Mention the name Pia Guerra to most comics fans, and they’ll remember her as the Eisner Award winning artist and co-creator of the acclaimed and beloved series Y: The Last Man. Since the comic wrapped up, Guerra has drawn covers and fill-ins and worked on various projects ranging from Doctor Who to Black Canary, The Simpsons to Hellblazer.
Over the past year, however, Guerra has established herself outside the world of comic books as a thoughtful and insightful editorial cartoonist. Now, she has a weekly comic on The Nib, but she’s also posting more comics on Tumblr and Twitter. We spoke about the different mindset required to make an editorial comic, how she approaches the job and the view from Canada.
CBR: You’ve been rather prolific with them lately, but have you made political cartoons in the past?
Pia Guerra: On and off over the years, yes. When a news story would inspire an image or a joke, I’d draw it and share it. After the Hobby Lobby case, I drew one with Wonder Woman and how she might feel about it. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I drew several. If I had free time and something to say, I’d do them.
What first prompted you to start drawing political art?
I’ve always liked political cartoons growing up, I liked their impact, how they could convey so much in one image. I did editorial cartoons for the high school paper and later on my own but never felt like I had the right approach, like some element was always missing and just figured I wasn’t in the political world enough to really get a grasp on it, and besides that, I had a real passion for comics, so I focused on that. I’d still do editorial stuff here and there.
It wasn’t until last year when I saw a documentary about the Washington Post cartoonist Herblock that helped demystify the process. It just clicked and I decided to do more. As the election drew nearer and the political climate became more and more absurd I felt a need to draw more but over the fall I was stuck on a contract and had no time until the election was over. Then it became more about the need to do something against this horror and helplessness unfolding. I did a few and posted them on Twitter and it felt good. The responses were very positive and I kept going. Then my sister and I went to Washington for the Women’s March, I blew up my “Liar Liar” cartoon into signs and got so many great comments, a lot of people stopped us for photos. While taking a break in Lafayette Park, a man came up to us and we chatted about the sign. He told us how he worked with Herblock years ago on an animation project and how much he admired his work and then told me that he was impressed with my cartoons, that they got to the point very quickly and clearly. I was so fired up after that.
When I got home, I was inspired, determined and hopeful and decided to take more time to chug away at this political cartooning thing for a while as my personal act of resistance. Then I posted “Big Boy,” and things really took off.
Were you just posting them on Tumblr? Was that how you started?
I post them first on Twitter, then Facebook, and the ones I like best end up on my folio page on Tumblr. Last month I was asked to contribute to The Nib in a weekly spot so now I send a cartoon to them first and if they like it for the Monday spot they use it, if they pass or if it’s the middle of the week and the subject is time sensitive, I post it on Twitter.
How do you think about what it means to be an editorial cartoonist? Because that’s what you’re doing and it is a different thing than, say, drawing Black Canary. How do you define what you do?
Well there’s a lot more writing involved. With editorial cartooning, you spend a good deal of time in front of CNN or MSNBC, reading articles online, scanning conversations on social media and examining every aspect of the news, looking for the absurd, the criminal, the infuriating and sad and then finding a way to analogize it into an image that evokes a strong response. It’s nowhere near the same as “Draw Black Canary on a motorcycle” or “Ninja shows up here.” It’s not fantasy, it’s trying to get people to notice something that’s actually happening. To point and shout, “Can you believe this!? Can we do something about this?!”
There’s also a very different mindset involved. With comics, you’re a camera, very neutral, working to engage a reader into a story and carry them through. It’s level-headed work, technical. But with editorial cartooning there’s something very grim and explosive happening. The closest I’ve been able to compare it to is high school. I’ve had to dig in really deep to dredge up this mean girl who’s not afraid to say the darkest shit to get a point across as directly and ruthlessly as possible. I’m almost embarrassed at how fun it is. It means being as efficient as possible at finding weakness and exploiting it. With Trump, it’s his ego and vanity, his obsession with his image and knowing that just makes it easier to attack.
You said that being a cartoonist involves “fighting monsters.” When I asked Lalo Alcaraz recently about editorial comics and normalizing Trump he said, “Satirists can only do one thing — punch a Nazi. If you punch a Nazi in the face, you’re not normalizing him.”
While I’m all for punching Nazis, I prefer to see it as “punching up,” attacking authoritarian abuse using mockery and humor because you need compassion and humanity to be funny and they just can’t grasp it, they suck at it. Just look at Mike Huckabee’s tweets.
It reminded me of the series of comics you did which were fake fashion ads for The Ivanka Trump death squad collection, which is both very mean but also very smart and inventive. That seems to be the kind of balancing you’re talking about of utilizing your visual imagination and your anger and finding a way to express these thoughts.
In that series I was going after Ivanka’s specific weaknesses, her hypocrisy and obsession with her branding. Her dad is praising Duterte, a man responsible for the deaths of thousands in the Philippines, and meanwhile she’s on billboards advertising Trump Tower Manila. Over in Turkey, Trump is praising Erdogan, who suppresses journalists and Ivanka is in magazine ads showing off their new spa at Trump Towers Istanbul. The cartoons point out who she’s getting in bed with and ask how she can be okay with that when so much of her brand is about family and individual freedom and whatever bullshit vapid platitudes she has her graphics team post in pink paintbrush font that week.
Your bio on The Nib reads in part, “She does editorial cartoons for relaxation and retribution.” I have to ask, what percentage relaxation and what percentage retribution? Is it that relaxing?
Retribution is relaxing when you can feel like you’re contributing to the opposition against such overwhelming evil and incompetence. What’s not relaxing, what’s incredibly stressful, is that feeling of helplessness at seeing what’s happening despite being in the majority against it. When you can find your thing to use to stand against it, a lot of that helplessness goes away, and when you see others find their voice and use it, the future doesn’t seem as bleak.
You’re Canadian. Do you grow up and learn in school about American politics? Do people pay a lot of attention to American politics? Which I ask in part because we take great pride in this country in learning as little about other countries as possible – and most Americans probably couldn’t name the Canadian head of state.
I’m a dual American-Canadian. I was born in the US, lived there for a few years before settling in Canada, where I went to school and eventually naturalized. I vote in both countries.
There’s an image up here of the Canadian/American relationship summed up by Pierre Trudeau: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
America is a beast, and we’ve had to get to know it very well to avoid getting squished, from trade to culture to military conflict, to the US dollar, it all affects us. In schools we learn about the American Revolution because it’s a part of our history, many British loyalists ended up here. We learn about The War of 1812 because it solidified our national identity as Canadians. We learned about American slavery because the Underground Railroad ended here. The Great War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam… so much of your history is tied with ours so we know it. We also get all of your TV as well as a bunch from the UK on top of our own so it’s a very diverse blend of views.
Do you think that you have a different perspective on politics by virtue of not living here. I ask this specifically given the past election and recent events, which many historians and people who have lived elsewhere tend to read much differently than the average American.
I think we do. Whenever I’ve lived in or visited the US, there’s a very distinct feeling of limited information, like there’s a side missing in the coverage of events, everything is very glossy and beautifully presented with swooshy graphics and impossibly chiseled anchors, but it’s not very grounded. I like anchor people who just talk, who look normal and aren’t bantering all the time (not that we don’t have that — it’s just easier to find things that aren’t all that). Right now, Canadians are mostly aghast at what’s happening down there. We just elected a guy who, despite being the centrist party, is waaay liberal compared to Democrats. We have a system here that works pretty well, that serves a good majority of the people (and yeah, it has flaws, but we’re working on it) so it’s hard to understand why Americans would turn away from a common sense that seems to work for every other developed nation on the planet. Like, why is kindness such a problem now? Healthy people make for healthy society. Educated people make for civil society. Accountability makes for an ordered society. What we’re seeing down there goes against every value we accept as a given and it’s baffling.
I think if you asked comics people they would identify you with Y: The Last Man and since then you’ve been drawing comics, but it has mostly been fill-ins and covers. Is that by design?
Yeah, I have a book I’m working on but it’s on pause while I do this work. I’m not interested in doing a monthly series again, the grind involved is just not worth it. When I have something in the can it will go out and we’ll see how it does.