Interviews

The Creators of the Comics Newspaper RESIST! Are “Picturing the America We Want”

Françoise Mouly and Nadja Spiegelman will release the second issue of their free periodical that centers women’s voices on July 4.

Work by Katherine Baldocchi in the second issue of RESIST! (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It’s been just over five months since the release of the comics newspaper RESIST! during the women’s marches protesting the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. Over this time, the devastating reality of the Trump administration’s impact on human rights, the environment, immigration policies, arts funding, foreign relations, and countless other issues has become clearer. Despite immediate calls for a second volume of RESIST!, editors Françoise Mouly and her daughter Nadja Spiegelman took some time to let the weight of current events sink in before deciding the moment had come. This is reflected in the second issue’s more intimate format as a bound periodical, rather than a folded newspaper. At 96 pages, it’s meant to be digested slowly, read in sequence and multiple times. The contents remain as wide-ranging as before, the artists as diverse in skill level, age, and geography. Readers of the first issue will recognize the names of some previous contributors — including Roz Chast, Kristen Radtke, Sohpia Zarders, and Gayle Kabaker — alongside artists who are publishing for the first time. The second issue, which is available for preorder now and will be distributed for free in stores on July 4, is more reflective about the state of the US and American values, as well as the potential of grassroots publishing and the power of printed images.

I video-chatted with Mouly, located in New York, and Spiegelman, who lives in Paris, to discuss their decision to continue what was originally intended as a one-off publication. We talked about the making and format of RESIST!, the politics of comics, and, surprisingly, patriotism.

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Spread from the second issue of RESIST!

Megan N. Liberty: When I wrote about the first issue, I spoke with Gabe Fowler [owner of Desert Island comics and publisher of the comics newspaper Smoke Signal], but I’d love to hear both of your versions of RESIST!’s origin story.

Françoise Mouly: The mythical story! It’s interesting because it forces one to remember late November 8, early November 9, 2016, which feels like a moment the earth shifted. It left me suddenly in a state of shock, not knowing what to do, not knowing how to contend with the new shape of the world. I just couldn’t find a place in it — there was no connection to a before or a system of values. At that moment I got the solicitation from Gabe, who wanted to do an issue of Smoke Signal that would be all women and have a woman as editor. In the back of my mind, doing a print publication sounded like the first step towards something I understood, because it’s how I’ve made sense out of the world, whether it be with RAW magazine, Toons Books, or The New Yorker. I like the way it records a moment in time in printed images; it’s not like it stops the flow of time, but it takes a snapshot in a way that’s useful.

Nadja Spiegelman: I was in Paris, which was hard — I mean everything was hard, but it was hard to be so far away. The one thing I wanted was to hug my mother and then do something. One of the things my mom said to me in a moment of passion, when we were working on the project, was, “If I was a doctor, I’d be giving away free medical care; if I was a lawyer, I’d be at the airports. But I don’t know how to do any of these things, so I am making a magazine!” As soon as my mom mentioned it to me, I jumped at the chance. I grew up reading comics, surrounded by comics, and watching my mother face the incredible sexism of the comics world. I had felt like that sexism was something my generation didn’t have to deal with anymore, that it was over and we were ready for our first woman president. This was a major wake-up call that that was not the case, that there is still a lot to fight for.

Cover of the second issue of RESIST!

MNL: It seems, Nadja, that you were very involved in the social media call to action, which contributed to the range of locations and diversity of voices represented in the first issue. Did you continue to use the internet as a call for submissions for the second issue? Did you do anything different?

FM: RESIST! is refreshingly different in the sense that it’s truly a grassroots movement. We had no boss, no other entity to please, and we didn’t know what we wanted in the publication. We started with an envelope, and we had no idea what would be in it.

I learned so much in the exchange with Nadja, because she put out the call and we were able to receive hundreds or thousands of submissions. The shape of what we published in the first issue — and it continued in the second issue — is very much trying to be a reflection of the diversity of what was sent to us. We can’t publish everything, but there are professional cartoonists as well as people who’ve never drawn before, people from all walks of life.

NS: It’s exciting also to watch it take shape. The second issue surprised us in how it began to develop a language and a style. We could look at things and say, “Oh, that’s very RESIST!” At the same time, we were also reacting to what we were being sent. The submissions were a lot angrier. The first issue had a lot of women linking arms, and the second issue had women making fists.

MNL: It seems like you tried to take a more hands-off strategy in your editorial approach …

FM: Not quite — it’s more like a listening approach, rather than dictating. We looked at absolutely everything that was sent our way. There was no barrier on people submitting. It was an antidote to what we were seeing in the media at the time, which, between November and the march, and between the march and now, has been a little yo-yo at the tip of Trump’s finger. Every single day he’s up and down, up and down, and it’s all anybody talks about. There is none of that in RESIST! There is actually very little about Trump. What people, especially women, wanted to talk about was themselves, their friends, their families, their bodies, their rights, their actions, their reactions, their feelings. That felt like opening up what needs to exist, which is a place where we can live and breathe and be ourselves. To some extent, Nadja and I have said that we are grateful to Trump and that movement because it’s forced us to become much more active in defining what it is we live for, what we care about, how we see the world, as opposed to just taking it for granted.

A spread from the second issue of RESIST!

MNL: I guess that’s a silver lining. With issue two, the format is a bit different. It’s a smaller, more traditional magazine size, and it’s staple bound. The first issue felt very urgent to me, partly because it was newspaper size, with detachable pages that could become posters for people to hold during the march. Why did you change the format?

FM: Even the first issue was informed by a sense of history — growing up in France with Charlie Hebdo, which was newsprint size, and with comics. There still were a lot of underground comics, even by the time I came to the US. One of the limitations of the large newspaper is that you can’t do long stories. Here, we just wanted to offer more room. There are longer narratives, which I think is useful; there is more of an intimacy. And it’s 96 pages! You have to sit down and read it. You may even have to come back and reread it. That was the shift we wanted to make, to something people could dig into and take its measure.

NS: You said it really nicely. You said you wanted it to be a deepening, rather than a broadening.

Work by Kristen Radke in the second issue of RESIST!

MNL: That makes sense also in terms of where we are right now. The first issue was so reactionary, whereas now we’re settling in and realizing what it’s going to mean to live with this administration. We need a deepening. We need to take time.

FM: One thing we were blessed with, with the first issue, is we were able to publish it ourselves and not have to answer to anybody. Gabe gave us the prompt but didn’t interfere in any way. Frankly, the funding came from all the supporters and the things we put on the website. We were able to continue that and are now publishing ourselves, simply by taking in the contributions from the artists, who are not getting paid, and the supporters, who are preordering copies and boxes of copies that they will give out. That has given us the autonomy to continue doing this, as long as we feel a serious need and reward. Because there is not one moment of a march, the second issue is being shipped through the post office. There won’t be this explosion in one place, but what we need to do in order to build something is to be in it for the long term.

NS: It’s sort of insane to make it free.

MNL: I was going to ask about your decision to continue making it free.

NS: We debated it a lot, and we may not be able to continue doing it this way. But we have a brand name for president. We have such a deeply entrenched capitalist society, where the most effective ways for people to protest are through their consumer choices, like deleting Uber from their phones. Making something free is radical. There is a generosity and accessibility to it that felt important. At the same time, it’s hard, because it’s difficult to distribute something that is free.

FM: We’re not making a penny. One thing it really depends on, which is very exciting for us, is that it is paid for by the supporters, and therefore it can only exist as long as there is a community of people that want to have it.

NS: We’ve gotten thousands of supporters who have preordered copies, who’ve allowed us to make this second issue at a 30,000-copy print run and distribute it around the country. We’re now at the point where we can begin sending boxes for free to local activist groups or to people who really need them. And that’s dependent on the generosity of others. That sense of turning the democratic nature of the internet into something that is immediate, that is handed from one person to another, that exists in these local gathering spaces of coffee shops or bookstores or community centers, is so important to us.

Work by Daniel Clowes in the second issue of RESIST!

MNL: Have you received any pushback, in terms of stores that don’t want to have it because it’s free?

FM: Oh yeah! Not so much the first time, because it was from volunteer’s hand to volunteer’s hand. But this time we worked with Diamond, which is the distributor for the independent comics world, and they offered it to comic book shops, which is not a circuit that is politically inclined. Most of those people are fans of comics and not necessarily engaged in politics.

MNL: That really surprises me because comics are such a political medium.

FM: Well, the way you see it! But quite a few were upset that we were doing this. But I believe in the democratic possibility of the medium, which is evident in RESIST! itself. One of the most solidary things that can happen to the medium is to have young women get interested in it.

NS: I want to push back on that a little bit. We’ve also gotten incredible support from comic book shops, a lot of which acted as distribution points for the first issue and had floods of women come in and say, “Where is RESIST!? We want it.” That opened up the space of the comic book shop, which is generally still pretty male.

Work by Palmer Frankel and Valerie Schrag in the second issue of RESIST!

MNL: Also related to distribution, the first issue was handed out during the Women’s March. This issue will be released on Independence Day. How did you come up with that, and what were you thinking about its symbolism?

NS: It’s intended as a celebration of our country’s independence, of our free press, of how diverse our country is, of the things we love about it and wish it could be. Part of what drawing allows you to do is make manifest the world you want to be living in. So this is about picturing the America we want to be in. I grew up and became politically conscious in the Bush years, and was always very fearful of any kind of patriotism. But in strange ways, Trump’s presidency has made me very patriotic, because it puts into question the values of our country and why it exists. It makes me aware that we are a country of immigrants, a country with a free press, and those are things I want to celebrate.

FM: It’s also a point not to concede the flag and patriotism as only something that belongs to Republicans and Trump supporters. I think we are imbued with a mission: we want to continue and restore and celebrate our humanist values. I am an immigrant. I am now an American citizen, but I know exactly what ICE is and what being deported means, being severed from your family. Those are really at the core of what’s happening with Trump, of trying to create a division within America. It is obvious that my children’s generation is moving towards something more inclusive, whether the Trump supporters like it or not. In a way, what we are doing is not so much reacting but mapping out the future that is worthy of our past; it’s at least as much about Black Lives Matter as it is about women as it is about all those things that need to be opening up. That’s what Nadja was talking about — to go beyond the obvious as a tool to bring people together.

Spread from the second issue of RESIST!

MNL: More broadly speaking, the first issue was obviously in response to Trump, and we’ve been talking a lot about him. But unfortunately, this type of political extremism and xenophobia is spreading globally. Do you see RESIST! as remaining focused on the US?

NS: One thing I am really aware of, living abroad, is what an enormous presence the US is everywhere you go in the world. The French follow US politics as closely as Americans follow US politics, if not more so. What is happening in America has an impact internationally — even if the rest of the world were going swimmingly, international artists have a right to comment upon what we are doing. If it expands to international artists commenting upon their own countries, I’d be happy to see it.

FM: You can’t be everything, and you can’t do everything. The agenda has to be focused. So this is a reaction not to Marine Le Pen in France, although I had a reaction, and not to Theresa May in England, even though I had a reaction — this is specifically born of the election of Donald Trump, which woke up so many people, ourselves included. We have a lot of international artists, as Nadja said. There is a movement in Argentina, Not One More, about the abuse of young girls. It’s very specific, but it’s in RESIST! because it links with concerns about abuse against women. There are some issues that transcend regionalism.

NS: We have an artist in the new issue who I think lives in Berlin and did a piece about homophobia and the abuse of gays in Russia that’s mostly written in Russian. Yes, we can’t comment on every dictator; it is essentially about American politics. But American politics have a strong global impact.

Work by Allison Conway in the second issue of RESIST!

MNL: My last few questions are about the legacy of RESIST!

FM: The legacy?! We haven’t even published the second issue yet!

MNL: Well, you are creating the legacy as we speak! What do you hope this publication will do?

FM: If I have learned something in 40 years of publishing, it’s that you don’t start with a goal such as “I will transform comics.” But yes, you can have a direction. I believe in the medium, and I am excited by its possibilities. The fact that the content can be created by an individual, unlike a movie or video game, where you need an army and funding source … here, somebody with a pen and a piece of paper, or a typewriter — Word Processor, sorry! — can actually create something that gets read and seen and deciphered by someone else. That magic of communication through reading, where images on the cover of a magazine only come to life when they are deciphered by the reader — that’s the legacy, as far as I am concerned, to use that medium at a time when print is deemed to have died or be dying. All my life in comics, there have been zines. Back when I started I had a printing press, because it’s so easy to produce a few copies. And even if it’s 200 copies and you hand them out to 200 people, you still feel like you have put a part of something in other people’s hands.

Work by Mackenzie Baker in the second issue of RESIST!

NS: One of the things that really motivates me is that idea picture my mother’s describing. There used to be all sorts of magazines with idea images, but there aren’t anymore. I asked my mom what happens if a cover doesn’t run in The New Yorker, and often the artist just publishes it on their own Facebook page, because there are no other outlets for that kind of picture that intends to communicate, rather than be art. [I’m interested in] creating more space for that, especially because those kinds of images have a real political force. They find the edge of an idea. They get themselves in your mind and change the way you think. They can not only capture the world, but change the way the world thinks of itself. We need more of that.

The second issue of RESIST! is available for preorder now and will be distributed in selected comic book shops and bookstores worldwide on July 4.

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