Episode 085: Francoise Mouly
The Greenwich Village loft space occupied by Toon Books is one part office space, part living comics museum. There’s a row of iMacs where most of the business is done, from filling orders to taking product shots, while just above on a second level balcony, a spool of bubble wrap roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle leans against a wall of bookshelves fit for a small library. There are decades of fascinating ephemera lining the walls, original comics pages, an in-store cardboard cutout for Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library and, most compelling of all, the Gary Panter classic comics head mashup painting that graced the first issue of the RAW’s second volume (1989’s “Open Wounds from the Cutting Edge of Commix”). It’s hardly a surprise, of course, that so many amazing pieces call the space their home. Francoise Mouly has been here for decades herself, since the days when she and husband Art Spiegelman first altered the course of the New York City avant garde comics community with a nascent anthology aimed at offering a publishing home to unknowns like Charles Burns, Joost Swarte, Ben Katchor and, naturally, Spiegelman, who used those pulpy pages to serialize a groundbreaking first-hand account of the holocaust starring a cast of cat and mice. That the Toon Books office occupies the same space is certainly no coincidence. Like RAW before it, the kids comics publishing company was launched to fill a perceived hole in the comics community in the wake of a media that had arguably overcorrected. Thanks to trailblazing works like Maus, the headline-ready phrase “comics aren’t just for kids” had quickly turned from rallying cry to cliche as adult-focused books rapidly became the norm in the intervening decades since RAW closed its doors. In the 00s, Mouly — by then the art director of The New Yorker — pitched a line of education kids bolstered by Jeff Smith’s epic fantasy masterpiece to Scholastic. By 2008, the idea gave way to Toon Books, an independent entity focused on books by cartoonists like Spiegelman, Smith and Eleanor Davis aimed at teaching kids to read and bolstered by detailed lesson plans aimed at reintroducing comics into a classroom setting. A half-dozen years later, Toons’ scope continues to grow, including the recent publication of a Hanzel and Gretel adaptation penned by Sandman scribe Neil Gaiman. I sat down with Mouly in the middle of Toon Books' cramped quarters to discuss the company's role in the ever-evolving perception of comics as a educational tool.