Cartoonist Leila Cabib’s craft is to tell a joke without using words

Courtesy of Leila Cabib

The cartoonist’s job entails more than just eliciting a chuckle at a humorous punchline. The best cartoonists are not only — or merely — funny. They dig into political and social issues; point out the ironies of contemporary life; teach us about our neighbors and ourselves and, perhaps, make us scratch our head, disagree or even change our minds about an idea or belief.

Leila Cabib knew none of that growing up, first in Argentina, then Potomac. But she always enjoyed drawing and also read classic cartoons like “Peanuts” and “Felix the Cat.” But when her older sister, Cintia, brought home an edition of Churchill High School’s newspaper, Leila thought that the cartoons looked like a lot of fun. “I couldn’t wait to get to high school and join the school’s paper,” she said.

Since high school, Cabib has created her own syndicated cartoon, teaches cartooning through the Montgomery County Public Libraries and challenges herself to sketch daily. And her multi-panel cartoons, which she shares on her website, are both playful and sharp-witted examinations of modern life, tackling topics like dating and marriage, female friendships, job interviews and therapy, to name a few.

“I was always drawing as a kid,” growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, until the family moved to Maryland when she was in elementary school. At Bard College, Cabib penned comics for the student paper where, she said, “I loved poking fun at the students at Bard, which is known for their unconventional people, but I found them to all be very conventionally unconventional.”

“I am really interested in humor and the ironies of daily life,” Cabib said, “like the personal quirks and how we bump up against each other.” She cited French cartoonist Claire Bretécher’s work in the strip “Les Frustrés” — the frustrated ones — along with Jules Feiffer’s pointed takes on life and politics, as inspiration to think about cartooning from a more studied psychological or sociological point of view.

“What inspires me are situations we encounter in life,” she said. “I enjoy coming up with and running with an idea that gets across my point. It’s like I am developing a dialogue” with the reader.

Cabib carries a small notebook with her everywhere she goes to jot down overheard conversations, random thoughts and observations of oddities that occur in life. Those notes — captured in the grocery store, a café or restaurant, in her classes, at the post office, or wherever she might find herself — become fodder for her perceptive and quirky comic strips.

Courtesy of Leila Cabib

One titled “The Conscientious Canine” involves the growing presence of emotional support animals. She considered the various ways an emotional support or therapy dog could come to life in a 16-panel strip that pushed the idea to its absurd endpoint — the dog coaches her owner, like a $300-an-hour therapist would.

Cabib drew a daily syndicated strip for a brief period, prior to the digitalization of journalism. “I created a cast of characters and each had their personality,” she said. “As I illustrated the strip each [character] took on a life of its own … they became real people to me.”

Because competition in the syndicated comic world is so fierce and space is so tight in daily print newspapers, that strip didn’t last long. But in truth, Cabib said, she never loved the four-panel strip format that syndication required: “I like to do longer strips because the space in each panel is so tiny you end up just doing talking heads.” She also found that the intense deadlines left her little time to get out in the world and glean fresh material from daily life.

Beyond cartooning, Cabib’s illustrations have given life and perspective to articles in publications ranging from Time-Life Books, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Gannett newspapers, Cambridge University Press, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and the African American Health Program. She is often tasked with solving the problem of drilling down to the essence of a story or theme in pen-and-ink sketches or colorful watercolors — the results range from introspective depictions of a concept to fun illustrations of learning to a not-so-subtle take on a woman breaking through the glass ceiling.

“Frankly, I like variety in my artistic life,” she stated. In recent years she has begun a series of architectural sketches of homes and buildings in Washington, D.C., neighborhoods like Logan Circle, Capitol Hill, Georgetown and Dupont Circle. “I started doing [architectural sketches] just to practice my observational drawing skills,” Cabib said, noting that she had also participated in a life-drawing group on Saturday mornings at Montgomery College for many years.

Courtesy of Leila Cabib

More recently, she discovered an urban sketchers group, which focuses on street scenes and architecture sketched from life — en plein air. “I go downtown with my sketchbook, pencil, pen and watercolor brushes to sketch. I bring a little stool and just sit in front of buildings that I find an affinity for.” At this point Cabib has completed enough plein air architectural sketches for a June 2023 show at the Connie Morella Library in Bethesda.Cabib also makes time to teach, both children (in person) and seniors (via Zoom), the art and craft of cartooning. Her goal, she explained, is to “teach a series of exercises for students designed to give them parameters to express a point of view, to be original.” To that end, she shares artwork by a variety of cartoonists from Charles Adams to Jules Feiffer and beyond. “The challenge [in cartooning],” she said, “is for students to get a joke across without any words …. It’s not a drawing class; it’s really an idea class.”


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