadja. What will you two be talking about then?
There we’ll take, actually, the approach where I’m laying everything on her shoulders. She’s been helping me for the past year. She’s been doing a number of jobs ever since she graduated from college, but she even stooped to working for her mom. For me it’s been fantastic because it’s always interesting to get young college graduates—I’ve had a number of interns that have worked for me—but here I’m seeing somebody really blossoming. She has in the past year written a couple books for children that are really good and very successful in my line of TOON Books, of comics for kids. She has found her footing very solidly as an editor, but she also works with the teachers and she goes to schools and reads books with the kids as well as the part of it that has to do with working with the artists and holding their hands, which sometimes makes me feel like there is a lot in common between being an editor or an art editor and being a kindergarten teacher, because artists, as we were just talking about, are very grandiloquent in their statements—they’re totally adorable—and need a lot of care and attention; and she has been my associate editor and my helper on the writing of my book about the process of what I do. . . .
So Nadja was a really helpful collaborator on this book, also because I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It could get stale, you would think, after 20 years? But it’s a weekly, so I don’t have a chance to get bored at the New Yorker, and also here I was showing her sketches that were 15, 10, 12, six years old, and I had to give her the context to make sure, if I could make her laugh—and she was my intended audience—that is good. . . .
So she was my collaborator there and then I tasked her with something that is essential in this day and age: Do something! I don’t know what. But do something to promote the book. But even though I don’t know what to do, she figured it out. She started a Tumblr a couple months ago and it’s now taken a life of its own, and it’s actually made a hot list of the most interesting websites to follow. And it is! It’s fascinating! Yesterday she was totally beaming at the end of the day because the site crashed because there was too much traffic on it, because she ended up getting Neil Gaiman to refer to it, and he has four million followers, so that brought like a lot.
But she’s been able to look at what I do and find what’s interesting to her and really enter into it. She’ll be moving on and she’ll be probably fairly certainly moving to France next year. And she is a writer so she is getting started on her own project. But it has been really a huge gift to see what I do, with the enthusiasm and the intelligence my daughter has brought to it. On top of which she’s done really good work as an editor and it’s something that is very difficult to explain and to talk about but an essential job to be a good editor. I work at the New Yorker. I have a lot of very, very smart colleagues, very accomplished, but there are very few editors who actually deal with pictures at most. All of the few that are, I mean, all of the people that are trained to be editors are trained to be text editors and don’t understand pictures, and art director is something else. They’re usually not trained as editors in terms of understanding the content of pictures, just the form, so to me it’s a very valuable skill.
I noticed that Nadja got special thanks from you in the acknowledgments to Blown Covers. I liked her photo on blowncovers.com with the cat on the top of her chair—
[laughs] Yes. She is a smart kid.
Our arts editor, Tony Adler, has a question for you: "I’d want to know about the process for pairing an artist with a cover concept."
It’s a good question. Sometimes I have a range of topics. Often, I’ll start with the long-term. So summer, because some artists, they are more likely to do beautiful bucolic scenes, and I will suggest to them, obviously they can propose ideas on any topic, but "maybe you want to think about summer, because that’s a time to have very pretty pictures." And there are others that I will call on more specifically because there’s just been a tsunami in Japan, and I need somebody who can respond to a disaster and that can respond quickly in a news event. Usually for politics it’s not somebody from Europe or overseas because politics is very context specific. So I wouldn’t ask Jacques de Loustal to do something about Santorum or Obama. It’s too difficult to explain.
And I don’t tell them what to draw. So I’m asking them. I solicit ideas from artists. I am not interested in baseball, for example, but I know that my boss is, the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick. So I talk to the few artists I know who are interested in sports. And same thing: I won’t talk to the Europeans because it would be too “football,” “soccer,” so I’ll talk to a couple of my artists who are Canadians, so they’re into hockey, but the boss is into baseball, so forget all the hockey ideas. But baseball, which my boss really loves so then we’ll suggest. But one thing that is good for me and is part of what keeps my job interesting is that I’m not ashamed to tell the artists, “Well, I don’t know anything about baseball,” so if they show me a sketch, it literally has to make sense to some idiot like me. And therefore it has to be a bit broader then just “Oh, it’s so-and-so and he’s a pitcher for the Yankees, so—whatever.” It has to make a comment and have a take so that it can be gettable. So the fact that I’m not an expert on any of those things, on many of the topics I came to the U.S. as an outsider, so I have a born distance from things. I can say to an artist, “Well, explain it to me. Show me. In your drawing.” I don’t want a lengthy explanation about the images, but make sure that the image reads to someone like me.
Another question from Tony: "It seems like the rotation seems to have gotten a lot smaller lately with the heavy repetition of a few artists and most of those are primarily cartoonists. True or false?"
I’ve been doing this over 19 years, so if he would look at—it’s about 950 covers—and if he looks at the rotation in 1993 he’ll see some of the same names that come back: Lorenzo Mattotti, Charles Burns, Richard McGuire. Now some of those people, like for example Burns and Mattotti, are busy doing other things, so they’re not as present in the New Yorker as some of the people that he’s seeing often. The cartoonists that he’s seeing more often—like right now we are running this week, it will be out next week, a cover by Ivan Brunetti. He’s a cartoonist. Two weeks ago we had a cover by Chris Ware. Chris just wrapped up his book, and I’ve been waiting and waiting since a year or two for him to be finished with his book so that he would have time for a New Yorker cover. So, no, it actually goes as—it’s one of the problems that I have, which is when I introduce new artists, which I do regularly, that I have to keep room for all of the other artists that are still interested in doing covers, because we only do 50 covers a year, roughly, but still, I am trying to keep an element of surprise so you can’t quite know what the cover will be next week, nor can you know who it will be by.
On a sad note, [last week] the New Yorker tweeted a link to a story that your husband did in 1993 about a conversation he had with Maurice Sendak.
Actually it wasn’t made clear on our site, but it’s a comic strip drawn by the two of them; it’s signed by the two of them. It’s a collaboration. Maurice came over and they literally drew side by side because Maurice was left-handed. And Maurice drew himself and Art drew himself and Maurice drew his part and Art drew his part. And it’s kind of a piano-a-deux-type of a piece with two hands.
As all the world knows, Maurice just passed away.
Do you have any memories of him you’d like to share?
Well, for me I had a very different approach because I literally tried to get images from him to publish on the cover of the New Yorker and various places, and my conversations with him were actually not the most pleasurable because he was in pain and he was very, very moody, and he transcended this when he was with friends. He was really a genuine iconoclast. But when I had to talk to him about deadlines [laughs] and practical considerations and couriers and all of this stuff, it seemed that everything was so hard, it was so difficult, there was no such thing as a light moment, and it’s painful when the person you’re talking to—like you’re seen as a bad guy because you’re imposing deadlines and the person you’re talking to is in pain, physical pain. He endured a lot, he was a sickly child and a sickly adult but he made up for all this drama by having such wit and being so acerbic. Like the world of children’s books is very proper and reverential and usually a place where no one wants to take any risk, any chance, or breaking the taboo, so in that sense I’m very grateful that he got stuck there, you know, it wasn’t exactly what—it took him by surprise, I think, when he entered the world of children’s books, and it was vital and it was fun and it was amusing. I’m glad that Maurice stuck with it because he was a breath of fresh air.
You mention it a couple times in your book, but you really do have the best job in the world, don’t you?
[laughs] Yes, I do. I do. Even if I have to be on the phone with Maurice Sendak for three hours.