Warren, a cartoonist who contributes to The New Yorker, began noticing a new candidate who piqued his creative interest. This energetic woman from Brooklyn was nicknamed “La Esperanza (the Hope) of Bushwick”. She was Julia Salazar and she was running for the New York State Senate, backed by tenants’ rights activists. In a moment of inspiration, Warren emailed the campaign: “I’m interested in doing a government graphic novel,” it read. And it could be powerful to focus on Salazar’s initial phase as a state senator.
From the seed of this first message germinated a sprawling project. Last month, Warren released a graphic memoir titled “Radical: My Year With a Socialist Senator.” It spotlights a then-first-year politician and her staff while providing a window into how grassroots activism can help spark change at the state level.
“Radical” is part of the civic primer for young adult readers, but its layered, on-the-ground narrative may resonate with anyone interested in the convergence of money and power, the will of organized voters and the workings of compromise behind closed doors.
The book also intertwines two fledgling careers. Salazar, who had not previously planned to hold office, would easily jump into legislative life. And Warren, who had never created a graphic novel before, would embrace the fieldwork that sparked his own political awakening.
Yet as Warren began hauling her art tools from the snowy steps of Brooklyn tenants to the vaulted offices of Albany, what exactly was she looking for — and what did she discover?
The contestant and cartoonist first met at a Brooklyn cafe in the fall of 2018. The two women were the same age — 27 — but their paths to that casual Sunday shoot were starkly different.
Salazar had just won her Democratic primary in a Brooklyn district, making her a shoo-in to take office the following January as the youngest woman ever elected to the New York State Senate. Running on rent law issues, the community organizer had toppled a Democratic incumbent — much like another young New York Latina and foreign Democratic socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, had done several months earlier, in road to win a seat in Congress.
Across the coffee table, Warren wasn’t an activist — and she didn’t grow up in a particularly political family — but she saw narrative potential in Salazar’s rise. His plan: Join the senator’s team so that she can observe, question and draw.
Salazar was not a comic book reader. Still, her intuition told her to trust Warren.
“I just popped in and accepted,” the state senator said via Zoom from her Brooklyn home. The candidate already felt so exposed by her campaign lawsuit that she thought, “Well, nothing can hurt me now – sure, follow me for a few months.” Months turned into nearly a year as Warren gained the trust and ideas of Salazar employees.
Warren was also gaining confidence: “I hadn’t done anything more than 10 pages before this book,” Warren said by phone from Bed-Stuy. “It was quite a start.”
Warren was savvy enough, however, to bring along a graphic novel that inspired her: the first volume of the “March” trilogy, the civil rights memoirs of the late Rep. John Lewis that had recently received a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. “When she gave me a copy,” Salazar says, “it gave me a better idea of what she was planning.”
John Lewis completed this graphic memoir upon his death. He wanted to leave a civil rights “roadmap” for generations to come.
“I was never interested in writing a Julia Salazar hagiography,” Warren says. Nor would it be a reporting mission – “I am not a journalist”, notes the author. Instead, it was a cartoonist’s personal journey into the belly of the beast. With full access to Salazar, the author has sought to illuminate the tensions and political tools at play when an overseas movement fights for a cause like affordable housing.
Warren wondered, “How does it work when a Democratic Socialist insurgent [is] actually asked to perform the task of governing? And how does a “compelling, young, rambling” team of outsiders effect change in a neighborhood of heavy gentrification and entrenched real estate forces?
In some ‘radical’ chapters, the narrative widens to explore the mechanics of street-level activism. The book outlines the battle lines: “With market-rate rents skyrocketing and social housing waiting lists numbering in the hundreds of thousands, tenants evicted from rent-regulated housing often had nowhere to go.”
At the state level, “Radical” tracks how Democrats seized power in the Senate in 2019 and depicts the looming government presence of the day. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), whose statewide coalition of tenant groups called Housing Justice for All is very upset. He could pass himself off as a friend of the cause, Warren writes, but “talking costs nothing.”
Warren, 31, believes in the power of graphic storytelling.
As the daughter of visual artists who met at Rhode Island School of Design, she was raised in that state reading comic books such as “Calvin and Hobbes” and “The Far Side,” and she remembers warmly from his father reading the funny pages aloud. to her and her brother when they were little – “to make sure we got the jokes”.
Warren calls herself “a little introverted”, so taking on an artistic role helps her broaden her horizons. “One of the things I love the most about comics is that it gives me kind of an excuse to learn things and go into spaces that I wouldn’t feel like I belong in. comfortable otherwise — or I wouldn’t feel like I had a purpose,” Warren says. “That was certainly the case with this project.”
Warren also clarified that it would be a subjective memoir. The author, for example, refers to “conflicting claims” about Salazar’s character during the campaign, as some media outlets questioned his background and identity. (Salazar says she was born and raised in Florida to a Colombian immigrant father and an American mother, and identifies as Jewish).
Warren ultimately chose not to resolve those controversies from 2018. “It didn’t feel important to me on a personal level. I felt like I couldn’t not make him part of the story, nor would I want to exclude him completely, because it’s part of his narrative” – yet the author assigns a much from criticism to slander of a harrowing campaign. “In the end, it just didn’t matter that much to me.”
Warren also insisted on creative freedom. She says Salazar and his team believed in transparency in conveying the day-to-day life of state politics. Said Salazar: “There were no stipulations – I just thought Sofia was so respectful in the way she went about it.”
Salazar flips through her copy of ‘Radical’ on a Zoom call — what does she think? “I feel very lucky to have this documentation of my first year in office,” the senator says, noting, “It went even better than I could have imagined.” And because the whole book takes place before the pandemic, “it makes me quite nostalgic.”
Salazar was struck with a surprise: seeing the book’s depictions of herself her mannerisms and speaking style, she thought, “Wow, I feel like I’m reading scenes about my mom!” She also says “Radical” made her “really think about how much I’ve grown” as a more confident person.
The book was also a growth project for Warren. “At first, I was reluctant to use the term ‘democratic socialist’, partly because of a lack of information,” she says.
Politically, “I wouldn’t have identified myself like that, and I would have identify that way now.
So what does she hope young readers take away from “Radical”?
She’s not a “cheerleader for our system of government because it’s pretty messed up,” Warren says, noting a Supreme Court decision on concealed weapons issued hours earlier. “It’s not a system that works for me.”
Still, “it may work better.”