Smash Pages Q&A | Beka Feathers and Ally Shwed

‘When you get right down to it, democracy is only possible if you have people with different experiences and perspectives who are willing to talk to each other and work together.’

Why The People, the new book from First Second Books’ acclaimed World Citizen Comics series, looks at democracy and other forms of government, but it manages to be less a textbook and more a conversation about what people need, how government can be responsive to people and what it can enable. At a time when the democratic consensus in the United States is fraying, books like this, which are aimed at younger readers, are more important than ever.

Beka Feathers and Ally Shwed have both previously made books for the series. Feathers is a legal advisor who has worked in more than a dozen countries helping to draft constitutions and design transitional governments in addition to writing the book Re:Constitutions. Shwed is a cartoonist and editor best known for her adaptation of the book Fault Lines in the Constitution

The book is in stores now, and the two were kind enough to answer a few questions about making an easily readable book about a very difficult and timely topic.

I suppose the first, obvious question – and I ask prepared for a depressing answer – why did you feel the need to write a book that makes the case for democracy?

Beka Feathers:  I’m writing this answer with a Jan. 6 Committee hearing in the background, and I wrote most of the book between the summer of 2020 and the spring of 2021. So, the short, depressing answer is that we need a refresher on why democracy matters, and recent events have shown why.

The longer answer is this: Democracy is extremely powerful and extremely fragile. It’s a system of government that empowers ordinary people to impact the laws and policies that affect their daily lives, and it’s almost infinitely adaptable. But at the same time, democracy is only as strong as those who believe in it and actively use it. As we say in the book, no democracy can survive without a democratic consensus, which is the belief by most (hopefully all) citizens that a democratic system of government is a good way to solve their problems and get their needs met. I worry constantly that the United States is losing its democratic consensus, even as people in many other countries are risking their lives to build representative, responsive, transparent, and fair democratic governments. I wanted to write a book that stood in solidarity with democratic reformers around the world and reminded Americans what we stand to lose.

This is the second book in the World Citizen Comics series that each of you has made and I’m curious about what you learned from those books that influenced this one?

Feathers:  Re:Constitutions was my very first graphic novel, so it’s safe to say I’ve learned a lot!

On the technical side, I wanted the fictional framework of Why the People to sit a little more lightly than it does in Re:Constitutions. I think a fictional setting makes even dry topics seem more accessible, but I wanted the setting and fictional elements to take a backseat to the conversation about governments.

In terms of substance: I’d had a lot of conversations with people about constitutions and government by the time we started working on Why the People. A lot of those were what I called “calibrating conversations,” which I was using to help me understand the baseline knowledge of people who aren’t governance nerds. (I think the other people in those conversations would refer to them as “pop quizzes.”) Julie’s dialogue on page 3 is a fairly accurate representation of how most of those conversations started. Most people understandably don’t know much about governments other than one they live with. That helped me decide that Why the People really needed to include a big survey of other types of governments and not just be a book about democracy. You can understand so much more about your own government if you have a working knowledge of what the other options are. The Framers had reference points from Athenian democracy up to the European states of their times. People writing constitutions and designing governments today also look to current and historical examples for what to do and not to do. Governments innovate off each other, for better or for worse – I wanted our readers to see that happening.

Ally Shwed:  From the art perspective, Fault Lines in the Constitution really helped me get in the right mindset for how to approach hefty nonfiction works like these. It’s always a challenge in comics to find that perfect balance of text and visuals; it’s even more intimidating to do that for comics that don’t always follow a neat narrative or need lots of text to tell the full story. I’ve been doing that for awhile with shorter journalistic comics, but Fault Lines was 200+ pages. So I had to stop and think, what’s the purpose of a book like this? Why disseminate this information through the comics medium? It’s not a textbook, but it’s not purely entertainment, yet it still needs to be engaging in the way all good comics are. It took some trial, error, and revision to figure out how to best serve that purpose, but doing so for Fault Lines really illuminated the process for me.

I also keep thinking about this book is in close conversation with your previous books, Re:Constitutions and Fault Lines in the Constitutions, each of which is in different ways about organizing democracies.

Feathers:  Yes! They’re all elements of a longer conversation, as far as I’m concerned.

Shwed:  It’s pretty much the M.O. behind the World Citizen Comics line: each book is genuinely powerful on its own, but collectively they’re creating this library of knowledge that adds to and is augmented by the other titles. The team at First Second has repeatedly referred to Why the People as a cornerstone of that library, but it also doesn’t tell the whole civics story – and that’s where Unrig, The Free Speech Handbook, Re:Constitutions, and all the other titles come in. You can’t tell Batman’s whole story in one floppy, and you can’t unpack democracy – let alone what it means to be a citizen – in just one book.

Ally, what made you say yes to this book?

Shwed:  It didn’t take much to get me on board. Mark Siegel reached out in August 2019, when I was just about wrapping up on Fault Lines, to pitch the project. It was prior to COVID but well into the Trump Administration. Regardless of your views, I think it can objectively be said that that political climate forced U.S. citizens to contemplate a lot of the assumptions they held about government and democracy. So, of course the premise clicked with me in the moment. And of course, we should’ve been examining the topics raised in this book long before Trump’s election. It was an exciting prospect to work on a project that’s both timely and evergreen. You also don’t often get the chance to work with someone who has the experience Beka has—I definitely wasn’t saying no.

For the book you created two characters, Julie and Lin, and the book is about ideas and looking at forms of government, but it also is about two people with different experiences and perspectives as they’re talking about and understanding these ideas. Why did you decide to approach it this way?

Feathers:  I don’t think I could have written it any other way (I say that after trying to do so). I wanted the book to show the kind of democracy I believe to be the most effective and legitimate, and that requires lots of different kinds of people participating in a substantial way.

When you get right down to it, democracy is only possible if you have people with different experiences and perspectives who are willing to talk to each other and work together. Making decisions that take all those different types of experience and perspective into account – and figuring out how to do that in a way that gives all those people a meaningful voice – is what democracy is all about. I don’t want to sound simplistic; we obviously haven’t perfected that in this or any other democracy. But the spirit of democracy lives where people are willing to talk and listen to each other until they find solutions that are mostly satisfying to most people, and I wanted the book to model that approach.

Comics are a powerful medium for this because it’s so easy to show people from all kinds of different backgrounds as part of the conversation. Many people feel like there’s no place for them in law or policy-making. Sometimes they’ve been made unwelcome, particularly people who have been marginalized because of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression, native language, economic status, physical or intellectual ability, and so on. People additionally don’t imagine themselves as essential to political decision-making when they don’t seen many people like them participating in it. I’ve also had people tell me they don’t know enough to be involved in politics, but what they usually mean by that is they don’t have a political science degree. That’s nonsense! Knowledge and expertise come from lots of places, and we all benefit from having more diverse voices at the table. Comics can show that happening. Comics can also show that people who don’t already know all the answers are essential to finding solutions to the challenges we face.

Similarly in Re:Constitutions, you had characters who were looking at these issues, and I keep thinking that your work has shown you how government is about people with specific lives and backgrounds coming at these issues, and that has to be central to these books.

Feathers:  Absolutely. I have been incredibly lucky to work with people from all over the world who are tackling governance, justice, peace & conflict in their own countries. All of the central questions in Re:Constitutions and Why the People are living questions, which is to say they are questions that real people are trying to solve right now using the tools we talk about in these two books. I really want readers to come away understanding that the debates between the Framers – and the Black, indigenous, female, and other people excluded from that process – are not just historical artifacts. They’re still relevant in this country and all over the world.

In the U.S. I think we’re raised to assume that all these big structural questions have already been answered: this is how you design a democracy, this is how laws are passed, this is what you put in a constitution, etc. But that just isn’t true – human beings will never stop experimenting with new ways to make decisions and govern each other. We’re also educated to believe that the US invented constitutions and modern democracy and everyone else is just following our example. That’s also not true – people around the world are constantly inventing and reinventing new ways to make decisions and solve problems without violent conflict. We’ve seen some amazing innovations in governance in the last fifty years, and by and large they aren’t coming from the United States.

I’m curious about how the two of you worked together on this book and the process that you two had for collaborating?

Feathers:  I could not possibly have asked for a better partner than Ally on this project! I was already a fan of hers before we were paired for Why the People, and the collaboration experience was amazing. Her art is so engaging and clear, without ever making a page feel crowded. We covered some dense topics, and I am naturally a verbose writer; without Ally, this book could have been a real slog. There are so many place where she took the script I sent her and transformed it into images that conveyed the meaning better than words ever could.  

My recollection of the process is that I would send Ally scripts with notes that said things like “I know this is too long,” or “there are so many words here, I’m sorry,” and she would send back magic. I learned a lot about how to be a better script writer just by watching how she translated words into images.

Shwed:  I don’t remember discussing or setting up any particular process for ourselves; we automatically fell into a really nice back-and-forth, where Beka would share a chapter of the script, I would rough it out, and then I would share it back with her. If there was something either of us didn’t think was working, we’d talk it out and come to a compromise. It was rather straightforward, which in hindsight is a bit remarkable, because the collaboration process for books like these could be somewhat peculiar. You’re taking two people who have two distinct skill sets and then tasking them with creating thoughtful art. I know comics, and Beka knows governments, but the conjoined space on our Venn diagram isn’t huge, right? So there’s a lot of implicit trust needed on these projects, and luckily Beka and I were on the same page there. But this is a good time to shout out the amazing editorial team at First Second: Samia Fakih and Mark and everyone over there set the stage for this straightforward process, and without them, this book wouldn’t be what it is.

Ally, the style and the color scheme of the book is different from your last book and I was curious about how you decided on the look and feel of it.

Shwed:  I can’t take the credit for the coloring: my amazing partner Gerardo Alba is the genius behind that. A lot of coloring decisions get made for you by the story, so when we were discussing options, we started with, well, what does the color need to do for this particular narrative? I knew we wanted to differentiate between the airport scenes and the scenes where Lin and Julie “travel” to explore the different governments; so that was the art direction I gave to Gerardo, and he created a cohesive limited palette that looked good but was functional as well.

I will say that I love your metaphor in the book about thinking about different types of governments as planes. Where did this idea come from?

Feathers:  It was truly a shower thought. The airport theme was already well-developed by that point – it was very useful as a liminal place where Lin and Julie might encounter anyone and where strangers do sometimes talk to each other. I knew we needed a quick review of the other governments before we dove into the democracy section, and I’d played with a few unsuccessful approaches. I started idly riffing on how different governments would fly a plane and it developed from there!

Ally, as an educated and erudite non-expert, I’m curious what you learned from making the book? What were some of your takeaways?

Shwed:  Much like with Fault Lines, I realized how much even an educated and erudite non-expert citizen (very generous adjectives, by the way) doesn’t know about the foundational, building-block knowledge of civics. Civics topics tend to be something adults take for granted or brush off: yeah, I know the difference between democracies and monarchies. Yeah, I can spot a dictatorship from miles away. Do I really need to know the ins and outs, when experts can do the heavy lifting there? But then you read a book like this, which plots it all out in an uncomplicated way, and you realize, wow, your working knowledge is the tiny tip of a very large and oddly eroded iceberg. In fact, maybe that “working” knowledge isn’t working at all, and that’s how we got to the point in our sociopolitical world that we’re at now.

This is a topic that people are talking about. I mean, many have argued that the US was only a democracy between 1965 and 2013. A sitting US Senator said that we’re not a democracy and that “democracy isn’t the objective”. The democratic consensus is breaking down in this country. And in this context, what do you hope or think that the book can be.

Shwed:  Going back to what was said before, about how this book (and really, the entire World Citizen Comics line) can help even intelligent, plugged-in readers become more informed—I hope this book does so for them. But I also hope it reaches younger readers that have only just begun thinking about democracy and government, to encourage them to think critically right from the start. And what about older readers who aren’t as informed or interested in the topic? I hope the book is accessible and engaging to this wider audience, to spark interest in something that we as a people have either lost interest in, given up on, or maybe never fully understood in the first place. Democracy is non-partisan, and every single reader can benefit from dissecting it on a level deeper than its dictionary definition. If we want to claim to be residents of the land of the free, let’s explore what that means and have the vocabulary to talk about it, challenge it, and participate in making it flourish.

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