Graphic Lit: An interview with Francoise Mouly
Talk to Francoise Mouly these days and she sounds a bit harried, not to mention tired.
It’s not too surprising. In addition to her day job as art editor of The New Yorker magazine, Mouly — who, along with her husband, Pulitzer-Prize winning Art Spiegelman (“Maus”), created the seminal art-comics anthology “Raw” in the 1980s — is in the midst of self-publishing her own line of graphic novels.
The catch here is that this time it’s a line aimed exclusively at kids. More specifically, kids just learning how to read.
“It’s a bit much I must say,” said Mouly from her New York office. “It’s both exhilarating and absolutely exhausting.”
Here’s what else Mouly had to say about her new Toon Books line, which debuts Monday, and why she’s doing the whole thing by herself:
Q: Why start your own line? What was the impetus?
A: This was something I’d wanted to do ever since I felt the need for it when my son was about six years old. So this was about 10 years ago because he’s 16 now.
He was a very bright kid and grew up like his older sister surrounded by books and comics and we always read to him. He was told by his teacher in first grade that he needed to learn to read by the end of the year. And it took forever, not because he has any kind of learning deficit or dyslexia or anything like that. It took longer with him than it had taken with his older sister and it was a matter of reading and reading and reading. The phonetics he got but it was a matter of exposure until the little light bulb clicked.
At that point I had to find new stuff and the one thing that was unbelievable effective was comics because he loved them. There was something for him to look at, there was the visual narrative. It was immensely pleasurable for the two of us. I went through a great part of [French comics] and neither of us could get enough and, at the end, of course, Dash learned to read and is now an avid reader.
But I realized it’s a shame that there’s not more comics for kids in the us cause there used to be a lot. I spent all this time thirty years ago saying to people "Comics are not just for kids any more" and now I'm saying, "Well, comics are not just for adults!"
Q: Why take on all this by yourself? Why not go with one of the other big publishers?
A: Good question. (laughs)
I did go to every single publisher in town with this simple idea: comics for kids, although it’s focused. I just felt the best way to make my point was to actually make something that hasn’t actually been done, which was to make comics at the point where the child is learning to read, where the vocabulary would be looked at and controlled and the story would be appropriate for a six year old.
It’s a very hinge age, because you’re too big for picture books and you’re not fluent enough for Harry Potter. When you actually have kids you realize there aren’t that many books published for that moment because kids are not into books. They don’t know how to read. They’re a little too big to be read to so there’s a kind of giving up on this.
I wanted to do that specifically and I kept getting the same answer from every publisher that I went to: "Gee, that’s a wonderful idea. It’s beautifully executed" -- which was all very flattering -- "I wish we could do it but we can’t."
Why? "Because it doesn’t exist." There’s no slot for it, there’s no section for it in the bookstore. There’s no section in the library. The CEO of one of the major publishing companies explained to me, to create a new category in the book store, it’s not that it can’t be done but it takes hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to create a new kind of format. They weren’t willing in 2003-5 to invest that kind of money.
Q: That’s interesting considering how companies like Scholastic now have their own comic book line.
A: Actually Scholastic is a case in point. I went to see them in 2003 and offered Toon Books to them. The range of what I was offering at the time also included Bone because I had talked to Jeff [Smith] about doing Toon Books and wanted to show [Scholastic] a comic that’s perfect for the eight-nine year olds. And they had turned Bone down as not something that they wanted to do. Then they looked at my proposal and the response came back, “Oh that’s great, it’s beautiful. We’ll reconsider, we’ll take Bone because we know we can do something with that. But the rest, eh. Too much work." So a lot of what you’re seeing now is the direct result of the efforts we made.
That interaction I must say was incredibly unpleasant because it also came with "Oh, and by the way you should ask Jeff Smith for a cut." No thank you, he’s our friend. "If you really want to work for us," says the head of Scholastic, "You could help us do the comic book version of Shrek 2." (laughs)
Q: And of course you jumped at that.
A: You have Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly in your office and they’re begging to be in your employ so of course you find them the perfect thing. The comic book adaptation of the movie which is a sequel of an adaptation of a book by a cartoonist? Yes, of course, we’re going to jump on that.
Q: That’s gold.
A: It’s certainly not something that would have occurred to us frankly.
Q: What are your plans for Toon Books? You’re debuting six books this year, three in the spring, three in the fall. What are your long-term plans?
A: Well if I don’t collapse at the end of the day and can keep going at this pace -- it’s a bit much I must say. It’s both exhilarating and absolutely exhausting. There’s a reason why there are 100 people in every publishing company.
We have 3 books coming out around now. The actual pub date is April 7 and three that are coming in the fall. Then we’ll have three in the spring of '09 and three in the fall. So six books a year. Not more than we can handle.
Q: And they’ll all be aimed at the young reader?
A: It’s very focused, yes. It’s meant as a wedge. It’s in lieu of a multi-million dollar campaign. Just do three good books. The hope is this will be the core of a kids comic section, which there’s such a need for. One of the consequences of the burst of interest in comics is many comics publishers are now getting distributed widely into bookstores, but comics as you know and as I know is not just one thing, it’s a medium. It can be literature and trash. It can be stuff that’s great for kids and stuff that’s totally not appropriate for children.
That’s perfectly fine but there is a need in publishing -- not necessarily a comics code that says good must triumph over evil -- not for the content but for the appropriateness. You don’t want Fun Home or Maus or Persepolis.
You don’t want somebody telling you who it’s for or not for, but on the other hand you want to help librarians, for example, who’ve been at the forefront of this interest in comics. They see kids read and see kids' enthusiasm. The bookstore buyers are less aware of it because kids have no place where they can spend their pocket money on books. It’s not like your average kid walks into Borders or Barnes and Noble or even your average independent bookstore at the age of seven or eight to spend their pocket money on a book. They do in France. They do in plenty of other countries where there’s a lively publishing culture of kids comics.
So with Toon Books I do whatever I can to do books that have such a clear incarnation of what can be done and are so focused as a starter set. They have different artists and different approaches. They’re not level one, two, three. We have one horizontal format, those are the simpler books. There’s a range. the usual age has been 8-12 and until recently it was very boy-oriented. Now thanks to manga we’re finally getting girls to read comics.
Our books are not targeted exclusively to boys or girls although teachers love them because they finally have books that boys gravitate towards and are eager to read.
Q: I actually did a story on comics in education the other week and I was talking to librarians and teachers. I was impressed with how many of them were excited by the potential of the medium.
A: It’s extraordinary. I knew I wanted to do this for years. Part of the reason I ended up doing it myself is because when I was showing it to other publishers, they wanted to dismantle it if they wanted to do anything with it at all. Dismantle it to make it fit within their formats.
Q: They didn’t want a separate mini-line.
A: No, because I’m mixing categories that exist. There is such a thing as a "step into reading" set of books but those are trashy and cheap. If it is educational then it can’t be creative and if it’s creative then it can’t be educational. I don’t agree with all this but those are unspoken rules that people have. There’s a physical separation among publishers between the educational brand and the creative trades. The normal trajectory is that books get established in the trade — those are the ones that are suppose to be doing the creative work, and then they get sifted to the ones that survive.
We did a presentation at the midwinter ALA, and the response -- the librarians are so far ahead of the curve because they see kids coming into the library for two reasons. One is to use the Internet. the other is to read the comics.
Q: So do you feel like you’re getting a strong, encouraging response so far?
A: Very much so. It’s a completely mixed response. On the one hand we have the superintendent of the state of Maryland, they are actually going to use Toon Books in the K-2 classrooms. So that’s fantastic. That’s just great. Still, there's enormous reluctance, so fundamental that I ended up having to do this myself. I’m not only publishing the books myself but I'm distributing them with an nontraditional distributor which is Diamond Books.
Q: I didn’t know you were distributing through Diamond. That’s interesting.
A: Well, part of the reason is that after having gone to publishers, I went Simon and Schuster and Random House and on and on and on and how about I publish it myself and you distribute it, because I wanted access to the children’s book buyers. Even then they said no to for the same reason, which is "Ooh no, you’re not publishing in a category that exits." All my life I've knowingly been involved with stuff where to do something new was good and all of the sudden I’m in a field where “Oh, no, we don’t want to do this, it’s new.”
So what do they want to do? The basic answer, though they didn’t phrase it quite that way, is they want to do last year’s best seller. Whatever worked last year, that’s what they want to do now. They’re chasing things they didn’t predict.
Q: Well, just wait till next year when everyone will be coming out with their own version of Toon Books.
A: I don’t doubt it and that’s not the worst thing that could happen. Because all that means is that there will be more publishers doing kids comics. The only thing is it’s not easy to do good children’s books. It looks deceptively simple like "Oh, why don’t you put a cute little bunny rabbit and it will be great for kids." But there’s a lot of misconception.
Q: I think that’s evident if you look at a lot of the graphic novels coming out for kids now. The publishers doing Shakespeare adaptations or whatnot.
A: I think in the past four five years mainstream publishers have been on the bandwagon publishing comics but have been benefiting of what’s been nurtured, not by them -- Random House and HarperCollins and Farrar Straus Giroux -- but by Drawn and Quarterly and Fantagraphics and Dark Horse. We as an industry of creators of graphic novels have been taking care of ourselves. They are plundering our fields. It takes time to do good work. Especially in comics. Maus took 13 years. And by the time we showed Bone to Scholastic Jeff and his wife had been publishing themselves for 10 years. It’s not overnight. I don’t know how long Alison Bechdel spent --
Q: I talked to her about two weeks ago. I think she said about seven years.
A: Yeah, and Persepolis was four books in France. Black Hole was 10 years in the making. Jimmy Corrigan was six or seven years. Those publishers, as you said, are “Oh, I’ll just hire some writer and get some cartoonist to churn the stuff out.” So that’s the only danger because they will do the same thing with kids books.
Q: How many people are in your employ right now? I recognize Jonathan Bennett’s name.
A: Poor Jonathan. Jonathan is an unbelievably important contributor to what we’re doing. As you know he’s a cartoonist himself and a phenomenal designer. He’s not in my employ. He’s the art director of St. Martin’s Press. He’s also doing all of this on the side. It’s insane. He’s an extraordinary valuable because he was able to shape the look and feel. It’s essential they feel like legitimate books and both look new and traditional. I’m delighted. At some point Diamond was representing the books at a fair and some teachers came over and picked up our books and said “Oh, I didn’t know you did real books as well.”
There’s nobody in my employ. A lot of people have volunteered their time and energy. There’s a number of interns that have helped. Bill Kartalopoulos has been helpful. He’s doing a blog on our web site. I used to a year or two ago I had Toon groups that met once a month or so where we were working things out before I was even publishing myself. It’s great to do things yourself but then you also don’t get to sleep. I still have do the New Yorker, which is a weekly magazine.
One of the reasons I’ve been able to do this is I kept the setup from my Raw office. Even after I had kids, after I went to the New Yorker. That’s how I was able to do the Little Lits and now the Toon Books. I love my job at the New Yorker, I think it’s the best job bar none in all of New York City, but I also think that one of my strengths is doing my own thing. It’s actually good for the soul.
Q: What are the challenges in making a kids line as opposed to doing something like Raw?
A: Now that I have the books in my hand I realize I did exactly the same and the opposite. Exactly the same in that the core is the same in terms of finding a good story and as an editor working with the artist/cartoonist to make sure the story is as good as can be. That is the same as I’ve done all my life, with Raw or Little Lit or the New Yorker. I see my role as an editor as a set of both nurturing what’s good and paring down so that the artist intent is realized as well as possible.
It’s the opposite because in Raw it was important to be true to the author and not worry about the audience so that if we were working on a strip by Charles Burns or Gary Panter, it was a no-no to say "Oh, I wonder what the reader will think of it." That just wasn’t a consideration. The only consideration is Gary is setting out to do this and is this true to what Gary’s intentions are. The reader can take care of himself or herself. If the artistic expression has integrity the reader will find it.
But when you’re working for kids you have to do the opposite. Geoffry Hayes' intention is to tell the story but we worked on every stage of it and took it schools even in rough pencil forms and read it to kids. Because I can’t be in the mind of a six year old and certainly not one that is English speaking or learning to read. You forget once you know.
When we saw kids stumble on a word then we would work with the teachers and educators and try to find an easier word. Or in some cases we didn’t have one answer to how to make it more readable. Sometimes it was a matter of asking the artist to give a visual clue to the words. So we shaped the work for fluid reading by that reader. That’s very different to take the reader into consideration.
When a child falls in love with a book she’s going to want to read it over and over and over again, and she falls in love with a character and the reality of the person who did this is more incidental. Benny and Penny is a Benny and Penny book until there’s another Benny and Penny book as opposed to an adult reader where it’s a Gary Panter work and then you can do another Gary Panter.
Q: Right. Kids aren’t aware of the person behind the curtain.
A: They are aware in some sense that there is an individual there and it creates this beautiful dynamic where kids want to make comics after having read them. In that sense it’s an incredibly beneficial act because it validates their desire to tell stories. It’s what reading does, compared to video games or animation. I know of no child who watches Saturday morning TV animation and says “Oh, I want to do this!” Cause they don’t sense the hand of the individual. But because comics is handwriting, they are intuitively aware that it’s a story made by someone. They’re just not focused on it the way that you are when you’re a grown-up reader.
Q: I want to talk a little bit about the three books you’re debuting. I thought it interesting that two of the three books are by more traditional children’s book authors.
A: Let me say one of the things that I did when we did Raw and Little Lit is we didn’t feel we had the means to do a whole line and that’s why we did them as anthologies rather than publish 15 books a year we’ll just do one issue that has 15 artists. The same thing at the New Yorker, I don’t want to have a house style. What I love is a range of artists. With Toon Books, it always the intention that we weren’t going to create just one kind of comics for kids. We wanted as many approaches as possible because the medium allows that.
Q: How did you go about picking people? Did they come to you or did you seek them out?
A: Both. We live and breathe the stuff. We’re friends with most of the greatest artists around. Just thinking of people that have the dual interest. People whose work we’ve been aware of and also as we do more coming up I’m certainly hoping there’s plenty of artists working today who would be wonderful.
Q: What do you think it is about comics that can encourage a young reader?
A: What I’ve found has been confirmed by every educator I’ve talked to is that most kids love comics, partly because there is something in it for them. There’s a narrative flow, there’s something to look at. They are visually literate long before they’re literate with words. You don’t need to teach your child how to find Waldo. That’s an intuitive way of learning while learning to read is a much narrower, linear experience.
You learn a lot because you learn a beginning, middle and end. You learn left to right. You learn sequencing. You learn repetition and characters. All of those things are part of learning to read. It’s not just the phonetics. It’s the whole inner structure of narrative.
It’s clear to me no one’s going to learn to read unless they experience the pleasure of reading. So it has to be pleasurable and that’s difficult for American culture, because it’s so anti-pleasure. A lot of teachers intuitively know that. When they’re effective it’s partly because they share in the pleasure of this. I’ve gone to many schools to read Toon Books with first and second graders and it’s astonishing to find out that kids love reading. They really do. Story hour is their favorite thing.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the marketing ramp-up. How are you getting the word out about Toon Books?
A: I’m not exactly sure (laughs). I was told when I started to publish myself "Oh my god, you’ll never be able to do this because the traditional way is to have national marketing campaigns and tens of thousands of dollars spent on promotions and articles and so on" and things that we obviously can’t possibly consider or afford.
The books look great. They’re really beautiful objects. I think that if anybody could get to see and hold the books they’d be irresistible. I'm hoping we get enough books out so that people will be able to see them and kids will find them. My goal in life -- it’s not rational -- I want a book where the kid out with mom or dad sees it and screams “Mom I want this.”
Q: Will they be available in comic book stores as well?
A: Yeah. Diamond books and diamond comics are the same business. As you know the direct market’s direct core is not kids books.
Q: That’s one of the reasons I asked. It is a certain type of stereotypical audience that tends to frequent comic book stores.
A: I think there are very necessary educational push needs to be made there as well. I think they would be well advised to create a comics for kids section. Not that many parents walk in with young kids, but if they did they should be directed away from — when I was in Forbidden Planet with my 10 year old, he was so embarrassed to be there with me he put his hands over my eyes because he didn’t want me to see the tied-up women with big tits.
Q: I think there will be plenty comic stores that will order the books. There are a few in my area that have a section for kids.
A: It’s unfortunately as you know, not the norm. I hope it will grow again. There’s a tendency on the part of the comics fan to both want to proselytize and not want to share. Maybe that’s true for every secret society. They feel more intensely involved. It’s something that only they know about. But there is no future without the kids. None. It’s not you and I but our kids who will matter. If comics want to survive and not just be ghettoized in museums, then there have to be comics for kids.
Q: These are going to be in hardcover. Are you going to do softcover editions?
A: Not right away. Partly because I can’t do everything at once. I have to focus my efforts. I’d love it if they end up in Costco, but I can’t start there. We are talking with Scholastic fairs and there may be some possibility there.