Vladimir Putin Takes Over The New Yorker
Art editor Françoise Mouly takes us behind the scenes of the March 6 cover.
Bella Hadid notwithstanding, it's hard to believe anyone has seen more magazine cover time over the past few months than President Trump. And whether he's driving up Vanity Fair subscriptions by lashing out on Twitter, or simply providing Teen Vogue a springboard to vault into the political conversation, few magazine publishers seem to have benefited more from the new administration than Condé Nast.
Never one to be outdone by its neighbors within Condé's One World Trade Center digs, The New Yorker this week attempts to cash in on Trump-induced anxiety with a 92nd-anniversary cover that brilliantly riffs on the magazine's debut issue from February 1925. In a dystopian scene, Vladimir Putin, standing in for dandy Eustace Tilley, passively peers at butterfly Donald Trump through his monocle. What's more, to make the Kremlin takeover complete, the magazine's classic wordmark is presented in Cyrillic.
Of course, it's all an effort to tease the magazine's de facto cover story, a triple-bylined, sixteen-page piece by Evan Osnos, Joshua Yaffa, and editor David Remnick, which makes the case that the D.N.C. hacks were merely the opening salvo in a greater war against the West.
It's enough to make this reporter pine for a simpler time, when it didn't hit quite so close to home to joke, for example, that Mayor Bloomberg's crusade against sugary drinks was turning New York into "literally Moscow on the Hudson," but I digress.
To learn more about the process behind The New Yorker's provocative March 6 cover, I sat down with Françoise Mouly, who has served as the magazine's art editor since 1993.
Folio: Can you tell me a little bit about how the concept for this cover came together, and what you aimed to convey?
Françoise Mouly: The idea came from [illustrator] Barry [Blitt]. When he sent the sketch, it was basically fully realized. The real part of the joke was the logo in Cyrillic. I had been looking at a lot of sketches for our anniversary issue, including a number of artists trying to do some variation on Eustace Tilley that acknowledged the political situation.
There was no version where they put Trump as Tilley. It’s too much of a compliment. No grotesque version of that mascot was going to work. But I was impressed — as I always am — with Barry, who managed to do something very timely and still put a twist on it by putting the attention on the butterfly and the one [aspect] I felt was a given and couldn’t be played with: the logo.
Putting the logo in Cyrillic and producing the de facto takeover of The New Yorker and its 92 years of history by Vladimir Putin was brilliant because it plays to that fear that we all share of, like, what happens to the world as we knew it? Who scripted this episode of The Twilight Zone? I thought it was really very clever.
Folio: What was the reaction like among the editors?
Mouly: As soon as I showed it to David Remnick, he asked if he could have it as an illustration for his piece, and I was like, “No! Hands off! This is not meant to be an illustration for a piece, it must be on the cover.”
You can’t really do this with many other magazines. Our covers are just an image and a logo. Time magazine has a very recognizable maquette, that red box, and the logo, but they have coverlines. We don’t.
Folio: Was there any trepidation about subverting that classic logo in such a way, or is it a testament to the brand strength of The New Yorker that you can do something like that?
Mouly: This cover was clearly The New Yorker, and yet nowhere did it say, "The New Yorker." So the logistical worry right away was not so much the newsstand, but the post office. There are rules — and I’ve run into them in the past — about mailing. In order to mail a magazine, it has to have the title on the cover. That’s what differentiates between magazine mailing rates and rates for catalogues or any other printed matter.
We have a very large circulation, but it’s mostly subscribers. We mail over a million copies, so it wasn’t an option to fail. If they simply decide not to mail the copies, or they mail them at the catalogue rate, it’s a disaster. It’s a catastrophe. So it was like, if it works, it’s as clever as it ever was, but if it doesn’t work, it’s a real mess.
Folio: How did you get around that issue?
Mouly: Fortunately for me, a colleague at Condé Nast is in touch with the post office and has a relationship with them. They listened to the case that we made and they suggested something that was really smart, which was having the words “The New Yorker” appear on a removable mailing label. We don’t normally do that, but we amended the mailing label. I also agreed to put a small logo up in the corner. I was able to make the case that it’s a well-known trademarked image, you know, Tilley and the sky, and of course the Cyrillic is done in the Irvin typeface.
There’s no minimum size at which the logo can appear, probably because they didn’t anticipate someone wanting to send out a million copies of a magazine and not have their name prominently displayed on it.
Folio: Is it atypical of The New Yorker to actually have the cover relate to a piece inside the book?
Mouly: It’s something we don’t do very often. Here, we wanted to destabilize you and your understanding of a magazine celebrating its own tradition, as well as give you something to sink your teeth into in terms of understanding the in-depth context. It was a great one-two, where it’s literally a cover story and there’s very little humor in the reported article, but the cover does echo the feeling that is the result of reading the article.
As every cover does, it has two realities. It’s being displayed on the internet where you can link to the story, but it is also now on its way to subscribers, and they’ll have this at the foot of their bed and they’ll still look at this cover in a few weeks and a few months as an image that captures this moment of deepened anxiety.
Folio: To your knowledge, has the magazine ever subverted its own logo in such a way before?
Mouly: There were a couple of times in the 1920’s when [Rea] Irvin, who was handwriting it at the time, played around with it. We’ve played with elements of it before, like for example when Barack Obama was first elected, we used the “O” of the logo as the Obama “O.” It’s been vignetted and obscured in many ways, but this is the first time that it doesn’t say “The New Yorker.”
Folio: Sometimes it seems like President Trump is magazine media’s gift that keeps on giving, especially at Condé Nast.
Mouly: One person to whom I am grateful is Donald Trump, because there was no moment where he made me doubt the essence of what we were doing, as if he was going to somehow turn around and denounce Putin, or do anything other than be an enthusiastic supporter in a way that’s completely incomprehensible. He’s stuck to his guns, and hasn’t changed his tune.