Meet a Local Cartoonist: A Chat with Donna Lewis
Donna A. Lewis does a daily webcomic about life while paying her bills as an attorney at the Department of Homeland Security. I met her last weekend at the D.C. Public Library’s panel on Washington-area cartoonists when she started grilling us on why the panelists were all white males. A not-unreasonable question, especially for someone who volunteers as “an advocate on behalf of persons with disabilities,” and I think Donna might be our first interview with a woman cartoonist. Make of that what you will. We now turn the tables on her, and ask our usual set of questions.
Washington City Paper: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?
Donna Lewis: These days I produce Reply All, a daily four-panel strip that explores the detrimental effects of too much information, awareness, and honesty. All names have been changed to protect those who know how to sue me.
WCP: When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?
DL: I was born the same year as Jim Carrey, Jodi Foster, Jon Bon Jovi, and Jon Stewart. It was a very inspired time. I was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Baltimore.
WCP: Why are you in Washington now? What neighborhood or area do you live in?
DL: I moved to D.C. in the late 1980s for work and for a man. I’ve changed men and jobs a few times since, but I’m still here.
I live in an unclaimed part of town bordered by Cleveland Park, Cathedral Heights, and Malia Obama’s school. I’m four minutes from Sullivan’s Toy Store and seven minutes from Politics & Prose. Life is good when you have easy access to coffee, books, and really good toys.
WCP: What is your training and/or education in cartooning?
DL: My father taught us to flatten Silly Putty onto the Sunday comics section of the newspaper and distort the images by stretching the putty. That’s the extent of my formal training. Otherwise, I spent all of my time writing and making up techniques for other art forms. People said I was creative, but I was really just too impatient to learn. I began cartooning with paint, markers, and colored pencils. I’ve graduated to Adobe Creative Suite. Adobe has about 10,000 tools. I think I know six.
WCP: Who are your influences?
DL: I grew up in a house filled with books, magazines and newspapers. My brother and I would compete for the full color of the Sunday comics. We had illustrated versions of everything: the Bible, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and the Arabian Nights. My kindred spirits were Pippi Longstocking, Scheherazade, Laura Ingalls, Nancy Drew, and Heidi. Those illustrations pulled me right into their worlds. Later, I stole my brother’s collections of Doonesbury and The Far Side. Now anyone who pulls me in is my hero. Pulling a reader in is an amazing feat.
WCP: If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?
DL: Sometimes I wonder if I should have jumped right into writing as a profession. The fantasy is, of course, always appealing. But who would I be without the experiences I’ve had over the past decades? My voice and perspective are so strong and clear to me now. I would miss out on the point of view I’ve worked so hard to understand.
WCP: What work are you best-known for?
DL: When I first started writing strips, I created a community of hard-working angels whose efforts to help humans were hindered by the fact that humans resist help. I get a lot of folks asking where the angels are and when they’re coming back. The angels will be back when they’re ready.
WCP: What work are you most proud of?
DL: I’m really proud of my current strip, Reply All. I’m a writer, not an artist—and I actually enjoy looking at the panels after I’ve drawn them. I’ve learned a little bit about drawing along the way and am just really happy when people like the characters.
WCP: What would you like to do or work on in the future?
DL: I would love to do a very long storyline about a hair salon. I really like drawing hair, but it’s a ton of work to create the character who belongs to the hair. Hair is easy. Characters are complicated. Wow. Could that be a metaphor for life? Nah.
WCP: What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?
DL: Ruts and writer’s block are not my problem. Between family, work, and friends, the barrage of material is unremitting. I also have that disorder where even the simplest human or animal act plays out like a sketch from Saturday Night Live. It’s not helpful for romance, but it makes the creative flow a no-brainer.
WCP: What do you think will be the future of your field?
DL: I think that art, like everything else, will evolve as it must in response to changes in the economy and technology. Personally, I would hate to see a world without books and newspapers you hold in your hands. The smell of print is intoxicating (and probably dangerous). But I’m excited about new applications, new financial models for valuing talent, and the mysteries that will follow the iPad. It’s hard to promote innovation and diversity while fighting so hard to protect the familiar—but it’s also kind of cool.
WCP: What's your favorite thing about D.C.?
DL: D.C. is hypnotically schizophrenic. D.C. is lifestyle fusion in an aggressive extreme. You can buy $10 cupcakes at the flea market and imported karma beads at the grocery store. There are deer walking around behind the concrete of Starbucks. You can drive to the Appalachian Trail in just 45minutes, but the road rage en route to nature’s playground could kill you. There is more history than you can name within a one-mile radius of the new Georgetown Apple Store. And, of course, there are homeless people in front of the White House. D.C. gives you anything and everything—all at once.
WCP: Least favorite?
DL: I’ve seen people fight over the best floor space in the advanced yoga class. Peacefulness is a competitive sport in D.C.
WCP: What monument or museum do you take most out-of-town guests to?
DL: National Cathedral is always first. Walk through the impossibly plush grass of the Bishop’s Garden with the bells ringing loudly so high in the D.C. sky. It is surreal. The Albert Einstein Memorial is a glorious second, followed by a walk across Memorial Bridge at night. Walk toward D.C. or walk toward Virginia—both views are overwhelming and magnificent.
WCP: Do you have a website or blog?
DL: I have both! Please visit my characters at www.replyallcomic.com and link to some of my opinionated drivel. From there, you can friend me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter or just plain stalk me like in the good old days.