On the new cover of The New Yorker magazine (on newsstands today), artist Bruce McCall mashes up the American holiday and the American sport like so much whipped-frenzy potatoes — all made delicious with a sharp, sardonic bite.
In McCall’s gouache painting, titled “First Thanksgiving,” Native Americans enter a cabin-like room to find ale-happy “Redskins” fans in contemporary attire (including burgundy-and-gold jerseys), celebrating the occasion by rooting on their favorite controversially named team. What helps “sell” the commentary are the stoic American Indians, whose surprised facial expressions appear to register as somewhere between displeased and disgust.
Not unlike — as the artwork’s meaning goes, by extension — how so many Native Americans view the Washington mascot today.
The idea, says the self-effacing artist, was an act of “accidental profundity.”
McCall and Francoise Mouly, the magazine’s art director, began discussing cover concepts in October. “In talking to Bruce,” Mouly tells The Post’s Comic Riffs, “I thought that it would be great if he wanted to do something for Thanksgiving.”
McCall knew he wanted to skewer the day’s rituals a bit. As an artist, he says, “I see the world in a sarcastic and skeptical way, and [as fodder], I like the phoniness of the holiday — the business of the holiday.”
From there, his process — one of “total intuition” — spun off the heat of the headlines.
“I don’t follow football very much,” says McCall, a Canadian-born New Yorker whose first love is hockey. “But there’s a lot of anger out there for a lousy team.” (McCall and I spoke just minutes after the Redskins sealed their third straight defeat, in San Francisco, to run their record to an even-lousier 3-8.)
Tapping that anger like Plymouth cider, McCall hit upon his image and proceeded with clarity. “As soon as I had the idea, I saw in my mind’s-eye how I wanted it to look,” says McCall, who brandished his trusty Windsor-Newton brushes for his turkey-shoot of a painted commentary — all created within a bull’s-eye of about 24 by 15 inches.
Which raises the question: Does McCall feel that passionate about the mascot as a slur?
“I don’t really care about it,” says McCall, who began drawing for The New Yorker in 1979. “I think it’s long overdue that they change the name,” adds the artist, noting that in his native Canada, many members of the Inuit tribe consider “Eskimo” a slur. But compared to that, he says, “Redskins is a little more flamboyantly bad.”
Mouly, who was born in France, believes McCall’s vantage point as an immigrant helped frame his take on the team and the holiday.
“What Bruce did — which was brilliant — was to also satirize the welcoming of a culture,” says Mouly, who has never shied away from choosing controversial covers, including another image of cross-cultural “welcoming”: a male Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman, as painted by Art Spiegelman, Mouly’s husband, in 1993.
Mouly notes that because McCall grew up so close to the U.S.-Canadian border — he was raised in the town of Simcoe, from where big Detroit seemed to beckon, before his family moved to Toronto — the United States held a certain “outsider” fascination. “Detroit, and so America, was bigger and better than anything we ever had,” says McCall, a lover of car culture whose father worked for Chrysler Canada.
Beginning in the “Mad Men” era, McCall would work for years in advertising, as an illustrator and copywriter, before pursuing an art career on his own. Mouly says you can see that background in McCall’s art: “It’s shiny until you actually scratch the surface, and then you see more.”
Beneath that sheen is the perceptive editorial grittiness of the immigrant’s eye.
“I think Bruce [thinks] like an alien,” Mouly says. “It’s hard to ignore what you see when you have to go to Immigration and line up with those huddled, yearning masses — and you see people treated in a way that is appalling because you don’t have the protections that American citizens have.”
Mouly thinks that any assimilated people can grow blind to their own underlying patterns of prejudice and bias — and that art with an outsider’s clarity can help bring things into sharper focus. “The goal of the cover is not to tell you what to think, but to point out that there is an issue there … ,” Mouly tells Comic Riffs. She points to social context, adding: “Look at what we see in words and images from 20 to 30 years ago. Now we can see it and we’re shocked.”
And so, she hopes, a strong and pointed cover can help remove those blinders — on a cultural issue that calls out for illuminating commentary. “The controversy about the Redskins name is a good example of this,” Mouly tells The Post. “To have your team owner talk about the reason he’s not going to change it is because it honors Native Americans is so arrogant and clueless that it lends itself to some kind of exposure.”
“The word,” she adds, “is as offensive as the N-Word is to African Americans.”
Not wanting to fall prey to a cultural blind spot herself, Mouly brought in expert opinions to look at McCall’s art prior to publication. “I ran the image by some Native American activists I know,” Mouly says. “I know how I see it, but I wanted to know how it would be seen by them. They pointed out that those were cartoon representations of Native Americans. And yes, that is true.” (McCall notes that his Native Americans weren’t caricatured: “I painted them as dignified as I could make them.”)
Mouly and McCall agreed that Native Americans needed to be depicted in this picture. “The reader has to recognize their point of view,” the art director says. “If you remove them, you have a contemporary scene of people in modern garb. They have to be there, and they have to be cartooned to be recognizable as stereotypes.”
Mouly also points out that The New Yorker was free to use the Redskins logo, regardless the team’s recent loss-of-patent action. “Because it’s editorial comment, we would have been able to do it without [fear of litigation]. We were creating parody and making a comment,” Mouly says. “Our lawyers are very clear about this: [The Redskins] could not have restricted our rights to comment on their name and logo.”
And Mouly herself is very clear about this: Daniel Snyder is using his “platform to defend a team name that is indefensible.”
Mouly then jokes about one aspect of the controversy, speaking not as a social critic but strictly as an art director: “I was hoping Dan Snyder would not ‘see the light’ before our cover came out.”