Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Every morning, after waking up at 6:30 a.m., Elizabeth Montague creates a cartoon. They’re rough pencil drawings which take less than five minutes to complete at her Kalorama apartment work desk—little meditations that help keep her skills sharp and open up her day. 

For her day job, digital storyteller and design associate for the Aga Khan Foundation, she visually depicts various global issues, focusing on underrepresented narratives. Recently she visited Tajikistan for work, seeing firsthand how a community adapts to climate change.

But her own work is more personal. Aside from early morning sketches, she creates fully formed cartoons for her “Liz at Large” series, which is available on her Instagram and website. Those sparkling, colorful ’toons usually take her 30 minutes to an hour to finish. They’re meant to serve as “contemporary cultural reflection through positivity and humor.” 

Her cartoons feature women and girls like her: brown skin, curly hair, full of existential dread. The cartoons soothe, though. They help quell some of that dread. 

She wants to be taken seriously as an artist, but her style will always be her style, and black girls will always be the subjects of her art. “I purposely draw in a very accessible style,” she says. “And I purposely use really bright colors.”

Montague is just 23, a thoughtful representative of her generation. Through a maelstrom of angst and unease her creativity brings joy and a way to cope. She’s crestfallen about the state of the world, but she’s also high-spirited and charming, a ponderer of the nature of our universe, and someone with so much to say.

That’s what being a cartoonist is all about—having something to say. “A cartoonist is in a lot of ways an essayist, but using words and pictures at the same time,” says Julian Lytle, a D.C. cartoonist and a friend of Montague. Cartooning allows the artist to express their point of view in the way they want, he says. 

Having something to say is what took Montague to the pages of The New Yorker, which believes her to be the first black woman cartoonist to be published there.

“Liz wrote a letter to the magazine, expressing frustration with the limited diversity among the cartoonists, which was forwarded to me,” says Emma Allen, The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, via email. 

“I responded directly that she’d wonderfully articulated frustrations I had as well, and explained that I viewed it as an imperative, and a big part of my role, to try to fix existing inequities, as I felt there was no dearth of diverse talent making graphic and comic art.”

Allen has been at the magazine since 2012 as an editor and writer, and she assumed the role of cartoon editor around two years ago, taking over for longtimer Bob Mankoff. She’s the fourth cartoon editor in the magazine’s 94-year history, and the first female cartoon editor.

“In the cartoon world, the white male perspective is the universal perspective, and everyone else is niche,” Montague says.

The pair continued to correspond, and Allen says she asked Montague “if she had any suggestions of artists who I should be paying attention to and, in short, she said, ‘me.’ I invited her to start submitting and was blown away by the work.”

In her work, Montague is able to clearly convey universal feelings. She prides herself on relatability and accessibility, both in her art style and her subject matter. That’s evident in the first New Yorker cartoon she published this spring: Two black women stand on a rooftop with the words “PER MY LAST E-MAIL” emblazoned across the night sky like Batman’s famous Bat-Signal. The cartoon caption is: “We’ve done all we can. It’s out of our hands now.”

The cartoon has become a hit, an achievement in understanding for everyone who has ever had a previous email ignored. Allen says the gag was so effective because “it’s concise and to-the-point, and the visuals all add to the joke, down to the trench coats her young women are wearing (a sly mashup of noir detectives and contemporary womenswear). You think you know what you’re getting when you first see the image, and then Liz’s personal twist catches you so off guard you can’t help but laugh.”

Though she doesn’t know the racial identities of all the cartoonists who submit, Allen believes Montague is indeed the first black woman cartoonist published in The New Yorker. Allen says she has published a number of black women artists online, and hopes to publish more black women in print.

She didn’t immediately realize Montague was the first. Montague asked her if it was true. “I asked other people here with more of a completist knowledge of the institution’s history, and in the end, it seemed likely,” Allen says. 

Montague had suspected that she was the first, but after getting confirmation, she’s struggled with how exactly to handle it. “Do I talk about this?” she’d ask herself. It’s an issue of so much emotional labor, and it matters. Ultimately, she’s chosen to claim it, and to promote other black women artists.

In the wider world of comics and cartooning, Allen says, there’s still a disheartening preponderance of white men at the top. But she says, especially during her tenure, that’s changing at her publication. 

Montague’s history-making began with her willingness to say something. “Liz’s trajectory goes to show—sometimes you have to be bold and take the leap and it pays off,” Allen says.

Next Thursday, on Sept. 26, Montague will be leading a Lemon Collective creative wellness workshop, guiding an audience potentially full of nonbelievers into believing that they can create. She will have the class speak to younger and older versions of themselves. “All of our versions of ourselves are inside of us,” she says. “Right now, there’s not a lot of space to reflect, and it’s really hard to make time in this capitalist world that we live in where pushing yourself to the brink is really rewarded—especially here in D.C.” 

Born and raised in New Jersey, Montague attended the University of Richmond on an athletic scholarship for running track. There, she began cartooning.

“I started making these little cartoons in college, and then it turned into this whole career for me,” she says. “Maybe this is something I can teach other people how to do. Creativity is wellness.”

The world seems bleak at the moment, she says, and early 20s burnout is real for her and so many other young adults she knows. “I’m 23. Why do I feel this tired?” 

So, Montague’s workshop will focus on using cartoons as the gateway to self-discovery, including future selves. “What would your 80-year-old self tell you right now?” she’ll ask the class. “Draw it out.” 

She rethinks the “super dystopian, hyper technology future” that is frequently imagined for humanity in pop culture media, she says. Yes, she acknowledges, Earth’s environmental and social struggles are problems that we must address and work to resolve. But still, her question remains: “Why can’t we have a future where we’re smiling?”

Montague’s former boss and mentor at the Aga Khan Foundation, Dilafruz Khonikboyeva, says empathy is what she does best. “She’s able to force people to really think about something quite mundane in a different way, and that builds empathy,” she says. “Whether it’s cartoons or animation, visual art is a really good way to tell complex stories and to show emotions and feelings of our common humanity.”

Montague makes everything seem effortless, but her published cartoons take tremendous dedication. “Anything requiring back and forth with an editor takes hours and hours, probably at least one or two for a single ’toon,” she says. “And usually I’m doing a minimum of five, then there’s rounds of edits and redraws and all of that fun stuff.”

“People think of artists as passionate people who chop their ears off,” Khonikboyeva says. “She’s very passionate, but what people don’t realize is the amount of planning and thought that goes into every one of those cartoons. There’s an incredible amount of work there.” 

In one of her bright cartoons, a young black girl stands before her little white dog, exclaiming, “I keep waiting for one big thing to change it all.” Her dog replies, “You’re one big thing.”