Before COVID-19 and civil unrest related to police brutality and racism, the biggest story in America was the 2020 presidential election. With a very crowded field of Democrats and polarization in the body politic at an all time high, 2020 was shaping up to be a transformative year in U.S. politics – – and all of this was before social distancing and George Floyd became part of our daily vernacular.
But voting has always been a metamorphic, high-stakes process, vital to the continuation of the American experiment since its beginning. That’s the history Tommy Jenkins and Kati Lacker provide to us in “Drawing the Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Voting” – – long and complicated, but with plenty of lessons along the way. I talked with Tommy and Kati about how they found each other for this book, their own views on politics and voting, what they would change about our electoral process, and their own love of comics.
“Drawing the Vote” is available at your favorite (socially distant) comic shop, bookseller, as well as online. And make sure you register to vote! Find out registration deadlines and election dates for your state at vote.gov.
Tommy, what was the inspiration for “Drawing the Vote?” And how did you find Kati as your artist for the project?
I did not find Kati. This is an example of working with a great publisher, Abrams, and a great editor, Charlotte Greenbaum. Charlotte found Kati and thought she would be perfect. That’s how I met Kati. It was a great paring; Charlotte really knows how to match writer and artist and how to foster a productive relationship. I know, this sounds all too perfect, but that’s what happened. I was so lucky. Kati’s style and ability to handle a lot of material on the page is exactly what we needed.
Kati Lacker: Yea, I first met our editor Charlotte at a festival and she later approached me with the project. Though my style suits the format, I don’t typically draw comics and have never done anything quite so ambitious in scale. It was definitely a learning experience; but one I’m glad to have pursued.
I was impressed at how well you researched your topic, but how you kept your explanations accessible for those whose knowledge of American civics perhaps stopped at high school or an Intro to Political Science course first year of college. Was there anything in the book that you wanted to explore, but couldn’t?
TJ: Several things!! Thank you for the compliment. Voting is a huge topic. The more I researched, the more I realized how much information there is and how much of it is really fascinating. During the chapter on women’s suffrage we touched on some of the African American women who were fighters for voting rights but did not have enough space to go into a lot of detail. Again, amazing stories of African American women in the 19th century trying to get the right to vote. Women’s suffrage is incredible history. What women endured is shocking and there is so much of it. From the Seneca Falls Convention, to various women’s suffrage organizations, to the arrests, the push for a Constitutional amendment – it is a rich history of struggle. Several volumes would be needed to cover it all.Continued below
In my review, I shared a story of a time I got to participate with a Q&A with American news anchor Dan Rather where I asked him what he thought was the most transformative election during his broadcast career. What American election do each of you think was the most transformative to our process, for the good or even for the bad?
TJ: It is so hard not to say 2016. I mean, we are living in that election now and the country is more divided than it has ever been in my lifetime. There was a time when I naively thought racism was on the wane, but the birther movement, the racist attacks against President Obama, and then what we have seen since 2016 has shown that racism is still viciously prominent and hurting people.
This is such a time of unrest. Just recently, we had riots across the country. My wife and I marched in a protest in Raleigh on May 31st. It was a beautiful, peaceful protest against police brutality and the treatment of African Americans. People were handing out water and masks.
Then later that night windows were smashed all over downtown. A store about a half a block from us was set on fire. And Raleigh was, of course, not alone. Looking at how some in government talk about those protesting lockdowns during the pandemic, how they are praised, and how those protesting the lynching of innocent black people and calling them “thugs” is maddening.
For a more historical perspective, the election of Rutherford B. Hayes was incredibly important. His opponent, Samuel Tilden, won the popular vote. Then there was a dispute over electors (from the electoral college) form various states. Ultimately, Hayes won but part of his winning was agreeing to end Reconstruction. The ending of Reconstruction had a profound impact on the creation of Jim Crow in the South.
KL: I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge about the transformative nature of past elections but I was going to school in Chicago when Obama was elected in 2008. It was the first presidential election I was able to participate in so it felt meaningful on a personal level as well. The feelings of hope and togetherness that filled the streets and country that night. Looking back I wish I could have spent more time appreciating how special this was. Hope feels very far from where we are at today.
Did either of you learn anything new about our political process in putting this book together?
TJ: Absolutely. I learned so much researching the book. For example, I think a lot of people know that there used to be poll taxes and literacy tests for voting put in place to keep African Americans from voting. When we hear literacy test, we think it must mean showing someone could read. That was not it. There were a variety of tests and some asked questions about the minutia of the US government, things that most citizens would not know.
Learning about so many people who fought for the right to vote, people we do not normally learn about, was inspiring. I’m thinking of people like Fannie Lou Hamer. She was amazing. A woman who was beaten, jailed, fired, all because she wanted to vote.
It is also shocking to dive into the numbers and see how few eligible voters vote. There are a lot of reasons to that, for sure, but the fight for the right to vote was an often bloody struggle. We should never forget that. I hope the book helps show that struggle. We need more people voting. We need to make it easier for people to vote too.
KL: I would say the majority of information we covered in the book was fairly new to me. During my schooling we skimmed the surface of the civil rights movement but there’s so much more to it that I was just unaware of. It was an interesting experience to be able to learn and further explore these topics as I was drawing the pages of the story. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the resilience and courage of people that fight for equality in this country. One that we still see on the streets today. I think the comics format is perfect for giving life to these stories and making the information more accessible and easy to understand.Continued below
Our election system is, at best, hopelessly flawed. For example, I live in a state (Connecticut) where I would have probably had hardly any say in who the Democratic presidential nominee was, even if my primary took place the date it was originally scheduled (April 28th) thanks to the way other states schedule their primaries. By the time the primary would have gotten around to Connecticut, things were (and probably would have been) all but decided!
If you had a magic wand, what would both of you want to change about American elections?
TJ: It may be controversial to some, but the first thing I would do is eliminate the electoral college. The electoral college was a comprise and part of it came about because of capitulation to slave states. The notion that it makes states more equitable in terms of influence doesn’t apply in the 21st century, in my opinion. Let the person with the most votes win.
I would also have early voting in all states. We have early voting in North Carolina, but many states do not. Why force everyone to vote on one day? To me, the goal should be to increase voter turnout. I think early voting helps. I would also have easy access to mail-in voting.
The primary season is also a shambles. I don’t know how to fix it but something should be done. It seems arbitrary to me, for instance, that two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, have all of this influence.
KL: I agree with Tommy. Any steps to make voting more accessible and equal for all. It’s hard to feel like you have a say when the system works against you and everything feels very predetermined.
As if this year’s high-stakes competition wasn’t enough, it’s also taking place under the shadow of COVID-19. What changes do you think will come to American elections as a result of the pandemic, either short or long term?
TJ: That’s a tough question. We are already seeing discussion of mail-in voting. We have seen some oppose this, claiming greater voter fraud will occur. First of all, actual voter fraud is so small it is really statistically nonexistent. Second of all, mail-in and absentee voting happen every election and there is no evidence of voter fraud. Again, I think the goal should be increase voter turnout. Given we are in the midst of a pandemic, I hope easy access to mail-in ballots will be made available. I hope that will be something that will continue in the future.
KL: With everything changing so quickly, It’s hard to say what will happen by the time November rolls around. The pandemic is teaching us how to adapt as a nation but it’s also teaching us how divided we are.
I hope there will be more push to support mail-in voting. If not that, proper precautions to keep everyone as safe as possible while still allowing each voice to be heard.
Kati, I loved your simple art style that complemented and balanced Tommy’s text. Who are some of your artistic inspirations?
KL: Thank you! As simple as it looks, my art style is something I’m constantly trying to figure out and better understand. A lot of times I get caught up in the details of each line, but the nature of comics is so quick that I was required to let go a little and just embrace imperfection.
There’s so many great artists out there. With my interest spread across design, editorial, and printmaking there’s a lot of different wells I go to to feel inspired. For comics I love the work of Rutu Modan, an Israeli artist who has a similar style to mine and beautiful eye for color. Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine are also big inspirations in both storytelling and design.
Living in NYC is also a constant source of inspiration for my personal work with the variety of colors, nature and people you can find with very little effort. And as someone that loves to draw from life it’s the perfect place to go people watching.
Are either or both of you comics fans? If so, what are some of your favorite characters and stories?Continued below
TJ: I am a huge comics fan. I grew up reading comics and still do. I love comics. My favorite character is Batman (me and so many others, right?) and the early 1980s Batman stories are favorites of mine. I was also a big Marvel fan. Probably my favorite issue that I own is “Marvel Two-In-One Annual” #7. It features the Thing in a boxing match to save the universe. I read that comic over and over and over. For a kid growing up in small towns in the South, reading comics opened up a world to me, heck, a universe. Comics were so creative and I loved the marriage of pictures and words and how the format can capture quiet moments and explosive action on the same page. Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil, especially the “Born Again” saga is probably my favorite run ever.
Recently, I read Kelly Sue DeConnick’s “Bitch Planet.” That blew me away. What an amazing comic. The storytelling is perfect. It creates a tangible world but does not sacrifice character in doing so. Honestly, that work is so good it intimidates me. She’s a great writer. Her Captain Marvel, Aquaman, all of it is great.
Another more recent comic that captured me is “Bitter Root.” Sanford Greene, Chuck Brown, and David F. Walker have created something stellar, not like anything I’ve read. I love things that combine genres. This combines the Harlem Renaissance with Blaxploitation, with horror, with the massacre in Tulsa in the 1920s. I actually have taught this to my American Lit students.
Tom King’s “Mister Miracle” is a comic that floored me. It is so good. I could go on and on but I’ll shut up.
KL: I’m slightly ashamed to say I don’t read a ton of comics. The majority of work I do lives in the editorial/ design world, so after completing “Drawing the Vote” I have gained a whole new appreciation for those that pursue it. Comics are hard work.
Is there one character in comics that either of you haven’t had the chance to work with yet that you’re dying to take a stab at drawing or writing? Who’s that one character that you look at and you’re like “damn, I so want to draw or write an arc for him/her/them.” And what spin would you put on it?
TJ: Since I have not written any of the major characters, all of them!! Ha!! Seriously though, even though I said Batman is my favorite character, and he is, when asked this question, the first character that jumps to mind, whenever anybody asks me this, is Green Arrow. I’ve always been drawn to Green Arrow. He’s kind of pompous, but he is so passionate about his beliefs. I respond to that. I love the look too. The beard, all of it. I think of him as kind of the forgotten Justice League member but he really plays an important role. Batman is the brains of the Justice League. Superman is the hope of the justice league. Wonder Woman is the power of the Justice League. Martian Manhunter is the heart of the Justice League. But Green Arrow is the conscience of the Justice League. He’s not going to let people get away with shit or the easy path. That pisses off others but it’s important when dealing with people of such power. I have a whole Green Arrow story I would love to write that helps show that role and how the way others look at him impacts him as a person. It involves his being played off another, surprising, in my mind at least, character.
I love Misty Knight and her partnership with Colleen Wing. Again, I have a whole story in mind with them investigating a conspiracy. I think they are great for looking at some of the more absurd parts of the Marvel Universe, funny things that can lead to deeper danger. Again, there is something about Misty Knight’s passion that I respond to. I love mysteries and she and Colleen are the perfect detectives for a mystery that unwinds some of the underbelly of the Marvel street-level universe.
Plus, I think both Green Arrow and Misty Knight are heroes we need right now with all the unrest happening. The protests and the rioting would put Ollie Queen and Misty Knight in very interesting places, making difficult choices.Continued below
Any new projects from either one of you that you can share with us at the moment?
TJ: I do have a couple of proposals that are at the early stage right now. I can’t go into too much depth, but I am so excited about both of them. These are graphic novel proposals. I love the format so much. It is such a wonderful storytelling medium.
KL: Though COVID has kind of put a halt on a lot of stuff coming in, I currently have a few things in the works. Other than that I plan to continue on with some personal projects and see what comes my way next.