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New Yorker Covers by Bob Staake


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Foot In The Door
June 2008

It's always interesting when I submit a cover idea to The New Yorker and the concept undergoes a series of adjustments that wind up shifting the point of view and making the image work -- all in an effort to make the thing work (and, ideally, maybe a little better).

In this cover (Figure A) I wanted to comment on the sense of apprehension that many college students experience upon graduation -- and tried to find a clever way to play with a mortarboard and make the point. Most grads, after all, leave school with loans to pay but few job prospects. To symbolize (the need for) good luck, I swapped out the traditional tassle with a dangling rabbit's foot, the singular graduate clearly apprehensive about his future -- yet the telltale worry in his eyes covered by sunglasses.

I was happy with the singular image but after a couple weeks of not hearing anything from The New Yorker, I assumed the concensus was that the idea didn't work. Hey, it happens -- and more often than not.

However, Françoise got back to me by saying she played around with a re-staging of the idea. She emailed a modified sketch (Figure B) -- one showing a number of grads -- and asked me if I thought it worked. Sure, I'm easy -- and the re-staged concept didn't alter my original idea, and if anything, it might have simply clarified it by incorporating some traditional motarboard-and-tassle-wearing grads into the scene.

My same original graduate and rabbit's foot would occupy center stage, but a mix of men, women and ethnic characters could be positioned behind him (see detailed original cover image here)

You never have the luxury of time when it comes to creating a New Yorker cover. Françoise called on a Friday to say that the idea was a go. "When do you want it?", I asked. "Yesterday, toda and tomorrow", she laughed -- a line that she's no doubt used with other New Yorker cover artists, some snapping to faster than others, some probably dragging their feet as they search for the proper inspiration. I promised her the art on the followng Monday (Cinco de Mayo), and no less than 30 minutes into the final illustration and email pops up from Françoise's assistant, Lisa, who wrote "Just checking in to see how you are doing with the Graduation image?". You get an email like before lunch and you can forget about spending the afternoon re-working the blonde hair on the girl at the left, playing with the color of the sky and tweaking those benign smiles until they evoke that perfect air of resignation. You just get the thing done.

"After lunch", I wrote back Lisa, then kicked the mouse into overdrive. Two hours later I was finished.

When I'm illustrating a cover I always keep The New Yorker masthead and left side "strap" floating on a level above the main illustration because it enables me to lock the imagery exactly where I want it. When I submit my final digital art to The New Yorker, I eliminate the masthead and strap completely, crunch down the image and then email it to Françoise (on a technical note, my files aren't huge, so they can be easily emailed rather than ftp'ed -- 400 dpi, rgb mode, tiff format -- with this illustration weighing in at 2.8 mb -- yet another advantage to working in Photoshop 3.0).

However, on Tuesday there was a message on the phone from Françoise -- and that usually means something needs to be tweaked on the cover. It turned out "tweaking" would be an understatement. Apparently New Yorker editor David Remnick felt my characterization of the grads made them look to "frumpy" and I believe Françoise used the word "slouchy". Me, I didn't have that problem because I felt that by elongating each of the grad's heads, the similarity of their facial structures would only help accentuate the worried grad with the dangling rabbit's foot.

It was suggested that by "glamorizing" the grads in the background and making them appear more hip and trendy, the revised image and idea would work better as a New Yorker cover. In fact, when I did better individualize and flesh out the background characters, this suddenly brought out a new angle to the concept; most of the grads appear self-assured about their futures -- but it's that slacker guy in the middle who's going to need all the help he can get. And don't ask me why he looks suspiciously like actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

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Figure A: The original cover concept. intentionally understated, minimal in design and (so I thought) straight to the point.
Figure B: The original cover concept. intentional understated, minimal in design and (so I thought) straight to the point.
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