Journalism comics get real

Josh Neufeld/Smith Mag

“Comics have always been the red-headed stepchild of storytelling,” laughs writer and artist Dan Goldman from his home in Brazil.

His levity belies a seriousness and passion for his work, which is part of a rising contingent of comics about the media. These non-fiction books feature real journalism on socio-political issues, and fiction that delves into both the legitimacy of the profession and the issues that surround it.

The medium allows writers and artists to impart information in ways they can’t anywhere else. Journalism in comics is not just an excuse for Clark Kent to step out on his girlfriend anymore – and people are realizing it.

“There’s tricks and tools in comics that let you sidestep a lot of [words] and let you ‘info-dump’ a little faster and more viscerally than just working in straight text,” Goldman says. This is something that becomes increasingly important as people have more options available to them and less time to disseminate news. “You can convey and transmit a lot of information with words and pictures in a shorter span of time.”

Goldman’s work includes the fictional account of a blogger-turned-correspondent, Shooting War (2007), and a non-fiction look at presidential campaigning, ‘08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail (2009). His love for comics comes coupled with the fact that he became so disenfranchised with the state of traditional media in the U.S. that he fled the country, opting to work out of Brazil.

Josh Neufeld/Smith Mag

“I used my comics to fight against this thing that was there before I was born and is still there now,” Goldman says. “I got rid of my television many years ago, because it was like an open wound in the living room, just oozing. When you see the fingers of the media coming out of everyone’s mouths … it was just awful, and it really got to me after a while.”

Goldman predicts a forthcoming “free form digital media” that will exist under a new banner.

“When there’s elements of sequential images, they’ll say ‘Oh there’s an influence from comic books,’ ” he says. “At the end of the day, however people start to digest their media, there’ll be a new word for it. Comics will be part of the DNA because there’s a lot of info you can convey quickly and easily – and people really don’t like to read that much.”

After the Deluge

Cartoonist Josh Neufeld is now one of the more recognizable names attached to journalism in comics after Joe Sacco – who is largely considered the biggest name in that niche. Neufeld achieved widespread acclaim for his Katrina narrative A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (2009). Since then, he has illustrated an introspective look at media called The Influencing Machine (2011), as well as a story about the Bahraini uprising called Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand (2011). A.D. has been hailed for its commentary on Katrina, and his work continues to legitimize realism in comics.

“As soon as I discovered real-life comics, I was attracted to them on a very primal level – the idea of taking a medium that most people think of as for fantasy or superhero stories and talking about real people,” Neufeld says from his home in New York. “Through that, I discovered that real life is pretty complex stuff. The world is full of real life storytellers and heroes, and we don’t need to look to fiction to make them up.”

I know as a viewer of movies and comics that at a certain point your brain just turns off when you’re inundated with too much tragedy and angst. — Josh Neufeld

Comics differ from traditional coverage in that they must carry a narrative while upholding the truth. In Neufeld’s case, this means using creative licence, having characters impart information that the reader needs to know, but also creating dialogue or actions.

“I was using the techniques of creative writing and fiction writing, and yet I never put a character in a place that they weren’t, or changed the time that something happened, or made up somebody who wasn’t there,” he says. “I feel like this amalgam of comics and journalism is something like a docudrama, but maybe closer to the world of journalism than those tend to be.”

Into the war zone

Then there’s purely fictional accounts, like Brian Wood’s wartime saga, DMZ. The recently-concluded series follows Matty Roth, a journalist covering an American civil war in the present, with New York City as a de-militarized zone between warring factions. Well received in the comic world, it also illustrates how fictional themes can have a resonance in real life. Roth struggles with morality in reporting. Wood says the hardest thing for his protagonist to do is to keep his personal opinions out of his writing.

Josh Neufeld/Smith Mag

Wood had to read plenty of real accounts – especially about the Gulf War – to give DMZ its gritty, realistic feel.

“I like to read a lot of non-fiction, and there’s no end to the books out there about embedded wartime journalists,” he says from his home in New York.

“I was trying to read as much as I could to get an idea about speech patterns in a war zone. I also read Soviet accounts about their time in Afghanistan, which I found pretty fascinating. I had to front load my brain with as much of this as possible in order to get into the head state.” Much of DMZ is dedicated to Roth doing interviews, gathering information, and deciding how to distribute what he’s learned though competing news outlets.

I could see the World Trade Centre from my studio windows … and I watched it burn for a month. — Dan Goldman

Writer Brooke Gladstone partnered with Josh Neufeld on The Influencing Machine, to explore the history and scope of the media. Gladstone is a radio journalist by trade, knowing that world foremost and comics second. Regardless, she knew this combination of media was for her, having studied Scott McCloud’s seminal work, Understanding Comics.

“I wanted to do a comic book before I wanted to do a book about the media. I wanted the opportunity to see how pictures convey abstract information because there’s always this notion that only words can do that,” says Gladstone from her home in New York. The Influencing Machine makes use of the fantasy element, even though the book is resolutely non-fiction.

“Rather than using verbal metaphors I could use visual metaphors,” she says. “There were countless opportunities that were opened up by using the graphic form. It’s a stunningly effective way to concentrate information in a way that was both compelling and clear.”

Tori Marlan is another journalist who has collaborated with Neufeld, and is the writer of a forthcoming comic on an Ethiopian boy’s story from detention to green card, seeking refuge in the States. “Comics can really work as a way to tell non-fiction stories,” Marlan tells Convergence from her home in Montreal. “There’s the possibility for great emotional resonance.”
“More and more people are aware of the genre, even in the last couple of years,” she says. When Marlan told the Ethiopian boy (who is now 21) she’d decided to tell his story as a comic, he wasn’t familiar with the medium. So she took him to a bookstore to show him examples of the sort of thing she wanted to do. “He instantly got it and he said ‘oh, I’d read this before I read something else.’ ”

Gladstone says she knew when she started The Influencing Machine that some readers would be inclined to dismiss a comic as more light-hearted than factual. “I think the genre still has a ways to go. I was aware that some people would be predisposed to dismiss the book because of the genre I had chosen, but I was willing to take that risk.”

She says there are a number of people who have said they wouldn’t have picked up the book if it wasn’t a comic, and conversely, literary agents who said she’d make more money on a traditional textbook. “But I have piles of those, and I never want to read them,” she says. Her book is now being taught in many universities and colleges as “one of those books the entire freshman class reads.”

Beaten into submission

Though the medium certainly has its merits as a way to get ideas across, comics are often deemed sensationalist – Josh Neufeld himself calls the superhero archetype somewhat “fascist” – as they often feature “the bigger and stronger” forcing their will upon others. Not to mention their tendency to feature women that are anatomically impossible. In A.D. the guilty reality of Katrina left no room for over-dramatization.

Some scenes “were just so shocking and horrifying that I felt they took the drama and pumped it up to that docudrama so it wouldn’t seem real anymore.” Case in point – he left out an instance bound for A.D. in which a woman gave birth outdoors among people waiting for humanitarian aid, and both the woman and her baby died. Neufeld relented from showing the event and says he, “worried about desensitizing the reader.”

“It was getting into some morally ambiguous stuff that I just felt would complicate the story that I was trying to get across … that other stuff seemed not only gratuitous, but also distracting of the main point.”

“It’s just too much death,” Neufeld laments. “I know as a viewer of movies and comics that at a certain point your brain just turns off when you’re inundated with too much tragedy and angst.”

There’s no doubt all of these creators are drawn to the medium by the absolute need to tell stories.

“I don’t think I have a choice,” says Goldman. “I don’t really know if I’m good at anything else.”

“I had a revelation about myself and the world on September 14, 2001. I could see the World Trade Centre from my studio windows … and I watched it burn for a month. I remember I started smoking again – cigarettes I mean. I was chain-smoking, I didn’t know what else to do. We painted our whole house. I was talking with my brother a couple of days after it happened, and wondered ‘What is our purpose in this world if this is going on?’ What came out of my mouth was that as a creative writer and not as a journalist, it was my function to look through the shit as if it was transparent and into a better universe, and try to bring back visions of things being better. That idea has informed all the political stuff I’ve done.”


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  1. Pingback: Comics Journalism Reading List | Kenan'ın Akademik Penceresi

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