Under the Cover: Jan/Feb 2016

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As The Atlantic’s creative director, I’m responsible for the most visible page in every month’s magazine: the cover.

Unlike most Atlantic covers, this month’s “Election 2016” issue isn’t illustrating one particular story. It is a combination of David Frum’s “The Great Republican Revolt” and Peter Beinart’s “Why America is Moving Left.” Each writer takes a look at what the insurgencies from both the right (Donald Trump, Tea Party) and the left (BLM, Occupy) will mean for the Republicans and Democrats in the upcoming election and into the future.

Every month, the editors and I have a meeting where we refine what we’re trying to say with the cover. What’s the idea? The term that kept coming up for this cover was “political seismic shift.” In other words, the political ground has shifted underneath each party’s feet, shaken by these outside forces. The establishment on both sides is losing its footing. After we figure out what the idea is, we then try to figure out how to illustrate it.

For starters, we wanted to use an elephant and a donkey. It’s a cliché, but sometimes clichés work. We talked about maybe having a split in the ground making its way towards the elephant and donkey, but that could be interpreted as a split between the parties, which is already, obviously, the case.

Then I started thinking about cartoons. More specifically, Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote. Take this classic scene, for example:

You know something terrible is going to happen, but the real beauty is in between bad things happening. The anticipation of the other shoe—or in this case, boulder—dropping is what makes this scene so funny. The goal was to capture some of that for the cover.

I wanted the image to show what it looks like after the “earthquake.” The damage was already done, the ground around the poor animals completely destroyed, their footing less secure. They’re about to fall. Maybe they’ll both get stuck on a branch and be OK. Or they’ll bounce off of said branch, go flying into the air, hit their heads on one of the falling rocks and so on and so forth. Who knows?

I sketched out the idea during the meeting:

The elephant and the donkey are trapped on this tiny, crumbling mountain … together. Instead of Wile E. Coyote’s “Help” sign, the elephant is holding an American flag.

Once everyone got on board with the concept, it became time to put it together. We obviously couldn’t wrangle an elephant and a donkey to sit on top of each other, then place them on a crumbling land mass. So, I reached out to Justin Metz, CGI genius. We found some perfect photo reference for the animals and he put together the rest.

After a bit of back-and-forth on the facial expressions (“not too cartoon-y,” more worried) and scenery (blue skies, more crumbling rocks), we had a finished illo. Add some words, and we have …

… a finished cover.

Thanks, Chuck Jones.