Smash Pages Q&A: Alexandra Beguez

The cartoonist and illustrator discusses her work on ‘Guantanamo Voices,’ her family’s escape from Cuba, her work process and more.

Alexandra Beguez is a cartoonist and illustrator whose work has appeared in The Believer, The Nib, Ink Brick, Adventure Time Comics and Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream. Her technical skill as an artist is apparent, but she manages to move from heavily researched nonfiction to inventive fantasy to her breadth of illustration work with seeming ease.

Guantanamo Voices was published earlier this fall by Abrams Books and the book, written and edited by Sarah Mirk, is one of the year’s most important titles. Beguez drew the book’s third chapter about whistleblower Matthew Diaz.

We spoke recently about the project, inking and her relationship to Cuba.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I’ve always read comics and enjoyed them. In second or third grade, my entire class really got into Marvel comics. We went through fads all at the same time, and that was when I started reading Marvel and DC Comics. Then the fad went away and I stopped reading them.

It wasn’t until college when I was studying computer animation that I took an elective course in narrative storytelling and began reading comics again. I went to MOCCA in 2005 and for the first time I was looking at indie comics and realized there was so much more to comics than I thought. Meanwhile, I graduated and tried to get work in computer animation but was not very successful.

I went into design instead and on the side started making my own comics and even sold some self-published stuff at comics festivals like MOCCA and Grand Comics Festival (the ancestor of Comic Arts Brooklyn). I emailed the guys at Locust Moon Comics in Philly and asked them if I could apply to their new comics festival (Locust Moon Comics Festival) and they said, “We love your work, could you contribute to our new comics magazine?” Then they asked me to contribute to their anthology book Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, which was a dream come true. I started doing more comics and now here I am. It’s a little strange for me to say that I’ve been paid to make comics, but it’s pretty awesome.

So how did you and Sarah Mirk connect?

We connected a few years ago. She’s an editor and writer at The Nib, and we were paired up when I did my second job for The Nib. She was the writer and art-directed me for this comic about mansplaining.

After we’d worked on another comic for The Nib about the history of hysteria, she told me she was approaching publishers to make Guantanamo Voices and said, “I’d love for you to be a part of this book.” I had shown her comics I’d been making about my family, chronicling how they left Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s, and she thought I made a great fit for her project. It took a while for the project to kick off. It was over a year between when she first emailed me about this to when we got the okay. I’m honored that she thought of me for the project and that we’ve been able to keep working together.

How did you end up drawing Matthew Diaz’s story

Sarah selected that chapter for me. Before we started, she gave all of us a brief questionnaire to fill out, asking if we were you okay being assigned a longer or shorter story, for example. I said I was okay with a longer story so she gave me Matthew Diaz’s story. I read the manuscript and really felt for him. I wanted to be the one to illustrate his story. He’s been through a lot.

I’m not sure what people will come to the book thinking, but the book is mostly about people who worked for the U.S. government and were offended and disgusted by what they saw. Matthew stands out because he lost something in a way that might shock many.

Yeah, that shocked me when I read what happened to him. He wanted to help the detainees and get their names out there so he wasn’t thinking, “I should wear gloves and not get my DNA on things,” or really try to protect himself. He just wanted to get that information into the hands of people who could do something about it. Unfortunately, the government made him pay for it.

He did not read enough spy novels and paranoid thrillers to prepare for this.

Right? But no one knows when they’re going to do something like that, until they do it (if they do it at all). I can sit here and say, “I watch a lot of Criminal Minds so I would know not to do that,” but who knows? I’d be a mess, too. And really scared. 

As far as how you worked, the story is 21 pages. What’s your typical process for making comics?

My process starts with reading the manuscript several times to let the material sink in. I pick up some imagery and visualize what the pages will look like. Then I do another pass at reading and will doodle and work out a rough composition for each page and how they’ll work as spreads. It’s a very rough thumbnail. Then I’ll go in and figure out what I want the characters to do, what are the important actions and moments, and start breaking down the panels. Sarah’s script was specific because she interviewed him and went to the base, so she wanted specific things to happen and be shown. I followed her visual description. She provided a lot of reference photos of the base, and of Matthew and other characters in the story, but I still had to look up a lot. And then reference what it looks like when someone is bending over in a certain way and trying to nail down those poses. 

There was back and forth between Sarah and me at each stage of the project. I like to break things down into a lot of steps. I spend a lot of time in the sketching and thumbnail stage because I want to make sure that’s locked in before I get to pencils and inks. I did this comic digitally so pencils and inks overlapped. Once I got the okay for the final artwork, I tweaked things and went in with color. To keep the book harmonious one of the cartoonists designed the palette that we all shared, which was a little challenging. I colored it a few times, realized I hated it then scrapped it and started over.

I was going to ask about reference because there’s probably less reference on Guantanamo then almost anything else. But having scenes in an office or the mess hall makes it a little easier. 

Even the scenes in the beginning of the comic where we’re talking about how he grew up, how he had to move from Indiana to California, there was really no reference for that. Sarah was able to shoot some photos at Guantanamo, but she wasn’t able to get a photo of the post office, so I scoured the internet for what post offices look like on a military base. I was able to find some. I don’t know if that’s what the one at Guantanamo actually looks like, but it was the closest thing I could find.

Like you said, a lot of the scenes don’t need serious reference, so it’s more about how do I compose the scene in the mess hall or in his office. I had to remember what computers looked like in 2006. He gets a call and I realized it couldn’t be an iPhone, it had to be an old-timey Nokia phone. Just trying to think back to that time made me realize how old I am. Luckily, Sarah provided photos of Matthew and reference for various people appearing in the chapter. We mention Abu Ghraib in the story, so I had to find reference for that. You don’t want to take too many liberties with real events and people. 

How do you typically use color?

I either do black and white, because I like that crispness and that contrast, or I do bright colors. I don’t typically use full color unless I’m drawing in my sketchbook or I’m referencing a landscape and I want to more closely resemble the actual colors. I lean towards brighter and stick to a couple of colors and not go too crazy. Like you said earlier, I feel like limiting your palette is challenging. Sometimes when it’s full color, you have too many choices while you have more control with a limited palette. But even then, you still have so many options. 

And working digitally it makes it easier, or at least faster.

Oh yeah. It’s half and half at this point, but I like to work traditionally as much as I can. For this book, I chose to work digitally because I knew there would be a lot of revisions. It would have sucked so much if I had to do multiple color studies with paint. That was the benefit of digital. I worked on my iPad mostly. God bless Procreate. [laughs]

You prefer to work traditionally?

Yes. Sometimes I’ll pencil and ink by hand and then do color adjustments in Photoshop or Procreate. That way I can play around with the color without stressing myself out too much or wasting material. I don’t like to waste my paints. More recently, instead of sketching on paper, I’ll sketch on the iPad first, then print it out and use a lightbox to trace it onto cold press paper. That cuts time out of my process and my process has a lot of steps, but it’s nice to have actual physical work in front of you. It’s just not the same digitally.

Do you ink with a brush or pen?

I ink with a brush, and a dip pen with a nib if I need a really small line. My hand is not the steadiest but I like how when you create a line with a brush, it changes shape all the time. You can make it different and dynamic. I think monoline work is very beautiful, I just feel like my work isn’t the most compatible with that kind of style. It looks better when the line gets thicker and thinner in certain spots and has a more organic feel.

So what are you working on now, or thinking about next?

It’s interesting because when I started making comics I was doing weird fantasy comics and since graduating from my grad program, I’ve pivoted towards nonfiction. The first couple jobs I got were working for The Nib and an anthology where I pitched a story about my dad and what it took for him to leave Cuba. He was the last person in my family to leave. He and a friend devised a plan to steal a plane and fly to Guantanamo, which I thought was funny that I worked on a book about Guantanamo Bay prison, which at the time my dad saw as freedom, but now it represents the opposite of that.

I’ve since written a couple of comics about my family. I’ve been making nonfiction comics, and now I want to make more weird fiction comics. Maybe I’ll publish them on Instagram? Currently, I’m contributing a comic to a New Jersey anthology that will be published by Rutgers University Press. It’s about all things New Jersey. I live in Hudson County and in the 1960s and 1970s, when all the Cubans were coming to the U.S., they either stayed in Miami or moved up here. At that time, many factories were shutting down and the incoming Cubans helped revitalized the area. They bought up the homes abandoned by white flight, worked hard and brought this place back to life. That’s around the time when my mother arrived, so I’m using her as the narrator in the story to not only discuss her experiences but as a vehicle to talk about the contribution of the Cuban and Latino communities in the area, which got nicknamed “Havana on the Hudson.”

I remember your webcomic The Offering.

That was my thesis comic! I want to revisit that story because while I was working on it, I was working full time AND going to grad school full time, so I was a little out of my mind. I didn’t have time to perfect the story but I liked the characters. I need to do better by them and give them a better story. That’s something I have on the back burner. I really love sci -i as a genre, but it’s difficult to write because you have to make the rules for the world you’re building. Even if you do soft sci-fi, there are still rules. 

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