Smash Pages Q&A: Pia Guerra

Comic artist turned political cartoonist Pia Guerra discusses how her work has changed, the current political climate and more.

Pia Guerra is best known among comic book readers as the artist and co-creator of Y: The Last Man, but in recent years she’s spent much of her time and energy writing and drawing gag cartoons and political cartoons for The New Yorker, The Nib and other publications. In 2018 a collection of her political comics titled Me the People was published by Image Comics.

Guerra is living in Vancouver and I reached out to ask about how her work has changed, inking and what she’s working on now.

I’m curious, how do you describe your sensibility as a political cartoonist?

Snarky. I’m just throwing snark at what deserves to be snarked at.

What was it that you made you interested in moving away from comic books and making political comics and gag comics?

It was the responses to these cartoons I was posting online for me and my friends. I was getting out some frustrations at all the craziness I was seeing and the feedback was eye opening. There was a real sense that this was making people feel better and it kept me going. I did political cartoons in the high school paper many years back. I didn’t think they were very good, like I didn’t “get” how to make them work the way I’d see in newspapers so it never occurred to me to develop it, especially since my plan was to draw comic books.

Years after Y was done, I saw a documentary about the life of Herblock, the Washington Post cartoonist and that cracked the code for me. He laid out his process, his goals for a cartoon, how he chose his subjects and it suddenly made so much sense. I wanted to give it a try but topics didn’t really jump out at me until the Charlie Hebdo shooting happened. I was so shocked and angry that I drew a few strips, one ended up being included in a memorial book in France. It was encouraging but still not a big driver to up and change careers. Then the 2016 campaign happened and that’s when all these images started pouring out. 

In Washington, as the Women’s March was winding down, my sister Vicky Van and I were taking a break in Lafayette Park. She’s a filmmaker and she was getting shots of people posting their used signs on the fence. I was on a bench and had my Liar Liar cartoon as a sign beside me and a man came up to me and started asking about it. He said he worked on an animation project years before with several editorial cartoonists, including Herblock. We talked about his cartoons and what it was like to work with him and I was just awed… and then he said I was very good at this and I should keep going. 

That was where I decided to make it a project. I was in a fortunate position where I had the time, I could do it alongside smaller projects and we’d still be okay. I went home, drew more cartoons and a couple of weeks later, the Big Boy cartoon went viral, which led to The Nib asking if I’d like to contribute to their site. A few months after that, I got an e-mail from an editor at The New Yorker asking if I’d like to submit cartoons. That one was a challenge because like editorial cartoons, gag cartoons weren’t anything I ever considered doing, also my humor is snark, not the elegant observations of social quirks. Fortunately, I’m married to a brilliant comedian, Ian Boothby, who was more than happy to write out some log lines for me to draw and that’s where that side gig started. None of these things even occurred to me as possible 10 years ago. I figured I’d just be drawing comic books until I died, but the world is a strange and wonderful place.

How has your process changed over the years since you started making political comics?

It hasn’t changed a lot; it’s still the same technical application, find ref, draw the thing, post the thing. But I think after doing so many I’ve gotten more confident with my inking, which, when I started out, I was just getting comfortable with. I’ve seen my style evolve some strength over the last four years, and I’m very happy with it.

You’ve really tried to have a very visually dynamic approach in these. And I keep thinking how different it is from drawing a comic book, where it’s a very different mindset.

With a comic you have more room to get to your desired reactions, where with the cartoons you have to streamline everything and get to the point pretty damn quick. The mindset itself is still the same — get a strong emotional response — just the route is more of a sprint than a marathon. 

I’ve joked that good political cartoons often come from the mean, uncensored version of ourselves. Do you think that’s true?

Oh yes, I’m shockingly mean. The trick is to wield that kind of weapon properly so as not to hurt innocent people. Authoritarian bullies are fair game.

You also make an effort to try and come at things from odd angles. You don’t like to have two characters explaining things to each other or a lot of tropes of political comics. You really try to find a different approach

I just try to be direct and avoid paths others have taken, so when you look at it you’re not thinking, “Oh, this old chestnut, whatever.” Mostly I’m just trying to hit the right emotional chord and doing it any way that works, even if it looks a little strange.

Have you been enjoying the writing aspect and the complex puzzle of making them?

There’s two ways they seem to come about: me sitting, watching the news for hours almost in tears because I can’t find the image to connect to an issue I want to draw about, then pieces slowly come together and I play around with them until something kinda works but maybe it sucks and I don’t know, let’s see if the editors like it… or in the shower, bolt out of the blue and I’m laughing my ass off trying to rinse my hair fast enough to get out of there and start drawing. Both have their own levels of enjoyment.

So much of your comic book work was pencils. How has your inking changed over the past few years?

I used to be very bad at inking, a lot of it having to do with being too broke to afford quality tools and more about not having the patience to deal with errors properly. A lot of my pages would just be a big blotchy mess of ink and white out. When making comics you can hand your pencils to a brilliant inker like Jose Marzan Jr., who makes pages pop, and just keep penciling away. When Y ended I had more time to figure this out. It was slow going, wasn’t making huge strides… and then yay, technology showed up. Starting with a Wacom tablet I learned how to ink without the stress of white-out. I could erase lines as easily as pencils! Then I got a Cintiq, and later an iPad Pro, and I love them all. Having the ability to just do the drawing and not get distracted with technical difficulties, my inking style got stronger and smoother and I’m really happy with it now. 

Is the role of the political cartoonist to comment on what’s happening? To mock it? To try and convince people? Or is it more like other art where it’s finding a way to express yourself?

It’s an opinion piece and depending on your sensibility, it can be rueful, educational or just a big emotional spilling-your-guts-out. My personal view is to comment on abuse of power by revealing the abusers as they are, not distorting their likenesses too much, to show the ugliness under their weird masks.

In your bio, the line “She does editorial cartoons for relaxation and retribution.” Is that as true now as it was when you started? 

Just “afflicting the comfortable,” so yes. The news can really weigh on you after awhile and getting that frustration out really does help you to relax. You’ve spoken your mind, you’ve shared it, you’ve helped others feel they’re not alone in their frustrations… it’s a good feeling of accomplishment while waiting for the absentee ballot to arrive.

Someone said recently that living in Canada was like living above a meth lab – which is not as eloquent as Pierre Trudeau’s famous elephant metaphor, but it’s hard to argue with right now. How have Canadians been looking at the U.S. recently – especially the past few months during the pandemic?

This moment, our windows are shut tight against wildfire smoke that has been drifting up from Washington, Oregon and California for over a week. I have mild asthma and have not been able to spend time outdoors. Limited gardening, canceled outdoor get-togethers (socially distanced of course), no walks to run errands. The border has been closed since March and a friend of ours is waiting for it to open so her fiancé can finally move up here so they can get married like they had planned to do back in May. And as much as we want to get back with our friends and families, we’re all terrified and angry because it didn’t have to be this way. We remember what happened with SARS in Toronto and we know these things can be managed into non-existence if caught and dealt with early, but here we are. One incompetent leader affects not just their own people, but their neighbors as well. Same with climate change, same with pollution, same with the economy. So much of our city is dependent on tourism and the film industry, most of it from the U.S., all stopped dead right now, so many of our friends are not working, are hurting because one man couldn’t be bothered. 

And no, he doesn’t *have* to care about his neighbors, but this is a very interconnected world that has been learning how to cooperate and make things work, to begin to fix some big problems, and now here’s Cartman taking his ball and going home. 

So it’s frustrating not just watching it happen over there but experiencing all these real consequences from his tiresome tantrums, and it sucks.

In 2018, Image published your collection Me the People, which is a great title. Are you thinking about another collection?

I was thinking of doing another collection when the Trump administration was done, so hopefully I can look at that in a few months. 

So are you a political cartoonist now? Are you interested in making other kinds of comics? 

I draw political cartoons when something makes me mad enough to draw about it. If The Nib likes one they’ll buy it on Sunday. On Mondays I draw a batch of gag cartoons for The New Yorker. The rest of the week is working on pitches, tweaking projects and maybe getting pages done on a solo comic I’ve been working on for too damn long. It’s a lot of different things. My hope is the new year brings a new and perfectly boring administration so I can go back to drawing comics and maybe watch the Y adaptation, finally. 

Let’s hope that we can make that a reality and get back to life being, well, a little more boring next year.

God, that would be nice. More hugs, too.

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