The Art of the News Comics Journalism Gerardo Alba Dan Archer Alex Beguez Thi Bui Tracy Chahwan Jesús Cossio Sarah Glidden Omar Khouri Victoria Lomasko Sarah Mirk Maki Naro Ben Passmore Joe Sacco Yazan al-Saadi Andy Warner
The Art of the News Comics Journalism
September 24, 2021 to January 16, 2022 | Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art | University of Oregon, Eugene
Edited by Katherine Kelp-Stebbins and Ben Saunders, with Debarghya Sanyal
Table of Contents Director’s Foreword John S. Weber, Executive Director
See It Now: Comics Journalism and the Graphic Truth Katherine Kelp-Stebbins
Chaos Confined Joe Sacco’s Palestine Debarghya Sanyal
An Interview with Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco Exhibition Checklist
Everything Is Important Sara Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts
An Interview with Sarah Glidden
Sarah Glidden Exhibition Checklist
Iconicity, Legibility, and Resonance Ben Passmore’s “Whose Free Speech?” Debarghya Sanyal
An Interview with Ben Passmore
Ben Passmore Exhibition Checklist
Currents and Countercurrents Victoria Lomasko’s The Russian Constitution Was Changed Nicholas Wirtz
An Interview with Victoria Lomasko
Victoria Lomasko Exhibition Checklist
Reflections on Absence Sarah Mirk and Maki Naro’s Guantanamo Voices
An Interview with Sarah Mirk
Priority, Sequence and Witnessing Sarah Mirk and Thi Bui’s In/Vulnerable
Sarah Mirk Exhibition Checklist
An Interview with Gerardo Alba
Gerardo Alba Exhibition Checklist Trump through the Looking-Graphs Andy Warner’s Pandemic Stats
An Interview with Andy Warner
Andy Warner Exhibition Checklist
The Danger Bleeds Red Yazan al-Saadi and Tracy Chahwan’s My Heart Burns
Ash Connell Gonzalez
An Interview with Tracy Chahwan
Tracy Chahwan Exhibition Checklist
An Interview with Yazan al-Saadi
An Interview with Omar Khouri
Omar Khouri Exhibition Checklist
Temporality and Trauma Jesús Cossio’s Barbarie: Comics about the Political Violence in Peru, 1985-1990
An Interview with Jesús Cossio
Jesús Cossio Exhibition Checklist
Between the Real and the Virtual Dan Archer’s Ferguson Firsthand
An Interview with Dan Archer
Dan Archer Exhibition Checklist
Director’s Foreword The Art of the News – Comics Journalism is the first museum exhibition and catalogue devoted to the remarkable international emergence of comics journalism in the two decades since Joe Sacco first published Palestine in 1993. Fittingly, this project and the scholarship it represents emerge from Sacco’s alma mater, the University of Oregon, where he first studied journalism. The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the university is proud to present the exhibition and publish the catalogue, featuring not only Sacco’s work, but that of the other comics journalists whose work is also presented here, including Gerardo Alba, Dan Archer, Tracy Chahwan, Jesús Cossio, Sarah Glidden, Omar Khouri, Victoria Lomasko, Sarah Mirk, Ben Passmore, Yazan al-Saadi, and Andy Warner. Hailing from eight countries, their work demonstrates the truly global nature of this literary and artistic medium. We are grateful to Katherine Kelp-Stebbins, Assistant Professor of English and Associate Director of the Comics Studies Program, for curating the show and overseeing work
on the essays and interviews in the catalogue, and serving as its co-editor. The Art of the News builds on her foundational scholarship in comics journalism, and we are delighted to collaborate with her on this important and fascinating project. I also thank her colleague, Ben Saunders, Professor of English and Director of the Comics Studies Program, for consulting on this project and working with Kelp-Stebbins to bring it to the museum’s attention. We thank the comics journalists for their commitment and the powerful testimonies so evident in their work, and we thank the UO Comics Studies students whose essays and interviews have added so much to this project. A special thanks, too, to Audra McNamee for her superb portraits of the comics journalists; they constitute a uniquely fitting contribution to this project. As Kelp-Stebbins notes in her excellent introductory essay for this catalogue, comics journalists seek to present truths that may elude and in fact be precluded by the traditional practice of “objective” reporting. Both through their drawings and in their words, the comics journalists relate deeply personal stories from the real world, recounted in equally personal ways, whether by hand or on a computer, or a combination of both. This publication and the exhibition itself aim to
document and interrogate the methodologies of comics journalism, revealing their range and impact. Sacco comments in his interview here that the visual dimension of comics journalism is crucial. He emphasizes that the visually narrated reports created by comics journalists help readers to literally see what the story is, and thereby feel the human dimensions of each story more deeply. He mentions antecedents such as the London Illustrated Weekly and Harper’s, and we can also look at the works of 19th century artists such as Honoré Daumier or William Hogarth as partial forerunners. Daumier’s pointed and at times partisan commentaries on the French politics and personages of his day would seem to be particularly apt prototypes for the political engagements on view in so many of the works in the show. Yet comics journalism represents a distinct evolution of its own, a form that deliberately slows itself down in order to dig more deeply into the questions, situations, and voices that the comics journalists present to us. As Kelp-Stebbins observes, comics journalism repudiates “the all-too-rapid flow of the 24-hour news cycle” in favor of in-depth inquiry, “while insisting on the human dignity of the subjects whose lives they document.” My thanks to Kurt Neugebauer, the museum’s Associate Director of Administration and Exhibitions, for overseeing and designing the installation of The Art of the News, and shepherding this catalogue to completion. The exhibition was installed beautifully in our Barker Gallery by Joey Capadona,
Mark O’Hara, Michael White, and Beth Robinson-Hartpence from our installation staff. Mike Bragg, the museum’s designer, is responsible for the elegant production of this book. Publication and gallery text editing was done with the expert and much appreciated assistance of Susan Mannheimer. We thank Irene Arce for her Spanish translations of the gallery texts, and UO Comics Studies grad student Debarghya Sanyal for his coordination and supervision of the artist interviews. My thanks to Debbie Williamson-Smith for her work on publicity and communications, and to Esther Harclerode, Mackenzie Karp, and Karri Pargeter for their successful work on exhibition fundraising. The museum gratefully acknowledges that The Art of the News: Comics Journalism exhibition and related programs are made possible with the generous support of the Coeta and Donald Barker Changing Exhibitions Endowment, The Ford Family Foundation, and Jeannie Schulz. We also thank the UO departments of English, Art History, Political Science, Comparative Literature, Oregon Humanities Center, Art, the Black Studies Program, and the Oregon Consortium for International and Area Studies for additional support. Finally, I thank the members of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, our Patrons Circle, and our Leadership Council for supporting this project and all of the work we do. John S. Weber Executive Director
Opposite: Dan Archer (British, b. 1980). “What Is Comics Journalism?” (detail). 2014. Digital comic
See It Now: Comics Journalism and the Graphic Truth Katherine Kelp-Stebbins
The Art of the News Every medium creates unique conditions of possibility for “news.” In the 1920s, radio upended the monopoly of the press with its capacity for liveness; in the late 1940s, this liveness was made visual with the popularization of television. Today, the apotheoses of the “new,” our networked digital platforms, provide instant updates measured through page views and clicks. While this recent trend of journalism via search engine optimization seems to portend the evisceration of accurate, responsible reporting, the internet has also radically democratized the production and consumption of “news.” No longer passive recipients, anyone with a connection can become an agent in creating, selecting, and distributing the news of the world. For all you know, the author of this piece is a Russian bot. Although you, dear reader, may now question the source of these words, you know that Paying the Land was authored with stippled and cross-hatched care by Joe Sacco. Likewise, you know that Victoria Lomasko rendered each of the Belarussian protestors and their cries in “A Trip to Minsk.” You know that Jesús Cossio recorded in black ink the countless human rights abuses in Barbarie. It is this presence of the human reporter meticulously traced in every ink stain and pixel of a comics story that conditions the news of this art. By the time they reach you, many of these stories are no longer new—but the way they reach you is. What comics journalism may lack in
alacrity and objectivity is, in fact, its point. In formal terms, the works in this show thematize the frames through which the news is defined and observed. Comics panels not only confront a reader with the information contained therein; they force the reader to encounter another subjectivity, that of the reporter whose documentary words and images are framed, and framed for ethical and political purposes. As a medium in which artists painstakingly report through drawn and handwritten means, comics creates a condition of possibility for the news which is, in the words of artist Ben Passmore, “the closest thing to looking through someone else’s eyes.”
What Is Comics Journalism? As Dan Archer defines it “comics or graphic journalism is an umbrella term that covers any approach to reporting using both words and images together.” Sarah Mirk further specifies that comics journalism includes any “reported story in comics”: “reported means you interview somebody, you collect facts, you try to do accurate, real-life storytelling in comics.” As these artists attest, there is a great variety in both the techniques and the topics that fall under the umbrella of comics journalism. Sacco considers his methods “oldschool” and works with ink, paper, and white-out, redrawing sequences when needed. Omar Khouri’s fine-arts training makes him as adept with pencils as with oil paints. Sarah Glidden adds watercolors to her pages after drawing each by hand. Andy Warner works digitally from start to finish, sketching and layering with a stylus. Passmore and Gerardo Alba work between analog and digital, often starting with pencil sketches before digitally “inking” their lines.
Above: Writer: Sarah Mirk (American, b. 1986). Artist: Alexandra Beguez (Cuban-American, b. 1984). Pages from Guantanamo Voices, 2020. Digital comic Opposite: Joe Sacco (Maltese-American, b. 1960). Pages from Paying the Land, 2020. Ink on paper
A self-consciously subjective endeavor, comics journalism is also consciously collaborative. Mirk stipulates that whether the collaboration is between a writer and an artist, or an artist and an editor, collaborative work gives power to the stories told. In creating her book Guantanamo Voices (2020), Mirk conducted interviews and research with prisoners, government officials, and human rights agents at Guantanamo Bay before gathering ten artists to draw her reportage. The ten artistic styles mirror the heterogeneity of the interview subjects in each section of the book. Yazan al-Saadi, who writes scripts for artists based on his own investigative journalism, describes collaboration as a form of “idealism” embodied in the process of “working together as a team to produce something.” The shared labor becomes a method of accounting for individual privilege and distributing power to use “against those who are more powerful.” A synthesis of verbal and visual streams of information, comics is, even at a cognitive level, a tool whose power lies in bringing together multiple sides of a reader’s brain to challenge dominant perspectives. Since Sacco first drew his series Palestine (1993-5), comics journalism has become one of the most provocative forms of creative nonfiction and an essential field of comics art. A University of Oregon alum, Sacco received his BA in journalism in 1981 and effectively founded contemporary comics journalism through his graphic reportage in Safe Area Goražde (2000), Palestine (2001), The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo (2003), Footnotes in Gaza (2009), and Paying the Land (2020). Sacco’s journalistic art entails both conscientious dedication to the visual components of testimony and documentation, as well as an ethical imperative. As Sacco asserts, “I mean to signal to the reader that journalism is a process with
seams and imperfections practiced by a human being” (Journalism xiii). For Sacco and its other practitioners, comics journalism presents the opportunity to escape “the confines of traditional journalism” (xii) and to furnish a visual report beyond the camera lens. Eschewing the impossible “view from nowhere” offered by objective reporting, comics journalism is a grounded practice, oriented by human rights. Comics journalists not only document world events, they give voices to the voiceless, faces to the faceless, and names to the nameless. The images collected in this exhibit are always views from somewhere, created by the hand of someone who cared about the place and its people.
All the News That’s Fit to Draw The Art of the News: Comics Journalism is the first major retrospective of the field. This groundbreaking show brings together the founders and the future of graphic reportage, drawing together—literally and figuratively—work that spans the globe in its scope. Glidden’s stunning watercolors depict her journalistic trek talking to refugees through Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Passmore chronicles Black Lives Matter and Antifa protests across the U.S., while Lomasko depicts anti-government resistance in Russia and Belarus. Mirk and a number of artists record the remaining prisoners of Guantanamo Bay in Guantanamo Voices. Alba draws migrants and immigration crises at the U.S.-Mexico border, while Tracy Chahwan illustrates al-Saadi’s investigation on the abuse of
Opposite: Artist: Victoria Lomasko (Russian, b. 1978). Publisher: n+1. A part of “A Chronicle of Resistance,” from the book Other Russias, 2012. Digital comic Right: Artist: Tracy Chahwan (Lebanese, b. 1992). Writer: Yazan al-Saadi (Syrian-Canadian, b. 1984). “My Heart Burns,” 2020. Digital comic
Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Warner exposes the educational failures caused by mass displacement of peoples, while Archer looks at survivors of human trafficking in Nepal and refugees lost in Europe. Warner, Mirk and Thi Bui, as well as al-Saadi and Khouri, report on the race- and class-based iniquities in the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cossio documents agricultural devastation from mining in Perú; Archer uses immersive media to confront the viewer with political violence in Colombia. As a tactical practice, comics journalism provides ways of circumventing state surveillance, as exemplified by Lomasko’s sketches of closed trials of anti-Putin dissidents in Russia for her work Other Russias (2017). As an affective medium, drawing establishes indeterminate and complex relations between artist and subject, such that Archer was able to draw survivors of human trafficking in Nepal as a means of documenting them without retraumatizing them through photography, the medium through which their agency was stripped when they were forced into pornography. Recognizing that the hands that draw the news are not separate from the news, comics journalists lean into their own point of view. As Passmore recounts of his graphic report depicting the four times police have drawn weapons on him, “Any one of those times, I could go from someone writing about someone being killed by the cops to being the story. That’s not lost on me.” Mirk explicitly aligns “objectivity” with white supremacy and its belief that “‘There is only one story to tell and it’s mine, a white guy who’s 55 years old.’” Mirk avers, “I always think what’s much more important as a journalist is to be clear about who you are, try and understand your own biases, and be clear about your own identity.” AlSaadi further repudiates the obscurantist power of objectivity, declaring, I’m not objective, and I don’t think I should be objective. There is this constant philosophical discussion especially in the American educational system about the primacy of objectivity. But objectivity is a privilege and it is the position of power. It is very easy to be objective when you’re not being affected, and I think objectivity allows for a lot of problems…. The narrative that I want to pursue—and I’m not objective—is the narrative that I pursued where I talked about people versus power. I’m not diplomatic in terms of the wrongs that I see. In turn, Khouri explores the distinction between the photojournalist and the comics journalist by noting the misplaced faith in the objectivity of a photograph. This faith in the camera’s objectivity is instinctual, yet Khouri insists, “I feel like comics can be more truthful about the fact that nothing’s really objective. This is all just somebody’s perspective on whatever it is that we’re talking about, and I think that’s the power of comics journalism.”
Joe Sacco (Maltese-American, b. 1960). Pages from “The Unwanted,” 2010. Ink on paper
The Power of the Panel and the Page By highlighting the subjective nature of all reporting, comics journalism signals, as Sacco contends, that “journalists are not flies on the wall that are neither seen nor heard” (Journalism xiii). Every encounter, every interviewee, every location is shaped by the comics journalist’s own hand. Sacco’s reportage could never be mistaken for photojournalism. But it is precisely the ontological difference at the site of representation and representability, one that refers back not to the absent presence of the referent, but rather to the labor of the reporter whose witnessing practice is inseparable from the body that shaped it, that directly links the precarity of both witness and witnessed together in the comics form.
In Sacco’s reporting on African refugees in Malta, “The Unwanted,” Sacco uses mise en page to stage an impossible yet direct visual encounter between migrant interviewees such as John from Eritrea, and the viewer who is confronted with John’s gaze. Sacco’s paginal composition is arranged so that each panel meets the gaze of the reader synchronically, whilst simultaneously alerting the reader to the panel’s linear and tabular relationships of unequal position, place, and scale. John’s boat shrinks across panels depicting his journey as the frames themselves become increasingly skewed to show the discombobulation of the passengers. Sacco’s text boxes cascade like waves beating against the migrants’ boat and amplifying the repetitive, grueling nature of the voyage.
Sarah Glidden (American, b. 1980). Sketchbook pages documenting Rolling Blackouts, 2016. Various media on paper.
The juxtaposition of panels engenders scalar resonance and reconsideration of how the local concerns in Malta are situated relative to global events and movements. Page 24 symmetrically opposes the migrants in their boat with the Maltese beach full of critical onlookers. We, the readers, are positioned first according to the perspective of the migrants as they look for land, and then from the vantage of the Maltese as they watch John and his fellow travelers walk out of the sea. The transnational encounter draws together—literally and figuratively—geopolitical flows and personal narratives, crises and contexts. The relationality articulated by “The Unwanted” reminds us of Susan Sontag’s entreaty that a viewer “set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others” (Regarding 102-3). The works collected in this show document acts of witnessing that go beyond sympathy. These pencil-and-ink drafts, digital prints, and computerized and virtual-reality applications alternately theorize precarity and affect in order to remind viewers of their complicity in these crises. Repudiating the sound-bite quality of the 24-hour news cycle as well as the valorization of journalistic objectivity, the comics journalism on display here doesn’t ask you to sympathize and move on, it forces you to grapple with the power dynamics involved in reporting. From displaced persons in refugee camps (Sacco 2013; Glidden 2016; Archer 2020) to frontline workers in a pandemic (Mirk and Bui 2020; Warner 2021; al-Saadi and Khouri 2021), the humans who drive comics journalism are likewise rendered by the work of human hands, which draw and record their stories. In the age of fake news, comics journalism reasserts the need for artists willing to risk everything to render the truths of human experience. It visually forces us to encounter so many human subjects we will never meet, and to question why.
About the Catalog The University of Oregon is committed to cultivating research and to translating that research into models and methods that directly improve peoples’ lives. In keeping with this mission, The Art of the News brought together a group of insightful and talented Comics Studies students to interview the artists and analyze the artwork included in the exhibition. These interviews and close-reading essays are collected in this catalog and reflect the impact and development of comics journalism as well as the training of our students. Given Joe Sacco’s own history as a UO graduate, it is fitting that the students who have studied his work at his alma mater carry on his commitment to “clawing your way to the truth” through their probing interviews and critical analyses. As an educator, I am grateful to work with so many curious, motivated, talented, and ethical people. The questions they pose, the observations they make, and their shared conviction for creating a just and equitable world allow us to see how the comics medium conditions the news not only as a mode of information, but as an emergent future. The voices collected in this catalog are not content to take a selfie and move on. In their thoughtful dialogues with comics journalists, they pose urgent inquiries, they challenge easy answers, and they forge a path for us to follow into the new.
Cited work: Sacco, Joe. Journalism. Metropolitan Books, 2012. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003.
Joe Sacco (Maltese-American, b. 1960). Pages from Palestine, 1993-95. Ink on paper
Chaos Confined Joe Sacco’s Palestine Debarghya Sanyal
Joe Sacco’s comics attempt to capture overwhelming realities. The clamor of contradictory voices, the chronicler’s own awkward presence, the chaos of conflict—all the noise and clutter of experience—fill his comics pages. And yet, as is evident in these pages from Palestine (2001), this clutter is organized by an acute sense of layout and design, a mastery of la mise en page. For example: pages 32 and 33 represent a chaotic space. We discover Sacco visiting a hospital ward in Nablus, a city on the Northern West Bank. The foreign journalist is rushed from one bed to another by a crowd of anxious relatives who ask him to bear witness to the pain and suffering of the patients, all victims of the ongoing conflict. Sacco’s overall mise en page across these two pages conveys desperation and anxiety by both evoking and departing from conventional structures. The panels are not geometrically perfect rectangles and squares, but trapezoids of various sizes, scattered on the page at askew angles. The grid-like structure of a more traditional page can still be glimpsed, but only beneath the surface, as a kind of ghostly palimpsest. Captions of text are placed directly over the imagery, rather than in corners above or to the side of the action, as one might find on a more conventionally designed page; the words thus seem to almost interpose themselves between the viewer and the depicted action almost violently. Obviously hand-lettered, the font style and letter size vary from caption to caption, even as the captions tumble wildly across and down the pages, giving the entire scene a precarious, urgent quality. Within the panels, Sacco maintains mid-range perspective on his subjects while varying his “camera” angles from frame to frame, keeping everything in motion even though the main subjects of the scene—a group of men and women in a hospital ward—are relatively static. Sacco’s characteristic drawing style, reminiscent of that of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, amplifies raw emotion through caricature. The central image on page 32, free of panel boundaries, presents the patient in Bed Number 3 as if through a fish-eye lens. His face appears slightly magnified and disproportionately oblong. Deep clear lines of agony mark his squint and are accentuated by beads of sweat. His clenched jaw dominates the portrait, exaggerated in its width, each tooth individually delineated in a grimace of pain. Similarly, in the final panel on the next page, Sacco poignantly conveys both the suffering of an injured girl, shot down in her own schoolyard, and her childlike delight at being photographed. Our eyes are pulled around the pages by the layout, and our emotional responses are similarly manipulated by the complex mix of raw human emotions; we feel both the resentment from patients and their families towards the presence of an outsider, etched onto their disgruntled faces, but also their conflicted desire that this suffering should be documented. Amidst all this, Sacco’s narrator appears diminutive and overwhelmed, yet maintains his commitment to the task of witnessing.
A different kind of clutter and chaos finds expression in the more traditional mise en page in the sequence from Palestine entitled “Moderate Pressure” Part 2 (pages 102 through 113 in the original graphic novel). This sequence tells Ghassan’s story, beginning as he’s arrested in his “middle class living room in East Jerusalem” by the Israeli police and army on suspicions of links to an “illegal organization.” As the narrative of incarceration, torture and systemic oppression unfolds, Sacco utilizes a tight, grid-like page design to convey the effect of the walls literally closing in on Ghassan. The panels shrink in size and increase in number as the narrative progresses from house to car to police station to court and back to jail again—from 6 to 9, 12, 16, and then 20-panelled “waffle-iron” grids. Meanwhile, the images repeat, hammering the reader with the terrible routine of Ghassan’s incarceration. The dreadful repetitiveness of his torture is conveyed not merely through a series of near-identical images, but also through the steadily shrinking confines of each panel. The basic semiotic units of the page thus become symbolic of the confines of his cell.
When Ghassan’s release comes, it’s unexpected and sudden; he needs time to even believe the idea that he is free and can return home. And so, after three pages dominated by 20 tiny panels, Sacco moves to the relative openness of a 7-panel grid. Ghassan walks through three smaller silent panels depicting the outside world, before Sacco’s camera eye pulls back to give us a page-wide street scene in the last panel of the sequence; the effect is as if Ghassan took a minute to squint and adjust before perceiving the full picture of the world and its clamor. The rigid, deliberately repetitious layout of Ghassan’s narrative stands in stark contrast to the loose, scattershot effect of the pages in the hospital in Nablus; but both vividly convey the experience of human suffering against a background of systemic failure.
“It’s clawing your way to the truth.”
Joe Sacco by Audra McNamee
Joe Sacco is credited as the first artist to practice rigorous, investigative journalism using the comics form. Born in Malta, in 1960, Sacco earned his BA in journalism from the University of Oregon in 1981. His groundbreaking work documenting Palestinian life in the Occupied Territories was awarded the American Book Award in 1996 and was compiled in the graphic narrative Palestine (2001). He went on to document the war in Bosnia in The Fixer (2003), War’s End (2005), and Safe Area Goražde (2000). His other notable monographs include Footnotes in Gaza (2009), which won a Ridenhour Book Prize, and his most recent book, Paying the Land (2020). Paying the Land investigates resource extraction, the devastation of residential schooling, and the legacy of colonialism among the Dené First Nations communities. Sacco contributes graphic reportage to magazines and newspapers worldwide, including The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Guardian, Harper’s Magazine, and XXI. Many of his shorter works are collected in the anthology Journalism (2012). Sacco is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Time Magazine Best Comic of 2000 award. Residing in Portland, Oregon, Sacco is currently at work on a book about the aftermath of a riot that took place in Uttar Pradesh, among other projects.
Interview with Joe Sacco By Cyrus Lyday and Audra McNamee
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/JoeSacco Cyrus Lyday: Thanks for being here, Joe. As you know, in the world of comics journalism, your reputation precedes you. I was wondering what your thoughts are on your figure within the community? And how do you feel knowing that a lot of this world thinks of you as a founder? Joe Sacco: I try not to think about that sort of thing too much. As a founder, I’m doing what I’m doing, but of course there are antecedents to what I’ve been doing. I don’t think I’m the first to have put journalism and comics together. It was happening with the Illustrated London News. Harper’s magazine used to send out illustrators anyway during the civil war. So, there are antecedents. I didn’t know much about that sort of thing when I started. I wasn’t thinking very theoretically about what I was doing when I started. I had a journalism degree. I wanted to be a journalist. That didn’t really work out. So I fell back on comics and was doing autobiographical comics. And eventually, because I am pretty political, I wanted to go see what was going on in the Middle East for various reasons. And so, the two things—journalism and comics—sort of came together and began twining around each other. But before my trip out, I wasn’t really sure of what I was doing or even what my methods were going to be. I couldn’t really explain it to myself. It’s something that developed very organically. So as far as what that means as far as my standing in comics history, I do hope they put me on a pedestal one day. I’d like a statue that no one tears down one day! That’s what I want! (smiles) Audra McNamee: It’s been alleged that you are the person who coined the term “Comics Journalism.” Is that the case? JS: Well, that’s an expression I started to use. Yeah, I mean maybe I’ll say, guilty, because I don’t know anyone else who came up with it before that. But others have pointed out that it’s a bit misleading in some respects. Because when you think of comics journalism, maybe you think it’s journalism about comics. I liked using the word “comics” as opposed to “graphic novel journalism” because I’ve always liked that expression – comics! But yeah, I’ll take credit! Put me on a stamp! I’m ready for all the credit! (laughs) CL: When you hear the word “journalism,” how do you understand it? And really, what is comics journalism to you?
JS: I think of it in terms of going out and reporting, because I’ve learned to separate journalism from reporting. And there’s a lot of “journalism” that goes on that isn’t really reporting. It’s just people pontificating and it’s called journalism because they’re on a news channel or they have a YouTube channel or whatever it is. But to me, reporting is what’s really important. And that basically means going out and finding out what’s going on. I mean it’s actually quite a simple concept—trying to be quite honest about what you see, understanding where you’re coming from, and how that might cloud what you’re looking at. And putting it all together with what you are trying to assess really is the truth. So, putting it all together to get as close to something that you could call the truth as possible. I also separate it from what I studied at the University of Oregon, which was “objective style” reporting. I don’t really believe there’s such a thing as “objectivity” in most reporting. I would rather know what my background is, what prejudices I’m going in with, and make those clear to a reader. So there’s a lot of things that are involved in journalism. It’s not just, “Oh I’m getting both sides of the story,” or some simple formulation that you’re often taught; it’s clawing your way to the truth, basically. And comics journalism—that’s just adding a visual component. Which is also very important because there’s a lot that can be told visually that is difficult to get at with prose. Photographers can do a great job of that. Photojournalism is really premised on the idea that one photograph can sum up something entire with one image. Whereas comics’ multiple images create an atmosphere or give the reader a sense of what it really feels like to be in a place. In a way it’s sort of accidental that I’ve used comics with journalism, because when I got a degree, I wanted just to be a straight-out news reporter. I never would have thought of bringing comics into it. If I’d actually made a career, if I had been able to make a living writing, I would have done that. So I just pulled in what other things I knew somehow. AM: When you’re conducting and creating these works of journalism, you’ve talked a little bit about what you think the goal of journalism is. But do you, yourself, have any kind of specific goal for your journalistic pieces?
JS: I’m only going to look at issues that really matter to me. The goal is to examine those things that troubled me about the world, to try to go to those places I think are underserved, if you can call it that journalistically. Sometimes I’ll see a story where there are hundreds of people with their cameras out, taking pictures. And I think to myself that’s where I don’t want to be. It might be interesting. But I want to go to a place where it’s not even appropriate to carry a camera and not even think about it because things are so ordinary. You know, certain things are so ordinary, why even take a picture of it. You can look at my topics and see what’s interested me. I’ve been interested in what’s happened to the Palestinians, always interested in Bosnia. I was interested in poverty in India. Interested in migrant issues in Europe, interested in Indigenous People and resource extraction and colonialism and Canada. Those are things that have interested me. Troubled me. And a lot of my journeys, I don’t think of them so much as “Oh, I’m going to tell the reader what’s going on.” I’m almost trying to find out myself what’s going on. I’m trying to get to the bottom to satisfy myself—why do things happen?—and the further I go down the journalistic path, it also becomes a matter of psychology. Why do humans do what they do? Not just what happened, where, and when. So, I’ve allowed my journalistic mandate to expand outside of that to some degree. CL: You’ve mentioned a lot of the different complex situations and historical contexts that you have reported on. Knowing these things, why use comics journalism to write about these pieces? Also, do you think that these stories work better in comics journalism, or do you think that there are some stories that lend themselves better to other forms of journalism? JS: I said earlier that if I had been successful as a writer—if I found a job that satisfied that itch—I probably never even would have thought of using comics. Comics was something I was always doing as a kid. So it’s hard to say why comics journalism, because if I were a documentary filmmaker, I might have gone to the same places. I just accidentally am in a cartoonist’s body. I still have the same interests, but now I am going to project myself into those places with the tools of a cartoonist. And what are those tools that make a work? Well, we’re visual. We are visual creatures. We are attracted to visual material. And I think that people are particularly attracted to drawing. And one thing drawing can do is, you can recreate someone else’s experiences if you’ve done a lot of visual research. You can take a reader back into time quite easily. You can draw the present and the past next to each other. Again, the multiplicity of images is the other thing, because you don’t just give one drawing of something. You have many, many drawings providing a lot of background information that seeps into the reader’s subconsciousness, and you have the written element. What’s not to like about that? It’s just got so much going for it. The other thing, especially with hard material, I think what comics and drawing allows you to do is to present really difficult material; you can depict violence in a way that a reader looks at it and knows it’s a drawing. And it has an impact. It has a power. But it allows the reader to look at the violence. Whereas, sometimes I’ll see a photograph that’s really violent, or documentary footage
that’s really violent, and I literally just have to turn away because it’s too much for me. It’s too much to see a human being suffering and dying in front of your eyes on film. I think that’s a normal response, and drawing is a filter that allows us to go into some dark places, and I think that has great uses. AM: Based on the interests that you have laid out here, it sounds like you have a lot of things you’re interested in, focused on, and think are worthy of reporting in your comics journalism form. So how do you decide which ones that you’re going to narrow in and create these enormous works on, and also what is your normal turn-around time? JS: Normal turn-around time depends. For a book-length project, it’s generally three to five, six, seven years. Something like that. It takes time, and that will actually help answer the first part of your question, which is why do I choose what I choose. Because I know it’s going to take a lot of time, I need to choose those subjects that I know I’m really committed to, and that will interest me through a very long process. I have to think, “Okay, I’m making a decision now, and five years from now the consequences of this decision will be that I will be sitting at my drawing table day after day working on this very issue.” Am I interested in this enough, or do I think I can do it well enough that it’s worth my time and the reader’s time? Every topic I pick has to hit me in the gut; it just has to pull me in. I have to feel compelled to do it. I felt compelled to do a book about the Palestinians. I had to do it once it dawned on me that I could. At the time I was living in Berlin, which was relatively close. I could fly into the Middle East and go see this place now. Why don’t I do that? Once you pose that question, “Why don’t you do that?” then you’re forever stuck with it, and you have to answer it. And the way I answer is to say, “Well, I will do that.” But obviously there are many different topics, and this is happening the older I get. I’m not 30 years old and looking ahead to a long career ahead of me. I’m now 60 and looking back, and when I look forward I see maybe a decade and a half of intense work if I’m lucky, maybe two at the outside limit. So you’re narrowing things down and you’re saying there’s maybe five or six things that I’m interested in in this world, but now I have to choose. The choices become more stark the older you get. CL: I think you’re pretty familiar with this next question. Readers tend to notice that you portray yourself in a more classic comical style when you’re drawing yourself. How do you think that impacts the way your books are read with your avatar looking slightly different than the rest of the people in your work? JS: It’s not something I gave much thought to, but I have heard others say that the nondescript nature of the character I draw as myself helps the readers put themselves into my shoes. I’m not so defined that the reader can’t see himself, herself, themselves in my position. That said, it wasn’t really well thought out, what I was doing. The truth is, I never studied art. I was always drawing as a kid. I drew in what’s considered the Big Foot style, that Robert Crumb-esque way where things are a little exaggerated. Things are very
caricatured. I watched spaghetti Westerns when I was a kid, so you have these real close-ups; people look kind of ugly and grotesque. That grotesque way of drawing things and thinking about things was really in my hand. As I started doing the journalistic work, you’ll notice a change in my work. You’ll notice a change in my work even in the Palestine book, because it changed from page 1 to the last page. I forced my hand to draw more representationally only because the journalistic approach just seemed to call for it. There were many things about doing journalism that made me pull in some of my tendencies. Palestine, now, I look back on as a charming book in a way. I was trying to keep engaged when I was drawing, so I would change a lot of angles, do these crazy close-ups, worm’s eye view, overhead, it was really fun to draw. That gives it its charm, but over time, for better or worse, and I’m not even saying it’s for better, but journalistically I felt that the approach needs to be toned down. I need everything to drive the narrative without thinking in terms of what’s going to interest me on the drawing table today. The bigger question was: What’s going to make the narrative work? Which makes for sometimes a flatter approach. One that I’m very aware of, and I have to force myself to do because my natural tendency is to let my freak flag fly. I haven’t been able to do that with journalism; I tone that down. It hasn’t been easy. I won’t say it’s painful for me to draw representationally, but it’s simply not easy. It’s difficult. I’m sweating all the time when I’m doing it. I’m not a natural artist. I know people like Craig Thomson, others; I watched them draw the human body or something that they’re looking at. I think they can do that with ink on paper right in front of my eyes and not get anything wrong. And I’m sitting there with a pencil, drawing, erasing, drawing, erasing, because I kind of don’t know how to draw. I bang at it, I bang at it. AM: I, as a reader, almost perceive your comic layout as this very playful, very moving thing, and it definitely always is driving the story forward. But so often what you’re showing breaks out of the traditional paneled boxes. What importance do you place on stylistic choices of the comics journalism author, and how do you weigh the art style of comics classical layout, how do you push the meaning? JS: Despite what I said before about what I said about trying to draw representationally, I mean all that is true. But I’m always glad that I am not the perfect representational drawer, that I come from a cartooning background. Because some of my panels get closer to the truth by being cartoony. Somehow you get that more expressive look: a nun beating a child, you can draw it from a distance and it’s just what you would imagine if you saw a photograph of the same sort of thing. But if I want to get some of the emotional impact, the unfairness of it, you can do a lot of things. You can look at the nun from below to give her more authority. There are things you know how to do that are quite inherent as an artist. They don’t even need to be taught. Once you understand the basics, you know that you can get to the essential truth of something by not drawing realistically at all times.
There’s a scene in one of my books, it’s a short story called “Šoba.” It’s in a collection about some stories from Bosnia. It’s a scene in a club in Sarajevo, and you can tell music really matters to them. These are front line soldiers and their girlfriends. In a few hours they are going to have to go to the front line, so they are really engaged in the music that’s playing. How do I show that? I use these cartoony elements: guys’ heads, they’re headbanging, so heavily swoosh marks, and I really tried to give it the power that it has to see it. That you can’t capture with a camera. There’s no way that you can capture certain things with a camera. With cartooning, you capture the intensity of the moment, if you allow yourself to go in that direction, then you pull yourself back and now it’s a bit more staid. I think cartooning, because the same hand is drawing the representational as opposed to the cartooning part of it. It is this elastic nature to cartooning that you can use to your advantage in your journalistic work. AM: You’ve mentioned how your art-style has evolved over the years. It has, however, remained painstakingly crosshatched and nearly always black and white. Are there specific reasons why you have chosen to stick with these elements?
JS: Sometimes you start drawing a certain way at a certain time, and you never lose it. There have been times I’ve wanted to simplify my work, and my hand just goes a different way. There’s a muscle memory in the hand that takes over from the brain in your head, and at some point, you stop arguing with your hand, and you just let your hand do what it wants to do. And what my hand wants to do is crosshatching. I’ve noticed over time that it has its advantages, because it looks like a lot of work, and I don’t do anything on a computer. Sometimes the drawings themselves can be pretty intense: the layouts, getting the figures right, really carefully with ink going over my pencil; that’s really intense, concentrated work. Crosshatching, on the other hand, is almost meditative. I need that workspace to decompress from the intense parts. If I had a computer program where I could just lay the crosshatching on, it would not allow for that meditative space. It takes time but it has tactile value. Just the enjoyment of it, just letting
yourself go. Your mind goes to another place, and you’re just doing this thing. I want to sustain myself at the desk, and the way to do that is to listen to your own artistic body and what it wants to do. I know it would kill me if all I was doing was scanning pages, putting stuff in, whatever. The reason I don’t use color is I don’t know how to use color. It’s less a choice. When I started doing comics, the independent comic scene was mostly black and white. Everyone was working black and white because it was cheaper to produce that way. A lot of my peers went on to do color, and they really knew what they were doing. I, on the other hand, still to this day do not know how to use Photoshop. I wouldn’t say that I have any sense of pride. I would like to learn how to use it. But I also don’t have the time to learn how to use it. I should, but what you end up doing is improving on your limitations until it becomes your style. It’s like black and white is where I trapped myself, and I’ve learned as much as possible to use black and white to get the textual elements that you can add with black and white. You can do a lot as far as texture goes with black and white, and now that’s all I know how to do. When I draw, I think in terms of black and white. AM: As you mentioned, you work entirely in physical mediums; no digital medium whatsoever. I imagine you do some element of editing, so how does that work for you? If you need to change text or change your visuals, or you need to change multiple pages. How does that work with no digital? JS: If I have to change multiple pages, I just put them aside and say, “Okay, I’ve got to start again.” If I make a mistake on a face, and that happens, I will trace the face onto a piece of board. I’ll draw the new face. I’ll cut it out with an X-acto blade and paste it over the face. If it’s a whole panel, I might cut out that panel and put in a new panel. If it’s words, I might use White-Out or I will write out a new word and paste it on. And then, and this is why I should learn how to use Photoshop, I tell the people who are going to go through the art, there might be a shadow under this paste, so make sure there’s no shadow mark, or something like that. But it’s all done very very old school. It’s all old school, but I love that. I love the tactile feeling. And also, comics are about producing pages. I try to work very well. I try to do a very good job. and I’m usually satisfied about 90-95% with my drawings. But then there’s a time I always say, okay, good enough, next page. Good enough, next page. Because you’ve got five years of work. I’m not going to be an absolute perfectionist, and I worry that just like digital cameras or using a computer to correct things, you can really get into this thing of trying to overcorrect and get things so perfect, and you just make yourself miserable. And sometimes you change things that are fine. I’d rather limit my options for corrections. AM: You have stated that you ask a lot of visual questions of the people you are interviewing, along with the traditional journalistic questions and that you take photos. But you never sketch while you’re on location. JS: Very little. When I sketched, I went on tour with a rock band, and I did a comic about being on this tour. And that really involved sketching. In fact, I did not take a camera
purposely so I would learn how to sketch right there and then. And that was really useful. I mean, the difference between my early sketches and after some weeks was kind of phenomenal. Part of me wishes I would have gone down that road because it would really have improved my work. But when I’m in the field I’m much more inclined to want to just talk to people and get stories, and sketching takes time. And I know other cartoonists who do journalism and what they tell me is sometimes they’ll still sketch something as a way of starting a conversation with someone. And I can see how that can work, but because I was trained to be a news reporter, I have no trouble imposing myself on people and asking, “Can we talk?” or “Can I come back later and we talk?” So I’m talking; I’m gathering a lot of standard reportorial questions. And other comics journalists will probably do that differently. That’s the great thing: there is no one way of doing any of this. I just tend to spend a lot of time engaging with people, taking photographs, and then relying on the photographs I’ve taken to recapture some things. AM: When you’re out in the field gathering information in most of your work, you work with at least one translator or guide or person in the community. Who introduces you to people? How do you feel this collaboration impacts your work? How does working with that person alter and change what you make? JS: First of all, I should say that in most of the places I’ve gone it would be almost impossible to do the work without a person who knows the community, knows how to navigate that community. Even knows the morals and values of that community, and can say, “Don’t do that.” Without that person it would be impossible. I couldn’t do my work without some of those people. It’s not always the case, but I’d say it’s the case 60-70% of the time. It’s really super important to get someone who is known within the community or trusted within the community. I seldom have worked with a professional fixer. Professional fixers have their value because they usually can speak perfectly good English; they’re good at their jobs and all that. But if they are from, let’s say, Gaza City, and you want to do your work in Khan Younis, they won’t be known in Khan Younis, so they will introduce you and do all that fixer kind of work, but it’s much better to have someone from Khan Younis who’s trusted, who knows really who to go to. And if you’re with that person, if you’re with that guide from Khan Younis, as I was, he’s trusted; he’s respected in the community; his family is respected in the community; that’s going to open doors to me because he’s vetting me; he’s automatically vetting me. The last book I did about Indigenous People in Northwest Territories; it wasn’t an Indigenous person who introduced me to all these people, it was a white person, but she was well-known, and I think relatively well-regarded in those communities. So it was an entrée into them. I could not have driven up to one of these communities and just walked out and said, “Hey, I’m here to do this,” because what does that mean? It’s possible to do your work that way, but it’s going to take a lot longer to build up trust, and in some cases it can be a bit suspicious. Who are you? So those people are really important.
Now all that said, if my emphasis is on a guide who knows a place and is trusted, their English might not be absolutely perfect, but that to me is not as important, so I make certain choices about what I want from someone. There have been times when I’ve had guides who have said things like, “Oh, don’t tell him this.” Sometimes I know enough Arabic because I speak Maltese, which is close to Arabic. I’ll know enough when someone is saying something like that. You know, don’t tell them this sort of stuff. That’s the translator saying that. People have their agendas. Everyone has their agenda. And even a guide can know that, oh, now he’s getting close to something that as a community we don’t want him to know. And I’m just interested, I’d like to get there if I’m trusted enough, but in the end, I don’t need to know who all the fighters are, and guerrillas, and where they live. That’s not for me to know. I don’t want to know that sort of stuff, if you know what I mean. I want to speak to some people who can tell me things that are interesting, but I don’t need to know all the secrets either. I understand a guide is also from the community and can also protect the community from me, too. So there’s a reciprocal relationship, with any good guide. And in Gaza, for example, I began to use Abed, he became my friend. He began to really get into the story, was really helpful in discerning if someone might not be telling the truth, might be exaggerating or whatever. He would start to judge those things, and I would just trust his judgment because he knew the Arabic and I didn’t, and he could judge tones of voice or whatever it was. So you know you can rely on guides for a lot of stuff. Thank God for them. AM: Do you think in any way possible that your early reading of underground or independent comics impacted the message of your books at all? JS: I think the underground comics especially had enormous impact. If you look at my work and you look at their work you might not see a lot of overlap in terms of content. There’s an anti-authoritarian aspect to the underground work which I share and which comes out in my work. There’s also a freedom of the way they approached what they were doing. Now younger people would probably judge them for treading on this or treading on that. We always judge the past, but for me personally, those were the comics that made me interested in the sheer possibility of comics. Otherwise, all I would have seen were superhero comics, or war comics, or whatever there were that weren’t giving me anything else. I remember reading Bill Griffith; it was called Griffith Observatory, and it was kind of this guy with a telescope just looking at stuff and looking at these outrageous social things and behaviors that were going on. And he was calling them out in this very funny way. Or [there was] something called Bicentennial Grossouts. It was this underground comic that had a long story about America’s war in the Philippines in the late 1800s. I knew nothing about it. This was the first time I was learning about it. They would get into some heavy political stuff despite all the drug stuff and sexism, and all that sort of stuff. There were things about it that were really useful for someone like me just to help break my mind from
the mainstream or to understand there are possibilities of thinking about things and ways of approaching things. So it had enormous impact, and, obviously, on my art style. AM: Your early work was a lot of wartime reporting or conflict journalism. It seems like over the years you’ve transitioned to talking about other kinds of conflict. Do you think you would ever go back to any kind of wartime reporting, and what was it like transitioning out of this kind of wartime reporting to your most recent work? Did it feel different? Did anything surprise you? JS: I wanted to get away from drawing weaponry and drawing violence. But, yeah, you’re right, the topics I chose were heavy, and were violent through other means: poverty, stopping migrants who were absolutely desperate, colonialism in Canada, the residential schools in Canada. I was trying to get away from violence but realizing you can’t get away from forms of violence. You cannot get away from it. The world is full of it. You experience that every day in many different ways. That was not a shock to me, but it made me realize that some of the books I was doing, even if they weren’t drawing war, were just as heavy. When I was drawing them on the table, when I was actually drawing this stuff, it was not pleasant to draw some of that stuff. I’m not really interested in going back to any sort of war zone again. That said, my next journalistic book is about a riot that took place in India, and communal violence. To be honest, I should have probably started it after I finished the book on the Indigenous People in Canada, but I ended up giving myself a two-year break, because I just didn’t want to get into it right away. Now I’m kind of ready to approach it, but at that point it was like, I just don’t want to get into this topic again because it’s back to physical violence. CL: I’m very interested in knowing what you think about your future and the future of comics journalism in general. So, knowing that Paying the Land was released in 2020, and the turn-around time of your pieces does extend into years, what do you think your next project will be? You told us about this India piece. Can you tell us a little bit about your timeline coming up? JS: The timeline ultimately ends in death, so let’s keep that in mind. But between now and then I would like to do this India book. It shouldn’t be a long book. I have already done all the research. I was there. And I’ve already written the script. It’s just now I’m talking to my agent and saying, “Can you get a contract for this book?” If I really work on it straight, it shouldn’t take more than a year and a half, to two years, which for me is a very short book. And I think it’s a much tighter book than a lot of my other ones. After that, if you want to talk about a journalism book that I kind of want to do, it’d be about liberation theology in Latin America. Liberation theology is, in a very simple way, mixing some of the Gospel with Marxism. And that interests me because I’ve met a lot of religious people along the way, a lot of people who derive a lot of strength from their faith, and it’s impressive to me. I’m not a religious person at all, but
I have a lot of liberal friends who will immediately dismiss any theological thought, and I’ve always been very interested in theology. And I’m particularly interested in theology as a source of good in the world, as opposed to the many many instances as a source of ill. We can rattle those off, including in Canada. So that’s kind of the idea. That book is speculative. It depends on what happens with my health and everything. At the same time I want to work on outside projects—stuff that is more cartoony, isn’t strictly journalism, but it’s very funny. I want to get back to how I started doing comics because I like to make people laugh. I want to get back to that. It’s really important to me personally. So I have projects that are ongoing, that allow that, but are also very serious all at the same time. Let’s just say they’re a little more philosophical and get into places where journalism can’t go. They’re more about ideas. So, the timeline, let’s see, I hope I live to 150 and I’m still drawing at 150, but it’s unlikely. CL: You talked a little bit about wanting to foray into a different space than journalism. Have you ever thought about going into a space outside comics for some work? JS: Well, I really don’t want to do film. I think that’s where a lot of cartoonists have these aspirations, to end up in film. And I say, just go straight to film, we don’t need ya. Because ultimately, if that’s what you want to do, do that. Because comics, to me, are a very separate kind of medium. We share some of the same terminology, in fact a lot of our terminology
is borrowed from film. But I’m trying very hard to do things that could not possibly be turned into a film. Like no way can this be made into a film; it can only be done in comics. That’s what I’m interested in. I wouldn’t mind getting into writing if for some reason I couldn’t draw any more, but I could still function in other ways. I wouldn’t mind writing, though I do have a fear that my writing wouldn’t be as good as my comics would be. I would never want to be a B+ writer. I think of myself as quite good at what I do as far as comics, but I’m not as confident in prose. I love writing, but I just think there are so many people who can write so incredibly well, that I’m not sure I would have anything to offer. Maybe...but who can say? CL: How do you see the practice of comics journalism changing and hopefully improving in the near future and further? JS: I think there are a lot of people now that are doing it. I’m certainly not the only one. There are many people who have really put their shoulder into it. What I like about it is that when I see other people’s work it’s quite different from my own. They have a different idea of what should be in comics journalism. They have different approaches, even to the same subject they would have a different approach. Like Sarah Glidden has talked about being a little more uncomfortable with recreating people’s experiences through the comics form. I’m not one to argue with that. I’m thinking, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Then you will find a way to tell the stories in a way you feel comfortable as journalism.
Frankly, I hope there’ll never be any rule set for what we’re doing, except a certain integrity that you’re trying to get towards a truth or an honesty about what you’re examining. That, to me, should be the only rule. Because a lot of people are doing things in different ways. Some people are doing things on the web. Some people go into a demonstration and right away they’re drawing something and posting it. Those kinds of things are really valuable in their own way. I can’t do them. So I admire people who can do them. It’s not the way I do things. I want to sit down with things, ruminate, even tell stories that are quite old that I think still have a bearing on today or tomorrow. So there are many ways of approaching it. I think that the future is sort of good. I think you’ll see a lot of newspapers and magazines and websites looking for that sort of material. It’s quite engaging what people can do with it. One thing I do hope though is that when you’re doing reporting you also have to think in terms of trying to bring a real “A” game as far as making something engaging. Simply presenting facts and not pulling the reader in, you can call it journalism but it’s just not going to interest me necessarily. I always need a human element, a story, a narrative. This is stuff that I’m not inventing. Journalism always works the best when it pulls the reader in. And so any cartoon journalist has to think in those terms, and I think comics allows for that. It’s just the very simple fact that you are drawing something that can make it engaging and, dare I say, entertaining. CL: Do you think that the field of comics journalism has room for expansion, and how can we grow the audience for comics journalism? JS: Well, you grow the audience by just producing good work. This was the big question 20 to 30 years ago with comics in general. There weren’t many people doing independent comics. We all kind of knew each other. We all knew each other’s work. We probably all knew each other personally because we met at these conventions, so at some point not just in journalism, but at some point comics created this critical mass. And suddenly editors, the people who are the tastemakers, looked at it and said, “Oh, this is actually really really good work, and there’s a fair amount of it.” And suddenly the perception of comics as not being for kids any more came into being, and there was a shift. And the same is probably true for comics journalism. If there’s enough of it, and I think there are a lot of good people working in the field of comics journalism now, when there’s enough of it then it’s going to be taken seriously. The quality of the work and the quantity together. And I think we’re on our way to that. Because of social media, the way people can post things, there are people that have way bigger audiences than me, that have been working in the field for a much shorter time just by the nature of the fact that they’re onto the newer technologies. And those are things that people like you have to answer more than me. Look at me: I’m very old school. It’s good if you can listen to me and there’s something to be taken from me, but you’ve also got to propel yourself forward in your own way that I would never think of.
AM: What has been the most difficult aspect of your work? JS: I love the drawing. I mean, sometimes the drawing’s difficult when it’s about violence and there are some unpleasant drawings you just stick with them and get them done. Because I trained to be a journalist and to be a hard news writer, the hardest thing to me is to not be out in the field because I love that so much. I love reporting. I love it. But you know reporting is six weeks, two months, two weeks, and the drawing is two years, five years, four years. So I love the drawing, but the hard thing for me is if I was just a prose reporter, I probably would have covered five times the amount of stories in depth. But that just comes with the territory and I’m never going to rush the drawing. I think that helps the work, but I’m always a little jealous when I get together with journalists, and I hear where they’re going, what they’re doing. It’s fine, I’m good. I have one of the best jobs on earth. CL: Is there anything written in your published work that you would do differently now? JS: I’d probably redraw some of the early pages of Palestine. There was nothing malicious in it, but because all I’d done before was caricature and funny stuff, everyone looks sort of funny. I probably would tone that down to some extent. That’s about it. I forgive myself for that. I’ve got no problems forgiving myself. There’s nothing to apologize for. It’s just that your hand drew a certain way, and over time you sort of shifted it as you saw it was needed. But no, not really, I’m really satisfied with the work I’ve done. I wish I could have done more of it. But yeah, I’m satisfied. AM: Do you have any advice that you give to aspiring comics journalists? JS: You’ve got to want to do it. It’s hard. I’m not going to pretend. It’s hard to make a living at comics. And doing comics journalism right is difficult to make a living at. As long as you know you’ve got it within you to really push yourself and persevere, then you’re on it. There’s no guarantee. That’s the problem. There’s simply no guarantee in the arts in general. But if you’re committed to it, and you do good work, then you’ve got a chance. Let’s just say that. So I hope aspiring artists will decide they are ready to really put their back into it. It’s a great field, and it’s important work...really important.
Joe Sacco Exhibition Checklist
Pages from Palestine, 1993-95
Pages from Safe Area Goražde, 2000
Pages from The Fixer, 2003
Pages from Footnotes in Gaza, 2009
Pages from “The Unwanted,” 2010
Pages from Paying the Land, 2020
Sarah Glidden (American, b. 1980). Pages from Rolling Blackouts, 2016. Watercolor on paper
Everything Is Important
Sara Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts Debarghya Sanyal 89
There’s a deceptive simplicity to Sarah Glidden’s art. The consistent, formally conservative layouts, clean line work, and soft, mellow-toned watercolors can often convey an aura of objective distance and calm detachment, even as she delves into the brutal realities of war and conflict reporting. These devices of detachment prove especially apposite given Glidden’s self-reflexive concern to document not only individual experiences, but also the very process of documentation itself. Pages 159 through 165 of Rolling Blackouts tell the story of deported Iraqi refugee Sam. Glidden’s pages are consistently divided into three equal tiers, with two or three square or rectangular panels per tier; the total number of panels per page thus varies only slightly, from seven to nine panels. But Sam’s story is framed and punctuated by Glidden’s depiction of “behind-the-scenes” conversations, careful deliberations, and on-the-spot planning of the journalists as they record Sam’s story. For Glidden, the entire process of setting up and recording Sam’s story—installing the cameras, determining the role of each participant, researching Sam’s account, deciding upon the questions, taking breaks, capturing B-roll footage of Sam at a family meal—are not merely preparatory steps, but inseparable elements of the narrative, as important as the finished interview.
This hypervigilance with regard to the process of documentation is highlighted with subtle wit early in the sequence, when Glidden assists the documentary team by serving as a “timecoder”—making a note the specific times during the interview when Sam says something that seems important for the finished story, so the journalist can quickly access those moments during the editing process. Glidden tells us that her impulse is to note down almost everything Sam says. Everything is important. It’s a moment of self-awareness that manages to be both funny and poignant, reminding us of the very great challenge involved in selecting details from a real-life narrative. It seems that journalism for Glidden is what Janet Malcolm identified as an “impossible profession”— one that must balance a commitment to truth with the unavoidable necessity for omissions required by any coherent narrative. Glidden addresses this paradox by leaning into it, never allowing the reader to forget the various journalistic processes and decisions that inevitably filter and shape our understanding of the subject at hand.
While taking a traditional approach to layout, Glidden employs subtle variations in palette and mise en scene to mark the movement from Sam’s narrative within the interview to her own account of the interview process. The backgrounds for the interview panels thus remain sparsely populated, and are mostly dominated by Sam’s talking head, framed against the pastel background of the walls. In these interview panels, Sam is almost always captured in close-ups or mid-range perspective. The overall feel of the interview panels is almost clinical, devoid as they are of clutter and focused primarily on the interview subject. Even when he shares the frame, Sam remains the focus; either he is rendered more dynamically (moving his hands expressively, for instance), or he is placed in the foreground, so that we see the interviewer from behind his shoulder (as in the sixth panel on p. 161)—an angle of vision that also helps to establish that events are being related from his perspective.
When we shift to depictions of events that Sam is narrating, however, the mise en scene becomes more immersive and emotionally affecting. Still at the centerstage, Sam appears more frequently in medium-long to long range perspective, interacting with others. These depictions establish him in relation to his surroundings and the people in his life. The color tones remain muted, but often seem in sync with Sam’s feelings. For instance, on p. 160, the largest panel on the page, where Sam talks about his wife’s depression, is bereft of any background details—in stark contrast to other panels depicting Sam’s refugee life and which generally show some aspect of the street scene or domestic space. Instead, Sam and his wife are framed in a medium-long shot against murky colorscape of orange, umber, and dirty brown—turning ashy at the edges. The burnt, sooty textures suggest the aftermath of a fire, and thus foreshadow the tragic death of his wife a few panels later, when she ends her own life by burning down the house.
Elsewhere (on p. 164), when talking about Sam’s marriage to Mali, a woman from Iran he met at the refugee camp in Pakistan, Glidden switches to a more realist painterly mode in the depiction of faces. This heightened sense of realism is achieved not only through more detailed rendering and modeling of the facial features of the characters, but also by the elimination of the border lines around them (border lines being the ultimate “tell” of illustration). In fact, the portraits of Sam’s daughter and second wife, as well as the family posing together in front of their new house in Seattle, represent photographs rather than narrated memories. Glidden further differentiates these ‘photographs’ from her default narrative panels by representing them at slight angles within the panel (panel 2, 164), emphasizing their status as different kinds of representations within her own representation. Her choices here also suggest something about Sam’s feelings about these particular people in his life; more specifically, the switch to the reproduction of photographic family portraits works semiotically to evoke a period of happiness and stability. Sam’s first few years in Seattle are cherished and treasured, and hence appear in his narrative as photographs. Glidden’s profound awareness of the tools and techniques whereby real-life experiences are narrativized results in a subtly paradoxical effect, in which attention to matters of process brings the subjects of journalistic inquiry still closer to us. The apparent simplicity of her style thus produces effects of extraordinary emotional and ethical complexity.
“I don’t want to say, ‘Don’t be afraid of interviewing.’ Be afraid, but do it anyway.”
Sarah Glidden by Audra McNamee
Sarah Glidden studied painting at Boston University and began working on comics in 2006, while living at the Flux Factory artist collective in Queens, New York. Glidden was also a member of the Pizza Island studio, which brought together cartoonists Julia Wertz, Meredith Gran, Lisa Hanawalt, and others. Her first graphic novel, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, published in 2010, resulted from her Birthright Israel tour in 2007. She won the 2008 Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent, for the several mini-comics she published documenting her experiences on the tour. Since then Glidden has gone on to publish several works of comics journalism, including short features for Symbolia and The Nib, as well as the graphic novel Rolling Blackouts (2016), documenting her journalistic work interviewing refugees in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Rolling Blackouts won the 2017 Lynd Ward Prize for Graphic Novel of the Year sponsored by Penn State University Libraries. She is currently at work on a longform piece about environmental change and devastation.
Interview with Sarah Glidden by Mary Hubbert and Rachel Obert (additional question by Debarghya Sanyal)
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/SarahGlidden Debarghya Sanyal: What drew you to comics journalism, and how would you characterize your work in relation to that term? Sarah Glidden: I don’t even know if, when I started out doing comics, that was even in my mind. When I started out, I was doing more journal comics. At that time, this was like 2006, there weren’t a lot of comics out there to find, especially not comics journalism. There was definitely Joe Sacco; his stuff was out there. Definitely one of the first books I read was Palestine, and it made a huge impression on me. But besides his work, there wasn’t a lot of nonfiction comics out there that weren’t memoir, and even memoir there weren’t a ton: Persepolis was one of the first comic books that I read; Maus, which is you know more of a biography, but those are both these nonfiction comics masterpieces that were the first time that I saw, “Oh, you can make comics that are not about funny things, that are not about superheroes. They’re about serious issues, about people’s lives in the Holocaust, and Joe Sacco reporting on places like Palestine and Chechnya and all these other places.” So it wasn’t like I read those books and was like, “Oh, I can do comics journalism,” or “I can do a memoir like Marjane Satrapi.” But it did kind of push me a little bit to think about what the boundaries of comics could be. I started out just doing journal comics about my daily life, and when that got a little bit boring (I got tired of myself), I wanted to do something bigger and that’s when the idea for my first book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, came about. I knew about this program called Birthright Israel, which sends young Jews to Israel for a free 10-day trip. And I had never wanted to go, because I was like, “Well, this is just propaganda for the Israeli State; I’m not interested.” But then, when I started doing comics, I was like “Wait. This could be really interesting to go on this trip and make a comic about how wild it is that they’re using this program to brainwash people.” And so I went, and it was definitely more complicated than I had imagined. But it did give interesting material for a book, and after I finished that book was when I went on the trip for Rolling Blackouts, and at that point, I was more interested in moving more firmly into journalism, just because I was really into journalism. I read a lot of long-form
journalism; I was really fascinated by the work that my prose journalist friends were doing. That’s how I segued into comics journalism, and by now moving into not memoir but more essayistic nonfiction comics that does still have reporting in it and elements of journalism, but it’s still at the borders of journalism. Mary Hubbert: A lot of comics journalism, like half of it, is the art, and so I would ask, how did you decide on your current medium? You have a very distinct use of watercolors and inks; how did you come to focus on watercolor? SG: It’s funny because I would like to say that, “Oh watercolor and I go way back, and I just knew I wanted to color with watercolors.” But actually when I started on How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, I didn’t have a publisher. I was just making mini-comics zines, photocopied black and white comics, and selling them at conventions. And at one of those, when I had two chapters out, this editor from Vertigo comics which was under DC at the time came to the show, and bought copies of my mini comics, and was like “Oh this looks interesting,” and I was like, “Okay Batman guy sure.” And then two days later, he emailed me and wanted a meeting to see if they could publish my book. So I went in and he’s like, “Look, I really like these two chapters; I really want to see the rest of the book, and we want to publish it. I have two conditions: one that somebody else letter it (because my lettering is not great); and two that it would be in color.” I think that that was for marketing purposes. I think they knew that they could sell a color book better than a black and white one. And I always just say yes to things when people say “we want you to do this,” and I was like “sure, I can put it in color,” but really, I was like “what are they talking about? I don’t know how to color a comic.” So just kind of racking my brain like I don’t know how to do color; I tried doing computer color with photoshop, and this is before iPads and stuff, so it was really a steep learning curve for me, and I was like “this looks bad. I don’t want to do that.” And then a colleague suggested watercolor. And I was like, “okay yeah, maybe.” I don’t really have experience with watercolor, but I did study oil painting in college. I went to an art school, kind of very traditional based art school, and so it seemed like watercolor is probably pretty similar; it’s a wet medium.
So I tried it out, and I was like, “Wow! This is great. I love watercolor actually.” And that was that, like by now it feels so natural to me, it’s kind of the fun part of making the comic. The hard part is writing; the second hardest part is drawing the layouts and the pencils, then inking is like pretty easy, and then watercolor is just the fun part where you just get to turn your brain off and get in a flow. Rachel Obert: Which stories do you enjoy investigating most in your comics journalism work? SG: Well, I mean traveling is great. I missed that a lot, because I had a child, and then COVID hit, so I haven’t been really doing much travel based reportage. But I don’t know, I just really like following my curiosity. For a while now I’ve been working on a book that started just like, “Oh I’m going to do a book about how climate change works and the science behind it.” And now it’s become much more, to me, a story about our relationship to land and to how we feel, like a lot of us feel, very separated from nature and therefore separate from climate change. And so it’s really just for me, like I really just like going down these rabbit holes and learning new stuff. I pretty much only work on projects where I’m trying to find something out, and I want my reader to find it out with me. It would be really boring to do a book about something that I already know a lot about. So for me, anything that just piques my interest, and the hardest part is narrowing that down because, especially with things like climate change, you start out thinking, “Oh, this is a very specific topic.” But really everything falls under that umbrella, you can kind of go a little bit wild. But I’m just really interested in people and our relationships to each other in all kinds of ways, and our relationships to the planet, our relationships to people who are in groups that we feel like we don’t understand: relationships between beings, I guess, is my beat. MH: What would you say is your approach to conducting your research? Once you find your idea, how do you go about narrowing down your specific path that you want to research? SG: I take a long time. (laughter) And I read a lot. I really like books, so I just pick up a book and then usually in that first thing that you read they’re going to cite other people, and then you have new books that you have to read. And I do kind of get stuck in that sometimes; you can just read forever, and never start writing. So it is just taking the time to read, but also having the time to think is really important. It’s something that I miss having a small child. For the first year of his life, I was kind of a full time parent, then he went to daycare, then COVID hit, and I was a full time parent again for about nine
months to a year. Now he’s in school part time, but it is hard to get that headspace back that I had before having kids. And that, for me, is important, just having time to be able to walk around and let the stuff that you’re taking in percolate and connect to other stuff that you may have picked up somewhere else. So it is hard but it’s just kind of thinking a lot, taking a lot of notes. I’m finally using Evernote now, like the rest of the world, and just writing down all the ideas I have in there. It used to be that I would just pick up whatever notebook is hanging around and write down an idea, and then I would have notebooks floating around my house. RO: You mentioned earlier how useful it is to look at other people’s perspectives and how you always want to be learning while you do research and while you investigate in any form of journalism. How do you deal with subjectivity and, like, subjective truth in your work? Especially with comics journalism there’s that interest in displaying facts and displaying things as they are, and I know that comics journalism’s approach to truth is unique in that way. So how do you approach that? SG: I really embrace it. I try to make it very clear that this is my point of view, and you know, including myself in the work is part of that. It’s like you can’t forget that this is subjective when my face is in half the panels, at least. Also for me it’s a combo of making it very clear when it’s my opinion versus when I’m quoting someone else. But also in the background, I’m really trying hard to question my assumptions and question my biases and...there is no subjectivity and there’s no objectivity in journalism of any kind—comics, documentary, prose journalism. It might feel more obvious with comics because it’s drawn, but to me that’s its strength is that with some of these other mediums you’re kind of separated from it by text or through the television. And people can forget how subjective it is and that there’s a person behind it. And to me the fact that comics is so upfront about it makes it more trustworthy for me; I never forget someone’s telling the story. But I do think that anyone who’s working in nonfiction—or really any person—needs to think about what are my biases here?, what are the things that I grew up assuming to be true?, and might those be a little bit off? or might there be just a different way of thinking about this issue, or the world? And that there’s more than one truth. So for me it’s a combo of being very open about when I have feelings about something and also doubling down on myself and asking Have I really approached this from all the angles I should?, Is there something that I’m missing? Am I being fair? And I think that’s the best you can do really.
MH: Would you say that trying to take accountability for your own biases is one of the more difficult aspects of being a comics journalist, or do you think there are other things that are? As a medium and as a vehicle for information, is there anything you feel is the most difficult aspect of being a comic journalist? SG: I mean the most difficult thing is conducting interviews for sure. I always get really nervous. No matter how long I’ve been doing it, I always feel stupid and like I’m saying “um” too much, and like the person I’m talking to thinks that I’m wasting their time. The first book I did about Israel and Palestine, that was the first time I really like understood. I was young, when I went on that trip as well, not that young, I guess, but 27—you’re probably younger. But when I went on that trip I read the New York Times, and listened to NPR and thought those are unbiased sources of news, and I can trust everything they say. Going on that trip, I realized that there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t know. There’s a lot of things that I hadn’t understood or that I felt lied to about by these media organizations that I trusted, and it kind of made me understand that these are biased in their own ways. And it’s not to say that they’re evil or something, but bias is everywhere. That I could be confused about stuff and that there was no right answer that was a real emotional process for me to get over myself and to discover that I wasn’t going to ever know everything and be really sure about what I believe. But after that it was kind of
freeing: finding out that I’m wrong about something or that maybe I approach something the wrong way—it always feels a little embarrassing or stings or you’re like “that sucks”— but it’s not as destabilizing as before. And now it’s kind of cool—You go through the pain of “Oh, I was wrong about something,” but then you come out the other end. It’s like “Well now, I know more than I did before.” That’s kind of one of my favorite parts is rethinking some way that you’re doing things, but yeah interviews are scary; I don’t like them. MH: Comics journalism is still a very novel form of journalism. There’s still such a small group of people who consider themselves comics journalists, and I do think it is starting to get taken a bit more seriously. How do you think comics journalism will evolve in the future? SG: There’s so much of it now, especially with The Nib and stuff. But I do think there’s a problem when you’re trying to make comics journalism that’s really short that fits into two pages, or I’m just starting work now for them on a comic that’s going to be in their magazine. It’s going to be ten pages, but two of those pages are going to be the title page, so I have eight pages left and I’m like, “I can’t fit anything to eight pages.” That’s like an introduction. To me, books are really where it’s at. A book length project, you can fit almost a New Yorker article’s worth of information. It’s still not enough but it’s getting there, and that’s why I love reading Joe’s books, like his latest, Paying the Land, he can really go into depth about a lot of different issues in a topic, and get to some like some truth there, but I feel like it’s hard to do that in short form
comics journalism, so I would love to see more outlets that allow for longer pieces and that can pay people to do longer pieces. I see a lot of young comics journalists right now, who are really amazing and have a lot of talent and voices that need to be heard, and I just want them to have the space to tell their stories. RO: It’s really interesting to hear your thoughts on the future of a field that in many ways is still developing very rapidly. Do you think of yourself more as an artist or more as a journalist? SG: Maybe as a mediocre writer. A writer who cheats by drawing pictures to go with them, so people will read stuff. It depends on what you’re doing at the moment. Right now that I’m in this heavy research and writing phase, I feel more like a journalist or more like an essayist maybe. And the way I work is that I usually do research and writing. I write the whole script, and then I draw everything, sometimes making a lot of big changes as I go along. But you know, I do the things at separate times, and I’m a Gemini so split personality: sometimes journalist, sometimes artist, and sometimes both at the same time. I think those things really exist together. For a long time I’ve just been a mom. So I’m happy to be back working again, boy talk about something that can just erase the rest of your identity for a while. I recommend it, but it’s hard.
RO: What is the most important advice that you can give to aspiring journalists or aspiring comic writers or aspiring in fiction comic art or just aspiring artists, what advice could you give? SG: I don’t want to say “Don’t be afraid of interviewing.” Be afraid, but do it anyway. That’s kind of what I did even from the very start. When I got that book deal with Vertigo, I had never done a book before. I did not know if I could do that in the amount of time that they asked me to do it, but you say yes, and then you figure it out later. And with journalism, when I started doing interviews like I did some kind of reporting in my city, just to kind of practice. I did some man on the street interviews with people near Ground Zero because I live in New York. And it was really scary just going up to random people and being like, “Excuse me, can I ask you some questions?” But you just do it anyway, and then it’s like this big rush at the end when you’re like, “I did it! I talked to a person.” And I’m very shy. I grew up very, very shy, so it’s not easy for me. So don’t try to wait until you’re not afraid anymore, just do it. Even if you’re afraid, just do it anyway. Also read a lot, and you know, try to tell the truth. That’s pretty basic but also good advice.
Sarah Glidden Exhibition Checklist
Pages from Rolling Blackouts, 2016
Pages from “El Arte de la Guerra,” 2018
Ben Passmore (American, b. 1983). Pages from “Whose Free Speech?: Black Lives Matter, the ACLU and Respectability Politics,” 2017. Ink on paper
Iconicity, Legibility, and Resonance Ben Passmore’s “Whose Free Speech?” Debarghya Sanyal 125
Ben Passmore’s “Whose Free Speech? Black Lives Matter, the ACLU and Respectability Politics,” first published in The Nib, criticizes the stance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the face of the white supremacist rallies held on August 12 and 13, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. An attempt to explain the complicated politics and history of the ACLU and the role of that organization in encouraging the ‘Unite the Right’ rally, the web-comics appears text-heavy. But “Whose Free Speech?” also offers a case study of the use of caricature portraits in the web-comics medium. Passmore’s short comic contains two distinct narrative threads. The first is the verbal narration, written largely in Passmore’s own voice, but interspersed with direct quotes from a variety of political organizations and public figures. The second is made up of the images that present a sequential narrative of the events and the history behind it; these images sometimes illustrate key ideas from the text, but often provide an additional wry commentary that both supplements and complicates the written text. These images are also distinguished by Passmore’s use of various semiotic
conventions of caricature to amplify and enhance his critique of the fascist, white supremacist organizations that were so emboldened by the statements and actions of former president, Donald Trump. The degree of caricature employed varies from character to character. Trump appears in three panels twice as a grotesque hybrid of the human and the monstrous, perhaps most strikingly in the panel ruminating on BLM’s diminished street presence during his presidency. Here the details of Trump’s rendering recall the semiotic conventions of classic Japanese monster movies such as Godzilla and 1960s superhero comics by artists such as Jack Kirby; he is presented as a giant-sized, destructive menace—his head alone is larger than the devastated buildings he leaves in his wake. His body, meanwhile, resembles that of a giant lizard or dragon—which may evoke the aforementioned Godzilla movies, but which may also be visual allusion to the (absurdly pompous) title of “grand dragon” that is sometimes bestowed upon high ranking members of the benighted and regressive organization known as the KKK.
Elsewhere, Passmore turns his eye and pen loose upon the unattractive figure of Richard B. Spencer—a man notorious for coining the term “alt-right,” but perhaps more famous for being punched in the face at a rally while trying to explain the meaning of the anti-Semitic button on his lapel (the incident quickly became a meme that was recirculated around the Internet). Spencer is represented by a jar of mayonnaise instead of his face, with the words “100% Mayo” written on his label—a visual play on the colloquial association of this bland condiment with a dull, homogenous vision of “whiteness,” making it an apt signifier for a satirical take-
down of this spokesperson for white supremacist ideology. Meanwhile, other public figures such as Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, Deputy Director of ACLU’s legislative office Chris Anders, 32-year-old Heather Heyer who was killed when a white supremacist drove his car at a group of antiFascist protestors, and Cornel West, are drawn in Passmore’s characteristic cartoony style—which tends towards softly rounded forms, rendered in smooth, clean lines of relative equal weight, without hatching—but are not caricatured or lampooned in the same way.
When drawing a group of people, however, Passmore does broaden the semiotic vocabulary of his representations. For instance, in the third image of the sequence, which depicts anti-racists and anti-fascists “rebuff(ing) the alt-right,” the two groups are rendered with a neat cartoonist’s visual shorthand. Thus, among the images of activists, we not only see a recognizable representative of Antifa, delineated in Ninjaesque hoody and mask, but also an immediately recognizable rendering of Kermit the Frog, the popular character from The Muppets, tossing the contents of his coffee mug in the
direction of the racists. Perhaps he appears here as a visual counter measure to the right-wing appropriation of the Pepe the Frog meme—as if to say that famous fictional frogs can also oppose racism (#notallfrogs)? On the right side of the panel, the white supremacists are also represented with witty semiotic economy—torch-bearing rabble made up of hooded Klansmen and Mayo-heads, their cowardice emphasized as they sweat with fear and retreat in panic from the (unarmed) activists.
Indeed, part of the appeal of Passmore’s work emerges from his mastery of cartoon iconicity: that is, his ability to produce immediately legible images that nevertheless have an extended metaphorical resonance. In fact, “Whose Free Speech?” is littered with semiotically resonant icons: Trump’s MAGA hat (the slogan of which changes amusingly in the final panel); the Black Power Rangers who attack him in his dragon form; the immediately legible political signifiers that distinguish ‘permitted’ and ‘unpermitted’ protests; the Antifa members with their Ninja-street-punk fashions; the fascists resembling Third Reich officials with swastika-armbands, and more.
Passmore’s deployment of readily legible but metaphorically resonant visual icons amplifies the political implications of his verbal narrative while making sure his central message remains clear and unambiguous. The results are perfectly suited to the medium of publication: a digital comics magazine that many will read on the small screen of their phone.
“It’s a medium that’s the closest thing to looking through someone else’s eyes.”
Ben Passmore by Audra McNamee
Ben Passmore is the author of the ongoing comic book series Daygloayhole, as well as the Eisner Award-nominated and Ignatz Award-winning comic collection Your Black Friend: and Other Strangers. He also wrote and illustrated Sports Is Hell (Koyama Press), which won a 2021 Eisner Award for Best Single Issue Comics. Passmore also collaborated with Ezra Claytan Daniels on BTTM FDRS (Fantagraphics). His forthcoming book, These Black Arms to Hold You Up, is a graphic history of six black activists and their armed resistance against racism and the police state. Ben contributes graphic reportage and political comics to publications such as The Nib and the New York Times. He lives in Philadelphia.
Interview with Ben Passmore By Audra McNamee and Debarghya Sanyal
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/BenPassmore Audra McNamee: How did you come to comics journalism and what does the term comics journalism even mean to you? Ben Passmore: The simple answer is that The Nib hired me for the first time about six years ago to do just general sort of like black identity stuff. I had just published a color version of Your Black Friend (a little eleven-page comic about black alienation), and they hired me to sort of do whatever. I had been part of an anarchist collective that made our quarterly called—it’s Louisiana so it’s a very Louisiana name—The Raging Pelican. We weren’t breaking any news or whatever, but it was created in response to the BP oil spill at the time and a lot of decentralized and grassroots resistance that was happening in the region that no one was really writing about. And for various reasons, New Orleans was sort of the center for news and actions, so fishermen who were blockading BP boats and infrastructure would come to New Orleans. I started as the sort of creative director. I could draw, so I was doing illustration, but also, I would do some interviews: We started covering things that weren’t spill-related. There was a big taxi drivers’ strike, which is really unusual for New Orleans, so me and a friend got a recorder, and we would just hire a cab and talk to them. And for me, even though I’m not from New Orleans (you know, I didn’t go to high school there, and that kind of stuff can matter—a lot of cities that really matters, depending on who you’re talking to), but the fact that I was just, like a black dude from a poor area somewhere else, a lot of these taxi drivers were cool to talk to me about the situations at the time, the regulations that they were fighting. There’s a lot of regulations that were just killing the taxi business. I’m an anti-capitalist, but you know, these are some of the only jobs for working people in that city, a lot of black working people, people that own like one car, two cars. So I jumped into it just because I was interested in just writing about what’s going on. I was part of a radical community, and I think we saw the journal as just like we’re dedicating our time to find some information to then bring to the rest of the community to respond to. So anyway, that’s a long answer, so I got hired by The Nib to sort of continue to do that, and honestly that was the first time I tied comics and writing about this stuff. The first thing I wrote about was how me and my friends
went to Stone Mountain, Georgia, for a Klan rally, and this is before anyone knew what Antifa was, so I was just writing as someone. I wrote a story about how I wore a mask to the Klan rally, and I got arrested, and I went to jail, and I got out. And I just wrote about what happened, why people wear masks. I also had a conversation with some guys, who were just picked up, who were in my holding cell, who were from—I think—South Carolina and they’re coming into Atlanta to just go to a club, as people do, and they were basically attacked by cops and chased across a muddy field in their club clothes, so I wrote about that too. Honestly, to begin with, I think I had a lot of skepticism about comics journalism, even though I’m hugely influenced by Joe Sacco, as a lot of people are. But, for me, I was like “I’m not embedded in Bosnia and writing a whole book about it.” Comics is a really inefficient way to communicate straight information, right? But over time, I was like, I think the thing I’m communicating is a specific experience, so that tended to be my angle going from there. And I think I’ve leaned a lot on my POV over time. Initially my first Nib comics were like stretched out articles, a lot of interviews. I still do a lot of research, but that ends up being more about building the world, anyway now I’m answering questions you didn’t ask, but that’s my answer. Debarghya Sanyal: As a political cartoonist, are there any specific publications or editorial approaches which have attracted you more than others, or, conversely, are there any specific journalistic styles that you absolutely avoid while you work on your comics? BP: In terms of publications, The Nib was the first person to hire me for this specific purpose; I really like working with them, and I’ve had opportunities to work for other outlets. But I think The Nib hired me primarily to sort of write about the black experience, as it were, and when I think it became immediately obvious that what I wanted to write about was my weird anarchist POV when it comes to decentralized movements like anti-fascism and stuff, which I don’t think is what Matt [Bors, The Nib editor in chief] and them had in their head as the thing I was going to write about, they
immediately were like great. They immediately trusted me as an artist and respected me, not as just, purely as a token cartoonist, which plenty of people have hired me for (you know what I mean, I think that comes with being a marginalized person, like I’m not mistaken, like I know why I’m here). But I didn’t really experience that in that way; they would hire me, in the beginning, they would request a topic, a lot like something that was in the news, for instance I was hired to do a comic about the ACLU. And, as an anarchist, a purely legalistic approach to resistance is not interesting. And I think another publication, someone else hiring me, would be like when I say, “Okay, I’ll write about the ACLU, but I’m not really interested in them and that’s what the comic is going to be about;” another publication might be like, “Well man you’re hired to do an ACLU comic.” But I ended up writing about...I started it before the big Charlottesville protest happened. There’s been a lot of marches in Charlottesville, the Klan showed up a couple times before the big Alt-Right sort of like squad unity thing happened, so I was actually writing about that and the ACLU’s response to that versus their representation of Klan members and Nazis in the past. And then the Charlottesville stuff happened, and I even knew people that went, so I just pivoted to that. And The Nib was super into that, so I’ve mostly stuck with The Nib although I’ve worked for other people to do sort of smaller stuff like even the New York Times—I did a one page about getting ready for protests. In terms of styles, Joe Sacco is a big influence, but when I was starting, I think one thing that felt important was to represent myself, which is true. As someone who’s at the demo, and even when it turns into a riot, I’m there. I was involved in organizing demos in New Orleans, and people would be like “All white people need to protect us,” or like “This shit is getting kind of crazy; as a black person I’m a leave.” And people should make their own choices, but I had a gut response to this idea that black people are fragile, or incapable of handling this. And just as a washed old black radical who’s read a lot about the 60s and 70s and Reconstruction, I know when it comes to anti-fascism, anti-white supremacy, black people are the tip of the spear: We’re out here. At the time, I was aware that, like a lot of times we’ll be talking to younger people, so it’s important to me to be like “Here I am,” not just talking to you about this thing that I’m interested in, but also as a black person in the mix. So there was some of my motivation to focus really on my POV. I was also really inspired by something totally random, not even comics, but Charlie Brooker’s TV show, How TV Ruined Your Life, and sort of his temporal relationship to space as the presenter but also someone affected by what is going on. I really liked that show, obviously, so I think when I was making the comics I also had that in my mind: what is the comics version, political comics version, of this? For a while, the reason I wouldn’t be like, “I’m a comics journalist,” was I’m not pretending to not be so subjective. I have a very strong opinion. I’m drawing this, so it’s not like there’s even the illusion of video. Clearly, [video] is also a subjectivity, but people, particularly people that don’t interface with the news, feel like my mom who is like, “A video—that’s what’s really happening.” So for me, I’m drawing the whole world. I’m not even pretending that I’m a neutral party in this. So for a while
I was like, “I’m a political cartoonist...but journalist, I don’t know.” Because I don’t even have this ethic where I’m giving you the facts. I’m not breaking anything. I’m not really even giving you the facts outside of the particular kind of story I’m telling. People should just read this and then read something else if they want to get a balanced story. AM: You have talked about how your point of view impacts content and focus of your comics, but as a black artist documenting the deeply ingrained and institutionalized racism in the U.S., what decisions and influences have shaped your style of cartooning and stylistic choices? BP: A lot of people ask me about the humor; I make a lot of jokes. And I never made the choice necessarily to be funny. That’s just my response. In college, there was Jon Stewart. The Daily Show was real big.... It existed before, but I feel like Bush really did a lot for Jon, so maybe there’s some of that. Also there’s—not that the black community is a monolith—but I think that there is a historical response to systematic violence and inequities to just being like, “You’re not going to touch me.” And I think one of those responses is humor. I wrote a really short comic: four panels about the different times cops have pulled guns on me, which in and of itself is very scary right? Any one of those times, I could go from someone writing about someone being killed by the cops to being the story. That’s not lost on me. The first time it happened, I was in my early 20s. So I think in some ways, the humor allows me to look at it in more of a systematic way. In general, making a story about it helps me to look at it in a broader way and not get so caught up in it, which I think helps me write about it. I think there’s a lot of people that are good at writing, very sincere, introspective, and writing very sad stories. I’m a limited writer; I’m not really going to do that, you know what I mean? I can maybe go there for a second, but if I go to that place you’re going to get something very rambling, unstructured and that’s for my journal, that’s not for y’all. Maybe this is some of my internalized white gaze. I myself, in my relationships with people will be like, “Ben, you don’t always have to make a joke.” My therapist even says, “We don’t have to be laughing right now.” Also as a Nib creator, writing for people who will agree with me, to a degree, as one of the few anarchists working, if I get to police abolition, I mean, these days, people, especially because “defund the police” has been sort of co-opted by a more moderate liberal tendency, but prior to that a lot of people would be angry when I’d write “no cops.” But as someone who’s black, whose readership, particularly for a while, was primarily white, particularly as an indie cartoonist because I started off doing weird sci-fi stuff, for me, the humor is just sort of this reflexive strategy to be humanized by the white viewer. Because there are probably white people who still think I don’t feel pain in the same way. They think I’m entertaining, but maybe they think that I don’t feel emotions as deeply as them. I think there’s a lot of people who would be like, “If I, as a white person, had a gun pulled on me by
a cop, that’s crazy, but that’s unusual for my life.” And they maybe assume that that’s normal for me, which it’s not. That remains true, so I think in some ways the humor when talking about something systemic is to try to open this door; it’s maybe humanizing me in a certain way. DS: When you write comics journalism pieces, who do you hope will read these works and what do you hope they will take away from them? BP: It really depends on like what I’m writing. The longer pieces tend, in my mind, to be sort of like what I imagined The Nib readership to be. In the last couple of years, it’s much wider than I think it was. Initially, I was like “Let me talk to these white liberals about some shit. Let me school them on some stuff.” Like the unhumble, flagrant, calculated anarchist that I am, it’s like “let me trigger them a little bit, but let me school them on like some stuff.” These days it really depends, because I’ve had some other projects that do really short stuff. And those range from me talking to other black people to me just trying to troll the alt-right people in the comments. In general, I try to talk to people who are maybe interested in radical politics but don’t know. Because the Internet is what it is, people will punish you for some shit that they just learned yesterday. So when it comes to like these broader things, for instance the ACLU, people don’t have access to critiques of legalism, conversations about violence in a logistical way but also an ethical way. I try to generally write to someone who’s day one, on some politics and reflexively resistant to what I’m trying to say. I lived in the south for 15 years, and most of the people you talk to don’t really know what you’re talking about. They have whatever smattering of ideas they got maybe from their parents, something they saw on the news. So when you’re like, “No prisons!” They’re like “huh?” Because of how social the South is, it’s not really an option to just not have that conversation, especially if they’re your neighbor. Your neighbor in New Orleans, that’s who’s going to check up on you—no one calls the cops there—that’s who’s going to get your mail; if someone breaks into your house that’s who’s going to call you, maybe even come out with a bat. What I brought to comics is just like, “Alright, I got to talk to you about this thing in a way that you can hear it, not in the style where this is an important issue.” I write in a way, where it’s like you don’t care; and you’re maybe not wrong for not caring as a first reaction depending on who you are, like I write in some cases for my brother, who is not particularly patriotic; he’s not particularly into cops, but probably is pretty skeptical of what I have to say. AM: Along with comics journalism, you have a lot of other genres under your belt—fiction, horror, science fiction. Is there a specific genre that you feel more comfortable with or more drawn to? BP: Because I grew up on Conan, this mix of fantasy sort of sci-fi has always been my go to for doing stories. I did this comic called BTTM FDRS that was written by my friend, Ezra
Claytan Daniels. And he got me really into horror. In general, though, if I’m left to my own devices, it’s going to probably be sci-fi. I never caught the African futurism wave; I’m a bit bit too nihilistic, and actually way too much of like a Luddite in a classical sense to be engaged in that in some sort of fantastical way. But, for me, sci-fi gives you the space to pare things down and focus on something. It’s a kind of mythmaking that feels not corny; I don’t have to introduce gods into it (maybe aliens). But it feels like some of the most grounded mythmaking for me and the myths I grew up on, like classic Star Trek sci-fi, Star Wars, Blade Runner. Blade Runner did a lot for me; you could blame a lot of things on Blade Runner in terms of me and my personality. DS: What are some of the greatest benefits of telling a story in the comics form, especially one that we might call nonfiction? BP: I feel like it’s a medium that’s the closest thing to looking through someone else’s eyes. Documentary is a way that people really consume information, but in some ways, you’re still not getting how someone looks at the world fully. The nice thing about a cartoonist is you’re really getting the most complete way that someone sees and experiences the world. When you take that to a nonfiction place, particularly when talking about “the political,” you can get a really solid idea about how they’re perceiving this. The Nib has a range of people that write about these things in different ways, and some people are presenting answers for me. I’m not presenting any answers, and I don’t necessarily believe in that. I feel like that insults the complexity of the world. I feel like there’s a certain ego in being like “I can encapsulate the problem and the solution in 200 pages.” That’s not possible, that’s crazy. My favorite kinds of nonfiction comics or journalism comics, political comics are ones where I feel like I’m really understanding where this writer is coming from. That gets me to a place that is sort of solution-based because the more I’ve understood things, the more I feel like I can be a part of some sort of reconciliation. Part of my optimism is that if I really encapsulate where I’m coming from this will help someone who’s inherently just deeply antagonistic. We might come to some sort of understanding and then we can figure something out. Definitely a lot of this is based on my anarchism. If I was a socialist, I probably would make more appeals to legislation; at the end of the comic could be “Call your senator!” But because my vision of a liberated future is much more based in you and me, and what we’re going to figure out, and then that dynamic expanding exponentially, it’s always going to start with the individual. I’m always writing to a specific person, for us to figure something out. AM: How do you tend to conduct your preparation for a comic? When you do field work do you take lots of photographs or sketch things or take notes? BP: When I did a comic about the riots here in Philly, that was unprecedented here that level of anti-police action.
There are a lot of press people, and they bring cameras. But if you get really close to very experienced anarchists who are doing what they need to do whether or not they’re in a bloc by themselves or they’re part of all genders all ages all races that were just attacking City Hall. They’re in the mix. So if you bring out a camera, that camera’s probably going to get broken, you’re probably going to get punched in the face. So I don’t bring my phone or a camera to any of these things. I don’t bring any recording devices at all. I’m just relying on my memory and then I can Google Google Maps if I want to know what the street looks like. If I’m coming in, primarily as a viewer, like as a reporter, I’m not going to have the interactions that I’m trying to have. So I just go as Ben, and that really worked out. What the comic ended up being is I ran into a person and we ended up having a conversation about the riot’s role in black liberation. When it comes to something like the ACLU, I’ll do a lot a lot of reading. I might hit up an expert, and interview them. So yeah there might be some interviews for context. There’s a certain point, you have to stop because there’s too much information, and I have to start paring down. My style is a little scattered: Either I’m just running into the middle of everything, and I’ll figure it out later, or I’m just piling on information until some angle seems interesting to me. Being an over-opinionated, highly partisan political person, I usually know what my gut feeling is about the subject, and that will guide my research—like anybody else that’s honest with themselves. When it comes to a lot of things, I kind of know how I feel about this, let me read about it. And when it comes to the history—like right now I’m working on a really big graphic novel about armed black nationalism in a very broad sense—and I know how I feel about this, but also this shit is very complicated. That doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for it, but I want to include those things, like the role of misogyny and homophobia within these movements. To understand them right is to understand these are aspects of it, and that doesn’t take away my enthusiasm for certain figures (I would not remove the Panthers from history), but we’re lying to ourselves if we don’t understand that those things are part of it. It does bother me that even within my own political milieu there’s such a two-dimensional understanding of things: we either ride for things completely, or it’s the enemy. AM: Do you then have a process for gathering all of your research and turning that information into a pencil or a draft and then taking that draft and turning it into your finished product? BP: I usually begin with the script; a lot of times I’ll start with bullet points, and I’ll try to construct a classic narrative out of that. It always starts with context. In the “Letter from Stone Mountain Jail,” the one where I went to the Klan rally, I was really building to the moment where I had a conversation with those guys in prison. It’s only a couple of panels, but I knew that’s what I was building to. There’s a lot of classic storybuilding stuff I tried to do. When it comes to the visuals, outside of just representing
where we’re at, I’m trying to fill in images that boost what I’m trying to say. I probably get too creative or I take too much creative license and enter into a very ham-fisted visual metaphor (so that’s a critique of myself). Sometimes I want to include things that are significant to me, but not significant to the story. Like [in “Letter from Stone Mountain Jail”] I was arrested, I was tackled, slammed on the ground, there was a whole bunch of pretty predictable funny stuff that cops did with my handcuffs. So the bulk of my experience personally was the pain of being handcuffed tightly and then seeing this white kid having a great time with his handcuffs. And then jail is very boring, so I slept through most of that experience. So if I made a comic about the things that were, emotionally, the most affective, it’d be a comic in which my wrists hurt for an hour, and then I was asleep for most of the comic...it’s not an interesting comic. DS: You mentioned that you’re working on These Black Arms to Hold You Up, the graphic chronicle of black resistance. Are there stories that you have to leave out or that you feel would be too difficult to tell in comics form, while you work on this text? BP: There’s certain topics that I just don’t know anything about because of who I am; just as like a cis-dude. And I’ve tended to write about things that happened to me from my point of view, in part because what am I doing trying to write about experiences not my own? When it comes to something that’s more history, I have to write about subjectivities that are not my own, and for me that’s always a struggle. But in general, I’m like, “You can write comics about anything.” I can’t particularly imagine when it comes to history, what I can’t write about. I think the thing that makes me excited about the topic is that it’s hard. I could sit down and write a two page or 200 page comic just cheerleading all these people I like, not just the Panthers, Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, Assata [Shakur]...I probably will just cheerlead Assata because she’s a perfect person, but most of these other people are very troubled, and I feel like it would be dishonest to not try to include things. A lot of people are pretty hesitant to write or to create content which expresses mixed emotions about our heroes, in part because they’re not written about a lot, and a lot of non-black people will read these things, and one is hesitant to feed into the stereotypes that are projected onto us. I feel more motivated to both learn myself, because it helps me understand these people in our history more to understand all of them, but also I’m more motivated by reporting back to the group. I come from a milieu that is very active, we’re taking information because we’re going to use it. I came up in reading groups where we’re going to read like some Deleuze/ Guattari, and we’re going to read how non-violence protects the state, and we’re applying this to our community. So I still read and create art in that sense, where I’m really making something because I want to apply it in my own life, and I really like people who apply it to read this. If I go about life, a political life, but also just daily life, thinking of the black male revolutionary who’s this messianic figure, without knowing the fucked up things people do: what it means to be in that
position, what sort of justifications you make, you can do a lot of harm. There’s a lot of non-men revolutionaries who were put in the back because people really feed into this messianic idea of themselves. I avoid drawing horses too; they’re very complicated, I hate that. I did it in Sports Is Hell, and there were like five of them, and I was like “That’s enough!” DS: Are there projects that you feel drawn to work on that you haven’t been able to create yet, and how do you decide what stories to tell or report on? BP: I have a lot of fantasies about being able to like travel places and write about them. There are all these uprisings that are super interesting, and particularly because American anarchism has been so Eurocentric, with some exceptions— like there’ll be some over-romanticization of the Zapatistas. If you’re a black radical, you’re really obsessed with Haiti, and anytime there’s an uprising, it’d be cool to go, or like I’d love to go to Chile or whatever, and that’s an issue of time and resources. Stuff moves so quickly and in a lot of ways comics is not a very sufficient medium for that. I’ll go, I’ll have an experience, I’ll fly back, I’ll draw, shit has changed. So there’s a lot of stuff even in the United States, I’ll see something in the news that is related to things I like to study, like the most recent is The Rise of the Moors. These guys are in Rhode Island; I’m from New England originally, I’d love to just talk to them and write about all of that because it’s really interesting stuff. Or sometimes I’ll get really obsessed with one particular radical, alive or dead. Recently there’s this guy in western Massachusetts, who was a meme for a second because he knocked out a Trump supporter. I thought it was hilarious, and then I found out he was from my area, and I’d love to do an interview on him because his life has gone on. He’s trying to run for city council, he’s one of the few black people in North Adams, Massachusetts. Things come up all the time, and I don’t have the time or it’s challenging for comics because it’s such a temporal thing. In terms of how I pick, a lot of times I’ll do something because someone hired me. And I’ll try to pick things that are sort of related to whatever is in the popular discourse. I definitely self-edit to a degree. Once in a while, though, I’ll get lucky: When I was doing the monuments comic in New Orleans, “Takin em Down,” that was a topic that no one really cared about yet, but it became news right before I was finishing. So that’s happened a couple of times, where I’m writing about something that’s more interesting in my life, and then it becomes news. Now that I’m working on this history of black armed resistance, I’m actually learning a lot more about Reconstruction in the South than I knew. I’m embarrassed to say, I knew the big marquee things. People are writing about Tulsa, which is an important thing, the bombing of black Wall Street. But I’m an anti-capitalist so there’s all these resistances, things that aren’t even necessarily just black people. There’s this guy in Mississippi, and he found out that there was a
bounty hunter that was kidnapping black people and bringing them to Alabama, so he decided, because he was white—he was a teacher at an all-black boys school—and he was like, “Alright, I’m gonna dress up like a klansman, and I’m going to go beat up this bounty hunter, and kick him out of town.” These are the proto-antifa people we really need to be reading about. So that story in itself is interesting, but also it kicks off a white backlash, and then there’s a lot of fairly organized black militias that would come from a town over when they heard that white people were out trying to lynch people. So I’d love to do a comic that’s just about that. Because a lot of this stuff like the white rifle clubs. If you take away the dates and the old timey clothes, a lot of this shit is the same. All the shenanigans with the voting boxes, that’s from them. There were white rifle groups moving voting boxes, standing around them. A lot of that stuff is interesting, just because it’s a story about us, and reconstruction of the South—more than chattel slavery—kicks off a lot of contemporary American race problems. So I’d love to do a book about that. I don’t know if anyone will give me money to do that. AM: What advice would you give to aspiring comic journalists? BP: You’ll make millions, so just figure out what to do with your first yacht. They can really get you on the rental of the dock. At the end of the day, you want to own your own dock. When it comes to artists, you have a lot of imposter syndrome, and I don’t think that that goes away. I have been fortunate to work basically my whole career in comics with a lot of really good people. You can really get taken advantage of because you want to work for the New York Times, you want to work for Vox. Trying to get with people who treat you right and respect your voice is really important. Like you don’t want to make Ben Passmore comics, you want to make your own comics. We are in a really good time for journalism comics, I’m totally floored by the amount of cartoonists. Coming up, I didn’t really see a lot of them, and there’s more outlets for it, so working on your voice is important. For cartoonists, we’re weird people—you gotta be weird to really stick with this archaic art form—so you’ve gotta get outside. For me, particularly for the comics I want to make, it started with me being outside and having this relationship to a particular kind of community that is ultimately who I wrote about and for. If you want to do journalism comics, you really got to be out in the world, you got to figure out how to talk to people; it’s different than doing diary comics or fantasy comics; you’re really speaking to an audience in this way more than other mediums. So you have to figure out what that means, what it means to talk to people in a way that they can understand, even if it’s your own people.
Ben Passmore Exhibition Checklist
Pages from “Whose Free Speech?: Black Lives Matter, the ACLU and Respectability Politics,” 2017
“Takin’ Em Down,” 2017
“City of Brotherly Riots,” 2020
“Letter from a Stone Mountain Jail,” 2016
Victoria Lomasko (Russian, b. 1978). The Russian Constitution Was Changed, 2020. Digital comic
Currents and Countercurrents
Victoria Lomasko’s The Russian Constitution Was Changed Nicholas Wirtz
Victoria Lomasko’s “The Russian Constitution Was Changed” exemplifies the value of approaching comics pages as not only sequential but as planar. Because we encounter the whole page before focusing on a given panel, and that whole is peripherally present even as we focus on a panel’s words and visual details, general impressions of the page’s color and layout both precede and influence our reading individual panels. To the extent that these global structures affect their embedded contents, Lomasko’s visual style and arrangement cannot be understood as secondary to the linear, textual experience of reading her work, but are rather the plane which contains, shapes, and continually informs reading. To a degree, this applies to any comics page, but Lomasko’s striking layout, fragmentary account, and laconic narration all invite greater attention to such structures. For example, the panels of the center column and row are all strict squares; together they form axes, thereby enlivening the basic page composition of the nine-panel grid by creating a central cross geometry. This cross formation picks up and emphasizes the religious symbols that appear in several panels, but also defines two distinct spaces and series: the five regular familiarly square panels and their four irregular counterparts. However, the overall page space is not a perfect square: it also includes the title, its triple arches conforming not only to the top panels but to the chain that rises above the middle trio. Instead of a 3 x 3 gridded composition, these arches evoke a paneled Christian triptych icon, so common in the Byzantine art of the Russian Orthodox church, with a central panel flanked by two smaller wings.
The semiotics of Orthodox iconography might seem an unusual choice for a work of conventional journalism. But if we recall that Russian religious artists eschewed realistic Renaissance perspective in favor of spiritual expressionism— some that were later celebrated in works of anti-positivist modernism—the appropriateness of the icon for alternative journalism becomes apparent. Furthermore, the iconic emphasis on social-spiritual expression over artistic genius has some affinity with Lomasko’s own predilection for public graphic reportage over more insular fine arts. By evoking predominantly vertical and visual icons, rather than only lateral text-oriented articles, Lomasko also invites us to begin viewing or interpreting the page beginning with the central column as its topic. Surrounded by faces and figures, human forms are strikingly absent from the bold, central “0” (a location in which the iconic subject’s portrait might normally appear). This reveals a distortion, the tall and figuratively empty 0 not only standing in for, but replacing or distending, the balanced, ideal circle of a Saint’s halo. Flanked by the twin stars of the Kremlin’s spire and a Gulag watchtower’s abstracted guard, the 0, absent a figure, becomes a threatening political portrait in its own right. (While familiarity with icons encourages such a reading, the bold black numeral and its two negative spaces above the text, naturally draw the eye and, in their lack of detail in an otherwise-dense composition, encourage the viewer to linger, whatever their knowledge of Byzantine religious art.) The thickly framed zero symbol is not actually empty, however, but contains another reference to the zero concept in the oddly worded phrase, “20 years of power became zeroed,” suggesting a reset to a new technical measurement. The panel refers to the 2020 referendum that, along with conservative and nationalist amendments, extended Vladimir Putin’s term limits, effectively resetting the political clock of his two decades in office (hence the third panel’s invocation of the year 2036 as the new “term limit” of his presidency). This central 0 might be interpreted, then, as an emphatic double negation, repeating the title’s passive-voice omission of agent and cause.
Reading this comic as an icon, the (sequentially) first and third panels stand as the “wings” of the central image, encouraging us to “read” them as in some way subordinate to the central image. Their floating positions, with their decorative sensibility, connected by a chain that flows “under” the central 0 panel, also suggest the latter’s privilege. This hierarchy disrupts purely sequential reading: the layering, graphic geometry, and central symmetry affect a persistent visual gravity. Granting the initial visual impact of the 0, Lomasko’s preceding question, “What happened?” seems to be asked after we have encountered its answer. This sequential incongruity is amplified by the frozen protester’s positioning: where the 0 is balanced in its symmetry, fixed by its frame, literally grounded by its environments, the protester floats in white space, her amber prison anchored to the central subject. Her question seems almost bewildered, speaking to the immediate past, while its mirror speaks to the uncertain future. At once chained and frozen in amber—suggesting confinement, paralysis and extinction—the message seems a profoundly pessimistic commentary on the Russian political environment. However, the second question indicates a possible hope in futurity, as does its answer.
Against the dark landscape, brightly dressed younger Russians respond to the first tier’s condition. The second tier recalls Lomasko’s more typical reportage: sketches documenting a moment and atmosphere not through photojournalistic coherent precision but through fragmented heterogeneity. While this tier suggests linearity through its dialogue, the montage also operates as a panorama, as details bleed from one panel to the next. This fragmentary whole informs our experience of the dialogue: a single sentence is collectively uttered by a multiplicity of voices, individual but unanimous. Evoking the titular “change”—but as a future condition prevented in the present—this sentence literally underscores and develops the frozen-in-amber imagery, the active change that prevents change. This seeming paradox may be resolved by recognizing competing definitions of change. This second tier elaborates that fossilizing preservation that halts biological growth is also the constitutional change that resists social change. From this bifurcation of “change,” the significance of color reemerges through juxtaposition. Contrasted by the speaker’s counter-cultural vibrancy, the surrounding drab brown develops its own environmental force.
The middle tier’s conflict invites reflection on the comic’s vertical symmetry. The protester’s bold “НЕТ!” (NO!) mask in the central panel of the final tier represents the symmetrical inverse of its counterpart (the central panel of the top tier) by presenting a human portrait threatened by authoritarian figures, rather than the abstraction supported by power. Where this symmetry, however, is most developed is in the wing commentary panels, which are again articulated symbolically, rather than as documentary. Brown, the color of frozen time, the refusal of change, reappears in religious, authoritarian imagery. Where the amber above might initially be understood as simple stasis, these lower corners are distinctly anachronistic, explicitly describing a return to an imperial past. The Dormition Cathedral “sprouts” from Soviet architecture while Putin stoops, rooted in place and seeming to merge with his throne. Repeating the first tier’s structure, these unenclosed panels likewise comment on their central panel’s description of constitutional change, but further develop these desaturated tones, imbuing them with a sense of unnatural, resuscitative transformation that underscores the violence of the amber “preservation.” Sequentially understood, the narrative ends on a purely pessimistic note. But, if Lomasko’s composition begins with the visual magnetism of 0, it ends with its opposite pole in the protester’s piercingly direct stare. Again, the floating wings do not definitively begin and end Lomasko’s account, but only comment on its urgency. Where 0 graphically presents an authoritarian political negation, its mirror НЕТ! repeats negation, as political resistance. It is through this synthesis of linear reportage and planar juxtapositions that Lomasko not only reports on the repressive referendum but also complicates our understanding of its effects, and emphasizes the importance and urgency of activist opposition.
“For me now the more important question by far is not ‘What am I going to depict?’ but ‘How am I going to depict it?’” Victoria Lomasko by Audra McNamee
Victoria Lomasko was born in Serpukhov, Russia in 1978, and graduated in 2003 from the Moscow State University of Printing Arts, where she majored in graphic art and book design. She works as a graphic artist and has lectured and written widely on graphic reportage. Lomasko draws on Russian traditions of reportage drawing (as practiced during the Siege of Leningrad, in the Gulag, and within the military). In her own graphic reportage work, Lomasko explores current Russian society, especially the inner workings of the country’s diverse communities and groups, such as Russian Orthodox believers, LGBT activists, migrant workers, sex workers, and collective farm workers. As a graphic reportage artist, she has collaborated with both the mass media and human rights organizations, and her work has been exhibited at numerous shows in Russia and abroad. Lomasko is the co-author of the book Forbidden Art, which was nominated for the Kandinsky Prize in 2010. Her book Other Russias is in its third printing from n+1, and she has written many additional works of graphic reportage documenting life in Russia and its neighboring countries. She is also an established curator of major international exhibitions, including The Feminist Pencil and Drawing the Court. Her work has been exhibited in numerous shows in Russia and abroad. As a volunteer for the Center for Prison Reform, Lomasko visited Mozhaysk Juvenile Prison and taught inmates to draw. She additionally taught drawing classes at girls’ penitentiaries in Novy Oskol and Ryazan, and the boy’s penitentiary in Aleskin. She lives in Moscow.
Interview with Victoria Lomasko By Debhargya Sanyal, translated by Kit McDunn
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/VictoriaLomasko Debarghya Sanyal: How did you begin your career in graphic reportage? Victoria Lomasko: After graduating from Moscow State University of Printing Arts specializing in book art, I worked for a few years as a commercial illustrator, studying the subjects and forms of modern art, which at that moment were fashionable in the Moscow art scene: semi-abstract painting and multimedia projects. As a creator I was deeply unsatisfied with what I was doing. Only when I began to write and include text in my work did I realize that I was moving in the right direction. The synthesis of text and image—this is what truly interests me. At the same time as I was discovering my format, I also found my subject: the shadowy, invisible sides of Russian society. For the local artistic community my stories about the life of socially vulnerable groups and my realistic style of portraying them appeared to be something entirely marginal. In Russia there were no artists like Joe Sacco; at that time, I myself didn’t know of his work, nor the work of other Western graphic journalists. My first success came from the book Forbidden Art, which I co-authored with Anton Nikolaev, and which was published in Russian, German and French. Then a series of my graphic reports from the 2012 Moscow protests appeared in the Western media and international exhibitions. Finally the book Other Russias, which was distributed by six publishers, including n+1 (New York) and Penguin (London), changed my situation and allowed me to work in the international scene. DS: You have spoken about the need for a hybrid form of journalism that might address the problems with journalism specifically in Russia. What do you imply when you speak about a hybrid form of journalism? What do you think are the benefits of using comics and illustration as a form of documentation? How do comics address journalism’s issues? VL: When I reflected on hybrid forms of reporting in 2017, a small but active liberal part of Russian society had their own independent media and if I published in Russia, it was only in their media. Before us stood the task of broadening our audience; for instance, grabbing the attention of those who were interested in politics, but weren’t ready to read long journalistic texts about political trials, prisons, or rallies. In my opinion, it is obvious that today the majority of people read
only short texts, and so a part of that information ought to be conveyed through images. Graphic reporting is perfectly suited to such a task. Also, studying some subjects over a period of months, I made regular short publications on my social networks. Such a format worked especially well; for example, after regular posts in juvenile prisons some readers joined volunteer efforts. In 2021 political scientists assert that there is an established dictatorship in Russia, and I agree with this opinion. Many independent media groups have closed or have been declared foreign agents. New laws enable the discovery of evidence of crimes in practically any journalistic text, and in publications on social networks. An author can be fined, sent to jail, or declared a foreign agent. If I saw myself before as a participant in a political struggle, promoting oppositional views, then now I want to engage not in the journalistic, but the literary. I am using the poetic language of symbols and metaphor and I write a lot about my own personal perception of what is happening. At first such a change was a forced step under the pressure of circumstances, and then I realized that this step was long overdue. I much prefer to consider myself not a journalist, but a writer or even a poet. DS: What are the greatest challenges that you face as an artist doing the kind of work that you do? Are there specific aspects of your process which you enjoy most, or any which you wish to improve/develop upon? VL: To do work on contemporary Russian society, broaching certain social subjects while physically located in Russia is, of course, a challenge. But it is an important challenge, in specific situations in a specific country, to see universal stories. For instance, I am interested in individual transformations against the background of events which can be called “dramatic,” in the changing of generations that is reminiscent of the changing of the seasons. Speaking in a narrowly professional context, I want to work on the format of an art book. In Other Russias the text and images are connected very freely, and the drawings are able to be shown like a separate graphic series without text. In my new work I am interested in thinking about compositions in which text and image are inextricably joined.
DS: While revealing political struggles, your work also reveals the diversity of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Were there any particular revelations for you that stand out through your travels? Were there places or people that surprised you? VL: Trips through post-Soviet space showed me how heterogeneous the “Soviet reality” was in fact. It seems that each of the fifteen Soviet republics had their own version of the Soviet Union and their own relationships with the Kremlin. For example, in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic the Georgian language remained the state language; the Georgians defended their churches and their right to be religious; a rally for Georgian independence was held as early as 1989. And Belarus is still totally dependent on Russia, and their peaceful revolution of 2020 was defeated. During trips to Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Armenia, and the North Caucasus I drew typical everyday life and only in Belarus did I document a revolution and, one might say, took some part in it. I saw how many cultural figures—artists, journalists, sociologists, researchers—were the instigators of the protest, but after its crushing defeat almost all of them emigrated and began to earn money in exile with their protest materials. And I know that I would do the same. At the same time ordinary participants remained shut out of the country, many ended up in prisons and survived torture. When I see such a situation, I don’t want to create any more agitation. DS: How do you hope that readers in Russia read your work? How do you hope readers in the U.S. read your work? Furthermore, how do you approach, or even respond to, the different reader sensibilities in Russia and the U.S.? How do you hope readers in each nation will read your work? VL: I think that a Russian audience will read my work in the English translation. To publish and show off my work—this is the task of publishers, and museum and gallery curators. Because of the pandemic I have already been stuck in Russia for a year and a half, but during all that time there was only one tiny order for illustrations from a Russian institution. In the beginning I made my work just for a Russian audience, including in it a multitude of details that were incomprehensible to people of other cultures. Now I try to tell stories that can be understood by a reader from any country, and so that they can arouse the interest of those who are not interested in Russia. For instance, I can use a specific rally
in support of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny in order to show what different choices are made by the participants of one of these events, so that readers from some wealthy country can ask themselves the question: “And how would I act in such a dramatic situation?” DS: What is your greatest goal for your work? How do you hope your reporting will change or affect your readers? And what do you believe should be some of the most essential goals of comics journalism? VL: My goal is to perceive everything that is happening around me sensitively and to the maximum and to consciously and maximally describe it. DS: What story would you most like to document in the future? VL: I am going to continue working on my new book, The Last Soviet Artist, until the end of the year. The first part of the book, which includes reporting on the post-Soviet space, is already done, but the second part, in which I describe various events in Moscow, is a work in progress. In the second part I am combining the reportage sketches with symbolic compositions that are reminiscent of murals that I was making before the pandemic. For me now the more important question by far is not “What am I going to depict?”, but “How am I going to depict it?” DS: What advice would you give an aspiring journalist? VL: I know a lot of artists who paint like virtuosos, who make masterful sketches from real life, but can’t tell a story simply and absorbingly. Most often in graphic reporting and in documentary comics, it is the text that suffers; the artist never becomes a journalist. Some have insufficiently studied the subject about which they write, and have not collected enough material. Others are not careful or respectful enough when they work with vulnerable groups. Still others write too briefly or vaguely from a lack of confidence in their literary style. Therefore it makes sense to study journalistic literature, maybe even to take a short journalism course and to work for some time in a pair or on a team with regular journalists. All this at the initial stage will discipline the artist and give confidence in their work.
Victoria Lomasko Exhibition Checklist
A part of “A Chronicle of Resistance,” from the book Other Russias, 2012
A part of “Political Show Trials” from the book Other Russias, 2013/2014
The Russian Constitution Was Changed, 2020
A Revolution in Belarus, 2020
Writer: Sarah Mirk (American, b. 1986). Artist: Maki Naro (American, b. 1981). Pages from Guantanamo Voices, 2020
Reflections on Absence
Sarah Mirk and Maki Naro’s Guantanamo Voices, chapter 5, pages 99-100 Nicholas Wirtz
Fouzi al Odah was one of twelve Kuwaitis imprisoned by the United States in Guantanamo Bay after the events of 9/11. He was held without charge for thirteen years before being released in 2014. In Guantanamo Voices, Sarah Mirk and Maki Naro create a sequence focusing on human rights lawyer Thomas Wilner’s attempt to provide legal representation for al Odah. On the pictured page, Wilner, in profile, facing left (the opposite direction of English reading flow), holds a parapetlike safety rail while overlooking the Guantanamo base. Behind him an American flag also blows from right to left. The sole caption reads “January 2005.” The composition of the panel exploits a tension between reading flow and mise en scène: that is, between our tendency to read comics in sequence, following trained left-to-right reading habits, and our tendency to follow gazes in order to identify the object of another’s attention. Put simply: Wilner’s right-to-left gaze contradicts reading direction. Rather than inviting us into the page, the direction of his gaze directs our attention back towards what we have just encountered. Given comics’ necessarily spatial representation of time, Wilner’s backwards gaze both symbolizes memory in “looking back” and encourages us, by following his gaze, to perform this reflection ourselves by reviewing earlier panels. Wilner’s backward gaze is further underscored by its repetition in the second panel; the changed background suggests that time has moved forwards, but the repeated composition suggests that Wilner is moving against the temporal current. If the reader were to follow the hint in Wilner’s gaze and review the prior chapters they would discover other significant dates—beginning with Wilner’s introductory quote, “I first became aware of Guantánamo shortly after it opened in January 2002.” (87), a statement that declares its temporality as much as its subject. In 2002, Wilner’s response to images of captured prisoners at Guantanamo is one of unreflective relief: “Thank God we got those guys.” The pictured page’s first contemplative panel, with its simple statement of “current” time may therefore evoke the entire intervening duration; three years and twelve pages are therefore partially suspended here between narrative progress and the orientation of the composition, which pushes against the conventional structures of temporal and narrative flow. This sequence’s framing, bookended by the invitation to reflect, coincides with the object of reflection: Wilner’s prior apolitical
unawareness and this moment of retrospection, as he waits to finally meet his client al Odah, also invite comparison between these two moments. One might interpret the intervening pages through intervening duration, in which case the 2002-2005 events are straightforward: Wilner learns of al Odah and the other prisoners’ plight when al Odah’s father contacts Wilner about his son’s mysterious disappearance; they discover that al Odah was captured and delivered to the United States for a bounty, and denied his Geneva Convention right to a hearing; prisoners’ right to habeas corpus—to petition for a fair hearing—is central to the Al Odah v. United States case, and the court initially rules against its necessity; then, on appeal, the American Supreme Court reverses this decision, asserting such necessity. So far, so linear. Nearly half of this chapter, however, is composed of nonlinear asides describing legal and personal stakes and context. While these interruptions might be understood as interspersed exposition, an early flashback suggests otherwise. Wilner, the corporate lawyer, marching right (flowing naturally with reading), is juxtaposed by a matching composition of his adolescent self, walking left, a sequence of images that introduce his formative commitments to and beliefs in justice and American ideals summarized by his recitation of “...with justice and liberty for all” (89). This earlier juxtaposition of rightward and leftward movement with the representation of present and past versions of Wilner suggests another way of reading Wilner’s representation at this key moment in January 2005. Having established this leftward movement and gaze of the foregrounded subject to momentarily arrest our reading flow and comment on justice, Naro repeats this composition in an impassive American soldier’s oversight of prisoners, in both premodern supplicant and contemporary prisoner pleading for their hearings (93), in Japanese-Americans facing their extrajudicial incarceration and Justice Murphy’s condemnation of the unconstitutional act’s racism (96). In sum, when we encounter Wilner’s leftward gaze in the first panel of page 99, then see it doubled in the second panel, as Wilner walks towards his prior self, these subtly interruptive gestures already suggest Wilner’s considerations, and guide our own. Here, Wilner’s leftward gaze leads us not to another panel but off the page to reflect upon the narrative, and the directionality of prior gazes, thus far.
The second panel also quotes Wilner saying, “It’s a very weird situation to represent someone you haven’t met.” Wilner refers to legal representation, but this also speaks to the narrative itself, told (represented) by Mirk and Naro. Al Odah has only appeared in five of the chapter’s 64 panels so far: first on a street from which he disappears, then in a photograph held by his father, then thrice imagined when entering military custody, handcuffed, and hooded, a depiction that denies both his own vision and his particularized identity to the reader. As prior leftward gazing profiles have worked to evoke legal precedents, idealism, and a naive faith in courtroom justice, the panels in which Wilner approaches al Odah contrast their meeting with their prior distance. As al Odah first appears on a street only to immediately vanish, his absence rendered conspicuous in contrast with prior presence (88), this page inverts his near-complete visual removal from the narrative through a reappearance that asserts his former absence. It is striking that in an account ostensibly about a lawyer representing a client, Wilner and al Odah only meet three pages before its conclusion, sharing panels only twice. Al Odah’s visual absence reflects his actual abrupt disappearance and acquires its full meaning in the context of Wilner’s comment. This disappearance, al Odah’s lack of visual representability, thus becomes equivalent to his lack of legal representability: legal and visual absence converge, each symbolizing the other and, evidencing the same logic, becoming entwined.
Wilner’s exchange with the guard on this page also asserts the essential right to identity, as “Prisoner 232” is corrected to “Fouzi al Odah.” But, contextualized by the above absences, the guard’s confusion—“Who’s that?”—speaks to the danger of this system, reminding us that this numerical designation is not just dehumanizing, but is itself a kind of representational absence. It is only after Wilner (and we as readers) have met al Odah—after Wilner is allowed legal access to represent him and after Wilner’s account has allowed Naro to illustrate (and visually represent) him—that we are able to learn anything about who al Odah is. Denied this knowledge in earlier portraits, we now glimpse al Odah’s emotions and sense of
justice, as he weeps above Wilner’s observation that al Odah “had firm beliefs in right and wrong”—a statement that echoes Wilner’s earlier comments captioned over the Pledge of Allegiance (89), that “You figure out what’s right and you stand for it.” These shared beliefs in the value of knowing right from wrong add a grim irony to the events of the following page (100), in which al Odah’s initial relief at having been taken into custody by the Americans is juxtaposed by his violent abuse. Wilner’s silent, shocked response to this revelation is followed by Mirk’s narration not of their meeting, but of a statement confirming al Odah’s release nine years later. It is therefore unclear if this page’s final panel illustrates the conclusion of Wilner’s 2005 visit, or one of his many visits in the succeeding decade, or if he is visiting another inmate on the subsequent page; indeed, it is unclear if Wilner is entering or leaving Guantanamo. This temporal and directional ambiguity reasserts the various tropes asserted by Wilner’s leftward, resistant reflection. The backdrop, a tarp-masked fence, again pairs visual absence with legal absence, repeated by the page’s pessimistic concluding caption, that al Odah “was never charged with a crime…”. As Mirk reminds us, “habeas corpus” literally demands that the court “should have the body [of the accused]” to ensure a fair hearing. This chapter that thematizes lacunae—conspicuously present absences— articulates exactly such a need by presenting its negation. As such, it literalizes the abstract principle that a lack of representation forecloses the possibility of justice.
“What’s important as a journalist is to be clear about who you are: try and understand your own biases, and be clear about your own identity.” Sarah Mirk by Audra McNamee
Sarah Mirk is a graphic journalist, editor, and teacher. She is the author of Guantanamo Voices (Abrams, 2020), an illustrated oral history of Guantanamo Bay prison. She is also a zine-maker and illustrator whose comics have been featured in The Nib, The New Yorker, Bitch, and NPR. Sarah began her career as a reporter for alternative weekly newspapers The Stranger and The Portland Mercury. From 2013 to 2017, she worked as the online editor of national feminism and pop culture nonprofit Bitch Media. Starting in January 2017, she moved on to become a contributing editor at graphic journalism website The Nib, and also works as a writer on The Nib’s animation series, which garnered nine million views its first season. Comics she edited for The Nib were nominated for two Eisners in 2020. Mirk currently also works as a digital engagement producer for Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She co-wrote the investigative comics series In/Vulnerable, illustrated by Thi Bui, which won an RFK Human Rights Award for Journalism in 2021. She is the author of several books, including You Do You: Figuring Out Your Body, Dating, and Sexuality (Lerner, 2019), Sex from Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules (Microcosm, 2014), Open Earth (Limerence Press, 2018), and the self-published collection Year of Zines (2020). She is an adjunct professor in Portland State University’s MFA program in Art and Social Practice, where she teaches a graduate seminar on writing and research. Mirk holds a degree in history, with honors, from Grinnell College. She identifies as white, cisgender, and queer. In her free time, she befriends strangers’ dogs.
Interview with Sarah Mirk By Audra McNamee and Rachel Obert
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/SarahMirk Audra McNamee: Let’s define our terms: what is your definition of comics journalism? And what drew you to comics journalism? Sarah Mirk: Comics journalism can be any reported story in comics. What reported means is you interview somebody, you collect facts, and you try to do accurate, reallife storytelling in comics. My definition includes memoir, people reporting on their own lives, as well as writing about somebody else’s life. I’ve done both comics and journalism for basically my whole life. I always wanted to be a journalist. When I was a kid I loved reading the newspaper and I thought it was just the coolest job you could have. I like talking to strangers, and I love being curious about everything, and being a journalist is really good for both of those things. I get to basically find people I’m interested in, and then figure out what’s going on with them. I started working as a journalist when I was in college at the school newspaper, and then I got an internship at a newspaper in Seattle, called The Stranger, when I was 19, and started working for papers from there. At the same time, I also always made comics. I grew up reading a bunch of comics—Mad magazine, Groo by Sergio Aragonés—and would draw all the time with my brother. In high school I started drawing diary comics and zines, but I’d never heard of either of those terms before (I thought I invented the medium). After college, I was a very serious journalist and then drew comics on the side. But throughout my journalism work, I tried to incorporate more comics, and eventually worked with Matt Bors who runs The Nib. We made a couple pieces together, and he invited me to join The Nib in January 2017. Rachel Obert: What would you say your collaborative process is like? For example in Guantanamo Voices, you’re working with a lot of different artists from different parts of the world. How was that in terms of editing and collaboration? How do you manage a project of that scale? SM: I would say that all comics is a collaboration. Even if you’re one of those people who’s drawing and writing
your own comics and putting them out on your own, you’re probably working with a publisher or an editor, or at the very least you’re collaborating with the people who are going to be buying your comics and really thinking about your audience. So comics is great for collaboration, because typically you have people doing each piece of the project. For Guantanamo Voices I researched and wrote the stories in the book, which are based on interviews with people who have spent time at Guantanamo. So it’s ten different stories, from ten different people who have spent time there. I interviewed those people, took the transcripts of those interviews, and turned them into scripts for the comic. Then I worked with a different artist for each chapter to illustrate those stories. So that was helpful because it made a different visual voice for each chapter, along with the different actual voice of each story. I also saw the people who I interviewed as collaborators, so I shared the draft of the scripts with them, as well as the draft of the pencils with them so that they would feel really good about what was published. The way collaboration worked with the artists on the book is that I wrote the scripts, and then I gave the scripts to the artists, and they went through thumbnails, pencils, inks, and colors. I really love to work with artists in a way that gives them a lot of agency, I hope, and makes them feel like the project is theirs as well. So I don’t give a lot of feedback on the visuals; I give them a script, and I have a suggested image for each panel, and I give a giant dropbox full of reference photos. And then they can make whatever artistic choices they want: what perspective to show things from, when to do a really detailed close up versus a scene that’s far away, if they want to cut panels or add panels. And the feedback I gave was mostly around “does the text work?”; “does it literally fit in the panel?”; and on visual accuracy: “the boat would look different”; or “that person wouldn’t have been handcuffed at that time”; or “this uniform is actually slightly different.” Sending the script and the pencils to the people who I interviewed is helpful because they can do a lot of that visual fact checking. I really hope that everyone I worked with on the book feels like it’s their project too and not just mine.
AM: You have an enormous variety of ways that you tell a comics journalism piece, so when you’re beginning a piece, how do you decide if you’ll draw it or if someone else will draw it and, like who that person will be but also if it’s going to be zine or an online comic or a published book? SM: You know that’s a great question; I don’t have a great answer. Because it’s just what feels right. When I’m thinking about a story, I see it in my head as either a comic, or I start thinking about it as a text piece, and it’s the way that I visualize it in my head. I don’t know how to explain that, besides it’s just the way that I see it, and the way that I tell a story to myself. Usually, the stuff that I draw is mostly about my own life or my own experiences. I don’t draw stuff if I don’t have the skills to draw it. Like in Guantanamo Voices, there’s a lot of really complicated drawings of different buildings, helicopters—I can’t draw a helicopter. My style is more cartoony; it’s very fun, and not very true to life, and so it didn’t really feel like the right tone for that really dark story that needed to be really visually accurate. It’s so much more fun to write a script and hand it over to somebody else and have them draw it rather than to have to draw it myself. People know that writing comics is a total scam because you can write it way faster than you can draw it. You can just write “oh yeah there’s 20 people standing around a horse,” and then some poor sucker has to draw that thing. So I really love writing comics and handing them off to somebody else to see what they do with it. AM: How do you think that the physical format and presentation of comics journalism—zine versus an online comic versus a book—change the message of a work? SM: Definitely, with the book people take it a lot more seriously. It feels like a really big deal and also is a bigger deal because it takes so much time and money. I wanted to make Guantanamo Voices for about ten years before I actually started on it. It was a project where I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it without a bunch of money because you have to pay to tell the story right. It needs to be relatively long; the book is like 216 pages. It’s all these different artists working on the different chapters, you have to pay all of them, and printing and distributing a book costs a lot of money, and you need all those connections. If it’s not something that I wanted to devote the next five years of my life to, and all of my money, and call in all of my favors, I wouldn’t make it a book. But I like to make zines when it’s quick and easy, when it’s a story that I want to tell immediately. Maybe it’s just a small story that I want to tell whether it’s a joke, or a funny thing that happened, or something that just feels more immediate that I want to get out there immediately, I’ll make it a zine, and I love making zines because they’re so quick. They’re easy to make; they’re cheap to reproduce—it’s 10 cents to photocopy a zine. It’s not seen as weighty as a book. I don’t have colleges calling me to talk about what zines I made. If you want to actually reach people I think online comics are the way to do it. Because the number of people who will read a book versus click on Instagram posts it’s nowhere the same: A book that sells well might be 20,000 copies; an Instagram
post that’s read by 20,000 people is middle of the road. You just reach a lot more people with online comics, so if you actually want people to read your story within the next year, just publish it online, because people will actually read it. A book takes a long time; it takes a lot of money; it takes knowing people, and calling in every favor you’ve got from everybody. So most of the stories I want to tell, I don’t want to tell them in book format. Publishing either yourself or with publications online, you can reach more people more quickly. RO: Who do you see as your audience? SM: It totally depends on the comic I’m working on. With Guantanamo Voices I was thinking of the audience as Americans who have heard of Guantanamo but aren’t super clear on what it is. I was specifically thinking of somebody who’s 19 or 20 years old, because the prison is 20 years old next year, and so I was thinking of somebody for whom the prison has been around for their whole life. They probably heard the word a few times, and maybe they think of it as a normal part of American life. I’m 34, and I can remember a time before Guantanamo, and I want to make it clear that this is a prison that was made by people within my lifetime, and it can be ended by people within my lifetime. With my other comics, I think of the audience as being somebody that has no previous knowledge of this topic. So if I’m writing about anything where I have to explain something, I just think this has to be accessible to somebody who has no idea what I’m talking about. I make sure I’m not getting too erudite or using obscure terms or assuming any kind of base knowledge. For my zines I think of the audience as my friends. People constantly say my work is really relatable, which I always find surprising because I just write it about my own life, and I always think it’s unique and weird. And then people say, “The exact same thing happened to me!” or “I feel the same way!” It’s really nice that people can connect with what I make that way. AM: How do you perceive yourself as supporting or uplifting diversity in your work? SM: One thing I really think about as a journalist is, what stories do you take on to tell? When I was first starting out as a journalist for the first six or seven years, I would report on anything anytime. Like this is happening; I’m going to go write about it. And now I’m much more careful about what stories I take on: Is this a story that’s good for me to tell? or Should someone from a different background or ethnicity or experience write about this? So that’s something I think about now; I only take on the stories that are right for me to take on, and if somebody asked me to write a story, where that’s not a good fit for me, I tell them to hire somebody else who has had that background. The other thing is I like working as an editor, which is getting other people’s stories published. As an editor you’re behind the scenes, you take pitches, and edit stories, and then help get them published, so that’s what I do at The Nib and that’s
also what I did when I worked at Bitch magazine. I love having people come to me with ideas, and I’m there to help them tell the story and get it published. I hope, as an editor, that I always come across as empathetic and supportive because it is a job about supporting other people, and especially people whose voices are left out of media—that’s who I’m interested in publishing. So I try to focus on people of color, trans and non-binary people, and people from other countries, because we’re really missing voices from the global South in U.S. media. So those are the people who focus on editing and publishing at places where I work, and when I do have the power to hire people for a job I make sure that the first people that I call are women, queer people, and people of color, and there’s people who don’t have a huge amount of influence and power to get a ton of work on their own, so maybe it’s younger artists who are just starting out. Also paying fairly and equitably: so never asking anyone to do work for free, that’s a huge deal. With Guantanamo Voices, I didn’t do it for a long time because I didn’t have the money, and once I finally got the money, I was like, “Now I can pay people to do this.” As a journalist, you have to be really clear about where your sources are coming from. That’s one thing that’s always a big issue in journalism: Whose voices are you quoting in this story, whose perspectives are you valuing? So if I’m working on a piece about anti-trans legislation: How many trans people did I talk to versus cis politicians? You always want to make sure you have a diversity of voices that are included in the piece. RO: Talking about sources and making sure you have the full picture, how do you approach subjectivity in your work? SM: The old school journalism mindset is that you’re an objective reporter and every story you tell is objective, and I have never believed that. That’s totally rooted in white supremacy; it’s rooted in patriarchy; it’s rooted in “There
is only one story to tell and it’s mine, a white guy who’s 55 years old.” I always think what’s much more important as a journalist is to be clear about who you are, try and understand your own biases, and be clear about your own identity. Are you approaching the story as a white person? Know that that’s something that’s factoring into the way that you’re reporting it or who you talk to. Are you approaching this as a cisgender woman—which I am? How does that factor into the way that you’re reporting on it? What I typically try to do, if I’m working on a story, is interview as many people as possible and see where the patterns line up. So if I talk to five people, who all have experiences on the same issue, what do they bring up, and what do they not bring up? For example, I just did a big piece for NPR about dog adoption. The big trending story right now is that people are returning dogs to shelters, but every single shelter I talked to said that that was not their experience. So in that case, I would never frame a story around the idea that everyone’s returning dogs to shelters, because the five people that I talked to said that wasn’t happening; maybe it’s happening somewhere to some people. So that’s an easy example of that. A much more difficult version is for a story like Guantanamo, where every single fact is contested, and there’s no transparency because the government won’t tell us anything. For example, I just wanted to make a little infographic at the front of the book to have some basic facts. One thing I wanted to include was how many kids have been in the prison. So how many people under 18 were imprisoned there? That number varies wildly. I forget what the official government number is, but different groups have gathered different numbers. I finally had to do a range: “The number of juveniles in prison at Gitmo is between 15 and 23.” So we don’t know that number. What I’ll try to do is either use a source that I think of as reliable and cite it, like, “Here’s what Amnesty International says,” or I’ll just do a range to make it clear that it’s unknown and try to be straight-up about that.
When I’m telling somebody’s experience, like in Guantanamo Voices, I think the best thing to do is make it very clear that this is this person’s experience. Somebody else who was at the prison would have had a different experience, but this is this person’s experience so they’re telling their story. Hopefully by putting ten of them together in a book, you see there’s different experiences that happened here. There’s not one universal truth. This person who was in the military experienced something different than this other person who was in the military. And then, as much as I can, I try to find facts and stories that I can back up and cite. So they’re telling me life experience, and I’ll see what details around there can I confirm. I don’t know what happened 30 years ago in another country, but maybe there’s a news report that can back that up. I try to fill out those life stories with as many facts that are confirmable as possible, but then always present it as this person telling their story. What you’re reading is a person’s perspective and experiences, not an objective, universal story. RO: With Guantanamo Voices there was a lot of sensitive material. Talking about the technical side of journalism, how do you personally conduct an interview to accommodate difficult stories like that? SM: I try to do a bunch of research beforehand about the person and what they experienced so that I know going into it what they’ve experienced. I don’t want to ask someone a question that is really upsetting to them and triggering to them because I didn’t do enough research about what they’ve said in the past. I see it as a form of respect for the person I’m interviewing to read as much about them as possible. If I’m talking to somebody about a really sensitive topic, for example torture, if they’ve written about it elsewhere, and I can use that material, I don’t ask them to repeat it for me, for the interview. In the book, for example, I talked to Moazzam Begg, who
was a prisoner at Guantanamo. He’s written a whole memoir about his experiences, which goes in depth on the torture he experienced, and he’s done literally hundreds of other interviews where he talks about it, and he said I could use that material. He said I could quote from his memoir. He said I could quote from other interviews he’s done. So I know that I don’t have to ask about those things in the interview, because I can use that other material. And that’s really helpful to know so that somebody doesn’t have to rehash the most terrible things that happened to them again for me. I also just try to be really respectful that it’s a person that I’m talking to. I try not to push them or to mine a specific story out of them that I want to get. I really try to approach it more as, “Hey, I am here to ask you questions about your life, but if you don’t want to answer them that’s totally fine.” Because I always want to acknowledge that there’s a power imbalance when you’re being interviewed by a journalist. They are the person that’s going to take your story and publish it to the world and share it on the page. That’s a really scary thing; that’s a lot of trust to put into somebody. So I want someone to feel like they don’t have to tell me the things I’m asking about if they don’t want to. I don’t want them to feel any kind of pressure or power struggle going on there. I also always ask them if they have any questions for me. If they have questions, for me, I can answer them so that they feel like it’s not just like an interrogation. Sometimes we’ll talk for 15, 20 minutes, sometimes half an hour before I start asking them questions. It feels good to just talk like normal humans for a little while before you start the interview. I think that sharing their quotes with them before they’re published or sharing the script with them before it’s published is really helpful. I know some journalists don’t do that, but I would 100% rather have them flag something before it’s published than after the fact.
AM: I want to follow up on your response to truth and subjectivity and ask if you see the form of comics journalism as a better way to get across a journalistic message with regard to truth and subjectivity? SM: What I really like about making comics journalism is that readers know that it’s made by a person. I think when people are reading an article, there’s just not a lot of media literacy out there to know that this is written by a human and probably edited by another human and they’re bringing all of their biases and background to it. It’s seen as objective fact. It’s printed on the page; it’s got to be true. Newspapers hold up that false idea sometimes, so what I like about comics is that because they’re drawn by a hand, you can see the hand of the artist in there, and it’s very clear that this is made by a person. As you’re reading it, you’re really thinking about who made it. Whenever I’m reading a comic, I’m always thinking about the person that drew it and the person that wrote it because it feels so much more handmade. Reading an article I feel less of that connection to the person that wrote it. Comics are really a good medium for journalism, because you immediately think about who’s making it. And then that puts you in the mindset of thinking about what biases and experiences they are bringing to it. The form of media most akin to it is podcasts where you’re hearing somebody’s voice, reporters telling you a story, and the whole time we’re thinking “this is a person, a human who is telling me the story.” Often in podcasting and with traditional radio more and more, the reporter can put themselves into the story and say, “I went here, and I was thinking this”; “I got interested in writing the story because of my experiences.” I think that’s really good to tell us who you are; why you are interested in the story; what’s your perspective that you bring to it. I see that as like the clearest translation to writing comics where you’re often putting yourself in the story and letting readers know who you are, and then they can see your hand throughout the whole story. AM: What have you learned from your previous works of comics journalism? And do you see your work developing and changing over time? SM: Yeah, I hope I’m getting better. I hope that’s changing. Definitely my art has gotten a lot better; my own ability to draw has improved dramatically over the last 15 years. Fifteen years ago, I was trying to tell similar stories to what I’m doing now, but it just looked a lot worse. And so now it’s really cool to be at a point where I feel that my art’s at a level where I can actually tell the stories I want to tell. When I started out as a journalist, I was really focused on proving myself. I felt like I had a lot to prove you know, I was really young and a woman, and I just felt like I really had to like work to show that I was serious, capable, intelligent, and hardworking. I was very serious. I’ve really been able to loosen up a bit over the last few years and tell more stories about myself, report on stuff that I care about that’s not necessarily serious journalism.
What stayed the same is I’m always more interested in the project than I am in making any kind of money, so I don’t really care about the money involved. I’m not interested in being a commercial success. I give away a lot of zines; I give away a lot of comics; I’ll volunteer my time for any kind of good group, and with Guantanamo Voices I’m donating the royalties from the book to people that are working to end incarceration and Islamophobia. RO: How do you see comics journalism evolving in the future? SM: There’s a lot more people doing comics journalism these days, both more artists, more writers, and more news outlets taking it seriously. Six or seven years ago I looked at the Wikipedia page for comics journalists and there were five people listed. It was Joe Sacco, Sarah Glidden, Susie Cagle, and two other people. Now there’s dozens and dozens of comics journalists, and that feels really cool. If you like to draw and you like to tell stories in comics, you feel empowered to do a nonfiction story, and to do a little bit of reporting. And hopefully if you’re a traditional journalist, you feel like comics is a medium you can work in. I just hope that it becomes another medium like radio or like print that people feel can be really useful for telling stories, and that a lot more people feel able to do. When I started out making comics people often said to me, “I know comics are popular, but I don’t know where to start, or I don’t know how to draw, so how would I ever make something like that?” People have more tools now to make their own work and publish it, so I’m excited to have more people be able to make comics, and hopefully places publish them.
Writer: Sarah Mirk (American, b. 1986). Artist: Thi Bui (Vietnamese-American, b. 1975). Pages from In/Vulnerable: Inequity in the Time of Pandemic, 2020
Priority, Sequence, and Witnessing Sarah Mirk and Thi Bui’s In/Vulnerable Alex Newsom 201
Beginnings and endings have priority, as one of my professors liked to say. While the stuff in the middle matters, a beginning frames everything which follows, and an ending can either undo or reinforce all that came before. Accordingly, the first story in Sarah Mirk and Thi Bui’s In/Vulnerable—a short anthology of comics exploring the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic—does not merely set the tone for the collection as a whole, but echoes resoundingly throughout. This story describes the experiences of Manuel Rodriguez Ruiz, an asylum seeker from Cuba confined in an ICE detention center in Louisiana since the beginning of the pandemic. Because of its structural position at the head of the collection, Manuel’s tale continues to resonate with the reader through each subsequent narrative; consequently, by the end, it’s the story that’s traveled the furthest and that the reader has carried with them the longest. This structural priority is suggestive in several ways. For example, Manuel is literally held prisoner during the pandemic; his situation can therefore be productively juxtaposed with subsequent perspectives that frame the impact of the pandemic upon their own lives as figurative forms of imprisonment—from those decrying the lockdown measures as infringement upon individuals’ rights to those concerned to highlight the ways in which the pandemic revealed or exacerbated existing social constraints. Besides drawing our attention to the important difference between literal and metaphorical notions of confinement, the structural position of Manuel’s story in the collection has consequences for our interpretation of another formal feature of the text: the decision to present each story as the result of an interview with a single subject. At first blush, this sequence of individualized narratives, each one named with a personal pronoun (“Manuel,” “Sean,” “Sarah,” “Zenobia,” etc.), would seem to suggest a kind of impartiality, as if each
of the individual accounts could be weighed equally in terms of what they reveal about the pandemic and its consequences. However, this apparent formal impartiality is undone when we consider the way the stories place different themes and experiences in juxtaposition: as it turns out, some subjects struggle far more than others, and not all their experiences carry the same weight. This is made apparent by the first juxtaposition of the collection, which contrasts Manuel’s experience with that of a high-level investment broker name Sean, who discusses the precarity of the stock market. Manuel tells us that “If the virus makes it here [a detention center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana], this place is a ticking time bomb,”—a fragment of dialogue that also serves as a subtitle for Manuel’s story on the contents page. By contrast, the subtitle of Sean’s interview—also a fragment of dialogue— tells us that “Scary times can be exciting as well.” The message is clear: the precarity that Manuel and Sean both face is not equal. The interviews gathered and represented as comics journalism in In/Vulnerable are clearly meant to be read in dialogue with one another, then; and Manuel’s story, by dint of priority, serves to teach the audience how to hear this dialogue, and in some sense, how to read all the stories that follow. Bui’s choice to position Manuel in such a way that he is constantly looking out at the reader is also suggestive of the overall importance of this story for the collection. Elsewhere, Bui usually includes at least one panel in which the individual telling their story looks directly at the reader, but these are interspersed with panels showing them going about their business, or more thematic panels that don’t depict the speakers at all, but instead illustrate some larger point of their narratives. By contrast, Manuel is not only present in every panel of his story, but in more than half of them he appears to violate the convention of the “fourth wall” by talking directly to us as we follow him throughout his day-
to-day activities in ICE Processing Center. In fact, Manuel’s face is fully obscured in only one of the eight panels of his story: the second panel on the first page, which shows him being savagely beaten. Here, Manuel would be unidentifiable without the caption box; based on the image alone, the man being beaten could be almost anyone. Bui’s choice to hide Manuel’s face during this particularly vulnerable moment not only emphasizes the visibility—indeed, the centrality—of his face in the rest of the panels, but also draws attention to the work of the reader’s gaze itself. The other panels imply a reciprocal gaze between the individual telling their story and the witness of that story; this reciprocal act of seeing and being seen is rendered perhaps most explicitly in the second to last panel of the narrative, in which we see Manuel looking out from his interviewer’s tablet, and being looked upon (and listened to) by his interviewer. This foregrounding of the experience of being seen and recognized, contrasted with a loss of individuality at a moment of highest vulnerability, works to emphasize the power differential at play between looking and being looked at, as well as the crucial difference between being objectified by someone’s gaze, and recognized as a subject in the sight of another. Manuel’s story also serves as a reminder that to look is a privilege, and to witness is to be made aware of someone else’s vulnerability. Manuel’s answering gaze, particularly as rendered by Bui in the final two panels, reminds the reader that there is a politics—and a privilege—implicit in any act of looking. In the prior six panels, the reader is positioned “alongside” Manuel by an omniscient comics-narrator— sharing his cell, accompanying him on his chores. But with the seventh panel, this illusion is suddenly dispelled as the camera eye pulls back still further, and we see Manuel telling his story to his interviewer by means of a digital device. “We”
were never in prison with him—instead the interviewer (and by implication the audience) is safe at home, on the other side of the screen. This abrupt switch of perspectives, taking us from inside the detention facility to behind the shoulder of an interviewer with an iPad, represents one of the most vertiginous moments in the entire collection (indeed, we will not see a direct representation of an interviewer or witness again). It’s a choice that underlines the reality of Manuel’s isolation; no matter how much we might relate or sympathize with his situation, he alone must bear the burden of his experience. It’s also a moment that sends a fundamental message of the best comics journalism: that the act of witnessing carries with it an enormous responsibility. But even as the penultimate panel reminds us of our distance from his struggles, Manuel’s positioning in the last panel perhaps attempts to transcend the barriers of distance and time. Though the vertical frame Manuel leans on still represents the post of his bunk bed (as shown in the very first panel), it takes on a visual alignment with the panel border, almost suggesting that he could push aside the basic confines of the page and move towards us. The emphasis on his distance, followed immediately by a closeup that works to erase that distance, suggests the unique possibilities of the comics medium for non-fiction narrative: the comics form can both create illusions of closeness to activate empathy, while at the same time reminding us of the power of our own gaze, and the potential vulnerability of those who are the objects of our scrutiny. Just as the structural decision to open In/ Vulnerable with Manuel’s story teaches us to read these stories in dialogue with one another, his framing throughout his story demonstrates the interplay between vulnerability and agency that is fundamental to the collection as a whole.
Sarah Mirk Exhibition Checklist
Writer: Sarah Mirk | Artist: Maki Naro Pages from Guantanamo Voices, 2020
Writer: Sarah Mirk | Artist: Alexandra Beguez Pages from Guantanamo Voices, 2020
Writer: Sarah Mirk | Artist: Thi Bui Pages from In/Vulnerable: Inequity in the Time of Pandemic, 2020
“It’s just an ongoing thing of gauging what your best storytelling tools are for the journalistic approach of the comic.” Gerardo Alba by Audra McNamee
Gerardo Alba is a cartoonist from Mexico City whose work ranges from journalism to slice of life and science fiction. Alba received his M.A. in sequential art from the Savannah College of Art and Design and was a professor of art at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Querétaro, Mexico. His comics have been published by The Nib, Abrams, and Tiny View. In 2015 he co-founded Little Red Bird Press and took on the role of Art Director. In that role he participated in the creation of works like “Sex Bomb Strikes Again,” “Blocked: Stories from the World of Online Dating,” and “Back Piece.” In 2017 Alba won the Jóvenes Creadores (“Young Creators”) grant from The National Fund for Culture and Arts (FONCA) in Mexico, and in 2018 he won a grant for an artist residency in Angoulême, France from the French Embassy and the Mexican government. He is currently an editor at the Latin American division of Webtoon.
Interview with Gerardo Alba By Renee Thompson and Lauren Allen
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/GerardoAlba Renee Thompson: As someone who has worked in multiple different spheres in the comics realm, what specifically pushed you in the direction of journalistic comics? Gerardo Alba: It was 2015, when I was living in Mexico, with my partner—who is American—she also has a background in comics, so I was used to just having shop talk, but every time, every meal, every waking hour, we would talk about comics, or just like whatever was in the news. And at that point, during Trump’s campaign when it started, all of a sudden I found my life completely surrounded. I was thinking about it very often and not in a great way. It was very overwhelming. And I had my only skill set that I had continuously worked on for the entirety of my lifetime was storytelling, so I just put two and two together. I thought that having the background of having been in the U.S. recently, but then being in Mexico, but then still having a connection with the U.S. with my now wife and then girlfriend being American living in Mexico, we had an interesting point of view that we could convey in comics. So that’s how I started working in nonfiction, and that kind of just blew the doors open for me. I had read some comics journalism before, but that was my foot in the door. RT: In the journalistic comics genre, do you have any fanboy loves? GA: There’s plenty of people in The Nib, like Maki Naro. He is somebody whose work I’ve been following since I was in college. He was doing a lot of science comics at the time, and with time it also turned a bit more political. So I was very interested in his approach. We’ve got to be in the same magazines and websites, which is very exciting. Also Eleri Harris and Matt Bors. They just are such figureheads of comics journalism. Lauren Allen: You are now an editor for Webtoon, but you’re also a comics creator. How do you find the shift to digital has impacted your approach to comics making and how has digital affected the reception and reach of those comics? GA: In general it’s weird because the process seems so
streamlined. I’m still such a big fan of print, but the accessibility that webcomics offers is just mind-blowing, the fact that you can just like blast it, and then immediately so many people can have access to it. It’s something that I’ve always been very interested in, especially coming from Latin America, where I think that there’s so many countries that are connected. We share a language; we’re one after another for the span of a continent—two thirds of a continent. But the comic books that are made in one country do not often break the border. It’s very independent comic book scenes in all of Latin America. But digital comics break those walls, and immediately it’s accessible to everybody. I remember seeing this phenomenon with this Instagram account, Pictoline. They do a lot of infographics journalism and their market is all of Latin America, all of Hispanic America. And it was just incredible to see how the format, be it Instagram, infinite scroll, Webtoon, or something that adjusts from print to web to mobile (like The Nib), they all serve a different purpose, but you can start to see, like all of the little details that make storytelling function best for each way. LA: How does telling stories about transnationality and border crossing from the perspective of someone who has lived in both Mexico and the U.S. translate into the contradiction that is comics itself ? How are you using comics...does it become a cathartic situation? GA: My first approach with comics journalism was the telling of “Caminata Nocturna.” And it was almost an autobio but making an analysis as we went through the experience. (I say “we” because I took my now wife.) It was cathartic, but it’s also a little bit scary to put yourself there. I think that sometimes to present facts or opinions, in a way separates you from the work, and that’s still doing the work of journalism, but kinda draw some distance. There are definitely some comics where I feel like they need the personal touch, but it’s always scary. It’s always the fear of “Is this comic lessened by me inserting myself into it?” I do not want all the facade and just having it be very preachy. Any piece of information that I have there, any piece of actual data that I might have is lessened by having this cartoony mustachioed drawing in there. So it’s trying to find a balance, and I don’t know
if I actually have hit it. I think it’s just an ongoing thing of gauging what your best storytelling tools are for the journalistic approach of the comic. RT: You addressed it quite eloquently: there’s this struggle, as someone who makes cartoony type art, where you get perceived a certain way. So who do you feel is your audience? GA: That’s a great question, and that’s a question that has been something that I have wondered. Because there’s probably two answers: there’s probably who the audience actually is versus who I would like the audience to be. Sometimes there’s a bigger overlap than others. My answer would be that I want to have comics that could be read by...saying anybody is very idealistic...but a wide spectrum of readers. Very often, when I’m writing a piece I have this approach of stating things but coming from the point of view that I do not want to make any assumptions at the beginning. I don’t want to make any assumptions that the reader has x or y piece of information already in their head. Because then you are losing a lot of people from the get go, so when you present information do not take things for granted, do not take political affiliation, or any connection to a culture, do not take those things for granted. Because a lot of times that’s where a lot of friction derives in all of the political spheres, and it’s from people looking below anybody who’s not on their same side. At the same time, I do post for very liberal websites, so it would be naive for me to say that my audience is anybody. The comments sometimes make it very clear, but the mere fact that there are disagreements in the comments means that it’s actually reaching some people that I wasn’t really anticipating, so that’s always a good thing. (laughs) Once it settles…once the negative comments settle, there’s a very positive [benefit] in receiving that type of thing. LA: Your work covers a lot of sensitive and sometimes traumatic reportage, including immigration and transnationality, and the violence at the border. How do you find a balance between accurate storytelling and overinforming or overwhelming your readers visually?
GA: That’s a constant struggle where I wish that I had a formula, because that would make my day way easier on the drafting table. But generally, I think that it’s just finding the statement or the key information that you would like the reader to take away at the very end. Because once you start doing research, you are going to find resources until kingdom come. You’re going to find so much data that if I know I have 10 panels, 20 panels, and I know that there’s enough information for a book, it’s understanding that that’s not what I’m doing: I’m not doing an in-depth. I’m more so giving my point of view, or pointing towards a direction and, hopefully, opening the curiosity on people. But then, using that statement, or the piece of information that I want the reader to take away from the piece, and then trying to disseminate the information that makes a case for that. It’s almost like putting it side to side: like does this stat— maybe it’s a stat that’s very impactful—but does it help make that point? And sometimes the answer is no, and you let go of information that is hard. There’s testimonials of people that you sometimes let go because there’s not enough space, or numbers that in the abstract it’s easy to let go, but then you know that there’s a lot of people attached to it, and then it’s a little bit harder. You have to, if not prioritize, think of the final thesis of the project. LA: Your comics move very fluidly between this metaphoric analytical style and very journalistic encounters with a lot of crossover in between the two. How has comics journalism affected your approach to truth telling and subjectivity? How do you decide what parts of your reportage to include or to scrap when you’re forming a cohesive comic? GA: First off, thank you for that. I’ll take that as a compliment. My approach to paving the way of the thesis in my pieces is more informed by fiction comics than nonfiction comics. Before 2015, I don’t think I ever thought that I was going to be working in nonfiction or in journalism, so at the same time that I was doing “Caminata Nocturna,” I was trying to pitch a story about a tattooing tiger.
So I was thinking at the time of like the beat sheet, and the three act structure, and making sure that the story flows. It’s just that same idea of storytelling, but you just swap character decisions or conflict to pieces of information. You’re still gonna have this arc, hopefully, that you can take people through the thick of the conflict or the subject matter of the piece, and then at the end either have an idea of what to do, a reflection or something that the readers can relate to bring it back home for them. So it’s just a lot of making lists. If I have 40 panels, I just write panel one, panel two, panel three, and then try to see what is a key part, like the key information for each of those, to make my own beat sheet, but with journalism. RT: In this current newsscape people get information from all sorts of different types of media and there are definitely people who just get news from different social media apps. How do you feel comics journalism will evolve and change into this new age where we’re dealing with things like misinformation and malinformation?
GA: Maybe I’m being a little bit skewed, but definitely the Guantanamo Voices scripts that Sarah [Mirk] wrote and some of the testimonials that she had. It was kind of a weird project to be a part of because it was very exciting, but it was also heartbreaking. It was hard to read some of those things, some of the testimonials, some of the personal stories from some of the chapters, so that one was very impactful. Persepolis was, I think, probably the first nonfiction book of that style that I read when I was in high school. Getting comic books and graphic novels in Mexico was kind of hard, so what I would do is go online if I was going to travel to the U.S. and do some research of the best graphic novels and write a list on post-it notes, put it in my pocket, and then I would look at Barnes and Noble. That was my way of sourcing, and I bought some books that I was way too young to understand or some that were not my cup of tea (things that I’ve come to appreciate now), but that [Persepolis] was definitely one that I read then, loved it, read it now, I still love it. I think there’s something very universal about that one.
GA: Unfortunately, I think that comics journalism is gonna, like all types of media, be informed by the prospect of putting things too quickly, without doing enough vetting or not getting enough good sources, or just doing something for getting the likes. At the end of the day, a lot of this content is just hosted in social media and getting approval of a certain group with a certain opinion. If you know your audience and you are catering content towards them, inevitably you’re going to fall in some of those pitfalls. So, that’s the biggest risk of comics journalism being a part of the digital landscape, that it’s also subject to those problems. I think inevitably comics journalism will have to realize that they cannot keep up with other types of media, they cannot keep up to the immediacy of a newspaper or an article that’s just written. I’m not putting any judgment or anything on traditional journalism or newsmedia, but by its nature it’s way faster. [In] comics, writing is one thing, and then you have to do a comic, and it takes forever man. It takes so long to do a comic and make it appealing. The direction that I think is more sustainable is either the political strip, like the format of the newspaper strip that is very immediate, very snappy, but also for bigger pieces, just like an essay, the visual essay format is kinda like the future. Because it just gives a more evergreen perspective, or it reflects a certain time, but it is not pretending to be the primary source of information, because I don’t think that comics journalism is ever going to or should be that. I don’t think that’s the point about comics journalism. I equate it to some of the shows, like Last Week Tonight, for example, they’re not breaking news they’re just repackaging it. So that’s basically what we’re doing. We are sometimes giving a different point of view, but we’re not breaking news; we don’t need that immediacy. LA: What is one piece of reportage that stood out to you in terms of its impact on you?
RT: Correct me if I’m wrong, but in your work with Guantanamo Bay, you actually contacted the person whom you wrote about. Would you like to talk a little bit about that experience? GA: Yeah sure. I actually did not get in contact with him until after I did the piece. To be completely honest, while I was working on it, I was very intimidated by Mark Fallon. All I had to go by was a script, and what he did, and the photos, and he is a counterterrorist expert. I didn’t think, I’m going to reach out to this guy and see what he has to say to this cartoonist. I was a bit intimidated, but then, when I started posting sketches or promoting the book, he is very active on social media, and he started commenting on things. That’s when we started contact, and obviously I had a very narrow way of looking at him, like “His job is who he was.” Of course not, he’s actually super friendly; it’s just that his work is incredibly high-stakes and intimidating for somebody who draws for a living. Fortunately he was very open in his
interviews with Sarah, and he was very descriptive. He also provided descriptions; he provided photos; he provided a lot of things that were a prime resource for a book about a place that is so secretive. In hindsight, if I were to start on the book again I would definitely have made contact beforehand. But, hey, you live, you learn. LA: As someone who has been both the student and the professor; the writer and the artist, the editor—you wear a lot of different hats—are there any pieces of advice that you have or anything you wish you knew as an aspiring comics creator? GA: It’s funny; that’s a very common conversation with my wife. You will have to cut me off at some point if it gets too much. First thing: there are some pieces of advice that are perceived to be these common understandings that I would just say completely disregard. There was this saying that I encountered both as a student and then a professor that if you work doing what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s not true. That’s not true at all. You’ll end up working way way more hours, being way more invested; it’s going to be more taxing, so that’s rough, but it does have its higher highs. Similar to that, very often I remember hearing that you’re
only as good as your last project or as your last book. I would say that’s bullshit. I don’t think there’s any truth in that, or if there is some truth to that, that’s not the right mindset to have with any project. There are some projects that you should learn to just finish, hit the deadline, and is it the best thing you’ve done? No, but at the end of the day, you’re a commercial artist. As high and mighty as we cartoonists like to think we are, we’re commercial artists, so we do have deadlines. We have to learn when to finish a project or when to let a project go. There’s plenty of unfinished scripts that maybe you dedicated a lot of time, but not everything is going to end up being a project. I think that other industries are better about understanding that. I’m sure there’s so many unfinished Hollywood scripts that you just let go. Your breakout project doesn’t have to be the first idea that comes to mind so. And then, as a general advice, every skill, every piece of information can always be beneficial if you let it. Like you can learn to do hand lettering with the Ames Lettering Guide, and then never touch one in your life. But it might help your digital lettering. And that’s a very simple example, but if you put it in the realm of any additional skill, any language, any
book that you read, at some point you never know what’s going to inform your work. So be open to doing that, and be open to changing—as you were saying—changing hats. You’re not always going to be the inker. Sometimes you’re just gonna have to shovel some shit, and you’re just gonna have to do some projects that wouldn’t be your dream project, and that’s fine. Even if it’s comics, take it as a job. Every job comes with red tape or parts of it that you don’t want. I really like teaching. There are a lot of things about academia that I didn’t like. There’s a lot of things about being an editor that I don’t like. You’re always going to find that, but you just have to balance it, so take off the rose-tinted glasses. And it sounds pessimistic, but I actually think that it’s very freeing when you learn you’re not doing art every single day if you’re a cartoonist, let alone a nonfiction cartoonist.
LA: Any comics or projects you’re nerding out over right now? GA: I’ve been revisiting Emily Carroll, and I had never read her work printed only digital; it’s beautiful either way. And Paco Roca; I’m always surprised at what he can do. Just excited that I can now buy his books in English, now that a lot of them are getting translated, so that way my wife can also read them, so it feels like a better investment for the household.
I do not have that mindset of you have to sketch every waking hour. There are weeks when I do not draw, and I have come to really enjoy that. I don’t remember the last time that I bought a sketchbook. I just draw for work, and that’s fine. If you can sketch all the time, more power to you, but it’s not a requirement. Everybody finds their own balance.
Gerardo Alba Exhibition Checklist
Writer: Sarah Mirk | Artist: Gerardo Alba Pages from Guantanamo Voices, 2020
“Visit Beautiful Friendship Park,” 2017
“Visit Beautiful Friendship Park,” 2017
“Caminata Nocturna: The Border Crossing Experience,” 2016
“Caminata Nocturna: The Border Crossing Experience,” 2016
Andy Warner (American, b. 1984). “The Nib Bureau of Statistics,” 2020. Digital comic
Trump Through the Looking-Graphs Andy Warner’s Pandemic Stats Chris Ivy 247
Andy Warner’s art rewards those who look closely. Perhaps known best for his work on human rights and environmental issues, Warner has also become a valuable source of information and insight during the Coronavirus pandemic. His “Pandemic Stats” foldout, first published digitally in The Nib (November 2020 ‘Pandemic’ issue), provides readerviewers with vital statistics regarding the COVID-19 crisis. Making use of the complex visual/verbal form of the digital foldout, as well as graphs, icons, and various forms of visual metaphor, Warner’s “Pandemic Stats” highlights the connections between structures of inequality, incompetent leadership, and COVID-19’s continued impact on American life. The first thing reader-viewers may notice is that Warner’s foldout is split into two numerical calendar graphs by a black line that runs through the center of the image. The portion of the page above the black center line features a graph tracking “New Daily Reported Cases of COVID-19 in the U.S.” with red and white lines; the graph in the bottom half of the image tallies “Daily Reported Deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S.” with black and white lines. Warner further emphasizes the counting metrics of his two larger graphs through visual symbolism: the daily reported cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. are surrounded by and linked to symbolic representations of viral pathogens, while the daily reported deaths are enclosed by two skulls and crossbones.
Warner’s graphs show that as the symbolic COVID pathogen spreads and becomes nearly invisible—the pathogen symbol disappears from sight after the March portion of the image and is only seen again in September—it nevertheless remains destructive and deadly as it moves across the United States. COVID’s deadliness is also illustrated by the representation of bodies, which fall continuously from the sky as black and white figures, even after the skulls and crossbones fade from view. The spectator may not be able to “see” the virus, but they can register its spread and impact through the numbers and visual symbolism Warner provides. Warner’s visual iconography works in tandem with the statistics to reinforce the idea that these data points are not simply numerical abstractions; they represent real people who have lost their lives.
Warner’s clever use of page layout and the visual/verbal form of the digital foldout creates room for reader-viewers to consider critically both the structures of inequality that allowed the pandemic to spread through the United States, and the staggering ineptitude of the response. Instead of presenting COVID cases and deaths as distinct events occurring outside the realm of political and social struggles, Warner highlights the connections between structures of inequality, incompetent leadership, and COVID-19’s surge. The two large counting graphs merge, for instance, around the number zero and at a red dot that leads into a redwhite negative image of then-President Donald Trump. The figure of Trump stares directly at the reader-viewer and repeats a statement that Trump made in March, 2020: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” The formal context does not simply expose Trump’s falsehood, but also encourages reader-viewers to think of the former president’s inaction as the starting point of the timeline—the epicenter or “ground zero” for the waves of death that move across the page. Trump’s emphatic rhetoric and claims of “control” are situated in stark contrast to the economic chaos and dead bodies all around him. While the figure of Trump looks toward the spectator and away from impending tragedy, the reader-viewer sees the Republic for which Trump supposedly stands swept away by the tide of infection, inequality, and death.
It is no coincidence that the figure of Donald Trump and the red-white coloring associated with him appear frequently where the graphs converge and explode. In fact, he is the only person depicted looking straight at the reader-viewer. The foldout’s positioning of Trump thus reminds us that he denied and downplayed the pandemic’s dangers, and that this dishonesty contributed directly to the escalating death rate. The reader-viewer watches in horror as Trump looks away (while attempting to deflect attention towards the Stock Exchange). It’s an all-too-accurate visual synecdoche for American political life in 2020. As the reader-viewer moves across a timeline of events from March through September 2020, the effects of Trump’s refusal to see or speak to the reality of events is revealed explicitly through statistics, graphs, color symbolism, and more devices of visual metaphor. The April-September months of the graph, which are denoted by color patterns alternating between purple-white and green-white, blur together with the centralized red-white imagery that marks Trump’s actions and comments during the pandemic. By repeatedly positioning Trump’s quotes and policies at the visual center of the calendar graphs, Warner again implicates the former president and his failure to recognize or address disparities intensified by the pandemic. The human costs of the Trump administration’s inaction are foregrounded most clearly in the July and August portions of the foldout. Here, the average number of infections reaches 65,000 cases per day, which causes a rupture in the upper boundaries of Warner’s graph, suggesting a kind of “breaking point” within the social system that the larger design is mapping. The sheer volume of COVID cases in July 2020 is further emphasized by an arrow pointing upward toward a peak outside the daily infections graph. The number 65,000 is presented in large, white font and is surrounded on all sides by information regarding Trump’s drive to undermine life-saving restrictions in the name of the economy. The implication is that no representational system— numeric, verbal, or visual— can fully encapsulate the staggering effects of the COVID crisis on the social system, let alone capture the cost in human lives. Both text and image work together in this moment to contradict and displace Trump’s preferred narrative: his invocations of the Lone Ranger and insistence that maskwearing is a personal choice is presented in tandem with the observation that even as he made these statements, 27 million Americans lost access to healthcare. As he blusters “it will all work out!” we see that the U.S. death toll has surpassed 100,000 people; as he claims “this thing’s going away…like things go away,” we see in a pie chart that the United States accounts for 20% of all COVID-19 deaths, despite having only 4% of the world’s population. Warner’s sophisticated presentation of information, his juxtaposition of Trump’s denials and dishonesty alongside information and iconography detailing the suffering and disparity experienced by so many during the pandemic, literalizes the observation that (far from fading away) COVID-19 has become “woven into the very fabric of our lives and deaths.”
“One of the things that I really love about comics is that it’s one of the more complicated art forms that you can work in, in fiction or nonfiction.” Andy Warner by Audra McNamee
Andy Warner creates nonfiction comics. He is the author of Spring Rain, This Land is My Land, and the NY Times Best Selling Brief Histories of Everyday Objects. His books have been translated into Russian, Chinese, Korean, French and Spanish. He is a contributing editor at The Nib and teaches cartooning at Stanford University and The Animation Workshop in Denmark. His work has been published widely, including by Slate, American Public Media, Popular Science, KQED, IDEO.org, The Center for Constitutional Rights, UNHCR, UNRWA, UNICEF, Google X and Buzzfeed. Warner was a recipient of the 2018 Berkeley Civic Arts Grant and the 2019 and 2021 Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park Artist-in-Residency.
Interview with Andy Warner By Forest Wihtol and Debarghya Sanyal
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/andywarner Debarghya Sanyal: How did you go from completing a graduate degree in comics to becoming a comics journalist? And why do you think that comics are an effective form for telling nonfiction stories? Andy Warner: I had experimented a little bit with nonfiction before going to grad school. I went to grad school at the Center for Cartoon Studies. And I have done a memoir comic, and a little history comic. While I was in school at CCS, I did a mini-comic about the time I was living in Beirut in 2005, when Rafic Hariri was assassinated, and the government fell. There was a great response from the students. It was a story that was really important to me and delving into it was a very interesting experience. It set me on the path. I had gone to grad school thinking I would do fiction, but then I realized that I was really good at nonfiction. I realized I was getting more out of it than I ever did out of working in fiction. So, I just swerved from there. While I was still in school, I started doing freelance assignments for Slate. This was during the early days of the Arab uprisings in 2011. And then immediately after I graduated this kind of non-fictional, reportage-based work became my focus. They were my bread and butter during those years, primarily because it was easy to get assignments. Then I would do webcomics that were more history-based. Forest Wihtol: You’ve been instrumental in creating the transnational and really heterogeneous network of artists that contribute to The Nib or—before that—Irene; can you tell us about that process, both how you meet so many different kinds of artists, and then how you get them involved in nonfiction comics? AW: One of the most amazing things about comics is that it’s still a small world, especially nonfiction comics. There are people all over the world that love comics and read them. There are different traditions of comics, like the American underground comics. A comics fandom exists everywhere, and wherever you go, you can find communities of people expressing themselves through comics. That was an experience I had had growing up and moving around as a kid. I often met people that were quite invested in comics. And then my interest in them bloomed again when I went
to Lebanon. In 2006, after I returned from Lebanon, I was also introduced to comics artists and writers there who were working on a comics collective called Samandal. It was founded by four cartoonists, artists and animators. From the getgo, they wanted to publish the anthology in three different languages—Arabic, French and English, with artists from as many different places as they could find, so there were artists from the U.S., Lebanon, France, all over the place. So, I immediately, early on in my career, like 2007, had access to a really international community of cartoonists. And then when I went to grad school, it was this model of collaborative comics that became an inspiration for Irene, which was more fiction focused. Meanwhile, the nonfiction scene was brewing in the background with the help of people like Matt Bors and Erin Polgreen. When I started getting more heavily involved in the editorial side of The Nib, I brought this huge network that had snowballed till that point while working with these two international publications. In fact, in the last issue of Irene that we put out before it imploded, we had a cartoonist from every continent, including Antarctica. Both with Samandal and Irene there was always this really explicitly international focus to try to connect communities of cartoonists that exist all across the world, but are usually siloed because of language barriers. DS: Can you describe your process for reporting and how you approach a story that you plan to draw? AW: Well, first the most important thing is thinking about where you plan to have it published. Thinking about where it’s going to end up and the audience is very important. That shapes the pitch; so you’re kind of thinking about all this stuff before you come to an editor with it. The basic idea of [the pitch] is why this is interesting to you. Because there’s a whole world out there, a billion things that could be interesting. The making of a chair could be interesting. I have a whole side career out of making boring things seem interesting. It’s a passion of mine and I have written a bunch of books about it. It’s the same principle; you’re finding the fascination in it and then explaining that fascination to somebody else. It starts with the editor; you should be able to hook them. So you come to them with an idea.
And the way you get those ideas is just by looking around, being aware, listening to things, talking to people, remembering stories, and then once something catches your attention, digging into it deeper. Once somebody’s bid on a story, I generally write out a skeleton of it first, and then I’ll start doing interviews. That skeletal structure is really subject to change; it’s just a foundational idea that guides my interviews. Once I have the audio from the interviews and reference photos that I take, if I am able to do them in person or do a site visit—which has been harder over the last year and a half—I process those. There’re a ton of great AI transcription software out there, these days. (AIs are good at this point, they’re going to take all our jobs.) You get the transcriptions, then you break it up into story chunks. You have this one long talk that has unspooled between you and the person. I would suggest that if you’re interviewing, you have a little notebook alongside which you can then use to timestamp interesting stuff in the conversation. And that just reminds you that when you’re looking at the AI transcription the next day, that you can go and look at like, minute ten. It’s good to timestamp stuff because it lets you form the narrative in your head. And so, an interview is a collection of narrative blocks, and you separate out the blocks and figure out how to arrange them into the skeletal structure, thumbnail it out, start drawing it. And then hopefully people read it! With a lot of editorial process back and forth. I have worked as a writer, a writer-artist, an artist for somebody else writing, and as an editor. I have kind of worked in all of the roles. And the influence of the editor is not to be understated. You should be sharing the stuff as you’re working on it with the person who’s expecting to publish it, as often as you can. You don’t want a bad surprise and they don’t want a bad surprise, especially with comics because they’re so much more hard to revise than prose is. FW: As a follow up, when you teach at the Stanford Graphic Novel Project—you just gave a lot of advice—is there any additional advice you give your students for drawing nonfiction? AW: Sure, yeah. There’s endless advice! (chuckles) The Stanford Project is interesting; it’s a group project. Some people are penciling, some are inking, and everybody’s doing everything. So a given page may be penciled by one person, inked by another, colored by another, written by another, and nobody specializes. One of the things I try to teach with that program is getting a little good at everything, which I think is important so you don’t get slowed down in the process. If you need to figure out how something looks in print, you’ll need to know a little bit of InDesign. You need to know how to do quick digital edits, so you’ll have to know a bit of Photoshop as well. If this stuff frustrates you, it’s fine! You don’t need to know everything, but just familiarize yourself enough that if something new comes at you, you don’t get scared of it or get stuck in technological ruts. I work digitally purely, and I have since 2007. I don’t draw using pen and paper at all. I’ve switched technological tools a bunch of times since then. I’ve switched programs as the stuff has gotten better and better. It’s helped me work faster, and it’s helped me stay on top of how to turn files into editors
properly, how to not frustrate the publications that I am working on. As a freelancer, you’re your own boss, and you’re also your own tech department, and your own HR, and that makes it a big, difficult job. You have to take care of yourself and make sure that you’re doing all those things, because nobody else is going to. DS: How much does your audience or platform influence how you tell a story? When you’re writing a piece for the UN do you have a different set of goals than if you’re writing for, say, Buzzfeed? AW: Yeah, massively! I have a strange career since everything I do is nonfiction. But I work in a lot of different spaces— everything from kids’ books to anti-genocide advocacy stuff, like NGOs, to journalism (objective, paid journalism work) to memoir. All of those have different sets of rules. They’re all nonfiction spaces—a jokey history of a toothbrush is a nonfiction space—but it has different rules than a serious treatment of political violence. You can’t just flippantly jump between them. I always, from the early days of my career, was working on weird dark stuff at the same time as jokey fun stuff. It’s just like nonfiction code switching; you think about your audience, you think about how they would react, and then you tailor it for that. That doesn’t mean censoring yourself in any way; you just put yourself in the shoes of the person reading it: This person has picked up this thing to read because you’ve managed to interest them, and it’s fine to challenge them— you should challenge them—but challenge them on terms that they understand and accept. You can write very complex stuff for kids, but you can’t write for kids like you write for adults and vice versa. You also can’t write for screens like you write for print. One of the things that I really love about comics is that it’s one of the more complicated art forms that you can work in, in fiction or nonfiction. If you’re thinking about the page, it’s a graphic design problem; if you’re thinking about the narrative, it’s a story problem; if you’re thinking about how to draw people, it’s an art problem. You’re also thinking about journalistic integrity and ethics, and thinking about the audience and the reception of the audience and the medium that it’s appearing in: print, digital, size of the panels.... FW: Since you first began producing works of comics journalism, what are some of the major changes you have noticed in the field, in terms of practices, tools and approaches? Which of these are you most excited about, and which ones not so much? AW: [Comics journalism] is an old field. I came to it at a point where people like Joe Sacco had been huge in it for a decade and a half. Sarah Glidden’s star was on the rise. I didn’t have to make the case to editors that comics journalism was a serious enterprise, and I am wildly thankful for that. Not having to expend the energy cutting the path, and just walking down it is something I am so grateful for! Because all the editors that I was pitching to, at places like Slate or Popular Science, they had read Safe Area Goražde or Palestine. These [books] were assigned in university classes. The idea that comics were a serious way to treat nonfiction stories, including
something as sacred as journalism, that had been breached, and I didn’t need to make that argument to editors. So that was one thing, as I was starting my career, what’s changed is that there’s been a lot more people doing it. When I started, I could count the number of people on one hand, that I knew of. Also, a lot of times you think there’s only a few people, but they’re just not connected. That’s one of the beautiful things about something like Samandal or The Nib or any of these things that exist to bring people together. They can make people realize that they’re not alone in a practice, in trying to create good honest nonfiction work using the medium of comics. And then, those spaces became entrenched and well-funded. Money started coming in from like v[enture] c[apital] places. They probably thought they could turn a profit. Joke’s on them; they didn’t. But they accidentally funded a beautiful and vibrant nonfiction comics scene, which has outlasted the venture capital funding. It’s no longer the golden days of a year and a half or two years ago when The Nib was rolling in money, and we were putting out four issues of the print quarterly a year and three long-form stories on the website a week. But all the people that were brought together during that era still know each other. The Nib still exists, and everybody’s still making comics, for the most part. People always come to comics, and they always leave, and the scene changes. I have been lucky enough to get there after you stopped having to make the argument for its existence. And then I was able to be around to watch it come together into this really global scene, where cartoonists from Australia know cartoonists from Lebanon, know cartoonists from Finland, know cartoonists in South Africa, know cartoonists in Brazil, etc. etc. And we hang out when we’re at different conventions. DS: What lies ahead? What do you think of the future— personally, for your own work, as well as the future of comics journalism? AW: Well, one thing that’s exciting is that there’s so many people who are mid-career and still more at an early career stage. The people who are mid-career, the people I came up with like Matt Bors, Eleri [Harris], Mattie Lubchansky, or the other people at The Nib, that first generation, are all beginning to do big, interesting things. Organs like The Nib and other places still exist and are publishing a generation of even younger cartoonists. And this was starting to happen with my generation of cartoonists and the generation before me, but the generation that I’m teaching right now in my classes in Denmark and Stanford are a wholly different kind of cartoonists. I got to know comics in the 90s, when it was associated with kind of nerdy white guys hanging out in shops that were impenetrable to anybody outside the fandom. But comics just looks different now: It’s younger, it’s browner, it’s queerer. It’s this awesome landscape that with every successive generation of people coming into comics in general, but nonfiction comics especially, what people are writing about, talking about, and using the medium to talk to each other about is changing. And that’s in such early days for the medium; it’s like 15, 20 years
of this, that’s so young for an art form, watching that grow and blossom, and watching those people hit mid-career is what’s really exciting to me. The planet will be consumed by flames, you know, The Nib’s brand is doom, and we flog that a lot, but there is a hope that is an undercurrent in what I do and what, editorially, we try to do at The Nib in terms of trying to bring people together and make amazing stuff, that I still look forward to. Personally, I am still making nonfiction comics. I have a book coming out in September of this year about animal domestication. I have another book coming out next year or the year after about plant domestication. I am writing right now a long-form journalism piece about living along the volcano coast of Hawaii, where these cataclysms keep wiping out communities every 30 to 50 years in this really devastating way and how people rebuild from that. I don’t have an end goal; I just do stuff until I stop. FW: Do you have any more advice that you would like to give to aspiring journalists? AW: The most important advice is to be nice. You’re going to have to eat shit, like super hard, at several points in your career. And the important thing is to do that while smiling. It sucks but this is true of not just comics journalism, but of any power dynamic. The relationship between an editor and a writer is a power dynamic. You have to keep your editors happy to a certain point, because you depend on them for your work and for passing your work along to other editors, recommending you. And I cannot tell you how much in the early days of my career editors told me that they had recommended me to work with others, because I was nice and easy to work with. So, the biggest thing I could impart to any young journalist is to be easy to work with. It doesn’t mean you have to be an easy person. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to hold your ground and advocate for yourself and stake out your position and be honest and be ethical and be your own journalist. It just means if somebody gives you the edit that you don’t want to get, and it makes you mad, don’t respond to that right away. Give it a few hours, and respond then. If you’re still mad give it a few more hours and say you left your phone at the beach. Lie to your editors before you yell at them. Especially in the early parts of your career—that would be the biggest piece of advice. The other is recognize opportunity, and work hard when it comes. Because a lot of this is luck and chance, and privilege of course, but a lot of it’s chance. You can work your ass off and not have anything come at you. And then, you can be walking on a sunny day, and it lands in your lap. My first book came from an editor walking down the street from her offices and buying a mini comic in New York. I wasn’t even in New York. I had just sent a copy to this place, and she bought it and was like, “Oh, this should be a book,” and emailed me out of the blue. So, send your stuff out there, and then when something like that happens, jump on it, recognize that it’s an opportunity, and jump on it. Just don’t let go. There’s no map to a successful career. There’s no portfolio day where you go around to the magazines and show them your good work and get a pat on the head anymore. Just get your stuff out there, throw out a ton of lines, be nice to everybody and then, when a line appears, yank at it!
Andy Warner Exhibition Checklist
“A Fragile Future,” 2015
“Burned Out: Why Wildfires in the West Are on the Rise,” 2017
“The Nib Bureau of Statistics,” 2020
Artist: Tracy Chahwan (Lebanese, b. 1992). Writer: Yazan al-Saadi (Syrian-Canadian, b. 1984). “My Heart Burns,” 2020. Digital comic
The Danger Bleeds Red
Yazan al-Saadi and Tracy Chahwan’s My Heart Burns Ash Connell Gonzalez
Yazan al-Saadi and Tracy Chahwan’s My Heart Burns details the horrors that Syrian refugees face when they are preyed upon by scammers. Throughout the first several pages of this comic, the characters’ features (and the settings in which they are placed) are represented with distinctive, individualizing detail. The six-panel sequence that closes My Heart Burns therefore comes as a stunning contrast in its stylization. Through a combination of mise en scène (the specific placement and perspectives taken on the contents of the panels), color symbolism (in the printed version), and imagery drawn from the history of propaganda—as well as a shift in the written narrative, from past to present (with a bleak prediction of the future)—this final page serves as a powerful call-to-action.
refuge.1 As the old proverb goes, “Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.”2 Even for those who might survive the crossing to Europe, other dangers can still sink hopes, and these two are evoked by the image of the Kraken; its many arms suggest the numerous barriers and impediments the refugees face, from the scammers who steal everything from them to the entangling, tentacular loops of red tape that deny them access to the basic rights of citizenship—further symbolized here by the paperwork that the Kraken proffers, bafflingly and uselessly. The Kraken has also served historically in wartime propaganda to portray a variety of nations as dangerous (including Germany, England, and Russia), and as a metaphor in socialist writing for specific aspects or embodiments of capitalism, including landlordism, banking power, legal corruption, and globalization.3 Yazan al-Saadi and Tracy Chahwan are therefore drawing upon one of the more extensive entries in the politico-economic bestiary to figure the human monstrosity of institutional indifference that causes so much suffering and death. 1 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “The Sea Route to Europe: The Mediterranean Passage in the Age of Refugees,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees United States, 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/protection/operations/5592bd059/sea-route-europe-mediterranean-passage-age-refugees.html. 2 US Department of Commerce, NOAA. “ESRL Global Monitoring Laboratory Global Radiation and Aerosols.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, October 1, 2005. https://gml.noaa.gov/grad/about/redsky/. 3 Fredona, Robert, and Reinert, Sophus A. “LEVIATHAN AND KRAKEN: STATES, CORPORATIONS, AND POLITICAL ECONOMY.” History and Theory 59, no. 2 (2020): 167-87.
The text in the first panel insists that current efforts to inform refugees about the dangers of scams and fraud do not “help those who have already fallen into a trap,” and that such awareness campaigns do not “tackle the true heart of the matter.” This text is accompanied by a stark, high contrast rendering of a refugee seated behind a table. The “displaced” status of this figure is emphasized by her posture and by the chiaroscuro rendering: she is swathed in heavy shadows, despite the presence of an obvious light source. While the light refuses to shine on the refugee, the room itself tilts down to the right in the direction of the door (as if to say “move along, there’s no help to be had here”), and also toward the danger of the whirlpool in the following panel. The visual metaphor is clear: stateless peoples can not only expect no recompense if they are taken in by scams, but this lack of legal and institutional support will tip them into dangerous situations. In the following panel, the danger bleeds red as the Kraken emerges from a whirlpool while the storm rolls in and the sea froths. In previous panels, red symbolized the burning anger against the injustices done to Umm Ahmed and her family. Here, the red that fills the sky and water evokes the lives lost by those taking the dangerous Mediterranean Passage to
The penultimate panel reminds us that the challenges caused by the displacement of entire communities of people will only worsen as parts of the Earth become more and more uninhabitable due to climate change. But the grey figures in the final panel view these drowning refugees with disdain. They are literally faceless, wearing masks that betray no empathy or emotion. Paradoxically, they are actors in their refusal to take action on behalf of those who cannot act for themselves—empty performances with no humanity behind them. The direction of their eyeless stare directs the reader’s own eyes back to the previous panel, visually repeating the cycle, daring us to acknowledge our own failure to act, and to see that inaction as fatal to all humanity, including our own.
Al-Saadi and Chahwan make further allusions to propaganda in the third panel. Here, the text captions speak of the harm that deluded notions of “purity” and “supremacy” are causing humanity overall. As the vocabulary calls to mind Nazism and white supremacy, so the black on red image of the sunburst encircling the globe visually evokes those same poisonous ideologies; the black on red color scheme and sunburst imagery being familiar from numerous nationalistic wartime propaganda posters.4 This panel underlines the point iconographically by encircling the entire globe with barbed wire: this is a nationalism that constricts the entire planet, with dire consequences. By repurposing 20th century calls to war in this way, the threat of nationalism is conveyed in its own visual language.
The following panel depicts faceless, burdened silhouettes trudging through a room; the red color of these silhouettes in the final published version now invokes the violence experienced by all the displaced people who are “searching for a safe place to live as normally as possible” across time and throughout the world. The universal nature of their suffering is emphasized by the lack of distinguishing details—they are just shapes picked out against a solid background— while the blank, featureless room through which they march suggests the indifferent institutions that provide no real shelter. These anonymous figures now stand for all the refugees that have ever been. 4 “Powers of Persuasion.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, June 6, 2019. https://www. archives.gov/exhibits/powers-of-persuasion.
“Telling your own story can be political.”
Tracy Chahwan by Audra McNamee
Tracy Chahwan is a cartoonist and illustrator from Lebanon. Since 2016, she has been working closely with the Beirut music scene, designing posters and visuals for numerous venues and concerts. In 2018, she published her first graphic novel Beirut Bloody Beirut with Marabulles. She is a member of many collectives, including Lebanese comics collective Samandal, and Zeez, which aims to be a truthful alternative to mainstream media. Her latest work includes contributions to Guantanamo Voices, published in 2020 by Abrams books, and Where to, Marie?: Stories of Feminisms in Lebanon.
Interview with Tracy Chahwan By Forest Wihtol and Debarghya Sanyal
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/TracyChahwan Debarghya Sanyal: How did you get involved with comics journalism? Tracy Chahwan: I think it’s with The Nib. I’ve been wanting to try it out for a while and Yazan (al-Saadi) contacted me a few years ago to work on this 10-page comic about Syrian refugees in Lebanon, so I just wanted to try it out. And after that I worked on a book called Guantanamo Voices written by Sarah Mirk. And the last one I did was a book about stories of feminism in Lebanon. Forest Wihtol: You are a trained, ALBA [Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts]-educated artist, but you also have a family connection to journalism, through your mother. How do you bring these two elements, drawing and journalism together in your work, and have there been any dinner conversations about the changing tools and approaches of journalism across generations? TC: My mom is a journalist and a translator. Her passion is really translating literature, so there hasn’t really been any link to that. I think me working on comics journalism wasn’t really related to her. But the general climate in Lebanon, a lot of my friends, a lot of people who traveled there are journalists, and it’s always something that I thought I’d love to do if I wasn’t into drawing. I’m very curious about just going on the field and reporting on a subject. So I didn’t get to that point yet, but when The Nib contacted me, and working on all these different comics, it was kind of a step into this. I think a lot of people who live or lived in Lebanon have this approach on things; it’s a place where there’s so many subjects to dig into, so it’s generally very curious people who like to live there. I think it just came a bit naturally to me. There hasn’t been any discussion at the dinner table yet. DS: You work in fiction, and you work in memoir, and comics journalism. How do you distinguish between fiction and documentary, and do you feel that you shift your style accordingly? TC: Yeah absolutely. My first try at comics journalism, I was asking myself these questions, like “How do I adapt my way
of storytelling or drawing to such a serious subject?” So with the first comic I did—the one that’s going to be exhibited—I wanted to try and keep it subjective. The last page was more philosophical. The writer was asking questions about humanity or politics, so I wanted to find a graphic way to tell that through a more illustrative approach, not a first degree approach. But it depends on the comic really, for instance with the comic about stories of Lebanese feminism, I try to stay as far away as possible from pure factual storytelling. I kind of did it through posters. I wanted to use the way that the posters from the 70s talked about politics. FW: Can you tell us a little about your methods and especially what it looks like when you collaborate with writers like Sarah Mirk or Yazan al-Saadi? TC: Okay, so with Sarah, she had a very precise, detailed script, so that was very helpful and easy to follow. Every frame she tells you, “I’m thinking of this, that, this angle, this is going on,” and she was very open to making changes if the illustrator feels like it, so I didn’t really change anything. And also the story had a lot of material going on, so I didn’t really feel like I could add something to it. But for instance with Yazan on the last feminist project, there was a lot of reimagining to do. I had to think a lot about how to depict the 70s in Lebanon, The Civil War; how to use the graphics of the time, through my storytelling, so a lot of the pages actually look like posters, more than like comics. The fact that it was in a certain period, which was very rich visually, helped me a lot, and was very inspiring for me. But that’s the difference, with the Sarah Mirk project, which was more like I’m going to concentrate on the characters and what’s going on with them. DS: So tell us a little bit about your major inspirations or artistic influences. Are there any particular comics journalists or comics artists whose work pushed you toward journalistic comics? (As a reader I was drawn to the fact that some of your artwork reminded me of Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers.)
TC: Nice. It’s funny because I didn’t read a lot of American comics. In Lebanon, I think we have the influence of Europe a lot, so I was reading Tintin a lot, or like Franco-Belgian comics in general. I think, naturally, my way of drawing, maybe it’s the bold line—there’s a lot of indie American artists who have this kind of thick line. And, of course, these later became influences like the Hernandez Brothers and Charles Burns. I got interested in journalistic comics through a friend, an amazing artist who works with The Nib a lot, and we used to work together in Beirut. So I was like, “Wow! I hope I can make something for The Nib one day too.” His name is Ghadi Ghosn, his work is great. Other than that, as I said, for some projects, political posters from the 70s, 80s have been a big influence, a lot of art from the period also. But not necessarily journalistic comic artists. DS: How has living internationally influenced your sense of audience and your sense of comics as a global media? TC: Yeah, that’s a great question. Because I grew up partly in Lebanon and partly in Cyprus in a French school. I was always kind of in between three languages, three cultures, or more even. So when I came back to Lebanon at 18 and started doing comics, you always ask yourself who is my audience? Who am I writing for? And I still don’t know honestly.
I would like to translate more like what we do with Samandal. We translate everything in three languages, English, French and Arabic. But it’s not always easy. Finding the right publisher in the Arab world is not always easy. Lately I’ve been writing more and more in English, more than French for instance; I’ve steered away a bit from the French. When I’m doing my own personal comics, I try to talk about something that’s relevant to me. For instance, now I’ve been doing a lot of things about being a new immigrant in the U.S.: how it feels, how I see the U.S. Digging back into Lebanese history is also something when you’re abroad. My first comic Beirut Bloody Beirut was inspired a lot by coming back to my country, being in my 20s, just how it felt at that time. I just feel this thing where I’ve grown up in between different cultures, [it] has made me maybe more curious. When someone comes to me with a project about, for instance, Guantanamo, I was super curious. It was something I had heard about briefly, but it’s an occasion to understand what’s going on there. And this is what I love about this kind of work, just to dig into something unknown. FW: So what are some of the structural limitations that you feel are plaguing comics journalism today, and how have you encountered limitations with publishing your work? TC: I think for me I choose the subject. There’s a lot of projects that I refuse because I don’t feel like I can do something purely journalistic. For me, I have to be inspired somehow visually. Because a lot of times, it can feel like
homework if you’re not that into the subject. The ones I worked on, for instance, the scamming of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, because I could see that while I was living there, so I definitely wanted to depict it. Sometimes people come to me with things that I’ve never seen. I feel like it will be a homework. If I work on it, I will just have to research and draw well without putting something from my heart in it. DS: In the time that you have worked on comics, what are some of the changes in practices, tools, and approaches that have most attracted your attention? For instance, web comics and interactive comics. TC: I don’t think I’ve experimented enough, and now there is also a lot of sharing comics on Instagram, which is very different from the way you think about a comic in print, which has its limitations, but also can be a good way to communicate, especially with what we’re living now when everyone is separated and abroad. So I’ve been experimenting a bit with this aspect of web comics, which is more direct to your readers and they can react, et cetera. For now, I have a preference for the print, the way the page is thought out in print. I don’t know that I could answer this question; I don’t feel like I’ve experimented enough with digital myself.
I feel like I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because you know, things have been hard creatively since I’m in the U.S., and I can’t go home for a long time. And people keep telling me keep doing comics, keep expressing yourself. And it’s very hard, because it takes a lot of time, and if you’re not feeling well morally, it’s not always good for you. But when you do it, it’s a medium where you can express yourself, much more than any other. I feel like it’s magical because every way of drawing is unique to each person. DS: Any last thoughts about the medium about looking forward to projects? TC: Yeah, I would say with everything that’s going on, especially in Lebanon—for myself, I’m talking—I always ask myself, should I do something journalistic that tackles issues frontally or, should I stay in something fictional and personal. Because I think telling your own story can be political, in a way. Lebanon is not just all the...it’s also people, and I feel like now, I want to work on something. I’m steering away a bit from journalistic stuff to work on something more personal... to kind of process what we’ve been going through.
FW: What kind of advice would you like to give to aspiring comics journalists or comic artists in general? TC: Wow. It depends, case by case, but I would say it is a ton of work. It’s very hard. But it’s also very rewarding. When I’m doing it, I forget about time and space.
Tracy Chahwan Exhibition Checklist
“My Heart Burns,” 2020
Artist: Tracy Chahwan | Writer: Yazan al-Saadi “My Heart Burns,” 2020
“Objectivity is a privilege, and it is the position of power. It is very easy to be objective when you’re not being affected.” Yazan al-Saadi by Audra McNamee
Yazan al-Saadi is a Syrian-Canadian writer, researcher, critic, and comic zealot. His work and research focuses on the West Asian region, covering an array of topics from pop-culture to politics to economic theories and sociological issues. Yazan holds a bachelor’s (Honors) degree in Economics and Development Studies from Queen’s University, Canada, and a Master of Arts in Law, Development, and Globalization from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, UK. His work has been published and/or cited in various platforms such as The Nib, Jadaliyya, Jumhuriya, LA Times, BBC, AlAraby Al-Jadeed, Al-Hudood, Al-Akhbar English, Middle East Eye, The Public Source, and more. He is currently based in the alluring (yet callous) city of Beirut; he has seen too many airports and often dreams of electronic sheep.
Interview with Yazan al-Saadi By Debarghya Sanyal and Katherine Kelp-Stebbins
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/YazanAl-Saadi Yazan al-Saadi: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited for our conversation. I survived Beirut for another day, so that’s always a great day! Debarghya Sanyal: To get things started, let’s begin with a question I think you get asked all the time: what brought you to journalism, and how did you become involved with comics journalism? YAS: Let’s answer the first question. What brought me to journalism actually was the British financial crisis of 2008. When the world’s financial systems collapsed and had a meltdown, I was doing my Master’s. I had completed my Master’s and so I was in London. And I was looking for work. And so when the world capitalism stopped working, as we know it would, it was hard to find a job, so I have to go back. I have to leave the UK because they wouldn’t renew my visa. So I ended up going back to Kuwait where my family is. I was looking for work there and in the midst of looking for work I had a friend who worked at the English print daily newspaper. He was one of the editors. So he brought me on board and that’s how I fell into journalism, thanks to the world financial collapse of 2008. I just kept on doing it since then. I was working in that newspaper as a journalist and editor. Then I started writing for Al-Akhbar English, which is a Lebanese-based news site and offshoot of a quasi-leftist newspaper in Lebanon. So I was writing from Kuwait to them, and then I decided to move to Lebanon ten years ago and I’ve been dabbling in journalism ever since. Now how did I bring comics into this? I mean, I’m a comics fanatic. I was raised on comics. My mom actually gave me a couple of comics when I was younger. It was Asterix, I don’t know if it was reading because when you’re young you’re just looking at pictures. Let’s call it reading. I was reading Asterix and Obelix, Tintin and Superman comics. But we’re talking about the Superman comics that were translated into Arabic. So it’s like from 1960s, 1970s. Friends of mine as I was growing up in Kuwait gave me manga. So I actually had a Fist of the Northstar in Japanese. So I grew up around comics and I was very interested in this medium and I continue to be. Doing my career in journalism and research and other things in 2017, I’m friends with comic creators in Lebanon. So one of them is like, here’s an opportunity, we have a friend that
works at The Nib. Why don’t you pitch him something. We can retool something into a comic. So I took that opportunity. I was like, “Hell yeah! I’d like to try that.” And that was how we got the first comic published for The Nib in 2017 with the idea of someone who is an artist, with Ghadi Ghosn, a phenomenal artist that I continue to work with from time to time. And that one is called “The Rebel Is Universal,” about when I went to Yemen, when I was working with M[édecins] S[ans] F[rontières]. I was in Yemen for about three weeks in 2016. This was during the American elections, which I have to say, being in a country like Yemen, when the 2016 American elections happened is really a unique experience. It was a brilliant experience. But anyways, that’s how I got into comics journalism. Ever since 2017 I kept on working and publishing stuff, mainly with The Nib, and tried other things as well, because I love the medium, and I think the medium is a phenomenal tool to convey information. It’s a great weapon of storytelling and combines a lot of my guilty pleasures. To make a long story short, you can blame the 2008 financial crisis and just loving comics as a child. Katherine Kelp-Stebbins: Can you tell us a little bit about your methods and your working practices, both as a journalist and reporting, then also as a comics journalist, collaborating with Omar Khouri, Tracy Chahwan, or Ghadi Ghosn? YAS: The type of journalism I got into because I come from a weird background, I fell into journalism. I didn’t go into journalism school where they teach you these basic rules and protocols. So the type of journalism that I was already doing was long-form narrative, odd stories. I would look for stories that are just different. So a lot of stuff I would write about for example, was outing Scientologists in Lebanon, and letting them know how they functioned. Looking at the history of science fiction in the Arab world, looking at horror in Arabic cinema, then writing about Palestine, writing about Syria and politics and elections. So I keep on switching. I don’t follow the rules, and I know this is a terrible thing to say, but I don’t follow the rules in terms of...it’s not about the daily news to me. It’s something in the story that’s odd or niche, and I just want to go into that. It’s something that I try to highlight. I try to mix in a lot of my different backgrounds because I was never a journalist student. I did study economics and
international law, and obviously because of who I am, my identity, I have to know politics. So I bring everything into what I write. A lot of my journalism isn’t just simple news; it’s trying to bring in so many feelings and ideas and mixing it together. When it comes to comics journalism I try to continue that tradition of bringing so many different sources and ideas where I try to talk about a certain story, but I also try to universalize it. I don’t know if you noticed in a lot of the comics I use, I did it with The Nib, I would talk about certain things, but I also try to remind the reader this isn’t just over there, this is over here. There are shades here because of who I am and my identity and my experience as an Arab who has a Canadian passport, who lives in the region and obviously the experiences of the medium, or discourses on the region, its people, its history today is problematic as everyone knows. From Orientalism to ideology to all that. A lot of my writings is to push back, not just in terms of a kind of reactionary way, but a provocative kind of way, to use the certain ideas and tools and upend them, to create unity, to point out that there is an “us vs. them,” but it’s us the lay people versus the rich, the elite, those in power. Because I don’t think it’s just defined by a border. This is a universal problem we’re all facing in different ways. That’s what I try to really bring to the table when I write anything, so I try to mix it and match it. And that’s what I do with comics journalism. You know, use so many sources and try and build unity or build universalism and bridges from particular stories that I come across. I hope that makes sense. DS: Why do you think that comics is an effective medium for the kind of reportage you are doing, for the kind of documenting the sort of studies that you report? YAS: Anyone that works or sees that medium gets it. Alan Moore talks about the power of this medium, Grant Morrison, Joe Sacco. So many people have pointed out, and it’s true because the medium by using visual and text is activating so many parts of a person’s brain. The reader is very active in the process and the information is absorbed. So I understand comics as a weapon and I use that term very seriously. It is a weapon and it’s a weapon being used by states and corporations, so we should be using it. I know that after the American invasion, occupation of Iraq, there was a lot of push by the U.S. military to invest in comics to the Arab people winning hearts and minds, which is a perversion of this amazing medium for let’s call it “ill good” or evil, whatever you want to call it. We should be using this weapon, we should be using it to make statements, to push narratives, to push ideologies because, and I think we can all agree, the current situation throughout the world is dire, not only in terms of economics, but climate change, warfare, increased exploitation, livelihoods. The patriarchy is going quite nuts. Just the growth of fascism, the growth of right wings, so there is something urgent here. There is something very urgent for all of us, and I think comics are a weapon to push our discourse. One of the things I like to talk about or I joke around is that in 2011 when the Arab uprisings began, a lot of the battle happened in the material world, the realm of the material. It’s about bread, butter, politics, elections. But we really are forgetting
about the battle in the material world, the thoughts, ideas. This is a battle that for too long is in the hands of people with power, like governments or corporations that push a certain type of ideology that is about the status quo, or it really undermines our potentiality as human beings. So I think all these strands really push it, and the more I work with the medium, the more I’m a believer and I consume it. I consume the medium very well. I love reading comics from every type. And I see its power. The thoughts that I have, a lot of my personal political development does. It’s really that sometimes the dumb stories that have profound messages, and the way that it’s conveyed just is interesting. More so than I would say a text alone or an art piece alone. I think there’s an opportunity for us, and by the sheer fact that I’m dabbling in this medium and you’re asking me these questions. It just shows you the power of the medium. KKS: To get even more into specifics of what you’re describing as this weapon, in writing about Charlie Hebdo you made this point that “the argument for freedom of speech and freedom of the press should not and must not place aside the question and understanding of privileges and different power dynamics that are at work.” So what are some of the specific ways in your own work that you try to foreground and engage with these power dynamics and differentials? YAS: In my own work, I recognize the privileges and power dynamics I have, as a witness and as a person who has a Canadian passport that gives me access, that gives me certain protections, more than other people. And I come from an economic class that is a middle class, upper middle class, so everyone has privileges. And you can add more to it. My male gender in a world that is the way it is plays a part. I try to recognize that. I try to listen more in terms of the subject or what I’m doing. I also try not to mince words and I try not to be diplomatic. But I’m trying to make a point because I’m not objective, and I don’t think I should be objective. There is this constant philosophical discussion especially in the American educational system about the primacy of objectivity. But objectivity is a privilege and it is the position of power. It is very easy to be objective when you’re not being affected, and I think objectivity allows for a lot of problems. Edward Said once said and I agree with it, “Facts do not speak for themselves. They need to be coated in a socially acceptable narrative.” The narrative that I want to pursue, and I’m not objective, is the narrative that I pursued where I talked about people versus power. I’m not diplomatic in terms of the wrongs that I see. I try to think about my privileges also. I really try to center that, not centered within the narrative, but center within myself. To be like, wait, is this correct? Going back to the previous question about the process of working with an artist, I try to have a collaborative process. I’m flexible in the script. I write the script. I write the idea of the layout of the panel that I have in my head. But if the artist comes with complete revision, I’m sold. You know what I mean? I’m not very sacred about the text I write. I’m willing to throw it away or rework it if it’s not making sense. That collaborative system which I think is also part of what makes comics so cool, it’s that collaborative process where you really need to work together, whether it’s you and the
artist, you and the editor, and whoever else is involved. And if you don’t work together, it’s a disaster. That process really creates nice idealism because you’re working together as a team to produce something. It all really plays into just how I’m trying to work in this medium and trying to account for my privileges and my forms of power, and try to use it against those that are much more powerful and are getting away with what they’re doing. Now you brought up this example of Charlie Hebdo and I wrote against Charlie Hebdo after the attack, and obviously the attack is horrendous. But Charlie Hebdo is a problem because it is part of power. It is not from a community of vulnerability punching up, it was punching down and it constantly does punch down. Regardless if it’s a Muslim or the Queer community or it’s something that isn’t part of what they view as the normal French society, which is white, and secular, and a certain type of secular, liberal. But that’s the power. That’s really where they’re coming from, so I think Charlie Hebdo isn’t a good example, at least to me of using their power and punching up. I try to remind myself with my work that I’m punching up, that if I ever punch down then I should get called for it to be punched. I should get a nice wallop in my face and I would deserve it. DS: As you’re talking about power differentials and you mentioned Edward Said, as a journalist what are some of the biggest and most recurring challenges you face in engaging with and countering the prevalent misperceptions or misunderstandings about West Asian nations, communities and people. Especially in the American and Canadian media? YAS: I think one of my favorite types of tools is using a cliché and upending the cliché they have, or the trope. And I try to play with that. But I also try to just speak my voice as clearly as possible, and the voices around me, and say, “This is what’s going on.” To see the very clear direct words rather than taming it or being diplomatic, to call a spade a spade. It’s racism; it’s settler colonialism. It’s genocide. Using these terms because that has to be that shock, that sense of uncomfortableness. That particularly readers in the United States should feel because of the role of their state in my region for centuries. This history is a long history. The first time I believe that the Americans had a foreign naval expedition, Barbary Wars, and that was in North Africa. So there’s a history there. It’s not something new. And there’s an onus. I argue for the long game. I argue for accountability and reparations because there is still to date an active role of the U.S. state in my region, and they’re not the only one, and this is something I try to point out because the problem with the American audience in particular is this sort of moralization and a lot of discussions. One end you have the typical Orientalism and neo-conservative style of, “Oh look, the savages need to be civilized.” On the other end is the campus leftist position, that any sort of movement is all a conspiracy led by U.S. and Western imperialism alone, and there is no such thing as a dictatorship or Russian imperialism. Which, from my position, that’s not true. Clearly there are imperialisms.
So that’s how I try to engage, trying to just be direct. But is it working? I don’t know. It’s a conversation I continually try to have, and it’s something I try to think about. Is it worth doing? I don’t know. And I know when I say, “Is it worth doing?” the question is should I just be writing for Arab audiences and ignore everyone else? But it’s an ongoing conversation I have. But I’m also idealistic and I think I should have this conversation with whoever. And just talk. This is basically what I know. These are things and these are the topics, and bully to you the way your media present it. But this is what’s going on from our perspective. KKS: As a follow-up I’m going to ask, because you write for many different outlets and your work has been featured on a number of programs around the world, who is your intended audience? Who are you most hoping to reach with your writing and with your work, and why? YAS: I’m going to answer by saying the worst answer possible: I want to reach anyone. It’s like screaming in the dark because of how dire the situation is. I just want anyone, anyone that’s interested, that can hear, that most importantly my favorite audience member is the one that reads what I wrote and then reads more, it starts opening up doors, asks questions and does their research and reads the plethora of other works on the topic, whether it’s on Palestine, or Yemen, or Bahrain or Syria. The buck doesn’t stop with me and it never should stop with me. That’s the type of audience I want. It doesn’t matter if they live in Minsk, or Mumbai or Johannesburg. It’s anyone that can read if it’s in the language that they can read. If it’s in English, if they read English, and it just gets them to think, to open up, or look into it more, or has a connection. Because, like I said earlier, it’s not only when I write for example about Bahrain, it’s not only about Bahrain, it’s about Bahrain and the region and the world. Because I truly have the perspective that as human beings we’re connected, and the systems of repression are super-connected and they’re coordinating like crazy. So that’s the type of audience I want: anyone that just wants to read and wants to know, and it doesn’t matter. Any age group, it doesn’t matter. DS: Tell us a little bit about your major inspirations and/or artistic influence. Are there any particular graphic journalists or artists whose work pushed you towards bringing journalism and comics together? Any particular bodies of work which you want to respond to? YAS: I’m a comics scripter. I’m a comics writer through and through. I can’t draw at all, to my utter shame. So a rare breed of being, I joke, the only comics scripter in the Middle East, because everyone else draws and writes. For me, my sources that really got me into the medium or thinking about it, if we’re looking at comics, obviously Joe Sacco. Joe Sacco is the groundbreaker, the person that really developed this idea of comics journalism. And I had the utmost pleasure of actually meeting him in person back in 2014 when he visited, and it was an awesome experience. You know how they say, “You never meet your heroes”? But I say sometimes it’s great to meet your heroes and get them drunk, because
that’s amazing. It’s amazing seeing Joe Sacco just having a good time...and just the way he comes about it. He is not objective. He is biased. He really presents it as dark as possible and I love that clarity. That definitely shaped the way that I wanted to be very clear and direct. And the other writer that I am fascinated by, and I am fascinated by the work, is Grant Morrison, who is just an oddball, like a complete different spectrum. What Grant Morrison brings to me is this idea of not being afraid to add the spice, to use different sources, to bring it into a larger message, the universality of it. So trying to balance between the dizziness or madness that Grant Morrison brings on the table, and the really rough grounded realities that Joe Sacco brings to the table, I’m just trying to figure out how to balance between both. Those are the two that really come to mind. There’re a lot of bodies of work that are worth responding to in terms of what has been written about: the West AsianNorth African region whether in the news or in fiction, so I try to think about that. Obviously the type of journalism I do is a natural response to the reportage that comes out of Fox News and CNN and those in between. And I’m also trying to think at least in terms of fiction, so the types of work I’m currently trying to do is really rehabilitate certain Arabic figures that were vilified in Western fiction. I’ll give you two examples that I have been thinking about. One is [HP] Lovecraft’s Mad Arab, the author of the fictional book Necronomicon. Lovecraft, as we all know, is a crackhead racist, but he has also done some interesting things on horror. So his little spiel about the Mad Arab, the author of the Book of the Dead, is this crazy Orientalized Arab. I was thinking of reimagining that character as a tragic hero. Why not, you know? That history is not understood and it’s enshrined, and the magic and the spirituality that was in the region, that isn’t about nothing. So playing with that and the other character that I was trying to rehabilitate, as the Americans like to say, is Jafar from [Disney’s] Aladdin, because Ja’far is actually a very interesting historical character. I don’t know if people are aware, he was a wazir to Haroun Al-Rashid. He comes from a family who are Buddhists that converted to Islam, and he was very wise. And he had a tragic history because he ended up being beheaded by Al-Rashid supposedly over a romance with Haroun’s own sister. I mean, it’s a beautiful, tragic character who is just presented as an Orientalized villain, and just needs Aladdin. So it’s playing with that, not only in the war that’s happening in the distortions of factual discourse, but the war that is ongoing with fiction, because fiction is a very powerful tool and it’s trying to take back what has been written about us. KKS: To bring it back ever so slightly, to thinking about journalism and reportage in your own career, what are the sorts of changes in practices or approaches that you’ve seen and then what do you imagine as the future or some of the trends going forward. What would you like to see as the new journalism as it takes shape in the future? YAS: The trends in journalism are twofold. There’s the horrendous side, the clickbait, the listicles. I started journalism in 2009, and you got your certain stuff. But these days there’s
an assumption that readers have a short attention span. I don’t believe that! I think it’s the content that’s the problem. If it’s a very interesting content, they will read it. They will stop if it’s too long, and they will read it at the toilet later. It doesn’t matter you know. Obviously that trend of infantilizing journalism, making it shorter, “more digestible,” and meme worthy is a trend that I’ve noticed and seen. You’re going to see more because of urgency and demand, and this question of misinformation, which is huge and it’s very dangerous, and I clearly have seen that in real cases, the biggest one these days is the chemical attacks in Syria, which people are going to argue is a false flag regardless of any facts that are available. And there’s the attack on Capitol Hill. Regardless of the fact that we all saw it, we all saw what was going on, you have people saying completely different things. It just shows you the power of misinformation. And I think there has to be a fine line here. Let’s be honest, there are true conspiracy theories; and then there are stupid conspiracy theories. A true conspiracy theory is something like the Manhattan Project—a group of scientists, working with military folk split the goddamn atom and created a bomb that can destroy the Earth. True! Very true, and it’s a conspiracy. Stupid conspiracies is lizard men. So it’s trying to understand and unpack, it’s not discounting that there are conspiracies which exist and we know them. Lately there is Pegasus, which is the Israeli company that hacked so many journalists. Israeli company funded by different states and regimes that were hacking journalists. That’s a conspiracy, true. And then you have other things that you need to push back which is misinformation, untrue conspiracies. The trend is trying to figure that out, and what that needs is investigative journalism. What you’re going to see more and more of is refunding and bringing back the investigative journalist that was wiped out in the last 20 years because a lot of investigative journalism was downsized; foreign correspondents or investigative journalists were eliminated. Because of urgencies, because facts do not speak for themselves, you need to have excellent investigative journalists. With what we’re facing in the 21st century, which I think is a disaster of a century, you’re going to need hardcore investigative journalists. I think that’s the trend, and I think it’s a necessary trend: less about everyday listicles and more work on something.... You know how they say that history is cyclical? In a way it kind of is. You have those robber barons back in the day, and you have muckrakers. Well, we have our robber barons today, they just happen to go up into space. And so we need our muckrakers: the journalists who hit them, and hit them, and hit them with scandal, and report, and infiltration, and investigation, and outing. That’s what has to happen. We’re in that cycle, but I think it’s worse now because of technology and how the resources are just so pooled into these robber barons, so much more than what was in the 19th century. It’s worse. DS: We find that a lot of young people who are trying to enter the field of journalism, even comics journalism, find it difficult to get into right away. What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?
YAS: I think they should just do. If you’re interested in a story just do it. Because I didn’t go into courses for the type of journalism I did. I was just doing it. I just went to the person’s office, or I just went and found myself in really silly situations because that’s the way. You just have to do it: It’s a trial by fire. It’s something that you just need to go do it, and whether your editor accepts it or not, you just do it, and then you see what happens, right?
do on the page: It’s worth it. That’s what drives me, it’s just having fun with this medium, seeing the work come out, being like “Oh, someone read it and liked it.” That’s a cool experience. That’s worth more than a million dollars. That tiny thing for me is, it’s quite profound. Don’t let my parents hear that because they’ll be like, “You’re crazy! You should take that million.” But I think that’s part of it, and again, it’s all about the bigger question:
I mean there also has to be a pushback. And editors need to wake up as well, because they’re at fault; they’re complicit. Because they’re always worried about their ad spaces and the person above. But editors, if they care about actual journalism, they should be, encouraging the journalist to go: Go find the story and figure it out.
Why else are we all here? We’re all on this Earth; there’s nowhere else. We don’t know if there’s an afterlife, so we got to do something. The more of us that does something, there’s a chance. There’s a chance here for survival, which we need to think about.
For me, I would say two things: one, just do it; and two, don’t write the headline first. Let the story speak for itself, because I think it’s much more interesting as you go through this unexpectedness. And just hearing it, the story unfurls, and you’ll find things more than if you come with “here’s the answer.” Let the story speak for itself, and then stick to that position. Don’t be objective and disconnected. You’re part of it, you know.
KKS: That’s a much better ending. YAS: I can get very dour. It’s the dark humor in us Syrians.
I think those are the two quick thoughts and, thirdly, I would say is be wary of Yazan al-Saadi’s giving advice on anything about life because he hasn’t figured out anything. He’s still lost. I have to say I’m, what, 38? I think I’m 38...I actually don’t remember anymore; I have to share the story, because I think it was actually a very nice thing that Joe Sacco told. And I think it’s worth sharing: So when I met Joe Sacco, he was telling me how, when he was 40—this is after Palestine, this is after The Fixer—when he was 40 he didn’t know if he could pay the rent the next month. That’s the reality of this work. Imagine, Joe Sacco, whom we all know, I’m like a Syrian guy living in Beirut, and you guys are over there and we know this name, and he was going hungry. And he was going to quit, but he didn’t; he just persevered. So I think the lesson there, at least, is that this is hard. This is hard work, and you’re rarely going to make money, so there has to be something more in this because if you’re just in it to make bank, good luck...good luck. But there has to be something more driving you. You have to have a politics. You have to have ideology of some sort. There has to be a bigger question that you’re trying to find because it’s not just a day to day job. Which I think is true, because I get, Sacco. I’m wondering if I should go into banking or maybe apply to McDonald’s. KKS: On that note, is there anything else that you would like to share after that uplifting conclusion? YAS: Oh sorry, yeah, I need to uplift. I’ll add another thing because it shouldn’t be dour. Regardless of all the hardships and all that stuff, it’s comics journalism right? And it’s fun. It’s amazing when you see the work come out in ways, especially when you’re working with an artist, and what they can just
“Comics can be more truthful about the fact that nothing’s really objective... that’s the power of comics journalism.” Omar Khouri by Audra McNamee
Omar Khouri was born in London and spent his childhood in Lebanon. In 2002, he graduated from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston with a BFA in illustration. After spending a year in Los Angeles working in cinema and television, he returned to Beirut. In 2006, Khouri founded Samandal comics magazine, the first experimental comics periodical in the Arab world. In 2010, his sociopolitical satire Utopia won Best Arabic Comic book at the Algerian International Comic Book Festival (FIBDA). Khouri’s work spans many art forms, including painting, comics, animation, theatre, film, and music. Khouri’s work has been exhibited and is held in collections around the world, including Lebanon, the UK, the US, Japan, and across Europe. Recent shows include ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ (2019-2020) at the BAR Project Space, Beirut; ‘Glass’ (20182019) at the Park Gallery, London; and ‘Face Value: Portraiture’ (2018), a group show at Saleh Barakat Gallery, Beirut. Khouri currently lives and works in North Lebanon.
Interview with Omar Khouri By Debarghya Sanyal and Katherine Kelp-Stebbins
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/omarkhouri Katherine Kelp-Stebbins: One of the most exciting threads running through all of the artists in the show is this ability to “world,” that is, to create an entirely new context of possibilities and create something that really did not exist before. How did you imagine a Middle East comic scene, that really wasn’t there before Samandal and has never been the same since? Omar Khouri: When I started making comics and started thinking about starting Samandal, I never really had a vision for what Arabic comics might be. I just really wanted to make comics, and I thought there must be a bunch of other people who are spread around the region, who also want to explore. We’ve all grown up on what French comics are, what Japanese manga is, and what American comics are, and all the things in between. Maybe by just experimenting together, then we’ll have something that becomes Middle Eastern comics. In general that’s the vision for Samandal. For my own personal work, I had some little experiments that I was doing, drawing from things that I’ve learned, and figuring how to do things in my comics: what do I do that is specifically, like for Arabic how to use the language, how to use the calligraphy in a specific way because it’s a whole other part of making comics, what kind of layouts can be specifically more local in their design, and things like that. Starting Samandal it was like, “okay let’s find out what this thing could be,” with these people that we started to meet, and then we also wanted to open it up for people from other countries—people with a French background, American background, Japanese people—to mix those things with these new people that are all trying new things and see what comes up. Debarghya Sanyal: Given that you work both in fine arts, oil painting, and in comics, how do you imagine your role as an artist between these different types of cultural production? OK: Well, I guess at the moment my view of my role as an artist or the role of art in general shifts quite drastically, quite often. At the moment I’m questioning this idea of can art really be a force of change in the world? Can it really be culturally significant? Is it really something that helps make the world a better place? At the moment, I’m questioning these ideas again; as an artist you just kind of go in and out
of these questions continuously. So at the moment, if these questions aren’t answered, at least I’ll try my best to add as much beauty as I can into the world, as much pleasure as I can give others in this world, that seems to be falling apart for people in Lebanon drastically, but for people everywhere as well. So in this corner of space-time, I kind of feel like this is my role. As an artist, this is the best I can offer at the moment. KKS: How do you imagine the audience for this beauty that you’re bringing into the world? Who are you writing or creating art for? OK: When we were starting Samandal, it was just kind of impossible to imagine who the audience might be. If you look at the old issues, the old magazines, they were a little bit all over the place, because the same way that we were trying to find a language for comics here or make a scene, we were also looking for that audience, putting out different things, going to different schools and universities, and then trying to go to the art scene, and try to do international festivals, and things like that, just to see where we can find an audience because we had no idea who might end up reading this. So the audience mostly could be seen, especially in the beginning, as the artists actually involved. We were almost drawing these things for each other to get each other’s feedback because we didn’t know yet who else would give us feedback and that kind of family grew as the number of artists and collaborators grew over the years to the hundreds. The audience spread around them in that way, and each kind of person or group or collective brought their audiences in and created this whole other layer of readership. It’s not huge, but I think there are some people who follow and are still interested. DS: When did you get interested in doing nonfiction comics, and do you kind of approach nonfiction comics differently than your fictional work? OK: I started being interested in comics journalism when I read Palestine by Joe Sacco and it was before we started Samandal, but as soon as we started Samandal when we were looking for an audience, and trying to explain to the people around us what are comics—they’re not just for kids—the
biggest challenge that we had making Samandal was getting people to start thinking of it as an art form that is for adults. It’s not just these cartoons for kids, so we were always trying to look for ways that comics could show itself as this kind of mature medium that is for adults. We started being interested in comics journalism then, at least in research and talking to people and trying to get people to do work for Samandal. I did a couple of—they weren’t journalistic—let’s say nonfiction comics that were editorials for the magazine, kind of like essays in comics à la Scott McCloud. But personally, for me, I wasn’t very interested in journalistic comics until Andy Warner, really good friend of ours, that I met through Samandal, who is one of the editors of The Nib magazine. His work started going into journalist comics and nonfiction comics, documentary comics, and I really love his work. And then he started working for The Nib, and he suggested that some of the people like Yazan [al-Saadi] and I, and a few of our other friends from Samandal start contributing to The Nib in this format. I’ve never been interested in writing a journalistic comic, so the main difference for me between fiction and nonfiction comics is I usually work with a writer when I’m doing nonfiction, but fiction stuff, I write it myself. I started with Yazan on our first Nib comic—maybe 2017 or 18—it was an update of the war in Syria: that was my first entry into that. When I work with Yazan it’s—specifically,
because we’re really good friends, and we like the same kind of comics a lot, and we hang out—we have a pretty good shorthand, if you will, so it’s quite a fluid process. He’d have an idea, and then we discussed the idea first at the idea stage and then get excited about it together, and then he’d go off and write a script. Yazan’s a really fast writer; he has really good turn around. He just writes a lot and doesn’t have this procrastination kind of feeling. So you talk about something, and the next day he’s like, “Here it is; here’s the script!” I’m like, “Whoa, okay.” But it’s good, because then we go back and forth on the script a few times before we submit it to the editor. So he’d write the script; I’d look at it and be like, “Oh, you know, what about this idea and that idea?” Plus, he writes into the script the panels sometimes, but he’s like “These are suggestions: I have a suggestion for this and that,” and he gives me complete freedom to change them if I want, but these are very useful for me to see how he’s thinking. So we go back and forth on the script and then he sends it in and we get rewrites, and then I do thumbnail sketches, run them by Yazan first, then send them into the editor. We’re always kind of conspiring behind closed doors before we send anything out. And then it’s pencils, and it comes back to you. At that point Yazan’s role goes into the background, and it’s just me going pencils. I send in the pencils and they come back, and then inks, and then colors is the last stage. And then, there you have it: a comic is born.
Yazan sometimes has reference photos and videos that he’s collected through his research. Like in the Bashar al-Assad, the first comic that we did together, the first shot is Bashar al-Assad sitting on the throne from Akira. And Yazan had that opening image already in his mind, he was like, “I want this exactly.” And he sent me picture, and I was like, “you don’t have to send me that picture. I know it by heart anyway.” So Yazan has a very strong visual imagination, which is quite helpful for me. For my own stuff, it’s quite extreme the difference between the nonfiction and fiction, because my fiction is usually science fiction or surreal, so it’s just kind of further away from reality than just regular fiction even. So with those I always have these ideas floating around that I kind of write in my sketchbook here and there, and then sometimes one of them just sticks, and starts spreading inside my head. A lot of times I start by sketching a couple of things, and then I start thumbnailing while I do the script. There are some times when I write like a movie script almost without panel design, just dialogue and story. But usually I imagine the flow of it in my head entirely combining visuals and texts at the same time, so I start drawing and then filling in the text in the little thumbnails and then I kind of just build it up from there. Then, when you have the whole thumbnails, you can read the whole thing in a way, and, of course, get a lot of people [to read it]. I have a lot of very smart friends, much more talented than I am, that I can rely on, like “read this!”; “look at this!”; “let me know what you think.” A lot of times I’m revising based on other people’s ideas, but I like that collaborative aspect of it. Even though I’m sitting and doing this whole thing by myself, it’s still like so many ideas are coming from other people’s suggestions. I don’t usually do the whole comic in pencil, and then all colors. I just do it spread by spread: pencil, inks every two pages. KKS: Between your sci-fi work like Utopia, and your work on, say, Syria, is there a different kind of responsibility you feel in creating the visuals or having some sort of accuracy? OK: That’s part of my process in both. I started out my first comic, Salon Tarek el Khurafi, it’s the first one that I started Samandal with, and it was a science fiction thing set in Beirut. And I wanted to be very clear that it was set in Beirut. And it was in Arabic, so I did a lot of drawings in that series that are very realistic, based on specific angles from the city that people who know the city will be like, “Oh, this is obviously Beirut.” It’s trying to bring that sci-fi into our lives because we grew up on sci-fi of everywhere else. It was great but there’s something about it that’s grounded somewhere else. A lot of people feel like this is sci-fi from Japan, like Akira for instance. So I’ve always wanted to do that in my fiction and science fiction comics—put that realism there, ground it in the area. So when it came time to do journalistic comics I already had that in the way that I worked, and so I didn’t really have to
shift a lot. It still has also in The Nib comics or Guantanamo Voices, you have some panels that are based on a very obvious reference of a spot of the angle of a corner, and then there’s all this stuff that gets a bit cartoonier when the characters are around, then I can get a bit more symbolic or abstract. So I do both of those in both the comics, equally almost. To go back to your phrasing of it: I don’t feel like it’s a responsibility. It’s just kind of what makes it a good thing for me. This is how I already do my stuff, so it feels like this fits in my style automatically by itself, I don’t have to struggle and fight with it. DS: Do you think that comics can be an effective form for nonfiction? OK: Well it’s exactly for those reasons, because when you’re doing a comic you have more freedom to get as realistic as you want, for a specific moment to make a specific point, and then you can get as subjective as you want once it’s needed inside of the same piece. It has that fluidity where you can mold it the way you want. It’s difficult to do that with video when you’re doing a reportage, like a little segment about something. There isn’t that freedom, you’re just stuck in the reality of it. Where every story has an emotional layer, has subjective elements to it. It’s more realistic to bring out those elements too. Pretending like you’re completely objective, because it’s a camera and because we believe that a camera is objective, it’s a false belief, but we have that instinct towards it. I feel like comics can be more truthful about the fact that nothing’s really objective. This is all just somebody’s perspective on whatever it is that we’re talking about, and I think that’s the power of comics journalism. KKS: You’ve talked about Joe Sacco, Akira, and other major inspirations; are there more that you can specifically point to, or are there bodies of work that you’re responding to in your own? OK: There are many artists that have influenced me a lot. Andy Warner’s work is hugely influential for me in the field of comics journalism, and the other artists of The Nib, it’s become like a family. I mentioned Scott McCloud; he’s been a huge influence. Those are the standard main ones: Scott McCloud and Joe Sacco, but it’s true they are amazing. One of my favorite all-time comic book artists is Paul Pope. I like the way he uses science fiction to tell very human, very internal stories. And I love, other than Akira, other than Katsuhiro Otomo, most comics that I read come from Japan. Jiro Taniguchi is really good. My favorite thing, though, of all time is called One Piece. It’s not just my favorite comics or my favorite cartoon, it’s my favorite human creation. One Piece is by Eiichiro Oda, it’s this kind of pirate manga. DS: What are some of the specific goals that you think about for each of your projects when you are researching, when you’re working, when you’re kind of in the middle of it? What do you imagine for the life of your work after you have let it go into the world?
OK: This might be a bit of a childish answer, but I try my best not to think about the goals when I’m actually doing a thing. I try to let the goal be the thing that the work is trying to become itself, not who might read it.
KKS: I think that’s a great answer. To risk a similar question, how do you imagine the future of comics, either as an art form or as a platform for journalism? What are your hopes or the ways that you see the field going in the future?
Of course, I’m not saying I’m a master at this—my mind tends to wander, to be like “people are going to read it like this,” or, “I wonder if this person is gonna like that,” or whatever, and I try to quiet that. When you think about these it drives the work away from its true self and towards superficially pleasing others. If the work is the best thing that it itself can be, then it’ll provide its own goal to the people who read it. In a way, it won’t be my goal; it would be the goal of this thing that I’ve created. Am I being too abstract about this? I’m trying to verbalize it and I’ve never really thought about it before.
OK: Again, I’m gonna go with I try not to think about that. Because it’s always surprising; it’s always gonna go in places that I’ve never thought of and never imagined, so I do my best to just kind of give myself to the flow instead of trying to predict.
That’s basically the idea: I know where it’s going to go, as in where it might be disseminated, where it can be published, where it’s going to be printed, but I try to not let that influence the middle of the work which is before I get the project and after I’m done with the project. That whole middle, I try my best to just let the work itself come out.
Trying to think back to the beginning of Samandal, and it has been so long ago, but I’m sure I had a much more specific, naive 25-year-old goal to want to change the world in this way. But I feel like I’ve forgotten who that kid was. The world changes, no matter what plans you have for it. It’s been showing us quite often these days that it doesn’t really care about our plans. So, the best thing to do is just try to find your way in the storm, try to ride it out. KKS: It’s very Zen comics. Maybe, your answer is a new Zen comics.
OK: It’s been the mode that I’ve been in the past few months. You know, everything is really just literally falling apart around us here. There’s no electricity; there’s no gasoline for cars; food is disappearing; it’s super hot because it’s the middle of the summer as well. The dollar’s exchange rate is you know, it was $1,500 two years ago, and now it’s around $20,000. That’s like 1,500% change in the past year. So I finally reached a place where if that’s what the world’s gonna offer, I’m still going to find a good slice myself—like a nice boat to sit in that can jostle me on those crazy waves. Just build a boat, have a few people that you care about on that boat, and just try to navigate as best you can. DS: What would be your advice for aspiring comics journalists or even a comic artist? Are there specific trends or movements in this field that you are looking at and getting excited about or not so excited about? OK: Advice for youngsters getting into comics... But I don’t find that actually I can give anybody advice about this. Because I do a bunch of other things as well, it’s difficult for me to think of myself as a comic book artist. I just go in
and out of it, sometimes for three or four years I don’t do any comics, then come back to it. I have painting; I have music; my friends do movies, so I’m usually helping them. So I’m not really somebody who follows a specific school in any of the fields. A lot of people say that’s the downfall of my work because, even in paintings, I have 15 styles. In comics I have like six, seven things that I do. It’s hard to look at the work and be like, “That’s done by Omar.” The one advice that I can give—that is a bit tired and a little bit cheesy—just do whatever it is you believe in until it becomes good. Don’t change it because somebody tells you you’re not as good as you can be. If you want to do 15 things, and just be relatively unknown for the rest of your life, do that if it gives you happiness. If you want to spend all your time making comics even that people don’t want to see, do that. Because when it becomes the comic that you want to see, then people will see it, and whether it’s one person, or a thousand, or a million people see your things, it’s still been made, and it still has the same worth because it’s become a thing in the world, and everything has equal value, because of its existence.
Omar Khouri Exhibition Checklist
Artist: Omar Khouri | Writer: Yazan al-Saadi “Unstoppable Force,” 2021
Jesús Cossio (Peruvian, b. 1974). Pages from Barbarie—Cómics sobre la violencia política 1985–1990, 2013. Digital
Temporality and Trauma
Jesús Cossio’s Barbarie: Comics about the Political Violence in Peru, 1985-1990 Yosa Vidal
In Barbarie: Comics about the Political Violence in Peru, 1985-1990, Jesús Cossio documents three massacres perpetrated by the Peruvian army, and the guerrilla groups Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaru, during the first presidency of Alan Garcia. These comics are what he calls a “reconstruction of cases” (7, intro), based on the testimonies collected by human rights organizations in the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Barbarie is divided in three parts—each exploring the events around a massacre in moving and sometimes disturbing detail—as well as an Author’s Note and an Epilogue. In the Epilogue, two black pages frame a photograph and text that states how legal procedures against those responsible for human right violations were systematically dismissed. The photograph shows a group of people from Accomarca, including some whose assassinations are represented in the book. The presence of the victims’ photographic images at the end of the book reminds us that the preceding graphic narratives represent real experiences, and are intended not merely as descriptive accounts of what happened, but as performative denunciations of the guilty, and as part of an ongoing effort to seek justice. Cossio’s techniques are worthy of close reading. Consider, for example, page 20, from the narrative of the first massacre represented in the book. This event, which took place in 1985, is known as “The Murders of Pucayacu II.” In previous pages we witness the nine civilians being kidnapped by agents of the Peruvian state, taken to a military base in Castropampa, tortured, and then driven to an unpopulated area in the town of Pucayacu. This page, therefore, illustrates the horrific culmination of a long process that has already implicated
the state machinery of violence, while denouncing specific perpetrators. The panels are organized in three tiers from top to bottom, and read from left to right. The description of the massacre starts with three panels in which a blindfolded person is first grabbed by a large hand in the foreground, then dragged and finally thrown from a truck. The three panels are arranged in a zigzag, an arrangement that is itself suggestive of movement. The three panels are set into one larger panel which combines the image of a dark sky and the screams of the victim. The image of the sky and the cries of pain work visually and figuratively as the literal background and frame of the action. This creates a contrast with the linear sequence of events in the inset panels; time thus appears to be suspended, even as the brutal actions unfold. The temporality of the sequence is accelerated in the second tier, which squeezes seven panels tightly together, even as the edges of the first and seventh panel intrude into the area of the external white frame of the page; the effect is to bring this middle tier closer to the reader. Each panel has the word “bang” running along the top: the sound of a single shot, one for each victim (we learn in previous pages that of the nine kidnapped people, two were girls rescued by their schoolteacher). Underneath the sound effect, Cossio has drawn a series of fragmentary close-ups: alternating between glimpses of the victims and the gun and shells that killed them. This abrupt alternation resonantly conveys the rapid and perverse interaction between victims and perpetrators in the moment of the slaughter, and visually echoes that rapid report of an automatic weapon.
The third and last tier is an expansive single panel—the direct opposite of the prior tier in formal terms—portraying the group of perpetrators. In the foreground stands a uniformed man with a gun still smoking in his hand; he blames the victims, while his colleague gives directions for the illegal burial. Behind them are civilian accomplices with shovels, and a more shadowy group of onlookers, lost in the dark landscape. Since the assassins and accomplices are looking towards us, as readers, we are placed in the same position of those murdered: the gun is pointing at us; we are those “terrucos de mierda”—common citizens executed for being a terrorist (terruco, a slang for the word terrorist(a), was used specifically in the context of the armed conflict in Peru). The reader in this last panel is therefore not only witness to the slaughter, but asked to identify imaginatively with the victims.
and details concerning the legal proceedings); and a close-up on the feet and hands of someone dragging the bodies out of the grave. The first and last tiers are made up of smaller panels than the large middle tier, which reaches to the gutter of the whole page. The superimposition of first and third tiers over the middle panel gives a recessive depth to that central image, conveying at once the effort to bury the victims and also their ghastly resurfacing—their shallow grave looms behind the scene as a whole. This superimposition of first and third panels over the middle section gives a depth to the whole page, where the bodies, in the background, are spectral presences that, in time and space, surround and haunt the events.
Though the first tier includes the voice of a victim, in the last we hear only the voice of the perpetrators. This page thus reconstructs and fixes in our memory a precise moment of an extreme abuse of power. All that is left are cadavers. It is worth mentioning that page 20, placed on the left side of the book, is facing a page that contains a striking full-page panel that illustrates the burial. Though the previous page avoids the direct representation of the slaughter, on page 21 we have an aerial view of the dismembered corpses, cast on top of one another, while two shovels throw dirt on the bodies. This page is wordless and itself has the effect of leaving one speechless.
Page 22 then depicts in three tiers the moment in which an indigenous couple finds the illegal burial. Introduced with the contextual information “one month later,” the first tier has three panels that first depict a couple walking in nature while the woman tries to convince the man that she has seen something. Their silhouettes walk down a hill, as she observes that the ground is disturbed. In the last panel of the tier, in the foreground, both horrified faces are rendered in the moment of discovery. The middle tier of the page is then taken up with a page-wide panel depicting what the couple is witnessing (in a classic comics variation on what film scholars call a “reverse shot”): parts of bodies (tied hands, a fragment of a head) emerging from the ground. The tier of the page has two panels: a text box with specific information of the case (the date of the exhumation of the bodies, participants,
Page 76 is the last illustration of the book and of the last massacre depicted, “Matanza de los Penales” (The Prison Massacres), that took place in 1986. In previous pages, we witness riots in three different prisons of Peru, where “senderistas” (Shining Path militants) and civilians accused of being terrorists attempt to negotiate with the government. We also witness how in these events more than two hundred people were killed, many of them previously tortured. This last page is composed of two big panels, ordered in top to bottom reading, where the first is a zoom-in of the second. The first panel is the image of the bombarded and destroyed prison and the second, the island where one of the prisons was located, seen from a great distance. We know that the second image is the zoom-out of the first because the long plume of smoke that emanates from the ruins serves as a common line, as a literal and figurative repetition. A series of white boxes that contain information about the event accompany the images, stressing specifically the lack of justice and impunity of those responsible for human right violations, including the president, Alan Garcia. If the smoke in the first image is a thick pillar that comes from the bombarded prison where hundreds of cadavers are burning, in the second there seems to be a crack in the page, an analogy of a broader Peruvian landscape.
“To recreate that which cannot be found in the documentation and testimonies...”
Jesús Cossio by Audra McNamee
Jesús Cossio is a Peruvian illustrator, author, and editor of comic books and graphic novels. He has published numerous books and zines, including El cerdo volador, Pánico, Juventud moderna, and Ciudades convertidas en selvas with publishers in Peru and other South American countries. In 2003, Cossio was awarded a Rockfeller Foundation Fellowship in the Humanities along with two other authors (Luis Rossell and Alfredo Villar). Thanks in part to this grant, his group was able to produce the graphic novel Rupay—Historias gráficas sobre la violencia política 1980–1984. His most important work to date is Barbarie—Cómics sobre la violencia política 1985–1990, a collection of graphic stories that denounce the atrocities committed by the Peruvian armed forces and the Maoist group Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) during the years of internal conflict in this Andean nation (1980–2000). He has been an invited panelist at important Latin American comic book festivals including Viñetas con altura 2009 (Bolivia), Viñetas sueltas 2009 and 2010 (Argentina) and Entreviñetas 2012 (Colombia). He is considered by critics as one of the most influential authors of documentary and journalistic comic books in Latin America.
Interview with Jesús Cossio Interview and translation by Yosa Vidal Collados
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/JesúsCossio Yosa Vidal: From the beginning of your work, from Cerdo Volador (“The Flying Pig”), and then Rupay, we see an interest in illustrating internal violence in Perú, with a focus on indigenous communities. How did you get started in illustrating these stories and doing what we now know as comics journalism? Jesús Cossio: “The Flying Pig” was a fanzine of very short comics, from one to two pages each, for a total of twelve to sixteen pages. I would make at most fifty copies. There were three issues between 2000 and 2005. It was a fanzine of a more personal style, with very subjective stories, and little narrative. Later, I produced two similar fanzines, “Cities Converted in Jungles” and “Other World,” with a similar profile. My interest in drawing stories of violence starts in 2006 when the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Peru (Informe CVR) is made public and is attacked by conservative and reactionary sectors of the press and society. Along with two friends, Luis Rossell (illustrator) and Alfredo Villar (author and artistic promoter), we thought about how we could fight back against the negationism and distortions that these sectors expressed daily. So, we started to plan a comic book, not as a version of the Informe CVR, but it did draw abundantly from its information, along with additions from newspapers and human rights investigations from the time. YV: There have been almost 70,000 victims of the conflict in your country, and as you express and emphasize in Barbarie, terrorism came not only from armed groups but primarily from the State. Among all these stories of violence, how do you decide which story or stories to pursue? JC: In Rupay we decided to select ¨emblematic¨ cases of human rights violations in Perú, because they illustrate the cruelty, discrimination, and at times, the impunity of state officials (Armed Forces and police) or those of Shining Path. In Barbarie, however, I chose fewer cases, but with the criterion that they show concepts that have been negated or minimized by those that maintain that crimes committed by the military or the State were sporadic and exaggerated. YV: We can see that in your comics, graphically and textually, the perspective of the oppressed is central. What methods do you use in your reporting? Do you use photographs, interviews, archival research? What space do you leave to the imagination? JC: I prefer to call what I do “documentary comics” more than comics journalism, since, at least in Rupay and Barbarie, I (we) did not do any journalistic fieldwork, but looked for documentation of cases that had occurred 20 or 25 years previously. Once I had a list of cases, there were three basic
sources for me in the work of documentation: the reports of the CVR and human rights organizations, newspapers and magazines of the era, and what one could find on the internet. The reports that came out of the CVR and human rights organizations are found on the CVR website as well as the LUM (Lugar de la Memoria). These reports can be viewed in the Information Center for Collective Memory and Human Rights, that preserves an archive of the CVR, composed of photographic, audiovisual, digital and printed material. I viewed newspapers and magazines in the National Newspaper Archive and I purchased materials in second-hand stores. And nowadays, one can find various materials on the internet that can be very useful. More than the imagination, I would say that there is space to fictionalize. That is to say, to recreate that which cannot be found in the documentation and testimonies (including photos) but that can be extrapolated or supposed based on primary sources. YV: Can you speak a little bit about the difficulties of working on documentary comics? Have you ever experienced danger in denouncing some person or event? JC: Although it is true that many years have passed since the publication of Barbarie, and I have had the opportunity to conduct fieldwork, interviews, and take notes in zones that were historically assailed by political violence, I still see my work more as a documentary project than a journalistic enterprise. Fortunately, I have not suffered any threats as a result of my work. Comics in general fly under the radar of those who react violently when faced with any discussion of their version of history. YV: Could you tell us a little bit about your style? What importance do you place on the art or stylistic choices? JC: The style of the illustration and narration through images are important to me as a creator of comics. It is fundamental, because telling a story in comics has a greater sense than simply putting drawings to a text, or texts to drawings. Besides, in the case of documentary comics one must keep in mind that the work involves representations of real events, and therefore, you have to strive for authenticity, realism, and truth. YV: Finally, what is the most important story you have ever published? JC: I think that it is Barbarie, as it allowed me to come into contact with groups of individuals that studied memory and violence, with institutions that worked with those affected by the violence, and this enabled me to have a more direct approach to those experiences.
Jesús Cossio Exhibition Checklist
Pages from Barbarie—Cómics sobre la violencia política 1985–1990, 2013
Dan Archer (British, b. 1980). Ferguson Firsthand, 2014. Digital; video
Between the Real and the Virtual Dan Archer’s Ferguson Firsthand Ryan Davies 321
None of us will ever know what really happened in Ferguson, Missouri in the early afternoon of August 9, 2014, the day that officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, Jr. to death. Dan Archer’s Ferguson Firsthand does not attempt to offer a definitive account of this distressing event, but instead employs the technology of “virtual reality” to remind us just how tenuous our grasp on reality can truly be: that is, how hard it is to distinguish supposedly neutral acts of observation from the subjective processes of interpretation and reconstruction. Archer’s piece deftly reproduces the scene of the crime and its aftermath within the bounds of a virtual reproduction of the stretch of Canfield Drive where Brown lost his life. Within these narrow geographic confines, Archer blurs the boundaries between the real and the virtual, emphasizing the unreliability of our faculties of perception and recollection, so that those faculties come to seem every bit as virtual as the representational medium of the artwork itself. As users explore the space that Archer presents, they can stop at designated “beacons” of various colors. Black beacons, for instance, denote the approximate locations from which witnesses experienced the incident, and also allow users to listen to audio playback of their testimony at Darren Wilson’s grand jury trial. Listening to these accounts, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no one version of what occurred that day. Instead, according to various witnesses, Brown had stopped, with his hands up; or he was running away; or he was on his knees; or he was charging at officer Wilson. Such discrepancies between eyewitness accounts
are hardly uncommon; witness testimony is notoriously unreliable despite the primacy U.S. and European cultures often place on personal experience of an incident. In fact, this phenomenon is so common that it has a name: “the Rashomon effect,” a reference to the Kurosawa film of the same name in which four witnesses each describe a murder in contradictory ways. These audio clips are accompanied by visualizations of Brown acting in accordance with the various witness testimonies; but instead of being smoothly animated, Brown is represented by blurred, static images that also give users a sense of the physical distance each individual witness would have been from the events of the shooting as they occurred. While the statements themselves quickly reveal just how flawed our memories and perceptions can be, this juxtaposition of conflicting recollections with fractured visual reproductions of the incident further unsettles any notions of human objectivity. It is significant, too, that Brown is the only person to be graphically represented in Ferguson Firsthand. Officer Darren Wilson remains unseen, which serves both to keep the focus on the victim of the shooting and to encourage users to imagine how Wilson fits into the scene presented to them. Do we imagine him as a monster, murderously abusing his authority, or as a public servant in a difficult situation? Do we see him as angry and even vengeful, or as threatened, and frightened? Do we take the word of the man who says that Brown was charging at the officer, or the woman who says
that Wilson stood over a kneeling Brown and “emptied his clip”? Might we even begin to imagine other scenarios apart from these extremes? And as our interpretive imaginations are engaged by the scenario, we are reminded that the firsthand “eyewitnesses” of the scene were also, always, already interpreting the scene even as it unfolded before them. Two other types of beacons in Ferguson Firsthand work to exacerbate this confusion of the “real” and the virtual. The colored beacons in the simulation present Archer’s comicstrip recreations of the witness testimonies broadcast by the media immediately after the shooting occurred. The recessive nesting of representational elements here is striking: at the first level, we have the eyewitness testimony of the incident; at the next level, we have the media’s reproduction of that witness’s testimony, which itself has been edited for national consumption; at another level, we have representations of those representations by Archer himself, in comics form; and finally, those representations are themselves re-presented within a virtual reality recreation of the scene of the crime. Thus, the acts of communication, witnessing, and reportage become different nodes of exchange in a giant game of telephone, while the primary event is displaced and dispersed across multiple forms of media and an astounding array of subject positions. No less jarring are the piece’s white beacons, which present users with real crime scene photos of the shooting from forensic investigators. Even as these images forcefully remind the viewer that this virtual artwork reflects upon an all-tooreal and traumatic loss of human life that occurred, we are
once again thrown into a position in which the virtual and real are imbricated in alarming ways; as users “step” into the white beacons, they are presented with photographs—that is, two dimensional static images that attempt to represent an ever-changing three dimensional reality—inside of a three dimensional virtual space, within which they must physically interact. Or, to put it in terms that better illuminate the weirdness of the effect: the user is given the opportunity to look at an inadequate representation of reality from inside of another inadequate representation of reality by physically acting within and upon the latter inadequate representation of reality by means of a piece of real-world technological hardware. When we have seen enough of Ferguson Firsthand, we can take off the VR headset and return from virtual reality to...well, reality. But the experience may leave you reflecting on just how real that reality is and just how reliable your memories of it will ever be. How accurate will your own recall of Archer’s piece be ten minutes later? Ten days later? What about ten months? What memories do you feel certain of that now might need to be reexamined? Of course, there is one aspect of the events that occurred on Canfield Drive that day that is not a matter of interpretation: Michael Brown, Jr., a Black man at the very beginning of his adult life, was shot to death. I hope we can agree: such an event is a tragedy. And of the many lessons Ferguson Firsthand imparts, I hope that is one that everyone who views it will remember.
“As long as you’re honest and candid about the way that you’re exploring a situation, that can give you a more direct route to your own individual truth of a situation.” Dan Archer by Audra McNamee
Dan Archer has been working as a graphic journalist for over a decade. He focuses on human rights-related topics in his work, and is accustomed to respecting the sensitivities associated with telling the stories of survivors of human trafficking, sexual exploitation of minors, domestic violence, mental health, homelessness, incarceration and state-sponsored violence. His work has been supported by the BBC, Vice, the US State Department, Associated Press, the Colombian government, Open Society, and European Journalism Centre; he has a Maynard Institute Award for mental health reporting. In 2015 Archer founded Empathetic Media, a mixed reality production studio, to expand his interactive journalism into the immersive space. Since then EM has produced dozens of virtual, augmented and mixed reality experiences from 360 videos to room-scale pieces for a wide range of clients, including the Washington Post, Pfizer Foundation, Gilead Life Sciences and the NHS. He’s also working on a doctoral thesis at UCL focused on measuring the impact of pro-social behavioral interventions inside immersive experiences using biosignals.
Interview with Dan Archer By Audra McNamee and Lauren Allen
https://jsma.uoregon.edu/DanArcher Lauren Allen: As somebody who has been working in comics journalism for over a decade, how did you first get involved in the field, and what has changed during the course of your career?
Audra McNamee: You just mentioned some of your major influences like Crumb and Sacco, but are there particular graphic journalists or specific works of graphic journalism that pushed you towards graphic journalism?
Dan Archer: I first got into it, frankly, from seeing a Spanish version of Palestine, Palestina, by Joe Sacco in a bookstore in Madrid, during my undergrad when I was actually doing languages, French and Spanish. And it sort of blew my mind. I had got into alternative comics through a series of used bookstores in Camden in North London, where I grew up: things like Hup and, obviously, I was a huge fan of R. Crumb. And he’d done a couple of adaptations, like Nausea and things like that. I always just loved the approach of using comics to explore other fields that weren’t necessarily appropriate, as some of his detractors might have said. And as I was tentatively exploring that, I started a comic at university, at Cambridge where I did my undergrad, and have always been sort of involved in the indie press, but I guess it was formalized when I moved to the states in 2007 to get an MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies.
DA: I would say Joe Sacco (his name probably ricocheted around your series of interviews, time and time again, as it rightly deserves to). I’ve always found Safe Area Goražde my real touch point. And then, to an extent, Footnotes in Gaza, largely because I think it was building on such a huge legacy that Joe created of previous work. His style and approach, I think, was always really inspirational. At the same time, I liked that he was the lone wolf—he was doing it in the early to mid 90s, and obviously pre-digital.
And that was largely because Joe Sacco is affiliated with the institution, and James Sturm was there, and a huge list of incredible artists. That was kind of like my Karate Kid moment of just going there and really hunkering down and learning the craft. In terms of how it’s changed, I remember when soon after finishing up CCS, I moved to the Bay Area. And the Bay Area became this sort of weird enclave for comics journalism; Andy Warner was there, and Susie Cagle, myself. I remember obviously Sarah Glidden was on the East Coast, but there was what felt like a small unified group of us putting work together. And that was incredible, but since then, because of The Nib and Matt Bors’s incredibly indefatigable work and support for it, it’s really exploded, and now it’s one step closer to being more broadly accepted by editors both in print and online. And I think we’ve seen that; I lately, for example, have done work for larger outfits like National Geographic or the Associated Press. It’s not such a big deal that you’re a comics artist, you’re just considered another journalist with a different set of tools. So, I think that’s representative of where it’s going.
Also, I was always inspired by the World War Three Illustrated crew as well: Seth Tobocman and Peter Kuper. And some of the more politically active artists; you know Molly Crabapple as well does incredible work that’s extremely sensitive to the issues of the interviewees. Wendy MacNaughton is someone who just consistently knocks it out of the park in terms of both the level of artistry in her watercolors and how dynamic and vibrant they feel, but also just the tone. It just feels so rich whether she’s doing a cookery book or a behind-the-scenes San Francisco Library, which is one of my favorite pieces of hers. And it was kind of an inspiration for the live series of reports and portraits and interviews that I did at Ferguson. When I was in Spain, I was also inspired by a group of cartoonists who have the magazine El Jueves, which translates as “Thursday” because it comes out on a Wednesday, which is hilarious, and not necessarily graphic journalism, but like a satirical take on politics similar to what was Viz here in the UK. Also people like Manu Larcenet—Ordinary Victories and Blast— whilst not necessarily what you might call graphic journalism, Ordinary Victories and his examination of dock workers, I think was just an incredibly humane, sensitive treatment. So I’m always looking to try and integrate more influences like that. Last but not least, I’ll say The Photographer—Guibert—I was also particularly interested in a sort of a hybrid approach,
kind of like what Submarine Channel does with some of their interactive work out of the Netherlands. They got me first thinking about Flash and interactive comics, but as they’ve moved into transmedia, they do a lot of mobile and immersive experiences. There was one piece, it was around pho and an artist’s obsession with noodles. So there’s a hodgepodge of influences I guess. LA: What is your method for approaching a work of comics journalism, and how has the digital impacted that approach to work? DA: Largely depends on the nature of the piece, obviously, whether it’s like a one off, whether it will be alive, what the turnaround is. In a longer piece say for The Nib, you get a handful of weeks to be able to draft reports, draft sketch, have it edited, revised, inked, scanned, colored, etc. These days, I tend to do more live sketching in the fields—I, like everybody, especially in the wake of COVID, spend way too long in front of a screen, so I’m drawn to the analog more and more nowadays. And I just finished my graphic novel around my experience of investigating human trafficking in Nepal, called Things Are Like That, and I did that all by hand and had a watercolor day. I lettered it digitally because, you know, life is too short. That was a huge undertaking, and that was always in the background whilst I finished other pieces and projects. And I do like working digitally, like when I was at the Winter Olympics in South Korea for the AP, I would do live sketches both on a Cintiq that I schlepped around, as well as in a sketchbook. I like to take those live sketches and then work them up digitally, overlay them with other pieces (you see that on my Instagram). I always find it’s a good way of trying to bring the audience into the process, moving away from what I see as more of an arcane model where you get a brief, you work on it for X amount of time, and then you publish it, and then that’s it. I think the process is actually much more interesting, and it’s the part I most enjoy, the actual reporting and the drawing in situ, because more and more—most recently this National Geographic project—I had to draw people live, because number one: as soon as anyone saw any cameras, they immediately turned their back and neglected to do an interview, which was slightly challenging for the photojournalist who was with us. Also because people wouldn’t really understand what it is we were trying to do. I said, “I’m a graphic journalist, we’re trying to chronicle your stories and turn these interviews into a final finished piece.” They were like, “What do you mean draw us?” Then I would start drawing, and then that’s how the conversation would ensue, and so that was really critical to earning trust and showing people what it was that we would do. AM: Why do you think that comics and interactive media are effective tools for telling nonfiction stories? DA: The golden question! Biologically speaking, our visual cortex occupies such a huge space in our mind and in our
brains, and it’s, by and large, the main way that we process information, so I think there is something particularly seductive and appealing to a visual, particularly when you can distill a level of information down into a single static image. I also think it’s a universal language that can transcend different national and linguistic barriers. But, fundamentally, I also think there’s kind of a magic where we see the two images together, like Scott McCloud says, the agency lying in the gutters and bringing sequential forms together. Being able to make sense of that and watch people starting to come to life is extremely powerful, and I also think it’s very disarming, much like a lot of the revolutionary propaganda or poster art. People wrongly underestimate its power for conveying important subject matter or transporting a reader to a place the cameras couldn’t get to, or anonymizing a source, who wouldn’t have given an interview otherwise. There have been countless times where I have told people I’m a graphic journalist, whether it was law enforcement, or whoever, and they’ve just completely discarded my worries, like, “Oh, well that’s fine. You’re not worth anything; you’re not even worth bothering with.” Which is fantastic; we still occupy this sort of bizarre territory, and I think it’s also very unique, particularly in the journalistic context, because you are able to explore and express a very subjective side of yourself. No one draws or writes in the same way; we all have our sort of orthographic or creative signatures. Yet at the same time, as long as you’re honest and candid about the way that you’re exploring a situation, that can give you a more direct route to your own individual truth of a situation than writing up a text article where everyone’s words would visually appear the same, and the structures—the editorial and sensorial structures—that encroach on that keyboard-typed truth are less visible. When I draw a sketch of 30 Ukrainian protesters at Maidan, I obviously have to be very deliberate about who I’m drawing and why I’m drawing them, and either rely heavily on reference photos or actually be there. And it’s very different to someone saying “30 people were there.” There’s more of an honesty and candor to that than the written truth. There’s an argument we originally had with photoshop, and now the argument’s even more pressing with deepfakes, of what is the absolute truth of visual media, and what happens when we can’t trust what we’ve seen? And who is curating this visual media? That’s really where I see a very interesting potential point for graphic journalists, and journalists at large, to explore: How can they give the reader more of a sense of agency in terms of making up their own minds of a situation? AM: How did you personally make that shift from comics journalism to this more interactive media style of storytelling, and what advantages and shortcomings do each possess in nonfiction storytelling? DA: Shortcomings, I can tell you, it’s banging your head against a desk because the code doesn’t work, which is something I’ve [done on] countless desks and countless screens. But less facetiously, I’ll say the first experiment I did that opened my eyes to the power of the digital was in 2009, which feels like a lifetime ago, with the Honduran coup. Where I drew a comic, and whilst its creation was very
much referring back to that original process of handdrawn and inked and then colored in photoshop but then published online. It went online on boingboing, and it sort of opened my eyes to the power of an online audience and the international reach that it could have because I got tons of people on the ground in Tegucigalpa. We did a print run to make hard copies available in Spanish, as well as English, made an app, etc. So I saw how versatile it could be. We cut the panels up, and then put them into a swiping app, which got a certain amount of traction. But it was actually when I did an interactive version of the Nisoor Square shootings, where essentially it was a sort of a flash-based experience that broke down a timeline of the incident involving Blackwater troops, who were later found guilty of murdering 24 Iraqi civilians and then exonerated by your beloved ex-President. What I wanted to do was condense and layer a huge amount of information into a single visual, and I thought the digital was the perfect way to do that in a way that the analog page couldn’t. Joe Sacco’s splash pages in a way were kind of like immersive analog pages because there’s so much detail and your eyes can just from black spotting they can just move around and constantly just be lost. I would just sit and just drink in the same way that I would with Gilbert Shelton’s crazy line work and Crumb’s. So I just got thinking: What if we put pop up windows, or what if we had links to sources? Because I remember Joe saying to me that he’d always tried to convince Noam Chomsky of the worth of comics, and he said, “So how do you cite sources?” I always thought that was a cool challenge, putting in visual footnotes, because so few people actually scroll to the bottom of an article. So that’s what I did—made it clickable so you could click on certain windows, and they would pop up, or you could juxtapose different perspectives, and that’s where I got thinking about how the medium, the vessel for information, could also dictate to a certain extent, some of the inherent problems. Trying to juxtapose contrasting versions of the same story and refer back to them is one of the challenges that we fundamentally face, which is: How do you tell the truth visually? LA: In the VR project that you put together with Empathetic Media called Ferguson Firsthand, the viewer is able to embody multiple different perspectives, and you mentioned earlier the agency that you want to give the viewer when confronted with multiple perspectives. Have comics journalism and interactive media challenged your own approach to subjectivity and truth? DA: For sure, I was gonna bring up Ferguson Firsthand as an influence from Nisoor Square where I used time as the sort of device for mapping narratives, and in Ferguson I was using space, because it was a 3D explorable environment. That has been my personal interest or at least focal area in terms of journalism: How do we reconcile these contradictory approaches?
Because people have different amazing domains, and there was a lot of great comics journalism which is almost like a historical synopsis of an issue, but for me, I was always more interested in a direct like a sort of beat reporter. But how do you then translate that back without it just being a he said/she said kind of deal? And I always thought that was particularly true lately, for example, in some of the refugee stories we’ve been talking about. Where you talk to law enforcement, and they’d say certain things, or you talk to a lot of these asylum seekers, and they’d be completely at odds. And so, rather than listing them one by one, you want to—I’m borrowing as well from Joe’s approach—insert yourself as a kind of not comical figure, but as the vessel through which people are speaking, but highlighting that role. I think comics journalism inherently brings that question into focus in a way that maybe other journalism doesn’t. So that’s something that I always like to tap into unless it’s much more cut and dry, for example with Associated Press, when I was covering sporting events there wasn’t really room for that sort of questioning. I’m always trying to think, why use a comic? Why use a visual mode to tell a story? I don’t think we should do it just for the sake of it; some stories are inherently suited to visual approaches and some might not be. AM: You’ve written for a lot of different outlets and been featured in a number of different programs around the world. How do those different spaces impact the different messages that you’re portraying, and who are you trying to reach? DA: I’m always trying to get people to consider things in a way that they maybe haven’t. I was using visuals much like that sort of seductive power; I was just trying to get an audience to think. For example, in the question of refugees or human trafficking, to not shy away from a story that might be either considered too disturbing or too like stories that they might be desensitized to. Because in text we read about these stories, even with the refugee crisis, you hear tens of thousands of people make crossings or attempting crossings, and hundreds tragically perish, and so they become statistics. By presenting them in these much more sort of handcrafted, personalized ways, we can emphasize and highlight the humanity of the story. I think it’s always good to subvert people’s expectations when it comes to the news, particularly younger demographics. In a way, it’s a more even playing field, because there’s no loyalty anymore, in terms of news sources, you know. Formerly people might always be like, “Oh, I’m a New York Times subscriber,” or “Oh, I get the x and y.” But nowadays a lot of it is determined by a search engine algorithm or whichever app you’re most used to, or maybe the one that you pay $2 a month for. It’s always good to engage with different audiences through different means and to try and surprise them. One thing I also really try and do is to ensure that we don’t just stick to this solipsistic, Western, predominantly white—and I say this as
obviously a white cis-male...and that’s one thing that I’ll say as well, the comics journalism scene seems extremely inclusive, or at least impressively inclusive. The Nib is doing great work and really channeling and forwarding a lot of these diverse, heterogeneous voices. Obviously more can always be done, but that’s something that should definitely be celebrated, and I think the technology also speaks to that. We’ve gone through a point where it’s like, “Are comics actually appropriate?” Yes, obviously, clearly they are and have been for decades from you know [Rodolphe] Töpffer in the late 20s all the way through till now, you know [Frans] Masereel as well. And we’ve also seen great work happening inside 3D spaces. That’s why with Empathetic Media, I wanted to take some of these visuals and these representations and move them into a third dimension. LA: Having written so many different stories, what is one piece of reportage that stood out to you in terms of its impact on you? DA: It’s very hard to sort of compare and contrast different stories. I suppose the one that I was most invested in longterm is the human trafficking project in Nepal, and then beyond—we extrapolated it to Hong Kong. Largely because trafficking is such a malicious conflagration of so many different abuses—sexual, coercion, financial, patriarchal, so many. What was different there is the comics that I did were used as part of a research study. So we were able to really map what has more impact on a wider audience, a poster, a piece of text, a radio play, a comic, or an animation? Working with a team of social scientists and backed by the State Department, with a sample size of over 5000 people, it really was a piece of work that we were able to then turn around and give back. We translated it into Nepali, and that was really important in terms of collaborating. I’m very excited to get back once this whole COVID shitstorm blows over. I think that sort of impact was very gratifying to see, and we made all the resources available to smaller NGOs that might not have access to them as well as our findings. My hope was that I was chronicling the process that I went through to create all of those and how we did all that in the graphic novel. AM: You mentioned that there are some stories that maybe shouldn’t be told in comics journalism or that don’t lend themselves to that. So what are some of the structural limitations on comics journalism, and how have you encountered those limitations in your work? DA: To be honest, the biggest challenge, fundamentally— and this is less so digitally, but still happens—is space. Often people will say, “Can you do this piece on (insert very broad, decades-long, complicated historical study) in three pages?” So you don’t want to do an illustrated narrative where all of the heavy lifting is done in the captions, and you’re just essentially putting some lovely visuals to go with it. When I started out I was certainly guilty of doing that, and there
are pages and pages, where I look back and think, “Whoa! incredible amount of text.” It’s always great to have the luxury to be able to take a step back and let a page and its artwork breathe. Andy Warner is a master of explaining what might be dryer topics in a very approachable, captivating way. I did some reporting around the 2008 financial crisis, for example, and incorporating some of the visuals into that was a challenge. We later turned it into an animation, but I wonder whether that was because it’s less part of my wheelhouse. I feel more passionately engaged with human stories that are largely focused on social justice and bringing stories that might not necessarily see the light of day, were they presented in other ways, to the fore. I try and get away from sort of talking heads stories, of “here are the three sources I spoke to,” and essentially I just transcribe what they say and put those to visuals. I think it’s much more immersive and compelling to have access to the places and spaces that the sources have been in and recreate them, and almost have them as the conduit through it. I similarly don’t want to be restrictive. I’m sure there are people out there that can really excel doing these things. I remember once trying to do an illustrated cookbook and approaching it in a different way. Because fundamentally for me, one of the inherent challenges of working in the digital is you always have to think about how the work can be optimized for which device it’s going to be published on. The Nib got up to speed very well by doing mobileoptimized responsive format. But back in the day that’s how I used to think about things: it will be like a three-by-three grid, so sometimes you’d be thinking, “How can I do a wider establishing shot, without having to do a swipe-swipe sort of panel transition?” So I think someone like Wendy [MacNaughton], for example, has managed to get around that beautifully in her whole style of parallax scrolling as a narrative device, that’s a really cool way of doing that. Like 360 animations, I worked on one, a few years ago around a film called The Promise around the Armenian genocide. That was an interesting space to be able to draw in 360 degrees. AM: I’m reading the way that you’re answering: the value of comics journalism is a greater ability to facilitate an emotional connection and empathy, along with getting across concrete facts and reporting. When you’re working with a VR or AR sort of experience, what are your struggles and what are the bounds that you feel you’re breaking through when facilitating that emotional connection in your work? DA: That’s a great question. The hardest thing, frankly, is trying to create assets or models or experiences that don’t look like panel-beaten mannequins—having 3D models, even with motion capture, and how they respond and the whole beauty of the uncanny valley, and that sort of thing. The most powerful VR experiences I have seen have been ones where they’ve very elegantly moved away from representation and more towards symbolic representation, and audio, for example, like Notes on Blindness, or other experiences where they deliberately left representation aside.
To an extent that’s what comics have done as well—Ben Passmore’s work, Mattie Lubchansky—I’m always in awe of people who draw in quite a cartoony way, but yet tackle these more serious subjects. I suppose I go more realistic, but my style is more looser, illustrative. Jason Lutes was my mentor at CCS, and I was always totally, and still am, in awe of his linework and how precise it was. I was inspired by the realistic representation, but through putting down as much life into as few strokes as possible. The challenge with a 3D setup is that you have to make those calls, because they so drastically affect the performance of the machine. So you can’t have every blade of grass in a scene. When we did Ferguson, you had to make sure that the distances and all the spatial requirements of the actual scene were recreated, which we did using photogrammetry. Little things like the way that the light hits the textures on the building can make people think, “Oh, that looks like Minecraft, that’s not appropriate.” I’ve looked at trying to pull out those less realistic representations, or deliberately embrace them. I’ve done a lot more 360 video. I did a white paper around VR, focusing largely on cinematic VR, or 360 videos. But that’s really the fundamental challenge: The humanity, when you look in someone’s eyes, even with the most insanely powerful rendering (like you see in Pixar), there’s still something [off]. We have such an innate ability to be able to sniff out the artificiality in those paralinguistic features of faces. I think we will get there, but it’s going to take time. The important question for representing these stories now is: How can you bring that humanity to the fore without necessarily leaning so heavily on the visual? I think audio is a key way to doing that. LA: Comics can represent traumatic experiences particularly well because of the fragmented quality that both trauma and comics share. When constructing and reconstructing entire realities, do you feel that full-scale interactive media and VR offers too much information to the viewer, and have you received any pushback from viewers who think that reliving national trauma or state terrorism in VR is harmful? DA: It’s interesting you should mention terrorism as sort of the apogee of trauma. Even state terrorism is lived at a very individual, discreet level. I would say yes, certainly I’ve had detractors. I did a story in Canada for the CBC around the tragic terrible story of a homeless, Native American woman, who was attacked and later lost her legs in this brutal attack. I recreated it from her point of view, because the way that she was represented, that her voice was represented, she was always in the third person, and she was very much denied the ability to speak. So when we spoke to her, we said, “Are you able to go into this space and bring us there?” I definitely don’t take it lightly. That’s a space that I’m most interested in, in terms of the amount of my future works. I’m currently looking at recording physiological signals inside VR, inside potentially stressful or traumatic experiences in order to engender perspective-taking. In the latest experiment that I’m hoping to run, you embody a Muslim woman who is subjected to Islamaphobic abuse. We put a biosensor on someone’s index finger and essentially map: It gives us galvanic skin response, heart rate variability, temperature.
I’m looking at how our individual baseline levels of those autonomic responses change under pressure and whether or not there is a spot where if you overstress someone, if that can have the opposite effect versus with too little they remain unstimulated and distanced from the experience. One of the things that technology can afford us is the ability to take metrics more stringently. Because a lot of people say, “Why do comics?” and I produce a lot of work to raise awareness. My question is, what does that actually look like? How can we action that? Is the impact measured in people’s willingness to donate to a related charity, or to share a link, or clicks? I think the metrics that we’re currently using are sort of out of whack in this world of clickbait and what have you, and that’s why I think effective storytelling in terms of affect rather than effect is going to be the next wave. Particularly as we look at our devices, forward-facing cameras are going to start looking at our emotional responses to stories and mapping bigger responses. That’s where I think a lot of this storytelling can also go. Eventually, I’m hoping to create a feedback loop, so that, in a situation where you would be experiencing this, and your body signals indicate that you are under stress and it is too much, then it would temper itself down so that it becomes almost like a biofeedback experience. AM: What advice would you give to aspiring comics journalists? DA: I think the most important thing is to produce work. There’s always a risk. Originally people would say, “Read this book or go to the sources or what have you,” and I think the first thing that an editor or someone who might commission you will look for is examples of what you’ve done, and even if you can’t find more widespread sources or clients, just produce a sample series of sample comics or pieces, and put them on a website so you can send a link. I would also think about what your respective beat is: What makes you different from other people who might be offering similar things? Is it your style? Is it the issues that you’re passionate about? Is it your willingness to travel and to do it in different languages? Focus on creating work and keep things short, to begin with. The first thing that I tried at CCS was a graphic novel about the plague in London—the Great Plague of 1666—written in modern medieval English...a little over the top. Needless to say, it didn’t last more than two, three dozen pages. Keep things relatively self-contained, put them online, share the link, and also find a community of like-minded others, who are doing similar stuff, because they’ll keep you buoyant throughout these tough times when you’re probably locked in your room under quarantine. LA: Any last thoughts before we wrap up? DA: I’m just very excited to come out and see this exhibition in person and also have more of these discussions. This is probably the most talking that I’ve done since lockdown began.
Dan Archer Exhibition Checklist
“What Is Comics Journalism?” 2014
Selected excerpt from “Lost in Europe,” 2020
“An Inside Look at Human Trafficking in Nepal,” 2014
“‘America Forgot About Us’ Sketchbook from the Streets of Baltimore,” 2015
“‘So What He Stole a Box of Cigars?’ Sketches from Ferguson,” 2014
Ferguson Firsthand, 2014
The Room of Never Again/Salon de Nunca Más, 2018
Installation view, Barker Gallery, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, October 2021
A room-scale, interactive VR experience that puts users inside a community-built “memory house” where Colombians from Granada, Antioquia mourn, unite, and heal from the violence of the 60-year-long conflict. Guided by one of the museum’s docents, Gloria, virtual visitors can choose to listen to stories from photo/videogrammetry scans of survivors from around the country who have been personally affected and hear about the steps that they are taking, now that peace is within reach, to ensure that it never happens again. The environment is fully explorable, and users can pick up and examine objects related to the conflict to get a better understanding of this complex and often overwhelming topic. Once they have interacted with several pieces of content in the three rooms comprising the virtually reconstructed memory house, they can choose to go through the “portal of peace” at the end of the corridor, which will take them to a classroom in nearby Cocorná where a restorative justice session is taking place. There they can hear the stories of the different participants brought together by the prison fellowship of Colombia, an organization whose goal is to foster reconciliation between former sworn enemies, former paramilitaries, guerrillas and their respective civilian victims.
The Nisoor Square Shootings, 2013
“Peace in 360,” 360 Videos from the Colombia project, 2018
Jaime Poloche These three 360° videos were part of the Peace in 360 project, an investigative reporting project backed by Colombia’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and the Open Society/ Images and Voices of Hope Foundations in 2016/2017. The goal was to record different immersive testimonies from around the country, giving the protagonists the ability to walk audiences through the actual locations where their stories took place. The three chosen for this selection are: Jaime Poloche, a farmer, who tells the story of Puerto Saldaña during the armed conflict in Colombia, and how it was caught between paramilitary and guerrilla incursions; Jaime Peña, relating the story of the May 16th 1998 Massacre in Barrancabermeja, Colombia during which his son was killed; and Dalgy Delgado, who tells the story of the NNs (Nomen nescio), or anonymous bodies that have been pulled out of the river in Puerto Berrio, a once infamous site that the paramilitary used to dispose of their victims’ remains.
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Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art 1430 Johnson Lane 1223 University of Oregon Eugene, Oregon 97403-1223 541-346-3027 jsma.uoregon.edu
ISBN 978-1-7379136-0-3 The Art of the News: Comics Journalism exhibition, publication, and related programs are made possible with the generous support of the Coeta and Donald Barker Changing Exhibitions Endowment, The Ford Family Foundation, and Jeannie Schulz. With additional support from UO departments of English, BLST, Art History, Political Science, Comparative Literature, Oregon Humanities Center, Art, the Oregon Consortium for International and Area Studies, and the generous contributions of our JSMA members. Katherine Kelp-Stebbins and Ben Saunders, with Debarghya Sanyal, Editors Susan Mannheimer and Debbie Williamson-Smith, Copyeditors Mike Bragg, Designer Kurt Neugebauer and Joey Capadona, The Art of the News exhibition design and layout Photography unless otherwise noted courtesy of the artists Additional Photography by Jonathan B. Smith Artist Bio Illustrations by Audra McNamee
Printed through the Wethinkink
© 2021 Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the publisher. The University of Oregon is an equal-opportunity, affirmative-action institution committed to cultural diversity and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This publication is available in accessible formats upon request.
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Installation views, Barker Gallery, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, October 2021. The Art of the News exhibition design and layout by Kurt Neugebauer and Joey Capadona.
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art University of Oregon $45.00