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Sempé Fi: The Butterfly Effect (Four Covers for The Anniversary Issue)

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Pollux writes:

The February 15 & 22 issue of The New Yorker was The Anniversary Issue of the magazine. To celebrate this occasion, The New Yorker ran a quadruple cover that honored its history, mascot, and sense of humor.

Four artists created various New Yorker-tinged realities: in 1925, a struggling male model visits a new publication in order to pose, to his horror, as Eustace Tilley; Eustace’s Butterfly, who also reacts negatively to a vision of Eustace Tilley, performs a poetic monologue; a world of Tilley-like figures record and observe butterflies; Rea Irvin creates the mascot of Eustace Tilley. These visions are both tributes and tongue-in-cheek interpretations of New Yorker history.

Back in 1925, did a male model pose as Eustace Tilley “just the way Mr. Irvin stipulated” for the magazine’s release?

No, but in Adrian Tomine’s “Adaptation,” we are presented with an alternative version of history in which the secret origins of Tilley are revealed. Tomine blurs the line between fantasy and reality, incorporating the magazine’s price tag and date, for example, into the flow of the story. What is real and what is not? Tilley’s Butterfly floats above the male model in the third panel. Tilley’s Butterfly will appear on all four covers, either as an observer or as an observed figure.

In Daniel Clowes’ “Survival of the Fittest,” Tilley’s Butterfly is the cover’s protagonist and main character. A poetic monologue emanates from the butterfly, who reflects on the vanity and destructiveness of mankind.

Tilley’s Butterfly is a scholar, and a hungry scholar at that. He hunts for “elusive nectar,” and finds horror instead, in the form of Eustace Tilley posing in an artist’s studio. Both Tomine and Clowes treat Tilley as a sort of grotesque figure, and in many ways, he is, with his stiff, long neck; large, intimidating suit; top hat; and white gloves.

In Ivan Brunetti’s “Biodiversity,” Tilley is multiplied and transformed into various small figures. Brunetti’s figures retain the size and shape of most of his figures save for the triangular, conceited nose that characterizes Tilley. Brunetti’s hybridized figures, like Tilley, observe butterflies, but do so by different means. They paint the butterfly, create drawings of it on an Etch A Sketch, photograph it, analyze it, and research it. Who needs a monocle when you have an iPhone?

On Ware’s cover, we find the creator of both Tilley and the butterfly: Rea Irvin. In this piece by Chris Ware on the New Yorker site, Ware discusses the difficulties of finding an image of Rea Irvin that he could use as a reference point for his anniversary cover.

As Emily Gordon and I have learned ourselves, Rea Irvin is not an easy historical figure to track down. As Ware writes, “…in this age of find-everything-now, Rea Irvin is nowhere to be found. Do a Google image search and you just get twenty-eight thousand Eustace Tilleys.”

Ware came across the same first image of Irvin that I came across: Irvin sitting cross-legged on a beach in a Buddha-like pose (it is not clear why). In his cover “Natural Selection,” Chris Ware uses this photo as a starting point for his tribute to Irvin. “It occurred to me only afterward,” Ware writes in the same post, “that my efforts at portraiture were essentially ridiculous, since no one today, not even the magazine’s current staff, would know what Irvin looked like.”

Nevertheless, Ware’s cover does what Emdashes has been trying to do: insert Irvin into the popular consciousness so that he does become a recognizable, and recognized, figure in American history.

Rea Irvin is the dominant figure on this cover. Though Tilley’s Butterfly hovers nearest to us, we are drawn to the portly, serious-minded art director who is considering various animal companions for Tilley. Ware’s Irvin believes in research and accuracy: Irvin has a top hat and coat, and has reference books open. Irvin looks keenly at the sketched Tilley figure; something is missing.

Will Tilley’s monocle be focused on a bird, scorpion, primate, bee, wasp, or grasshopper? Which animal will work best?

Irvin has yet to consider the butterfly as the possibility, but we are arriving at the moment of imminent inspiration. Tilley’s Butterfly floats above Irvin in the same way that a flash of inspiration floats above all of us, ready to settle in our brain as soon as we are ready and conditions are right.

Happy Anniversary, New Yorker! May there be many more.

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