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Tue May 1, 2012

'Blown Covers': Not Ready For The Newsstand

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:50 am

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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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

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

Here's what we learned from Francoise Mouly's new coffee-table sized book, "Blown Covers." For all the memorable New Yorker covers there have been, she remembers an equally large number of covers that have not been - the rejects that were not quite on the money or a little too coarsely on the money.

Mouly is the magazine's art editor and she joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

FRANCOISE MOULY: It's such a pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: And I gather that you have a stack of these drawings in your office that never made it onto The New Yorker.

MOULY: Yes, there's a foundation of what we do. Every week, we search for just the right image, the one that will provoke discourse, such as what you described today by Chris Ware, that's an image that will get us to talk about fathers getting involved. And obviously mothers go to the park not just to take care of their kids, but also it's a form of socializing.

SIEGEL: There's one rejected cover that was drawn at the peak of the Diet Coke and Mentos moment, when there was a viral video online which showed the exploding geyser you can make by sticking a Mento into a bottle of Diet Coke. I want you to describe the cover that never made it.

MOULY: Well, the first thought by Barry Blitt, the artist who came up with this, was to show two little kids in an airplane exchanging Diet Coke and Mentos. So they're about to make an explosion and the stewardess is walking past. And then he tried it with two businessmen, and then he had the right phrasing for it where he had two Arab-looking men passing the Mentos and Diet Coke. And now, you're not mocking Arab people or casting them in a role, but you're making fun of our own fears.

SIEGEL: It didn't make it, though.

MOULY: But one of the...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOULY: One of the reasons it didn't make, it's because of the point of reference that Diet Coke and Mentos was not necessarily widely enough known. There was an age gap.

SIEGEL: The cover of your book, "Blown Covers" - and I suppose therefore the emblematic rejected New Yorker cover - was, as I understand it, intended to represent the Catholic Church's embarrassment over the child abuse scandal. And it shows the Pope in the Marilyn Monroe pose, standing over the subway grating with his vestments flying up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Didn't make it onto the cover of the magazine.

MOULY: Right. And it's a good example of the images that are sent very generously by the artists without fear of embarrassing themselves. But that image made immediate sense to me. I thought it denounced the hypocrisy of the church, not just the scandal but the sweeping the scandals under the rug. And the rule is to not edit yourself when you're an artist proposing images to us. It's let us, or at least let me, look at everything that crosses your mind whether it's publishable or not.

But then I have to show things to David Remnick, editor of the magazine. But here, he happened to have been on a trip and I had one of those rare instances that many other art directors usually have to be confronted with, which is a committee type of editing. And since I work at The New Yorker, I'm surrounded with many very wonderful and smart and funny colleagues. But they tend to be word people. And once you try to rationalize an image, you start wondering what does the Pope have to do with Marilyn Monroe? It falls apart because it's visceral connection.

SIEGEL: Do you in the art department at The New Yorker or at other magazines refer to the word people as the others on the magazine?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOULY: I may not want to discuss this. Can I draw you a picture instead?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Now, I learned in the book that the Marilyn Monroe pose that's on the cover, that image of the Pope that didn't make it, there are others. There's a female suicide bomber who is in the same pose with her chador lifted up and the dynamite sticks revealed to us. There's another one of sort of an older - if Marilyn Monroe, I guess, had lived and she's quite old.

I mean, this is obviously quite an iconic image still.

MOULY: Well, that's exactly what the building blocks that the artists are working with, because a cartoonist has to work with cliche. A businessman carries a suitcase. And what you are hoping is that they will use those cliches to make a new point 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.

SIEGEL: Well, Francoise Mouly, thanks a lot for talking with us.

MOULY: Oh, thank you so much. It's been a real treat being here.

SIEGEL: The book is called "Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant To See." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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