Colleen Tighe is an illustrator and cartoonist from New Jersey, whose work has been featured by The Nib, The New York Times, The Freelancer’s Union, Little Bee Books, The Baffler and Labor Notes, between others. As shown by one of her last pieces, ‘Care Manual’, published on World War 3 Illustrated #51, her work is expansive, multilayered and compromised, touching on social issues like housing, feminism or prison abolitionism. She also runs Sluggish Wife, a store of illustrations, t-shirts and zines for people who love magic and lifting. You can follow her at @colleentie on both Instagram and Twitter. Comic Watch’s own Duna Haller had the luck of sitting with her for a talk on social commentary, powerlifting, trauma and justice on art, between other things. And here’s the result.
Comic Watch: Hi Colleen! First of all, thank you so much for this interview. I’m really excited to talk with you. Getting onto WW3I, your full-color piece ‘Care Manual’ opens issue #51 in a majestic way, with a message of hope and future in a time where uncertainty is all around us. What, of the world we live in and the environments you surround yourself with, inspired you to put these messages in that way?
Colleen Tighe: Thank you for interviewing me! I have to say, I’m an extremely pessimistic person. I have to fight against being a doom prophet every day, and for me the easy way out is nihilism. I definitely slip into it a lot, but what keeps me oriented towards the future is the people who refuse to succumb to that and work every day to organize their communities to create better lives for themselves and us all. I’m not an organizer and it feels shameful for me to erase the tireless effort, sustained through generations, to fight the worst parts of our society, by being a big sad lump. I’m not sure how much I can contribute personally, but one way I believe I can is by creating these alternate futures.
Capitalism has stolen our imagination, and the idea that we can even ask for more than the shit we’ve been given is a huge obstacle to organizers. Take climate change: if we don’t hit the markers we want in 10 years, do we what, give up? That’s not a real answer. There’s never going to be a time where exerting any effort on shaping the future is not necessary. So it’s important to define that future, to make it tangible and real, and to work towards it, and to do it for the rest of our lives. I try to practice imagining these things for others, but to also convince and remind myself of the importance of refusing to give up.
CW: Is there any historical/artistic inspiration for it? These illustrations kind of remind me of Soviet art or generally socialist propaganda from the 40s or the 50s.
CT: Yes! They were heavily inspired by the New Deal WPA posters from the 30s-50s. Soviet posters and the WPA posters of those times have such a beautiful, timeless look, that has inspired decades of design. Now, a lot of times if someone is trying to develop a poster for a left-wing cause, they will just directly reference those posters without creating anything new. Those old posters are beautiful, but they’re also near 100 years old! A personal mission I have is to try to develop a new aesthetic for this type of left-wing propaganda, to push us more into the 21st century and play both with our aesthetic history but make sure we are not relegating ourselves to the dustbins of history.
The Soviets especially were on the cutting edge of new design with constructivist and dadaist influences, and really tried to make sure they were developing this beautiful, future-oriented design that was unlike anything around and attractive to people, to declare that they were the future. I think we can all learn something from that and apply it to our design work now.
CW: Your body of illustration art and designs relies heavily on pressing social issues, that go from the pledge against capitalist forces (like the fight against fascism or ICE, or the need of labor unions) to the care of the everyday life (like your precious drawing about prioritizing service workers in COVID vaccines, or various about people approaching things like community and nature). What is your relationship to drawing and designing about these things on your day to day and how do you approach the artistic process of themes so community-focused?
CT: In the last couple of years, those themes just came out of work I was doing in real life with organizers and organizations in New York. I started making art to help out with rallies, web design, etc, and it’s sort of just spiraled from there. I’ve always been a political person, but I had never really found a way to integrate it into my art practice, and I was trying to just find a way to be useful. Now, people approach me to help out with more politically oriented work. Personally, I have a deep desire for care and community, and I think my attraction to drawing those things comes out of that. I love people! I always have, and I believe in people, even as I feel kind of separate from them.
Drawing is a very isolated creative process compared to other, more intrinsically collaborative ones, and so I think part of the artistic process for me is trying to figure out how to break that isolation. Even drawing a community that perhaps I don’t have at the moment helps ease some of that isolation, because it acts as a little beacon to others. I feel blessed because my art has brought so many like-minded and inspiring people into my life.
CT: Sure! When I started powerlifting, I wanted to find some cool shirts to wear to the gym, and I noticed there was kind of a dearth of well designed, interesting merchandise for lifting. I just couldn’t find anything that scratched what I wanted, which ideally would be more woman-focused without being condescending, and just didn’t look cheesy or bad. I drew a little design of two women weightlifting with outfits based on some historical photos I found of women weightlifting, and it immediately became incredibly popular, and I just continued making more designs from there because clearly people wanted them. Now there are a lot more options for cool t-shirts, which is awesome.
Powerlifting was a godsend for me. I’m incredibly anxious and have far too much excess nervous energy. I could never figure out how to make meditation or yoga or running work for me the way people said it worked for them, where it got them into that “zone.” I can get into the zone with drawing when I’m lucky, but definitely not with running. Lifting was the answer. It’s incredibly meditative, it involves a ton of focus on your breath, your body and the exact moment in front of you. It’s hard not to focus when there’s 200 pounds on your back! It puts me back into my body and the present in a safe way, something that’s hard to do if you’re a person that’s experienced trauma. It also helped strengthen and rehab my bad back from years of drawing hunched over. Not being able to lift the past 7 months has really highlighted how much I depend on it physically and mentally. I just haven’t been able to focus on art and work the same way without it.
CW: As a trans woman with a complicated experience with sports, I really appreciated reading your comic from The Nib, as it speaks to a lot of my experiences of marginalization and trauma from (in my case specifically team) sports, and it both helped me in the process of healing that and appeared to me as a very accessible way to get that information out. How was doing the research for that piece? And the decisions on which imaginary, poses, symbolic language, etc. to use? And can you tell us a little more about the experience of the creation of that comic overall?
CT: I really appreciate hearing that, and I’m sorry that you’ve had to go through that. I first created a comic for the Nib about how much I loved powerlifting as a woman, and it became extremely popular. In the year after it was published, USAPL, one of the biggest powerlifting organizations, was challenged for its anti-trans rules, and it became a really horrible affair. Powerlifting is a very small world. Watching people that I respected turn around and say that people I knew, my friends, weren’t allowed to participate was disgusting and infuriating. I had just made this comic about how much I loved lifting as a woman and trying to get more women to lift, and I felt responsible for directing women to this anti-trans space. I just didn’t feel right not addressing it, so I pitched the Sports and Gender comic.
I was heavily influenced by research that had already been done regarding the Caster Semenya case, and the well-documented history of the International Olympic Committee’s flexible, ever-changing, and very racist definitions of a woman and their horrible, invasive tests to “confirm” womanhood. Rigid biological gender doesn’t really exist, and scientists have known that for a relatively long time. But I wanted to make sure that while I made this scientific information more accessible, to not focus too much on just the “science” which is heavily influenced by society, and show alongside it how science and sports are constructed to fit predetermined outcomes.
I really wanted to show how Sports as a category has been used to enforce power and gender, and it affects *everyone* so it should be *everyone’s* concern. It’s why I depicted a lot of traditionally masculine sports, and traditionally white sports, to think about *why* they are constructed the way they are, and these large looming figures hovering over people. When I talk about anti-trans rules in powerlifting, I have to start talking about all these huge things in greater society, because they’re all connected.
CW: Lastly, I wanna ask you what are you working on at the moments and what future projects have you excited for them.
CT: Like a lot of people, Covid has really turned my world upside down. It’s robbed me of a lot of my own imagination and so I can’t say I’ve been able to make much right now. I’ve been teaching myself some more animation, and have been occupying my time working on little animations. I’ve really just been trying to focus on the smallest things to get through the day. Drawing trees or my cat, making small looping animations. I hope soon it comes back. I want to get my shop back up and running with some new designs, and maybe work on some video tutorials and art theory discussions on youtube. It definitely feels hard to plan for anything big right now, so I’m just taking it one day at a time.