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Drawing a Line – Cartoons, Comics, and Roz Chast at the Museum of the City of New York

As I’d written recently about the Mo Willems exhibit at the New York Historical Society and about Roz Chast’s book Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, the Museum of the City of New York’s Communication staff correctly surmised that I’d enjoy one of their public programs, TOON Talk: From The New Yorker to Kids’ Comics, an event in association with one of their current exhibits, Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs. So, at their kind invitation, I headed uptown.

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On Museum Mile, Fifth Avenue across from Central Park at 103rd Street, the Museum was a fairly quick walk from the subway, and a cool respite from a hot July afternoon. Its mission is to celebrate and interpret New York City, educating the public about its distinctive character, and its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and transformation. I’d never been there before, and I was pleased to have a good reason to do so now.

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I arrived a half-hour before the event was scheduled to begin, so I went up to the third floor to check out the Roz Chast exhibit. This exhibit, I learned, was originally organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum, and is now being co-presented by that institution and the Museum of the City of New York. It’s very New York City-centric (and so a very good fit for its current home) and quite good fun, managing to be at once absurd, funny, and full of a self-conscious existential despair. We see here a humorous depiction of Chast’s obsessions, fears, insecurities, and observations about what is ridiculous and what is enjoyable in our day-to-day lives. I was already familiar with some of the work on display here, but the alphabetical listing of phobias was new to me and a bit of a highlight.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t have that much time to explore (and I would very much have liked to have had the time to take a closer look at the photographs comprising In the South Bronx of America by Mel Rosenthal) before I needed to head back downstairs for the talk. Fortunately, the talk was really interesting. Francoise Mouly, Art Editor for The New Yorker and publisher of TOON Books, and Frank Viva, graphic artist, author, and illustrator, had a thought-provoking dialogue about cartoons and their role as literature, and how they can be powerful vehicles for artistic expression.

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Ms. Mouly was formerly the co-founder, co-editor, and publisher of the comics and graphics magazine Raw, and explained her interest in the physicality of the printing process, and books and magazines as aesthetic and tactile objects. Her husband, Art Spiegelman, also in attendance, worked with her on Raw, and was, with her, instrumental in increasing the cultural status of comics and graphic novels, particularly with his breakthrough book, Maus, A Survivor’s Tale, which had much to do with changing the public’s perception of comics, as not just for children, but as suitable for adults, and for adult themes.

Mr. Viva runs a branding and design agency in Toronto, but is a frequent visitor to New York, where he often does work for The New Yorker.

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Their conversation was an in-depth look at the collaborative and creative process of graphic design, as they explained the efforts involved, the steps involved, and the various people involved in creating and selecting design elements for the weekly magazine. Mr. Viva explained that he often did work in a limited color palate, finding the design challenge interesting; Ms. Mouly compared it to a poet doing work in a limited form, like a haiku, and creating a thing of beauty despite of, or perhaps because of, the restriction.

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Besides seeing quite a few New Yorker covers designed by Mr. Viva (I was actually carrying one around in my bag with me that day, as usual, being a bit behind on my reading), we also were treated to some images from his children’s books and some insight into his creative methods.

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They were both friendly and engaging speakers, gladly taking questions from the audience, and waxing enthusiastic (Ms. Mouly especially) about the combination of pictures and text and how educational and formative comics can be for young people. Her husband interrupted her from the audience at one point wanting to know why she hadn’t yet said that comics are a gateway drug to literacy, and she explained to him (and the rest of us) that she’d been waiting to close with that line.  He proceeded to explain to the audience that it was his desire to understand what Batman was saying, and determine for once and for all whether the stern and frightening looking character was a good guy or a bad guy, that led him to learn to read.

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My husband, who joined me at the lecture, had wanted to ask Ms. Mouly about some of the controversial New Yorker covers of the recent past, but did not do so, not wanting to put her on the spot. He needn’t have been so cautious. After their conversation, we were able to purchase and have books signed by both speakers, and I am now in possession of an autographed copy of Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See, Ms. Mouly’s book about The New Yorker’s signature covers focusing on political and cultural events. She tackles the controversies there (including some controversial covers by her husband) head on, with an insider’s look at what goes on behind the scenes, including frank talk on cultural sensitivities, deadlines due to their weekly news cycle, religion, race, ethnicity, politics, and disasters, natural and otherwise. Much food for thought for my train ride home.

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You can check out the Roz Chast exhibit through October 9th, and there several more upcoming programs for fans of Chast, The New Yorker, and comics generally, should you be interested.  (And you should be!)

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of Roz Chast and the Museum of the City of New York