Pia Guerra is one of the most poignant political cartoonists working today, yet she wasn’t even creating such art full time before President Trump.
For two decades, the Canadian American cartoonist was best known for her comic books, including the acclaimed graphic-novel epic she co-created, “Y: The Last Man.” But that was before her single-panel takes on the White House, human rights and mass shootings began to go viral.
In the wake of this month’s El Paso shooting, Guerra rendered a wordless cartoon in which the viewer is placed behind a crouched Walmart worker. The art, which has the emotional immediacy of live news footage, was soon shared extensively on social media — more than a year after her moving tribute cartoon of slain Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School coach and security guard Aaron Feis, titled “Hero’s Welcome,” was widely retweeted.
Now, when human tragedy makes international news, Guerra is a go-to visual commentator for many readers.
“Pia was already a great cartoonist,” says editor-cartoonist Matt Bors, who publishes Guerra’s work on the website the Nib, “and with her shift into political work, [she] instantly became one of the top editorial cartoonists in the field.”
Partly because she comes out of the world of comic books, Guerra composes political cartoons free of labels, instead often relying on the power of scene and the pathos best communicated by the human face. Such visual traits notably come through when the Vancouver-based artist is depicting children in border cages, or as the victims of violence.
“With kids, you don’t want to put them at arm’s length — you have to get down to the essence of the basic emotions involved: fear, sadness, terror, innocence,” Guerra tells The Washington Post. “Find the simple heart of it, and you will pull in the viewer and connect with their empathy.”
Guerra takes a focused approach to her cartoons on gun violence. “I want to focus on the things that this violence takes away: the faces, the love that isn’t there anymore,” she says. “I want people to feel that absence and get angry, because it’s so easy to have this fog just roll in and bury all these victims as the next shooting happens, and the next one.”
Guerra has a gifted eye for composition and visual contrast, but her editorial cartoons often resonate with an emotional undercurrent that helps them pop off the page. And she has no problem feeling impassioned about the state and stakes of American politics.
“One good thing from the Trump era,” Bors says, “is that artists like Pia have been motivated to do more political work, and we’re all better off for it.”
The Hoboken, N.J.-born cartoonist grew up in a fairly politically minded household, with her family moving to Canada when she was 5 to be closer to her father’s parents and sister, who were recent refugees from Chile. Guerra drew editorial cartoons for her high school newspaper, but she never felt as if they quite worked like the professional cartoons she saw in big papers. “I’d try to caricature a politician or an event,” she says, “and it just wouldn’t land.”
Everything changed for her, she says, once Trump was elected. In the introduction to “Me the People,” her 2018 collection of editorial cartoons, she wrote that the result left her reeling like an electoral 9/11.
“Trump happened and I found I suddenly had all this anger to work with — like every day, it seemed — so I started drawing more and more,” says the Eisner Award-winning cartoonist (“Doctor Who,” “Black Canary”). “The images just kept coming and I kept posting them.
“It felt good to get these thoughts out there, [and] even better when people told me they felt better sharing them,” Guerra continues. “I wasn’t sure if this was a career shift or not.”
It still felt more like a side project until the month of Trump’s inauguration, when she headed to Washington.
“My sister and I went to the Women’s March [and] I made up a sign from my ‘Liar Liar’ Trump cartoon, and the response was amazing,” she says. “Every 10 feet, people would stop us and mention the sign, take a photo or just have a good laugh.
“It was such a good day, and by the end we were in Lafayette Park, resting on a bench when a man came up to us and asked about the sign. We got into a conversation about editorial cartoons.”
The man said he had worked with the legendary Post cartoonist Herblock years before on a video animation project.
“I had totally forgotten we were in the city where he worked for so many years, and we geeked out on his work for a while, and finally he said, ‘I hope you do more of this, you’ve really got a handle on it’ — and that’s when I decided: Okay, this isn’t a side project anymore.”