Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule



Pollux writes:

The cover for the October 12, 2009 issue of The New Yorker is unique in that it is not one cover, but three, drawn by three different artists. The artists’ styles vary, but there is a narrative sequence in the thrice-covered magazine. The piece is called “The Food Chain.”

The cover is also unique in the sense that its composition was discussed on a new feature of The New Yorker website, called Behind the Cover.

I saw some of this feature on “Taxi TV” on the way to New Yorker festival events. Behind the Cover, which features Françoise Mouly and the three artists, offers a great insight on the creation of the triple cover.

Daniel Clowes introduces us to the main character of “The Food Chain”: a rich Park Avenue matron. She finds herself in a grubby fast food joint. Clowes’ literal way of depicting human faces lends itself well here: she looks worried and confused.

She’s up next, and she’s not sure about what to order. The man that Clowes depicts behind her, on the other hand, looks comfortable in this environment. His worries are of a different kind, but his face betrays little emotion.

Have economic circumstances forced her to eat something other than foie gras crumbles, specially farmed Almas beluga caviar, and Rothschild estate wine? She clutches her purse. Her gleaming earrings and pearl necklace look out of place in an eatery that reeks of fatty French fries, melting snowcones, and contaminated hamburger meat.

We turn to the next cover. Drawn by the versatile Zohar Lazar, the cover is reminiscent of cartoons drawn by Peter Arno. The illustration is black and white save for the garish pink and yellow splashed across the fast food restaurant’s sign and array of products.

In Lazar’s scene, awash in Arnovian ink, a limo awaits the matron. She proudly carries her purchase. A maid carries the fries. A driver stiffly and elegantly holds the limo door open.

The October 12 issue in fact contains cartoons pulled “from the Archives,” from the time of the Great Depression. These include cartoons drawn by Gardner Rea, Leonard Dove, Alain (the pen name of Daniel Brustlein), and Helen Hokinson.

Mark Ulriksen’s cover, the last in the sequence, reveals the punchline: the burger wasn’t for the matron at all but for her poodle. Her worried expression was not caused by her thoughts on what food she would like for herself, but what would her poodle eat?

She made the right choice; the poodle’s tail wags happily and its tongue hangs expectantly. The narrative trick is revealed.

Ulriksen’s angular style and strange perspectives shift the focus from matron to canine. The third cover is focused on the dog’s happy face. The woman’s face is literally out of the picture.

We see a little of her home: solid oak tables upon which rich vases, expensive bound books, and fresh flowers rest. An immaculate carpet, the domain of the poodle and now littered with a few fries that have fallen carelessly on the floor (the maid will be fired for that).

What does “The Food Chain” say about our times? That fast food is only fit for dogs? Or that, despite the recession, the rich are not being forced to buy fast food for themselves in order to survive. It hasn’t come to that yet, if it ever will, and the woman’s jewelry, drawn by all three artists, glints proudly and arrogantly. It won’t end up in a pawn shop.

The point of “The Food Chain” is that the recession of 2008 and 2009 has yet to reach the society-altering magnitude of The Great Depression.

Most of the rich have remained rich. If they have to cut back, it’s not for themselves. The woman is scaling back a little, but not for herself. She’s cutting costs, perhaps temporarily, for Fifi the Poodle. She’s braved the drive down to the fast food joint. It’s been a hectic day.

The October 12 issue is “The Money Issue,” and some people have more money than others, and always will.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree