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Covert operation

The cover of the latest issue of The New Yorker showing Barack and Michelle Obama ‘dressed up’ as militant Islamists has invited condemnation. But irreverent mag covers making radical statements have long been a staple of America’s intellectual life, writes Sanjay Sipahimalani.

world Updated: Jul 20, 2008 00:52 IST

The problem with satire is that people are apt to take it literally. Something you don’t need to point out to Barry Britt, creator of the by-now infamous The New Yorker cover featuring Mr and Mrs Obama as radical Muslims. This, however, is only the latest in a series of provocative covers that American magazines have published over the years.

Some of Britt’s other recent covers for The New Yorker have mined the same vein of mordant irony — such as the one featuring occupants of the Oval Office drowning in post-Katrina waters, or another with Obama and Hillary Clinton in bed together, both reaching for a ringing red telephone.

More urbane covers for the magazine have been created by Saul Steinberg — notably, one that showed a map with “a view of the world from Ninth Avenue”, portraying the average New Yorker’s limited view of the universe beyond the Hudson. An update appeared on the December 1, 2001 issue featuring ‘New Yorkistan’, comprising areas such as Fuhgeddabouditstan and Bronxistan.

Unsurprisingly, President Bush has often been on the receiving end. A cover for the Canadian Maclean’s drew a moustache on him to make him look like Saddam Hussein; and one by The Nation likened him to Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. The resemblance is uncanny.

Some of the best examples of suggestive covers are to be found in the Esquire of the 60s. There was the April1968 issue featuring a shirtless Mohammed Ali pierced by six arrows, mimicking St Sebastian — a comment on the pugilist’s prosecution for draft evasion. There was the May 1969 issue showing Andy Warhol drowning in a can of his own Campbell’s Soup, for a story on the decline of the avant-garde. There was the March 1965 photograph of a Marilyn Monroe-lookalike shaving, to accompany a piece on “the masculinisation of the American woman”.

Most of Esquire’s iconic covers were the output of advertising man George Lois, who said of his work, “The statements inside are useless unless there is a statement on the outside.” As a definitive statement on his creations, 32 of his most famous covers are at present on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Others have used cover pictures effectively, too. Annie Liebowitz’s striking photograph of a naked John Lennon curled up against Yoko Ono, taken just a few hours before the ex-Beatle was shot, appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone on January 22, 1981. Another photograph by Ms Liebowitz that stirred debate was that of a naked and visibly pregnant Demi Moore on Vanity Fair’s August 1991 issue. A year later in the same publication, Ms Moore appeared in nothing but a painted-on power suit — something Movie magazine attempted to replicate with Pooja Bhatt. Thank goodness the 90s are over.

Of course, it’s not just photographs or illustrations that have the power to provoke. One of Time magazine’s most controversial covers appeared in April 1966, comprising just three words: Is God Dead? Another striking one appeared in April 1997 featuring TV show host Ellen DeGeneres with the headline: “Yep, I’m Gay.” You could say that more than just the magazine came out that day.

Even paragons of rectitude will occasionally cause comment with their choice of cover. The Economist, for example, chose to accompany a September 1994 story on “the trouble with mergers” with a photograph of two camels mating. That’s one hump too many.

In India, alas, such ‘concept covers’ don’t seem to have caught on. Exposure is the order of the day, be it of politicians or starlets. Making one speculate whether the best ones on the stands are the descriptive, typographical covers for the venerable Economic and Political Weekly.

Sanjay Sipahimalani writes a literary blog at