From her underground work, including co-founding RAW magazine, to her current role as comics publisher at Toon Books and as cover art editor for The New Yorker, Françoise Mouly has become a venerable force in the comics industry and mainstream press especially with regard to her work fighting for the legitimization of comics as art as well as speech protected by the First Amendment. In a recent interview with Jed Oelbaum at Good magazine, the advocate, educator, and entrepreneur teaches us exactly why we need to “take comics seriously.”
When Mouly first arrived in the United States, she was accustomed to the European mentality that held comics and satire cartooning to a whole other standard unheard of by mainstream America in the 1970s. Whereas in Europe the comics industry had cultivated a rich and respected history, from the production of high-class satire magazines like Punch to classic comics like Astérix and The Adventures of Tintin, in the United States creators were still struggling to find avenues for their works and were frequently being censored by the still-imposed Comics Code of 1954. In America, comics were trash. They were low-brow and only created or consumed by people you couldn’t take seriously; people whose morals and standards were something to question.
Mouly recalls the prevailing view of comics in the United States at the time:
[It] was something that was a surprise to me when I came here, to discover the prejudice against comics. Art [Speigelman] had to explain to me there was this psychologist, [Fredric] Wertham, on a campaign that said that [comics] perverted children’s minds, using the example of very extreme, gory horror comics of the ‘50s. It led even to book burnings and congressional hearings. France has censor boards and so on, but still, [American anti-comics sentiment] became a hysterical and excessive denunciation of the medium, which was so totally out of line.
It was through these experiences that Mouly came to the conclusion that comics were an art form and part of American culture worth fighting for in United States. Not only for the innumerable current and aspiring creators and publishers struggling to demonstrate that what they did was legitimate art and worth seriously paying attention to, but most importantly for the future generation of children—the age-range that the comics industry had always been dismissed as being intended for in the first place and ultimately persecuted for by not producing materials that supported these false assumptions.
Mouly had done the highly personal and thought-provoking underground comix that many artists were creating in the ’70s in an attempt to criticize society and garner attention with their shocking and subversive presentations, but she recalls that “it took until I became a parent to realize that in legitimizing the medium for personal expression and taboo-breaking underground comics, there had been a kind of stepping over the reality of comics for children as legitimate. And that many of the authors who were devoting their energy to being cartoonists were doing anything but kid’s comics.”
Comics and graphic novels for children are the “gateway to literature” and it is a section of the comics industry that up until this point had been little developed. With the founding of her children’s line of graphic novels, Toon Books, Mouly was able to bridge that gap and publish books are not only entertaining but that also teach children “visual literacy” while encouraging them to explore the written word and visual form further. Dedicated to the quality of both the physical book itself as well as the content that it includes, Mouly has been able to publish graphic novels that demonstrate the inherent greatness of the medium but also do the work of helping children to develop into critical thinking adolescents.
Whether she be working in the underground at RAW with Charles Burns, Robert Crumb, or Art Speigelman, making educational children’s graphic novels, or selecting the next cover of The New Yorker, Mouly has found ways to teach all generations of people the value of the comic as a critical medium, as something that can be educationally and developmentally positive, and, most importantly, something to be respected and protected:
Images tend to be dismissed by many people, like, ‘it’s just a cartoon,’ or ‘it’s just a picture.’ As if that was something lesser than other kinds of information. My understanding and contention in everything that I’ve experienced is that when it’s done well, a cartoon can actually be not a reduction, but a summation and a distillation of complex ideas. And because they need to be read and interpreted in a specific way by readers, they can open up many doors.
Read the full interview here.
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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!