Chris Ware Shows Fortune the Mirror on the 500

Limits to what can be said in the friendly confines of the business press

Surely, the times call for pointed critiques of corporate America.

Fortune commissioned the cartoonist Chris Ware to propose a cover for its Fortune 500 issue, which is sort of like the September Vogue of the financial press. Ware came up with a brilliant, incisive cover—and Fortune decided against it.

Here’s Ware’s cover. Click the image and zoom in to read all the jokes and elements:

Here’s the dull cover Fortune ran with. No reason to eyeball this one closely:

I don’t necessarily blame Fortune for not putting this on the cover. The magazine is what it is. The cover cut too close for comfort for a magazine, which, well, let’s just say it tilts toward lionizing corporate America.

At the same time, what does it say that this is unimaginable as a Fortune cover or that of any business publication, for that matter—even with the rich guys jumping from skyscrapers airbrushed out?

Showing Wal-Mart as “Big Box SuperGlut,” picturing the stock market as a casino in Vegas, illustrating a sweatshop in Mexico, and portraying the Treasury dumping money on the rich folks high above it all is beyond the pale, apparently. Too pointed, even as satire.

The magazine told Gawker this:

As we often do, Fortune commissioned multiple artists to submit cover concepts for our iconic Fortune 500 issue. Being huge fans of Chris Ware’s work, we asked him to participate, but in the end we chose a design submitted illustrator Daniel Pelavin.

That’s a flacky way of saying that its presentation of American capitalism was beyond the pale of acceptable discourse so we’ll just draw some big numbers on the cover. Fortune had the chance to have one of the best magazine covers of the decade, and it killed it. It shows how limited the range of opinions are in the mainstream business press, which is to say the entire business press.

And the problem journalistically is that while Fortune can argue that the cartoon was too cynical a portrayal of corporate America (or globo-corporate international, whatever), the magazine has no compunction against presenting airbrushed studio portraits of the same.

At a time of scandal, with fifteen million people out of work, with Wall Street paying itself at record or near-record rates, with a critical financial-reform debate under way, here are Fortune’s seven previous covers, with the most recent first:

— Meet the New Face of Business Leadership

— The Future of Reading

— No. 1 SAS

— The Toughest Car Company of Them All

— The Best Stocks for 2010

— Building Great Leaders

— CEO of the Decade

Got something on how corporate America is teh awesome? We’ll slap it on the cover!

Got something on how corporate America is destructive? Try The Nation, dude.

The joke’s on you, Fortune.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.