Smash Pages Q&A: Kasia Babis on ‘Re: Constitutions’

The political cartoonist discusses her work with Beka Feathers on the latest title from First Second’s World Citizen Comics imprint.

Kasia Babis has been making comics for many years, but she gained a new international audience when she began contributing to The Nib about a wide range of topics. In particular, her comics about Polish politics offer an outsider’s take on events within the United States.

Babis has drawn the new book, Re: Constitutions, part of the World Citizen Comics imprint. Written by Beka Feathers, an expert in political development and post-conflict institution building who has worked in more than a dozen countries to help draft constitutions and design political transition, the book is about constitutions, but it’s also about what it means to be a citizen, our political landscape, the rights of individuals and what binds us together. It is a complex topic, and Babis’ art and designs help to masterfully juggle many ideas and complex topics in striking ways.

We spoke recently about her work and making the book while being an engaged citizen in a period of protest, as many basic rights are being eroded by an increasingly authoritarian government.

To start, how did you come to comics?

This is probably not a typical path for a comic artist, but I landed in the industry while I was still in college and, besides a short period in game development, I have never had another job. I think we all loved to draw when we were children, but I just never stopped. I remember getting in trouble for drawing comics in class while I was still in school. I still have full drawers of notebooks filled with those comics. I was extremely lucky to be able to turn my passion into a career. 

You’ve made a lot of different kinds of work, but I think it’s fair that most Americans and people reading this book are familiar with your political cartoons and comics for The Nib. How did you start to make political comics?

When I first started sharing my art online, it revolved mainly around me and my friends, our thoughts, funny moments, our everyday struggles. And those are deeply connected to political topics, however counterintuitive that may sound. Especially in Poland, where issues like women’s and LGBTQ rights are still not a given, but a topic of a heated political debate. A lot of people related to my art when I was being vocal about these issues and that encouraged me to explore this form of expression further. Some people warned me that as an artist I shouldn’t be so “political” – that it could harm my career. But that’s just absurd. Because what is politics if not a tool of changing and debating the structures of society? And wasn’t art always about that, too? About commenting on reality, trying to make an impact on it? Anyway, I’m glad I was able to prove them all wrong.

How did you come to draw Re:Constitutions?

It all started with my political cartoons for The Nib. That’s where I was spotted by Mark Siegel, who contacted me and told me about this project. So like I mentioned before – mixing comics with politics actually turned out to be really good for my career.

What about the project interested you?

I was fascinated when I heard it’s going to be about constitutions. Especially considering it was the time of huge turmoil around the constitution in Poland and mass protests were happening. I was even more excited when I found out I’m going to be working with Beka Feathers – an insanely competent person and a great match for this project.

I wonder if you can talk about the process of making the book, of finding the right style and the right color palette.

Finding the right style for this one took me a while! I think I was starting over at least five times and it took me a couple months to establish the style and workflow I was happy with. I remember I started with a very limited, monochromatic palette, but then decided to broaden it a little bit.

The thing that stayed pretty much the same throughout the whole process is character design. This is the part that made me create a creative connection with Beka right away – her description of the characters spoke to me from the beginning and we just agreed immediately on how they should look.

Did making the book require a different way to work? Was it just making a continual 240+ pages of comics and illustrations, or was it something very different?

It was my first time working on such a big project and also my first time working with such a big publisher. The whole process was much more organized than what I was used to, but that really paid off at the end. I think it was the smoothest deadline of my career.

The script was much more dialogue-heavy than comics I made before, so I had to come up with creative ways to visualize situations when characters just sit together and talk. Researching architecture and landscapes typical for specific regions of the U.S. was also a challenge. 

What was different from what I knew was definitely the editing process. For example – working with a sensitivity consultant who helped me a lot, especially with character’s hairstyles. This is definitely something I would recommend to all publishers and creators.

You’ve been making comics and writing about what’s been happening in Poland in recent years, and I’m curious about what it was like drawing this book and thinking about these ideas while you’re also being a very active citizen protesting in the streets in a country where many rights spelled out are being eroded.

I’m not gonna lie, it was intense. Three major issues have risen in Poland since I first started working on the book: first the government took over the Constitutional Court. Then, this new Constitutional Court ruled almost all cases of abortions illegal. And of course there were issues connected to LGBTQ rights and repressions against activists. On one hand, fighting for justice alongside other activists and participating in mass protests was really motivating in a way. But on the other hand, working on such high adrenaline levels can lead to a quick burnout. I had to find my balance. Since I was dealing with such heavy topics at work and then reliving them out in the streets, protesting, I had to learn how to get calm once in a while to actually get things done. 

I still remember the comic you made about thinking of the United States like a fantasy land like Narnia. Like a lot of people, when you look at America you seem to constantly be going, “What is wrong with you people?” Which is very fair. From your vantage point, what is the strangest thing about the US?

Lack of universal, free access to healthcare must be the one, and I think most Europeans would agree with me. But there are some other things that seem a bit strange from my perspective, like this deeply rooted assumption that everyone should own a car. Even though I know it’s the result of specific infrastructure and lack of public transport – I sometimes wonder, which came first? Did the car-oriented city planning influence how people think about transport, or was it itself caused by this kind of individualistic mindset? Anyway, this one is less serious, but I was just talking with my American friend Katie, and she reminded me that tornadoes exist. We don’t have them here so they just seem like a crazy concept to me. Sometimes I think how vast and geographically diverse the United States is and it really fascinates me.

What do you wish Americans knew/learned about Poland?

What I would like to explain to Americans if I had a chance is how relevant recent events in Poland are to their own sociopolitical situation. I know Eastern Europe is usually considered a rather right-wing and authoritarian region, vulnerable to Russian influence, but things like that happening within the European Union is something unprecedented. We went through a major transformation in 1989 when we switched from communism to a capitalist state. Since then Polish people really went into raptures over neoliberal ideas. I wish our recent history would become a reminder of how easy society can radicalize when we just go head first into capitalist ideas without creating a safety net for the most vulnerable. 

Most cartoonists after making a long book either loved the process and want to make another, or were exhausted by it all and can’t even think about making another. Which are you?

After working for so long on one project, no matter how great, the main thing on my mind is usually how much I would like to start doing something else. So I think I took a month off, but then was ready to go. We’re already working on another project with Mark, and I am also taking some of my own ideas out of the drawers.

Has making Re:Constitutions changed your thinking about the comics you want to make or what you want to do next?

I definitely learned a lot about consistency, and how to collaborate efficiently with the scriptwriter and the editor. I gained a lot of experience and also confidence in my own ability to pull off a large project. And recently I started thinking how great it would be to challenge myself and try to work on my own story some day. 

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