On September 11, 2001, after witnessing an airplane crash into one of the Twin Towers, Françoise Mouly faced two imperative tasks: First, she had to find her kids, and then she had to come up with a New Yorker cover to somehow mark the event.
That day, Mouly and her husband Art Spiegelman, the cartoonist best known for his graphic memoir Maus, were walking out of their SoHo loft, just 10 blocks north of the World Trade Center, planning on voting in the city’s Democratic mayoral primaries, when they saw the first plane hit the North Tower. Mouly, who's been the art editor of the New Yorker since 1993, initially assumed it was an accident, a leisure plane going off course maybe—it was the only thing that made sense. What she calls her “journalist’s instincts” kicked in, and she called David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker since 1998, and told him to turn on his TV.
The couple’s daughter, 14-year-old Nadja, had just started classes at Stuyvesant High School, four blocks from the towers. Worried that debris might land on the school, the anxious parents rushed to find her. Locating her wasn’t easy—the 10-story school building housed more than 3,500 students. While they searched, Spiegelman overheard a Spanish-language report from a janitor’s radio saying that the Pentagon had been attacked. Then the lights went out, and the building trembled from the collapse of the South Tower. Spiegelman was sure they would all die in the school. After continuing to search for an hour and a half, they found Nadja. As they were leaving Stuyvesant, the North Tower crumbled behind them.
Their daughter in hand, the couple then raced to find their 10-year-old son, Dash, who attended the United Nations International School further uptown. “I was willing to live through the disaster wherever it took me, as long as we were all together as a family unit,” Spiegelman later explained to the New York Times. Once Dash was recovered and the family was safely ensconced in their loft, they checked their messages. Among various reports from friends on their safety, Mouly says, there were also “messages from the New Yorker saying, ‘Get your ass over here. We want to do a cover.’”
Spiegelman, then a staff artist for the magazine with many covers under his belt, went to work in his studio, a few blocks from their loft. The next day, Mouly found a friend to stay with the kids and went into the New Yorker’s midtown office to face the impossible task of coming up with an appropriate cover. She remembers thinking, “I want no image. I can’t do this. No image can do justice to this.” Mouly explained her dilemma to a neighbor, a fellow mother, who responded by saying, “What, you have to go to work to do a magazine cover? That’s ridiculous! I’ll tell you what you do: no cover.”
Spiegelman, meanwhile, was making an image that contrasted the lovely fall weather of that day with the horrible event that happened, with the towers covered in a Christo-like black shroud against a Magritte-style blue sky. Every time he walked between his studio and the loft, Spiegelman would look where the towers had stood. Like a phantom limb or a ghostly presence, they were both there and not there, felt but invisible. Remnick, for his part, was considering the use of a photograph—it would have been the first time in New Yorker history and a precedent-breaking way to register such an immense historical event.
Neither idea appealed to Mouly. She still felt that no image—painting, drawing or photo—could do justice to what she and the rest of New York had just experienced. She had another idea: What about an all-black cover? A cover that, as per her neighbor’s argument, wasn’t a cover. Spiegelman wanted his image to run but thought that if the New Yorker was going that route, it should be combined with his own suggestion: How about a silhouette of the towers against a black background, black on black? “That actually felt like the most creative solution,” Mouly says now. She drew up a cover based on their ideas. “When I saw it, even before I presented it to my editor, I was like ‘Oh my god, this actually is the answer, the negative answer, to what I was looking for because it is such a strong statement.’”
When she showed Remnick the image, he asked who did it. Even though she had drawn it, Mouly, driven by her desire to see the image published, says she didn’t want to admit she’d done it—she was worried because she wasn’t a “name” artist. Besides, the New Yorker’s tradition at that time was not to give collaboration credits on covers. (Mouly changed that later in 2001, giving dual credit to Rick Meyerowitz and Maira Kalman for “New Yorkistan,” thereby establishing a new precedent.) Unprepared for an answer, and used to contributing her ideas to the artists she worked with, Mouly gave Spiegelman the credit—it was his idea, after all. Initially, Spiegelman didn’t want to put his name on it. As he explained in an interview with a New York public television station, “It was only when I saw the proof that I went, ‘Oh, gee, I had nothing to do with that, but it’s really good.’ So I don’t feel like I made it. It was just sort of a product of trying to assimilate those two days.”
There were a few last-minute hitches before the cover ran. Late Thursday night, rumors circulated that another magazine might also be doing a black cover. Mouly argued that her cover wasn’t just black but contained a subtle image that set it apart. Fortunately, word came back that the other weekly was going with a photo cover. By Thursday, Mouly finally had Greg Captain, her trusted prepress expert, on the premises. Because of the subtle effect the cover had to achieve, Mouly scrambled to work with her prepress crew to make sure that the ink densities were sufficiently different to capture the contrast between the two almost identical shades of black.