Journalism comics? Graphic journalism? Illustrated reporting?
Call it what you will, but it’s a burgeoning little genre within the field of comic art.
Recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about the application of comics as a medium for journalism. I’ve been hoping for a chance to turn thought into action, which may actually happen someday.
In the meanwhile, I wanted to dig around and find some good examples of comics and journalism in action for inspiration.
I found there are dozens of variations on the form. These examples vary in style, tone and intent, but they all have a common purpose: relating non-fiction subject matter in a visual, sequential manner.
Admittedly, that common ground creates a broad definition of journalistic content. But even if journalistic intent has a major role in guiding the artist toward credible reporting, I’m mostly just fascinated with this interesting (and effective) twist on telling the facts.
So for the next couple days, I’m going to try to post some examples of these variations of journalism comics. I figure it’s best to start with the most obvious marriage of journalism and comics, so…
Part One: Narratives
The most exemplary journalism involves the transformation of reporting into an engaging narrative. Similarly, the most memorable comics put storytelling at the forefront.
Sounds like a simple marriage, right? To be sure, there’s a little more to it than that. After all, there’s a lot of non-fiction writing out there that wouldn’t be classified as journalism. And there are many non-fiction comics that don’t pretend to be journalism.
And that’s the trouble. One of the biggest obstacles journalism comics face are the distinctions about objectivity that occur when we gauge the credibility of reporting. Professional journalists stress their objectivity by avoiding conflicts of interest, vetting facts, sourcing opinion and so on. It’s not hard for a cartoonist to follow a similar code of ethics, but due to the representative nature of visual arts, a certain amount of filtering occurs naturally.
At this point, like anybody writing about this topic, I feel the need to mention Joe Sacco. His graphic novels Palestine, The Fixer and Safe Area Gorazde are masterworks of long form journalism comics. His work tends to be the standard for finding that balance between sequential art storytelling and traditional journalism.
I think even Sacco struggles with objectivity at times, though. There’s even a point in Palestine where he admits that he’s too close to the subject matter and concedes that the Israeli perspective would require a whole other book. Even if the self-awareness and admission don’t absolve, they do confirm Sacco’s intent in the mind of the reader.
For a less stylized take on journalism comics, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is a strong example. Josh Neufeld’s gripping account of Hurricane Katrina survivors excels thanks to inventive visual flourishes and a strong collection of perspectives that flesh out that scope of the disaster. In addition, the stripped down art helps emphasize a sort of distance, even if it does seem overly cinematic at times.
As a whole, Europe holds comic art in a higher regard, so it’s not surprising that some of the best works of this genre come from the Old World.
Patrick Chappette has a nice body of work, much of it published by the International Herald Tribune, Le Temps and Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer is another strong effort. Like Chappette, Guibert’s graphic novel is a wonderful blend of cartooning and photography. But unfortunately for English-speakers, some of finest comics reporters from Europe like Jans Herder have not been widely translated.
It’s worth mentioning that a journalism comic narrative doesn’t need to be graphic novel-length. For a while, Art Spiegelman brought some fantastic “reality comics” to the magazine Details. Of those, “Ready to Die” by Kim Deitch, a story that recalls the last days of a death row convict, is particularly effective.
But like the great works of long form New Journalism pioneered by Gay Talese, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe, giving a story room to unfurl really makes the narrative sing. This is true of comics as much as any medium. .
Additionally, creating comics is a time-intensive job,which means they can be difficult to adapt when it comes to newsroom deadlines. So naturally, it makes sense to use narrative comics to approach larger stories that aren’t tied to the grind of the news cycle.
Spot reporting certainly isn’t out of the question, though. You just need an cartoonist who can work fast enough. I would argue that for deadline pieces, there may be more effective uses for comics as info-graphics and summary pieces. And so that brings us to another style of comics…
Coming next: Instructional comics and Info-comics!