Brain Pickings

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See

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The art-science of walking the fine line between keen and crass.

Since its inception in 1925, The New Yorker has garnered remarkable reverence as much for its editorial style as it has for its inimitable covers, a singular medium for political and sociocultural visual satire matched perhaps only by Al Jaffee’s legendary MAD magazine fold-ins. In Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See, Françoise Mouly, New Yorker art director of nearly two decades, offers exactly what it says on the tin — a delicious forbidden taste of the art that didn’t quite nail it, or nailed it a bit too hard.

From Monica Lewinsky with a lollipop to Osama Bin Laden appraising proposed designs for the new World Trade Center, the images come from a slew of beloved New Yorker regulars, including Brain Pickings favorites Christoph Niemann, R. Crumb, and Art Spiegelman (who happens to be Mouly’s partner), and explore — some might say, exploit — our most deep-seated cultural conceits, our grandest fears, our most irrational beliefs, and our greatest unspoken truths. What emerges is a fascinating and unprecedented glimpse of the creative process behind the art of walking the fine line between the humorous and the haughty, the keen and the crass, the unapologetic and the too unapologetic.

Before arriving at the right character set to poke fun at our fears of terrorism -- two Arab men -- Barry Blitt tried the idea with two children and two businessmen. Ultimately, the idea was scrapped -- the reference to the mild DIY explosive, despite the viral fame of the Mentos + Diet Coke mixing experiments, was deemed too obscure for the magazine's audience.

Art Spiegelman winked at Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom from Want' to comment on anti-Muslim violence.

Immediately preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christoph Niemann captured the anti-French sentiments sweeping America.

After Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was assaulted by white NYPD officers in 1997, Harry Bliss zeroed in on then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's semi-secret paranoia.

Though Art Spiegelman didn't make the cover cut with this 1993 sketch, he and Mouly made it into the family's Christmas card that year.

Much of what makes the book special — and, no doubt, what makes New Yorker covers sing — is Mouly’s relationship with the artists, whom she consistently encourages not to self-sensor or hold anything back. There emerges a kind of “fail better” mentality, underpinned by her conviction that even the most outrageous idea may serve as a gateway to an inspired, publishable line of thinking.

The book’s companion site offers a weekly cover contest, the entries to which have been surprisingly excellent. My favorite, by writer and illustrator Ella German, came last week, themed “The Gays,” in light of the recent historic moment for marriage equality, but also referencing Maurice Sendak, who had passed away the previous week. Though far from a gay rights activist, Sendak lived as an openly gay man with his partner of half a century. The two never had the opportunity to marry.

What Here At The New Yorker did for the magazine’s editorial voice on its 50th anniversary in 1975, Blown Covers has done for its brand of visual satire, offering a rare glimpse of Oz behind the curtain. And to those whose first blush might be that Oz is better off unseen and omnipotent, Mouly offers the following lens in this interview on Imprint:

One could have to do with demystifying, making the process more predictable. But I actually think that it’s so rich and so interesting that it’s actually even more interesting if you have a sense of how the images are thought about, rather than less. It doesn’t explain anything because it still is genius when somebody gets the right idea.

Images courtesy of Abrams Books

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