In May, Image Comics announced it would be publishing a collection of prolific cartoonist Pia Guerra‘s political cartoons called ME THE PEOPLE. Slated for an October 3 release, the book will hit shelves just in before the November midterm elections. Guerra (Y: The Last Man)Twhose work regularly appears in New Yorker and The Nib, spoke to The Beat about her upcoming book and what the last two years have been like in Trump’s America.
As someone preeminently interested in understand how books are born, I wanted to know how this particular book came to be. Yes, I’m one of those people who actually wants to see how the sausage is made. I asked Guerra to tell me how this collaboration came about and what it’s been like to work with Image Comics on this project.
Guerra: “It was my plan to collect these cartoons down the road, like at the end of Trump’s administration, as a chronicle of events, and my long time friend and mentor Moritat insisted I get the ball rolling so he introduced me to Eric Stephenson over at Image. Eric liked the idea but wanted to publish sooner, like a month before the midterms to get people revved up to vote and I agreed that was a good idea so we put it together very quickly. We were so lucky to get a beautiful intro from Jamal Igle, who I respect immensely. I’m still a bit stunned how it all came together.
Up until now I drew comics pages that when finished, got sent to a team of people who did their magic to put it all together. With Me the People I get asked a lot of questions about production that is totally new to me, some of it familiar from working at a print shop back in the 90’s like paper weight and end sheets, some of it absolutely charming like what colour the end threads should be on the binding? (We went with fake tan orange!). I’m learning a lot and enjoying it quite a bit.”
The original press release for ME THE PEOPLE included a quote from Guerra about how she spent most of November 8, 2016, sick to her stomach. As it became clear that Donald J. Trump would become President of the United States, Guerra says she was filled with a disgust and dread. As we approach the two-year marker of Trump’s election, I wondered if Guerra could describe how she felt now. Was there anything about our current political climate that still surprised or shocked her?
Guerra: “As a result of doing the cartoons I don’t feel as sick and helpless as I did then because I’m doing something. It may be small but it feels proactive and that can make a lot of difference during these times. I see the reaction the cartoons are having, the sharing, the kind words (and not so kind words), the conversations coming out them and it feels very positive, like a little bit of order coming out of the chaos.
“What continues to shock are the lengths republicans and Trump supporters go to justifying the craziness that keeps pouring out of the White House. They fall over themselves to explain kids in cages, the erosion of rights, of health care, the break down of basic democratic norms. Anything to get that win for their side. I keep shaking my head at it. I mean, we always knew there was a mean underbelly to the American Psyche, we saw some heaping gobs of stupid at Palin’s rallies but this… it’s so disappointing to see that much selfishness and cruelty.”
Guerra’s work has the incredible ability to transcend and transform a moment, a feeling, a climate into a singular image. It can’t be easy translating the nonstop political news into a cartoon. I wondered if there was any particular kind of politics or story that she had difficulty placing within the framework of editorial cartoons.
Guerra: “I like to approach things with empathy, finding the emotional connection to an issue but that is sometimes difficult when dealing with such outright apathy. How do you find the connection to people so devoid of emotional connection? You can go with the tropes but it can get repetitive, finding a fresh take on yet another round of boorishness can be hard. And when you have multiple issues a day, all bubbling on the same level of ridiculousness, you have to decide which one takes precedence, which issue has more resonance and then you have to find the right image and days the image just doesn’t show up… or by the time you come up with something, another scandal has dominated the headlines. I’ve started a few cartoons only to stop when the issue I’m drawing about has gotten dropped back into the fog of scandals.”
It wouldn’t be an interview without me asking some cringe worthy question that makes the person I’m interviewing wish they were elsewhere. But given the importance and popularity of political cartooning, I asked Guerra if editorial cartoons were having their own cultural moment and what she believed accounted for their rise in popularity.
Guerra: “Editorial cartoons pass on incredible amounts of information in an instant. They’re informative, thoughtful and entertaining and a lot easier to share than a 1000 word essay. If the subject is resonant, if it connects with a viewer’s feelings that she or he wants to express, then it can act as a courier of thoughts someone may not have the time to put into words themselves. We see this with memes, videos (whether they’re about funny dogs or the latest incidence of police brutality), inspirational quotes, photos… we want to share the things that affect us, to let others know we’re here and we care about what’s going on even though we may be buried in other commitments.
“Even before the internet, you could walk into any office break room, cubicle, bulletin board, and see cartoons cut from the newspaper that someone wanted to share with others. This is the same thing, we’ve always done it, only now we have a much more wide reaching bulletin board.”
This reminded me of how my mom and dad used to cut out cartoons from the newspaper and pin them to our family bulletin board each week. It was such an apt description, but of course that’s what Guerra does! One of her most widely shared cartoons (seen below) was drawn shortly after the horrific mass shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The image depicts Coach Aaron Feis, who died shielding students from gunfire, being welcomed by past victims of gun violence. It’s a cartoon I’ve personally seen more than a dozen time and my throat still catches.
— Pia Guerra (@PiaGuerra) February 15, 2018
Most of us struggle to find the words to express our utter heartbreak our anger at the lack of Congressional action when it comes to gun control, but here Guerra has done both so well. The presence of children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, parents, adults… simply hundreds of welcoming faces to a club no one should have to be a part of. It is an unbelievably powerful cartoon. I wanted Guerra to talk through her process of creating her cartoons and what the overall experience is like for her.
Guerra: “The process involves a lot of stewing in front of cable news, surfing news sites, scanning conversations on Twitter and social media, just doing what I can to get a handle on what’s happening and then finding that thing that makes it personal, that takes it past yet another press release or basic facts. What is the part of the story that gets talked about, that people connect to most, the detail that people are taking issue with most? Focus on that and often the image appears. Boom. Draw it.
“With Hero’s Welcome, I was up all night watching the news, I was crying and angry and upset. I got pissed at the idea that the 2nd Amendment was more important than a child’s life, that other countries (including the one I live in) have somehow managed to have sensible gun control but for some reason the US couldn’t, the country that has laid claim to being able to doing anything better than anyone… you know the line, and this made me think of my niece and how parents have to just let their kids go out into the world everyday. The image of a mom apologizing to her daughter at the school gate came to mind and I quickly drew it up, sent it to The Nib. It was a huge relief to get something down, it was dawn and I was getting ready to go to bed when the news released the name of the first of the three teachers who were killed, Aaron Feis. They showed his picture, said he was a father, he was young and he shielded students with his own body and well that just made my brain explode. Like, holy shit, all this potential and goodness just snuffed out… joining the club of all these other students and teachers full of life and vibrancy and- pop. There was the image. Feis being welcomed into this tragic group of beautiful people who should still be here.
“I was exhausted. I should have gone to bed but I wanted to get the image out before someone else got to it so I stayed up. When it was done, I submitted it, heard back that The Nib wanted to stick with the first cartoon so I posted it on Twitter and went to bed.”
— Pia Guerra (@PiaGuerra) February 2, 2017
In addition to the wonderful successes Guerra has had, I wondered about the cartoons which didn’t make the cut. What goes into deciding what does and doesn’t make it out there for public consumption?
Guerra: “Yeah, I’ve done a fair amount of duds. It happens. The main criteria is if it punches down, it shouldn’t go up. If the target is the oppressor then pretty much anything goes. It helps to have my partner Ian Boothby to bounce stuff off of. He’s a brilliant comedian who has taught me a lot about humour and we have this thing now where I show him a finished cartoon and if he cringes in horror it works… if he frowns or looks confused, I have to go back and try again. If he’s asleep, I scan messenger to find someone I trust who’s online and gauge a reaction that way. It helps to have an outside eye because you can get so into a piece sometimes that you miss something obvious.”
The thing about the internet is you can always find someone who disagrees with you. Those who publish political cartoons are no different. There’s been a curious crowd of individuals who have made it clear that they believe editorial cartoonists are either too angry or detract from the seriousness of our current political situation. I figured Guerra would have some things to say about this, and sure enough she did.
Guerra: “If it’s not for them, it’s not for them. Editorial cartoons have a long history of having an impact on society, of helping in holding public figures to account and directing attention to issues that may get overlooked. It’s part of journalism and the discourse of ideas. If a person prefers the 1000 word essay, that’s fine. If someone dismisses them along with the rest of “fake news” well, that person is an intentionally ignorant asshole and nothing I can say will convince him anyway, right? Fuck that guy.”
— Pia Guerra (@PiaGuerra) March 17, 2018
For more information about this book’s upcoming release you can visit Image’s website.
ME THE PEOPLE (ISBN: 978-1-5343-1022-3) hits comic shops on Wednesday, October 3rd and bookstores on Tuesday, October 9th.
“New Yorker cartoonist and Y: The Last Man artist/co-creator PIA GUERRA offers up a collection of her most recent editorial cartoons just in time for the 2018 midterm elections. Covering a wide array of topics–from the Trump administration’s unprecedented attacks on democracy and the GOP’s enabling of chaos to the fight against gun violence and corruption–Guerra’s widely shared cartoons are direct and to the point.”