BENEATH THE COVERS: The personal story behind The New Yorker’s Charlie Hebdo cover (‘Solidarité’)
FOR FRANCOISE MOULY, picking next week’s New Yorker cover meant going to a deeply personal place:
The Paris of her youth.
It was a time and location of being influenced by, and then coming to know, cartoonists at the still-budding Charlie Hebdo publication, including Georges Wolinski and Jean Cabut (aka “Cabu”). Those men were among the five artists, and 12 people total, gunned down Wednesday at the satirical weekly’s Paris offices.
In the immediate wake of that massacre, as Mouly began receiving sketches for next week’s New Yorker cover, she found her past and present lives colliding in ways she has rarely experienced.
“I live a fairly schizophrenic life because I was once a French kid, and now I’m an ‘old lady’ in New York,” Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs the day after the attack. “Those lives don’t quite come together — certainly never until [this week] — with such a tragic point of reality.”
As Mouly pored over this week’s submitted sketches and absorbed the enormity of the attack, she was transported by her moving memories to an earlier era of passionate fervor in Paris.
“Charlie Hebdo helped show me the path that informed me in my formative years … ,” Mouly tells Comic Riffs. “I was a kid when it launched,” shortly after the 1968 student protests. Charlie Hebdo and its predecessor, Hara-Kiri, provided, she says, “the images and the voices of my generation.”
In the early ’70s, Mouly was out in the streets — “doing my thing” — as a young and politically passionate artist. By the end of that decade, she was hanging out with, and then providing French/English comic translations for, some of the artists who had inspired her.
In the late ’70s, Mouly and her husband, Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman (“Maus,” “In the Shadow of No Towers”), were working in the United States on their later-influential RAW magazine. “On Arthur’s first or second trip to France, we went to visit the offices of Charlie Hebdo. And for me, they were my idols. I knew all these people from their work. But it was great to see them — these [sources of] inspiration. I was really marked by that.”
Mouly had long admired their talent. Now she was struck by how they practiced their craft. Many cartoonists work in relative seclusion; these artists, as they shared bread and ideas, fed off each other’s company.
“These cartoonists really worked together,” Mouly recalls. “We went on their day of the week when they did the drawings. They were sitting around an enormous table, passing around drawings, and there were ample amounts of red wine and baguettes, and they had Magic Markers and blank paper, and they were making doodles and passing them on to each other.”
“It was seeing creation,” Mouly remembers. “It was the process of creation, which is always arduous and seldom a social time. But those cartoonists were getting together and needling the ideas out of each other. And it encouraged a kind of breaking of boundaries and taboos. They were primarily each other’s audience.”
Mouly has distinct memories, too, of Wolinski and Cabut, who even then were, she says, among the scene’s “old guard.”
Wolinski, she says, “was ubiquitous. He was really the inventor [there] of this kind of vulgar and provocative humor. Even when I was a kid. it was so clear. … He was a sexist pig, even during the [rise of] feminism. … There were no off-limits for him — whether it was religion or sex or the government.
“That being said, it was impressive. … ,” Mouly continues. “He was fast and casual in his drawing. He insisted on not slowing down and being careful. It was cartooning as a joy manifest.”
That almost wanton glee inspired other cartoonists. “Because when somebody pushes the boundaries so far open, you can’t help but notice,” Mouly tells The Post. “He kept the field from ever feeling pompous or self-righteous or even safe.”
Cabut, by comparison, was more controlled. “His personality was less abrasive — he was sweeter,” Mouly recalls. And on the page, “he was more of a [textured] social commentator — and more of an individualist.”
Together, they were crucial parts of an artistic scene in which everybody knew everybody. These artists challenged each other, pushed each other — and saluted each other when one would get censored, offering a hearty and sincere “lucky you!” It was, Mouly says, like an intellectual “demolition derby.”
“That was very inspiring and very refreshing,” she says of this scene that, literally and journalistically, left its mark on her. “And early Charlie Hebdo was a tab that left ink on your fingers. It all made you want to be involved in the press. There was a power-of-the-pen excitement.”
Looking back now, Mouly thinks ever highly of these artists. “I am very proud of those guys and their conviction. They didn’t fold when threatened,” she tells Comic Riffs. “They threw down a gauntlet and took it as far as it would go. Not just ‘Charb’ [editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier], and his quote about standing up [to intimidation] rather than living on like a rat. Wolkinski was 80. Cabu was 78. These are people who had been doing this for so long, and they could have easily said: ‘I’ll leave this to the youngsters.’ But they never stopped feeling the urge to speak out. And they never ran out of targets.”
As the New Yorker’s art editor for more than two decades, Mouly has taken on her own share of provocative targets. She has faced protests and faced down death threats when her magazine’s covers have especially struck a nerve — whether a particular cover comments on police shootings or a religious holiday, on racial strife or same-sex marriage rulings — or even the Obamas dressed as militants and exchanging a fist bump.
“The first threat provoked by a cover was in 1993,” Mouly says of her tenure. “It was a cover, by David Mazzuchelli, of a kid jumping on the World Trade Center in sand-castle form. We were denounced. … There were bomb threats to the magazine.”
Mouly also cites police protests outside the New Yorker’s offices over a Spiegelman “41 shots” cover, as well as New York tabloid editorials wishing harm upon “you damned cartoonists.”
It is these decades of experience, from Paris to Manhattan, that informed Mouly’s editorial process this week. (Even as “half her brain” was with her daughter and mother in Paris; her daughter, who was tending to her mother at the hospital, lives near the Charlie Hebdo offices.)
“There is no good answer to the [Paris] event except going: “No-no-no! This can’t have happened,’ ” Mouly says. “It’s impossible to respond with humor to it. It’s not funny. Some of the many drawings showed a finger raised or a gesture of defiance, and that felt like [it] wasn’t an appropriate expression.”
Instead, Mouly chose the stark and stirring image by Madrid-based artist Ana Juan, whose more than 20 covers for The New Yorker have included 9/11 anniversary art.
“When I saw this image, I felt the sobriety and the simplicity — I reacted the way you did,” Mouly tells Comic Riffs of the cover, titled “Solidarité.” “I felt that kind of ‘hit’ that reaches into your brain and realigns [you]. It ‘reads’ right away.”
In creating the cover, the artist melded two symbols imbued with so much meaning.
“First of all, I thought of Paris, its icons, and about the basic drawing tool: a pencil,” Juan tells The Post of her process. “The pencil became the symbol of press freedom.
[But it's] not as easy as adding a pencil to the Eiffel Tower. … The cover idea of ‘Solidarite’ is fairly simple … but how does one image different to the others? [It's] the voice and the language the author uses to convey his emotions.”
As for her visual opinion, Juan tells Comic Riffs: “This is not a conventional war, and every creator has a commitment to himself and to the society. We have to work against intolerance with the weapons we have.”
And does Mouly, the French-born veteran of provocative illustrated covers, care to elaborate on the art?
“I’ll leave it with the image. That would be nice,” she says. “The pen of the artist gets the last word. As it should be.”