Elizabeth Montague is a cartoonist and author known online as “Liz at Large” or simply Liz Montague. She made national news in 2019 for being the first Black cartoonist for the New Yorker. Since then she has worked with President Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, the U.S. Open, and Google, where she illustrated the first Black female cartoonist Jackie Ormes for the Google Doodle. Her debut graphic memoir, Maybe an Artist, depicts Montague’s childhood as a Black suburban kid who had to grow up in a post-9/11 world where casual racism and prejudice from her peers were the new norm. Liz also recognized early she was dyslexic and used that to reimagine her academic and professional career. We spoke with Montague about her new book and how her passion for visual storytelling changed her entire life.
When did you realize that your journey was a story worth being told, and why did you decide to focus on younger readers?
I spent a lot of my early 20s being like, “What do I do now that no one’s telling me what to do?” I tried to focus on making peace with that relationship with [my] early education. Not even making peace, but just sorting it out for myself. Honestly, I really didn’t realize it was a story worth being told. While I was working on it, I tried to make sure that it was helpful to me. When I finished I was like, “Okay, I hope that was good enough to help other people.”
Throughout your memoir, you went back and forth between being a journalist and an artist. Looking back, do you think you would have been satisfied with being just a journalist?
I think I would have hated it. I [remember] that movie from Disney Channel when I was growing up, called Get a Clue. Lindsay Lohan was in it and she was a high school journalist, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I took a lot of journalism classes in college, and you have to be willing to go talk to people. I’m not good at talking to strangers all the time. My life right now is kind of the opposite of that. I would have made it work, but I’m glad I don’t have to right now.
Even though your book touches on heavy subjects like race and war through the eyes of children, you also center the Black experience from a Black suburban perspective. Why was this important to you?
A lot of people have been talking about race, [especially] post-pandemic, and we really should have always been talking about it. I feel like especially during that time, the post-9/11 years, unfortunately, a lot of people like East Asians were [unfairly] targeted so heavily. But I didn’t really experience racism in America until I was growing up. I didn’t feel like a target.
You also highlight your initial obstacles with learning that led to you realizing you were dyslexic. What do you think parents and educators can do better to help children with dyslexia enjoy learning?
I really appreciated my teachers letting me do the assignments but in a way where I could actually do them. Instead of doing the two-page book report, I could do the poster that covers all the things that a book report would. I know that teachers have so much on their plate and that it’s so hard to be a teacher, especially right now. And I know how hard it is to have to accommodate every student, but I’m really grateful that that was possible when I was in school.
Why do you believe your comics resonate with so many people?
I tried to not be super dark and dour. I’m still touching on important and sensitive topics, but hopefully doing it in a way that isn’t depressing. And I feel like a lot of the news can be really depressing. Or it can be a comic about a random topic that maybe people aren’t super passionate about. And I feel like I do a pretty good job of not making light of tough subjects but making tough subjects more digestible.
You did an NPR interview about being a cartoonist at a time that social and political protests are the center of many conversations. What are some of the pros and cons of bringing forward issues that impact marginalized people through your art?
Well, the con is that you can be perceived as the spokesperson for everyone who looks like you, which is totally not how that works. I think that also being an “activist” can get pushed onto you in everything that you do from there on out in a way that that doesn’t happen for white artists or cartoonists, and that can be really frustrating. But as far as the pros of it, I think that I’m just able to show up as my full self and create from a very honest place. I think that resonates and translates to people. I think that if you do things from a genuine place, people can feel that.
You’ve come a long way since your Cyber Black Girl series that you did in college. Are there any other endeavors you’d like to pursue?
I think I’d like to try teaching at some point. I’d like to grow more food. It’s weird to say but as far as the professional things I wanted to do, I’ve done them. Now, I just want to keep making work. And I’m really lucky that’s what my life is right now.
What’s next for you?
I have a picture book coming out [next] summer with Penguin Random House. I also have a three-book young adult series coming with Scholastic. After that, more books, I hope. And hopefully [I’ll] take a crack at teaching sometime soon.
Maybe an Artist by Liz Montague. Random House Studio, $24.99 Oct. 18 ISBN ISBN 978-0-593-30782-3