Cartoonist Inés Estrada was born in Mexico City, in 1990. Over the past 12 years, she’s emerged as one of the most vibrant and idiosyncratic voices in comics. Inspired by Mexico’s punk/DIY underground, she has self-published numerous comics and zines. These include two crucial collections of her work — Ojitos Borrosos (2012) and Impatience (2016) — under her Gatosaurio imprint, which also functions as an online distributor for other Mexican cartoonists and artists. Additionally, she has co-edited the comics anthology Gang Bang Bong and the book Fanzinología Mexicana 1985–2015, an overview of 30 years of Mexican zine culture. In 2019, Fantagraphics collected her self-published series, Alienation, which immediately found acclaim as one of comics’ most pointed and imaginative critiques of our contemporary condition. The book served as an aesthetic distillation of Estrada’s recurrent themes: Technology, personal autonomy and connection, sexuality, the human vs animal worlds and a kind of simultaneous fascination with and distrust of the digitization of human life. Timely stuff.
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JOHN PORCELLINO: This latest batch of zines [you sent], it’s very interesting to me, especially that essay, the Cartoon Spirituality one. It’s almost uncanny. It’s weird how it’s the same thoughts that I’ve had about alphabets and communication and symbols and the way comics function in that way.
INÉS ESTRADA: Yeah, that’s cool. Maybe these are things that are floating out there in the collective consciousness? And I just grabbed them and gave them some form. It just kind of came out. I didn’t really plan for it that much. I also did it in a week. [Laughs.] I wasn’t forced by any deadline this time. It just happened. It’s just things that I’ve been thinking about again, for all my life. But more specifically now that I have so much time to just think, and that I don’t draw that much. But I still want to draw. I’m trying to find a new meaning to keep drawing and stuff. And the idea of the essay is thinking about what drawing is, and what cartooning is, because it feels [like] cartoons and cartooning are [considered] something very cheap and irrelevant, and I think they’re a lot more important than that, they’re actually very powerful.That’s why I use examples of cave paintings, and Egyptian gods, and call them cartoons and cartoon characters. Because to me, that’s what they are, they’re drawings that are representing figures, they’re expressing a concrete idea that is not abstract.
I think there’s something really magical about drawing because it’s a way that you’re manifesting an idea, you’re invoking this concept for other people to see too, and with characters it’s very defined what that you’re communicating, it’s not just any animal or whatever, it’s a specific personification of an entity. I mean, it can be Ra or Bugs Bunny. Both are cartoon characters, except one had a spiritual meaning and the other has come to evolve into a brand. And I like to think about that too, how capitalism absorbs everything and now every character is part of some franchise now. We can think of ancient gods as cartoon characters and it’s the same as saying that cave paintings are art, because the people who made them didn’t think of them as art. They didn’t have that concept. In the present moment, that’s the concept that we give to these things that are so far away in the past that we have no idea what they meant to their creators or what they were made for. We’re like, “oh, it’s Art.” In that same sense, I’m saying ‘but they’re not Art, they’re cartoons.’
Those ancient cartoons weren’t tied to any brand properties. Now when you think of a cartoon character, Bugs Bunny is owned by Warner Brothers. If you think about that, any drawing that is not abstract, but signifies something that is symbolic, or a representation of something concrete, so if you accept that as a cartoon, then drawings [becomes] a magical technique that we have to spread things. But now this power is held by brands and capitalism, to sell things to us. It’s kind of perverse, because it’s taking out the power from us as individuals when we can just create our own characters and create our own reality. But now we’re overpowered by these franchises and their characters, which also have a strange spiritual dimension to them even if they’re not religious. We know they’re human creations, but they’re also not entirely human-owned because they’re brands.
It trips me out. You find that people are fans of characters, I mean, I’m a fan of stuff like that too. And it’s funny because we’re giving our devotion to these characters [that] are brands and this is something that is very new in human history because before you would be devoted to a saint or god of whatever religion and now we’re devoted to consumerism and franchises.
I was exposed to the French philosophers in the ’60s called the Situationists from zines and punk. They were the best, I feel, at describing what goes on in capitalism. They talk about its ability to absorb everything and commodify it. These companies have absorbed our whole culture. And they’re selling it back to us. And like you said, instead of inhabiting some world that somebody else made, you can take a blank piece of paper and a pencil and create a new world. But even rebelling against that corporate control has been absorbed by the corporations, right? They’ve created a whole set of different rebellious activities that you can choose to be a part of, to express your rebellion. But they’re all things that they control, and they’re all things that they make money off of your engagement with. And I thought about that a lot in reading Alienation, where corporations have a hand in every aspect of your life. Bing does the body scan on you, and you have to upgrade to get this and that.
Your whole life is owned and controlled by these entities. It’s weird how corporations work, and we accept them as a real thing, because they’re not real. They’re stuff that we made up. It’s not like Mark Zuckerberg is looking at your Facebook. It’s just a thing that maintains itself, in a weird way. It all feels very magical to me how we’re creating all this stuff. That was part of my psychotic break. All this stuff that we accept, the internet and stuff. It’s real, but it’s also not real. But it becomes real because we’re all accepting it as real. It’s just fucked up, we’re letting those kinds of things become important, you know, how many likes you have or whatever, it’s really fucked up.
Those ideas of what is real and what isn’t, those have been present in your work from very, very early on. Even the psychotic break that you had, you were still engaged, grappling with that problem, right? It’s not the right word that I want to say, but maybe it’s somehow of piece with a lot of the ideas that you’ve been engaged with in your art from the very beginning.
Yeah, I guess that’s how everyone works throughout their life. You have maybe one or two ideas, and you just keep giving new life to them or approaching them from different sides, turning them around, but it’s just one or two things that are your obsession and become your life. The question of your life is mostly just one, and you’re just asking it over and over to see if you can get a different answer.
I always felt there are two kinds of artists and one kind is really experimenting all the time and trying this new thing, and trying that new thing, and developing new techniques, and doing all this. And then there’s other artists that — I feel I’m one of the second kind, and maybe you are too — where, just have these things that I have been thinking about my whole life. All my art is really trying to find different perspectives or ways of understanding that or expressing it or coming to terms with it. I think for a long time, I felt inferior as an artist, or, I’m not a real artist, because I’m not trying to break all this new ground and create new ways of expressing myself. I’m using this form that’s here to grapple with the same things that I was grappling with when I was 12 years old. [Laughs.] But I’ve come to accept that. That’s the way some people’s creativity takes form.
It’s like I was telling you about, [you have] a problem that you’re trying to solve. The problem is how to express whatever you feel inside you that desperately wants to come out and you’re trying to solve how to let it out. It definitely feels like creating is a need. It’s something that you need to do and get out. When I’ve heard people ask, “Oh, should I become an artist? Should I become a cartoonist?” I think if you have that question, you shouldn’t do it. I mean, you can do it, for fun, but I think to commit to making art or comics, it’s not something that anyone needs to do to survive in a material sense, but it does, in a way feel very much like a spiritual need… Maybe that’s a pretentious thing to say —
I’ve always said being a cartoonist has made me crazy. But I’ve tried to quit. I’ve tried several times to stop making comics. And I’m crazier when I don’t make them.
Yeah, because you feel you have a need to get it out.
Yeah. A big part of my life as a cartoonist has been trying to figure out how do I sustain this thing that apparently I have to do over this long haul, and everything around me is changing, and I’m changing, and my body is changing, my stamina and my skills are changing, and I have this thing that still requires that I attend to it.
Yeah. I think everyone has a need to express and to create, but for some of us it’s much more, for instance, that you really need to put it out. You don’t even question, or I guess sometimes you do, you’re like, “why am I doing this?” But you just have to do it.
I think that we’re called to something in our lives, and I think the trick is figuring out what that calling is, and then giving your life to it. And I think that you can do it with just about anything in this life, and we’ve all met people who are plumbers or veterinarians, and they just bring this kind of creative energy to everything that they do. And there’s a spark there that I think happens when you’re doing the thing that you’re supposed to be doing. And I think for some of us, it’s to make comics.
You find the thing that gives you a sense of fulfillment and purpose that you’re like, “Yeah, this is what I need to be doing. I can’t do anything else.” [Laughs.]
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Read the full interview in The Comics Journal #309.