Liz Montague - the first Black female cartoonist to be published in The New Yorker – discusses how she communicates her personal experiences as a form of social activism
Instagram is like recess in a school playground. You make (and lose) some friends, there's popularity politics, shade thrown, in-between fun and games. Then, someone blows a whistle. Calling time on this daily social experiment. Except now your screen time stats tell you otherwise, the whistle has gone AWOL. With more time indoors, it feels like every day is a (virtual) school playground with no expiry date. Though if ever there was a corner of the internet to LOL at the absurdities of life, our IRL and URL habits, and make sense of the global chaos, one picture-perfect post at a time, it would be @newyorkercartoons.
Painfully accurate, it has you (and 2.8 million followers) pegged (happily, a blissful respite from the hyper-aspirational slice of social media too). So, what maketh a viral cartoon? We spoke to 25-year-old Liz Montague - the first Black woman to have her illustrations featured in the legendary American magazine, in its 95-year history of publishing (who also partnered with the Joe Biden for President Campaign, to storyboard and illustrate the Your Vote Matters video narrated by Stacey Abrams) - to find out.
courtesy of liz montague
I was working as a graphic designer, scrolling through Instagram, when I came across @newyorkercartoons. I was like, all of these cartoons are white. There’s no other kind of perspective and if there is a Black character, or person of colour, they’re very background. Atmospheric almost. That kind of stuff can skate by because [the] people making those decisions don’t really notice. I thought maybe they just need someone to tell them. Me being a naïve 22-year-old clicked the email button on Instagram and said, “Hey guys! You should get some more Black cartoonists.” The cartoon editor emailed me back within a day and was like “This is something that’s been on my radar – we’re working on it, do you have anyone that you’d recommend?” And I was like, “Yeah, I recommend me.”
I’m inspired by reading the news, and conversations [I have]. I normally think of the caption first, or something I’m feeling. Often for The New Yorker, something will happen [and] I will respond to it. I remember the day everything was getting crazy after the murder of George Floyd and the murder of Breonna Taylor I got like 50 text messages from friends saying, “Are you OK?” “How are you taking this?” I was just shocked because it wasn’t new.
I think in my lifetime Trayvon Martin [an unarmed 17 year old African-American high school student fatally shot, walking home from a convenience store] had been a huge thing in 2012. So, the night and day of responses was shocking to me. Like, are people for real right now? People didn’t know? I thought it was more sad than anything. And I tried to be really brutally honest. I know some of my friends were super offended by the cartoon [captioned: “Just ignore it - my white friends keep checking in on me because they think racism is new”]. I have two older sisters and a friend who had texted her asking if she was OK, messaged her saying “I saw your sister's New Yorker cartoon, was that about me? I’m so sorry!” [laughs]. I guess that everyone is trying to do something but that was just this crazy moment where Black people somehow became responsible for carrying all this guilt and regret. I just thought: “Oh My God, please make it stop.”
I have really big, natural, curly hair and people just touch it all the time. Then layer on top of that the history of slavery, how Black bodies were commodified and sold, that the previous hundred years we didn’t own our own bodies and this feeling [now] that white people can just touch it whenever. It’s a really layered thing and it kept happening to me [people touching my hair] and I thought, enough. What if my hair could fight back?
At The New Yorker they don’t give any parameters at all, they just say these are the deadlines. You can submit something, maybe we will except it. I drew like 50 before I got one yes, and then I became a regular contributor. Rejection forces you to keep doing it, and you just get better and better at it. For drafts, I normally do it on a Post-It-note, in pencil. Or I’ll think of the text and think of how the text can fit into a scene. I use my iPad to draw things further.
I drew my first cartoon at 19 years old. It was me talking to my childhood dog, I said something like, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.” Something about sitting there, making sense of my feelings, putting it on paper and having to fully sit in it in the amount of time it takes me to draw it - usually the first sketch is around 30 minutes...it made me feel better. It’s about letting the worst and the best parts of yourself talk to each other - that’s how I conceptualise it. What are the parts of myself that I don’t want anyone to know ever exists? That I want to hide away? What are the best parts that I aspire to be and how can I have them interact? And let it all out on the page, in a non-judgemental way.
My advice to aspiring cartoonists? Make honest work and don't be afraid to put it out there. That’s the hardest part, honestly. I try to be really conscious of when I’m filtering myself and why, a lot of it is social norm bullshit. Especially the way women have been so silenced in the past and the present. I think to myself: I’m going to show up here as my full self. My constant monologue is I’m not going to dehumanise myself. And I’m just going to have to stand in that.
You can follow Liz on Instagram @lizatlarge