The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A black female cartoonist brings her ‘unique’ take to the New Yorker

Elizabeth Montague, in her apartment on Thursday. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

In the first cartoon Elizabeth Montague published in the New Yorker, two black women stand on a rooftop that overlooks a darkened cityscape.

Above them, a Batman-inspired spotlight beams a message into the night sky: PER MY LAST EMAIL.

Beneath them, the caption reads: “We’ve done all we can. It’s out of our hands now.”

On one level, the cartoon is universal. Anyone who has ever worked in an office understands the delicate, often frustrating etiquette of email exchanges. Cubicle courtesy requires softening: “Where are those documents I’ve asked for five times?” becomes “Just checking back to make sure you received my previous emails.”

The dialogue of those two women on the roof is relatable because so many of us have been them, standing in the dark, out of polite options and still waiting on those documents.

But the cartoon also works on another level, a deeper one that will hit some people at first glance and won’t occur to others no matter how long they study it. Tucked in it, Montague explains, is the question: “Why are women and women of color so often ignored?”

In that subtle and significant way, gender and race play a central role in Montague’s work even when they aren’t the central focus.

The cartoons she draws grow from her own experiences, thoughts and perceptions. They are reflections of her. While, at 24, Montague is still figuring out who she strives to be, who she is now is a smart, introspective, young black woman who is aware that she is in a field where not many people look like her.

She is probably the first black female cartoonist to have her work published in the New Yorker.

It is an accomplishment Montague describes as a “dream come true,” even as she feels the weight of her unique position.

“Unfortunately, the standard for people of color is that we don’t get to tell our own stories,” she says. “I don’t take that for granted. I don’t take that lightly.”

She tells me this as we sit in her studio apartment in Washington on a recent morning. On a wall next to her desk hang several of her published cartoons. Not only her success is on display. Also on that wall, and on a bookshelf next to it, are hints of her angst.

An orange Post-it note nearby reads, “Nothing is wasted.” It is one of several affirmations she keeps around her workspace to drive her and remind her to take it easier on herself.

“BEGIN ANYWHERE,” reads one.

“Fear isn’t going anywhere,” reads another.

In the last year, Montague has seen four of her cartoons published in the magazine, which receives thousands of submissions each week and selects only 10 to 20 cartoons per issue. She estimates she alone has submitted more than 150.

“There is so much rejection in the life of a cartoonist, sometimes I feel like the Grim Reaper,” Emma Allen, the New Yorker’s cartoon editor tells me in an email exchange. She describes Montague, who goes by Liz, as “a hugely talented cartoonist.”

“Liz has a view of the world that is unique to her,” she says. “Additionally, though, she just has a brain that functions in the weird way gag cartoonists’ brains do — she’s able to stitch together a funny drawing and a specific observation to alchemically create a joke that lives in a little box.”

Allen was new to her position when she was forwarded a letter Montague wrote to the publication, expressing her frustration with the limited diversity of its cartoonists.

“I was amazed at how she so exactly expressed the frustrations I was grappling with, as I sought both to support those cartoonists who had been contributing to the magazine for many decades, and also to recruit and promote many of the fresh, eclectic, exciting voices working in the wider world of comics and graphic arts,” Allen says. “So, in the email exchange that followed, I asked her if she had ideas of cartoonists I should be looking at and publishing, and she said, ‘Me.’ ”

Allen says it is “likely” Montague is the first female black cartoonist for the publication, but she can’t be certain because she doesn’t know the racial identity of all the contributors.

Montague says that because she has that platform, sometimes people expect her to speak for all women or the entire black community — and she lets them know she can’t and she won’t.

“I’m a valid perspective,” she says. “I’m not every perspective. I’m not everybody.”

She is a first-generation suburbanite from South Jersey, N.J., who lives in the District with a cat named Cleo. She is also the daughter of an architect and an executive. She hadn’t considered pursuing art as a career until her sophomore year of college. At the time, she was attending the University of Richmond on a track scholarship and had tried out several majors, including English, anthropology and computer science. But nothing fit.

Then, she says, she heard a guest speaker, graphic designer Bojan Hadzihalilovic, talk about his work in Sarajevo, Bosnia — and she was struck by how art could be used to “communicate this very complex stuff in a very accessible way.” After that moment, she knew what she wanted to do, she says.

That year, she started a biographical cartoon series called “Liz at Large” and posted her work on Instagram for her classmates to see. That cartoon runs weekly in Washington City Paper. She submits a new cartoon for publication every Friday.

On Tuesday, she sends the New Yorker a cartoon and occasionally sketches one based on the news.

For her senior thesis, Montague created a bold and purposely provocative digital art project called “Cyber Black Girl.” But most of the cartoons she submits to the New Yorker don’t directly address race relations. The main characters are always black, but their concerns are broad.

In one, a little girl sits next to a stuffed bunny and reads a book titled, “How to Teach Your Parents Sustainability.”

In another, two children stand next to a man tied to a chair. The caption reads, “Now show him projected sea levels on his golf course.”

She started sketching that one on the back of a cardboard box.

Montague says that sometimes when she’s drawing, she has her doubts about whether anyone will be able to relate. She questions whether it will be too hyper-specific to her life.

But then it runs, she says, and she hears from people who tell her they put it up on their desk at work or on their fridge at home.

“That’s wild to me,” she says. “That little pieces of me are in the wild.”

Montague says what she has learned more than anything in the past year — and yes, it has barely been a year since that first cartoon was published — is that people aren’t that different.

“It’s made me realize,” she says, “we’re all a lot more similar.”

Her cartoons are a reflection of her. But, it turns out, they are also a reflection of us.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

During a year that brought a second set of twins and cancer, a couple found unexpected help in a child-care center

Before Oprah stepped into the messiness of ‘American Dirt,’ a Maryland book festival invited an entire city to read the novel

Claire’s Journey: Their 8-month-old daughter was admitted to the hospital for a common virus. Then they discovered her brain was ‘shrinking.’