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Review of Jeet Heer's In Love with Art: Françoise Mouly's Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman

By Charles Acheson
Heer, Jeet. In Love with Art: Françoise Mouly's Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman. Exploded Views. Toronto: Coach House, 2013. Print.

She played the paramount role in the editing and publishing of RAW magazine, one of the few outlets for budding comics talent in the 1980s outside the Marvel or DC farm systems. The New Yorker, one of America's most venerated periodicals, sought her out specifically to revitalize its stodgy cover and art direction, a task which she achieved with aplomb. Even her home country of France recognized her talent in 2011 by awarding her knighthood in the Legion of Honor for over two decades of professional service that includes repeated excellence. Yet, outside of select comics circles, Françoise Mouly remains relatively unknown despite her impressive career and contributions to visual culture.

Comics journalist and critic Jeet Heer endeavors to remove the shroud of mystery surrounding Mouly with his biography of her, In Love with Art: Françoise Mouly's Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman. Heer's book is the first of its kind, offering an extended and centered view of Mouly, rather than her husband, Art Spiegelman. In his quest to emphasize and celebrate Mouly's contributions, Heer identifies three salient reasons for her enigma status: Mouly's relationship with Spiegelman, her profession as editor, and sexism in the comics industry. Heer succeeds in illuminating Mouly's importance by demonstrating her relationship with Spiegelman as a collaborator, as well as effectively showing her prowess as editor. Throughout the biography, Heer employs an accessible writing style and form that enables readers unfamiliar with Mouly an entryway into her work. In spite of a few shortcomings, Heer provides an enlightening, thoughtful, and often humorous profile of a visionary.

Heer opens the book by recapitulating Mouly's 1993 meeting to accept the art editor position offered by Tina Brown, The New Yorker's newly named editor. He then progresses through the book chronologically, but expedites Mouly's childhood to spend more time on her arrival in America and subsequent meeting, relationship, and three marriage ceremonies with Spiegelman. Heer dedicates the majority of the book to exploring Mouly's work with RAW, as well as The New Yorker, and concludes the biography with a look at Mouly's most recent venture, TOON Books, a publication label focusing on producing high-quality children's comics. Heer's thorough research for the book includes previously available information from various interviews, articles, and biographies of Spiegelman, in addition to new and exclusive interviews with prominent comics figures and some of Mouly's former collaborators, such as Sue Coe, Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and more. While readers well-versed in Mouly's exploits might find some of the material redundant, the interviews contains new insights about Mouly from prominent comics authors and artists.

Heer calls attention to a pattern in Mouly's career—that of beginning at a fringe position within a field, but consistently moving from the margins to the epicenter—and exhibits this pattern through Mouly's movement in both the comics and magazine world. Heer discusses Mouly's particular style of fusing the fringe and mainstream, offering strong anecdotes about her fusion style during her early forays into publishing and her production of RAW. Following a disastrous printing error that destroyed thirty-percent of Spiegelman's 1977 book, Breakdowns, Mouly began emphasizing the importance of book production in addition to the comics within the book. Heer explains that Mouly's obsessive concern for the production quality of the comics vessel became standard with RAW, and subsequently influenced the production of all comics, succeeding in foregrounding the quality of the book, which previously existed only as an afterthought. With this example, Heer succeeds in removing Mouly from Spiegelman's shadow and showcasing her ability as publisher. However, Heer misses the chance to explore the problem of sexism in comics. Mouly's starting position at the fringe of the field represents the experience of most women in the comics medium, a culture known for the "'no girls allowed' attitude" (14). Heer critiques the industry for its sexism, but doesn't expand on his critique or explore it. This limitation may have been shaped by the constraints applied by Coach House Books to the "Exploded Views" series, in which each title's length ranges between that of a standard magazine article and a full-length book.

Returning to the strengths in Heer's biography: he showcases Mouly's ability to enact positive change in a comic—on the level of narrative as well as production—without wresting away ownership from creators. In his exploration, Heer relies heavily on interviews from artists with whom Mouly worked. Concerning Mouly's editorial style, Coe notes that Mouly "has never attempted improvements," choosing instead to organize the narrative to achieve the greatest amount of meaning, while letting the artist speak in her own voice (71). Heer asserts that Mouly's editorial style accounts for one reason why her work either goes unaccredited or, as was the case with RAW, is attributed to Spiegelman. Mouly's creator-friendly editorial style and deftness perpetuate the shroud around her work. Through his interviews, Heer paints a detailed picture of Mouly's contribution in the creators' work for RAW. The interviews Heer includes also reveal the extensive rapport Mouly forges with artists, and showcase her positive influence as editor. Heer's focus on showing Mouly's strengths through the interviews works very well.

The book includes numerous facsimiles of pieces Mouly edited, in addition to a full-color, sixteen-page gallery of RAW, The New Yorker and TOON Book covers; these add significant depth to Heer's exploration of Mouly's work. Heer devotes much space to a prime example of the reprints, The New Yorker's September 24, 2011 cover, 9/11/2001. At first glance, the cover appears to be just a flat black layer of ink devoid of any imagery, but closer inspection reveals a slightly denser black forming a silhouette of the World Trade Center towers. The biography reprint mimics the effect of the original cover. Heer demonstrates Mouly's genius, specifically highlighting her concern with the importance of printing, as Mouly personally oversaw the use of the different black inks.

In fact, many of the included images play with the idea of invisibility. Another example of this trend occurs in the May 29, 2006 cover of The New Yorker, Losing Face. The image contains Uncle Sam in his iconic pose, but with an invisible head, "suggesting the lack of any patriotic rationale for contemporary wars" (89). Curiously, however, Heer refrains from drawing attention to this pattern of invisibility, though it seems ripe for analysis, considering that the book discusses Mouly's lack of visibility.

While Heer's biography is thorough and interesting, at times he focuses more on other figures, including the person from whose shadow Heer seeks to remove Mouly: Spiegelman. In the fourth chapter, "Spiegelman's Bicoastal Blues," Heer discusses Spiegelman and his early work. While this chapter provides an understanding of how deeply Spiegelman casts his shadow on Mouly, the sudden shift in focus ruptures continuity and distracts readers. The chapter is not without merit—Heer provides interesting details about Spiegelman, but it detracts from the main objective of the book.

The book opens up two main areas that need further exploration. One is Mouly's life and work itself. As noted previously, the "Exploded Views" series limits the available page space for authors, and Mouly's work, especially in the post-Brown era of The New Yorker, merits further scholarly attention. More broadly, the book highlights the need for more scholarship on women in the comics industry, and the gender biases in this field. The biography is a step in the right direction but more needs to be done. Similar studies of prominent female figures, such as Jenette Kahn, whose work at DC helped revolutionize topics covered in comics, including numerous social issues, would prove a boon for both comic and gender studies.

In the end, Heer accomplishes his goal of showcasing Mouly's importance to comics and publishing industries, despite leaving a few avenues for exploration and interrogation untraveled. Heer flexes his journalistic muscles, getting interesting and helpful commentary from distinguished members of the comics industry. He highlights, celebrates, and distinguishes Mouly's key contributions, while offering thoughtful insights. The biography serves as a welcome and successful first foray into an extended study of Mouly and is an engaging read for comics scholars and neophytes alike.

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